Fr. Tobias Haller is a priest in the Episcopal diocese of New York and one of the principal authors of the essay on biblical and theological foundations in the TEC Task Force on the Study of Marriage (TFSM) report. He has also recently responded on his blog to the Anglican Theological Review essay in which my colleagues and I made rather thorough and sharp criticisms of the TFSM report. I am glad for the dialogue. However, I am not persuaded by his counter-criticisms, and I do not believe that those familiar with the matters under discussion will be either.
Haller asserts that we have not “actually understood the argument” that the TFSM report is making, and in this he is “disappointed.” He had expected a “better level of engagement” than such an “off-handedly dismissive” essay as ours. We fail to state their position in language that Haller can recognize and affirm, and so have not risen to the level of “meaningful discussion.” We do not engage deeply with the content of their arguments, but instead rely on “the method of questioning motives and form.”
I regret that Haller is so disappointed with our work, but I cannot say it merits such profound disappointment. I expect that readers of our essay will see it reflects a genuine engagement with much of the TFSM report’s material, although we could not hope to have covered all of their 100-page, single-spaced report in our 7500-word essay.
Furthermore, I note that Haller does not address the wide array of concerns we have expressed, nor does he make reference to the further public letters of Dr. Wesley Hill and Dr. Garwood Anderson concerning the report’s use of Scripture. Hill has in fact done a better job at articulating the biblical and theological foundations for marriage revision than the TFSM report.
The crux of the matter for Haller seems to be what he calls our reluctance to “place the locus of marriage in the action of marriage, the exchange of vows that makes the marriage, as an act of self-dedication through the human faculties of will and love.” Instead we “resort to the formal biological reality of male and female,” and “emphasize that which is shared with the animal realm rather than that which is uniquely human.” While the TFSM report putatively focuses on “the content of the marriage relationship as expressed in the vows … as an iconic realization of the relationship between Christ and the Church,” our paper instead focuses on this relationship as seen in “the form of marriage as a male-female bond.”
“We are dealing,” Haller says, “with the old perceived conflict between being and doing.”
Haller cites a charge that we make in our paper:
The very idea that marriage is a social form with ends (or purposes, teloi) given by God is not grasped at all [by the TSFM authors]; rather, such ends are described as “extrinsic” (perhaps better put, heteronomous) and so run afoul of Kant’s categorical imperative never to treat persons as means rather than ends (21, 24). By this argument, we are told that the marriage vows are what really count, as they represent the moral “commitment” that two make to one another, and that the opening exhortation describing the ends of marriage is extraneous to this deeper reality (20-25).
This criticism, Haller says, not only “misstates the TFSM position” but in fact presents a thesis that their report explicitly rejects as mistaken. What they actually say, according to Haller, is simply that procreation is a “positive good” “when it is God’s will,” but not an “essential element” of marriage. Their concern is that procreation should not be viewed as an “extrinsic end” of marriage, but the “natural outgrowth of the loving couple treating each other as ends in themselves.” To view procreation in this way runs the risk of devaluing non-procreative marriages. As Haller puts the point, “the confusion arises precisely when one drifts from the language of ‘goods’ or ‘ends’ into ‘purposes.’” While children are a good thing in marriage, a grace and a gift, one fails to treat the marriage partners as ends in themselves if children are understood as “essential” ends or purposes.
Though Haller believes that we have misunderstood him, I would suggest that it is Haller who in fact misunderstands certain philosophical and theological concepts being used in this discussion. For larger substantiation of this claim, I point to the commentary and critique by Dr. Don Reed, a philosophy professor and General Convention delegate who has aptly and thoroughly spelled out some of the conceptual confusions at work in this section of the TFSM report. Though Reed’s commentary is well worth reading in full, I will simply cite here portions of his work in my defense. Reed writes, concerning Haller’s essay:
The authors of Essay 1 suggest and apparently suppose that there is only one alternative to a Kantian, deontological ethic, which among other things urges respect for individuals as “ends in themselves” (introduced on p. 21). That alternative is a utilitarian ethic (see p. 24, para. 4). In utilitarianism, the greatest good is to be pursued sometimes, notoriously, at the cost of individuals who — from the perspective of a Kantian ethic — are used as mere means to the happiness of the greatest number of people.
But this is a mistake. The authors omit the alternative on which much catholic moral theology has been based for centuries: an Aristotelian, teleological account of human flourishing (from the 4th century before the common era) and its Christian elaboration by St. Thomas Aquinas (from the 13th century). The authors of Essay 1 seem to think, or at least to suggest, that the only real alternative ethical theories for understanding the purposes of marriage are from 18th and 19th century northern Europe during and after the Enlightenment.
When we stated that the TFSM authors do not grasp how teleological ethics conceives of moral goods, this is the background that I at least had in mind. There is no necessary opposition between treating persons as “ends in themselves” and speaking of the “ends” or “purposes,” teloi, of a social practice.
Imagine for instance that you and me and Fr. Haller are playing a game of church league baseball. The goods we could contribute as baseball players to our team are inextricably bound up with the “ends” or “purposes” of a winning baseball team. They are internal to the practice of baseball-playing. If I have a mean curveball (alas, I do not) and Fr. Haller is good at fielding, we have real goods to contribute to the team. If you, however, are a poor fielder and hitter and can’t pitch, you may well be a good person in other respects but you are just not a good baseball player. Our coach would not be failing to treat you as an end-in-yourself if she put you on the bench for the most part.
