Monday, 31 January 2011

Rodney Croome on Gay Marriage: A Response to Novak

Recently I posted on David Novak's essay on the Australian ABC Religion and Ethics website regarding the legitimacy of gay marriages, and the role of the State in (as he sees it) redefining marriage to include same-sex unions. I thought the essay was better argued than many of those that advance this sort of argument from tradition, though it lacked for me a developed anthropology - which I would want to see developed theologically for obvious reasons. Today the ABC site has published Rodney Croome's response to Novak. Croome is something of a celebrity figure in Tasmania. He is an LGBT rights campainger, an honourary lecturer in sociology at the University of Tasmania, and recipient of several awards for his humanitarian work. Being British, I confess I had heard little of him but his website certainly suggests that he has had a hugely influential role in the transformation of Tasmania's sexuality laws. He is also campaign co-ordinator for AME. Croome is therefore a really interesting dialogue partner for Novak, especially since he advocates the use of State legislation in exactly the way Novak deplores.

Croome's argument begins with some clarification of Novak's claim that the state inherited a certain structure or understanding of marriage, rather than being originator of it, and therefore may not change this basic matrix. The problem with Novak's argument, it is suggested, is that it fails to take seriously the reforming role of the state in the past as it has improved marriage between heterosexual couples. He cites two examples. The first is that of racially-mixed marriages, and the second is the power-relationship between husbands and wives. In the first example Croome argues that up until the 1960s civilized nations such as USA and parts of Australia banned inter-racial marriages as an offence against *nature* (here read *God*) and the ultimate undoing of progressive society. He is referring to the strong racist ideologies of 50s USA to underline the fact that marriage, as it had been inherited, had a strict and particular paradigm that axiomatically prohibited the union of blacks and whites. In the second example, that of the power-relationship between men and women, he suggests that the same rhetoric of nature and inherited patterns could be, and has been, used to defend the subordination of wife to husband and the ultimate supremacy of the man in all family decisions. Without rehersing the arguments against this approach to marriage (is there any need?) Croome implies that it was underpinned by the same sort of ideological, inherited bias that underpinned racial-segregation.

These two powerful historical examples serve to highlight Croome's point that there are instances when legislation is morally significant, and,
the state and society can and do legitimately reform marriage to better reflect values like equality and fairness.
This is a good point, well made. The question is whether or not the issue of same-sex unions is equivalent to issues of gender inequality and racism, or whether it belongs in a specific category in relation to the ethics of marriage and the State's power to define it. At this point I think Croome's argument teeters on the edge of the ideological in a way equally as unhelpful as he suggest's Novak's is. Subsequently doesn't take seriously at least part of Novak's argument - viz. the significance of procreation as indicative of the propriety of heterosexual unions.

Croome addresses the question of procreation, as Novak discusses it, as a non sequitur in relation to the law, since legislation concerning marriage does not mention procreation as a reason for marriage at all. The silence of the statute books gives volume to Croome's position:
It is a double-standard to exclude same-sex couples from marriage on the basis of a principle that doesn't apply in any way to those heterosexual couples who can marry.
Again, this is a good point - if Novak's argument is about the legal minutiae of marriage law. But I suspect it isn't, or at least not solely. The flow of Novak's essay is that the cultural meaning and practice of marriage predates the political, and therefore the statutory/legislatory, in such a way that this must be allowed to determine what it is that is described in that legislation. So where Novak speaks of procreation as a *reason* for marriage, this must be understood in the cultural sense - i.e. descriptively - before it is understood in the legal sense - i.e. prescriptively - as Croome wishes to do. When we do so, some of Croome's commentss about the success of same-sex couples who have raised children, vs. heterosexual couples who have failed to conceive, seem oddly placed in the argument. As I read Novak the issue doesn't seem to be utilitarian in that sense, but an argument from nature - i.e. that the conditions for procreation are those of sperm and egg, male and female, man and woman - and that this natural phenomenon more than co-incides with the cultural practice of marriage.

This is the major quibble I have with Croome's essay. Otherwise I think it raises several important questions - not least what marriage is and does in the context of modern society and under a progressive legal system - and is therefore worthy of note. He ends it with a meditation on the actual vows of the marriage service and, probably unintentionally, answers the issues with which Novak's essay begins - viz. whether marriage is between two people or specifically a man and a woman. For Croome the values enshrined in the marriage service, of having and holding one another, of loving one another, and of life long commitment can be shared as much by homosexuals as by heterosexuals. In this I think he makes a good point, yet again. But, for me he never satisfies the part of me to which Novak appeals in his argument from tradition and the question of what 'marriage' - as a particular form of companioanship - is supposed to be about.  What he does do is highlight the fact that as a Christian I can't have this discussion in the absense of theological questions about the nature of human being, and the created determination of the creaturely life. And again, neither of them develops their anthropolgies far enough for me to be be convinced that the questions regarding sexuality and marriage are being addressed in the wider context of what it is to be truly human.

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