When the Augustinian tradition speaks of the three “goods” of marriage, this is the kind of thing it is saying. Marriage is a social practice that has certain purposes internal to it: faithful union, procreation, and the sacramental signification of Christ and the church. None of these goods are extrinsic items that do not really add to marriage as such. Although one may be awarded a trophy for playing a good baseball game, it is not the trophy that made the baseball game good, but rather the activity of the baseball game itself. So too, the faithful union in self-giving love of husband and wife (in body, mind, and spirit) and the passing along of life to the next generation (note the term’s double meaning) are not like trophies, but instead are simply what the social practice of marriage is.
You cannot separate out external and internal here, being and doing, goods and purposes. When an elderly couple looks back and tells the story of their marriage, the story they will tell simply is the story of the enduring, self-giving, suffering love through time that gave rise to and nurtured a household of new life. If they are Christians, they may well see in this an icon of the mystery of Christ and the Church. If they are not, the rather astonishing claim of the tradition is that this icon is there all the same, present as a “natural sacrament” within the fabric of creation itself.
Haller expresses the concern, as many do today, that to put things this way will devalue the marriages of those who are infertile. So too, he argues, this is reflected in the BCP rite itself, where it is recognized that children are a gift when it is God’s will.
But let us return to the baseball analogy.
If I cannot in fact throw a mean curveball or a good fastball, I can nevertheless contribute to the team by virtue of my batting and fielding. I will perhaps experience this inability of mine as a lack (indeed, growing up I was very frustrated that my many hours of practice did not suffice to grant me the good of pitching). But I will not re-describe the practice of baseball such that pitching is no longer an intrinsic and chief good, for a team clearly needs to strike out opposing batters. Rather, I will attempt to serve the good of pitching in the ways in which I am able, preventing base hits and runs with my fielding. I am not devalued as a person by not being asked to pitch, although I may well find this painful and regrettable. I am simply not capable of being a pitcher, since I cannot do what a good pitcher does.
No analogy is perfect, and I do not mean to devalue or belittle the very real struggles faced by infertile couples or persons experiencing same-sex attraction. But to value such persons as beloved and equal children of God, in need of the very same grace that we all are (no more or less), does not require the practice of marriage to be re-described such that procreation is no longer one of its ends.
With respect to persons experiencing same-sex attraction, I believe it does require us to do one or both of two things: (1) Recognize as a church the goods of faithfully committed nonmarital same-sex unions, as capable of contributing in non-procreative ways to the nurture of children; (2) Recognize the goods of “spiritual friendship” that people of same-sex attraction can contribute to building up the body of Christ, sublimating sexual desire through the discipline of ascetic celibacy to a thick web of ecclesial friendship and to the “love that moves the sun and all the other stars,” that is, God. (See here Wesley Hill’s deeply significant work on spiritual friendship; the commitment of “parish celibates” can be a great and sorely-needed gift for a church family that too often focuses its efforts on biological families with children and leaves our single brothers and sisters in Christ behind.)
With respect to adoptive parents, I do not mean to suggest that such parents are not capable of contributing in deeply valuable ways to the nurture of the next generation. Such parents, however, often experience infertility as a painful lack. While their adoptive children are not “lacks,” but gifts and joys, it is nevertheless often very difficult to hear that one is not capable of bearing children that will have Grandpa’s eyes or Grandma’s laugh. So too, an account of marriage that makes the very real bodily toil of childbirth, one that remains potentially life-threatening even with the advance of medicine, adventitious rather than paradigmatic and intrinsic to the nurture of the next generation does not take adequate note of the essential place of women’s bodies in this task.
I am in this and other respects concerned by Haller’s charge that our paper overemphasizes that which we share with the “animal realm,” rather than that which is “uniquely human.” Childbirth is no merely animalistic function, but is a deeply and fully human undertaking. We are body-soul composites, and it is not the “spiritual” alone that makes us human; we are not ghosts in machines. Rowan Williams has been so bold as to describe human beings as “ensouled bodies,” rather than the traditional “embodied souls.” Quite so; this is likely the emphasis that we need in our virtual-reality technological age.
The TFSM report’s attempt to hive off the marriage vows as what really makes the marriage from the “Dearly beloved” preface’s description of the traditional marriage goods seems to me a species of this body-soul division, so endemic to a post-Cartesian, not to mention a post-Gates/Jobs world.
In our essay critiquing the TFSM, we did not focus our attention on the fine and important arguments (for instance) of Eugene Rogers or James Alison on behalf of marriage revision. That would have made for a rather different paper. We focused instead on the report of the TEC Task Force on the Study of Marriage, which we take to reflect the actual state of the argument for marriage revision as it is held by the broad leadership of TEC. It is the official position provided by our church on the basis of which concrete canonical changes are proposed. And it is in several respects a problematic and deficient piece of work.
I am afraid that Fr. Haller may not understand what he misunderstands about our paper’s critiques of the TFSM report, or about Dr. Reed’s critiques of the same. It is either that, or I misunderstand the subtlety of his argument.
The featured image was uploaded to Flickr by firemedic58. It is licensed under Creative Commons.