Editor’s note: This column was adapted from a recent speech that Bob Flint gave to seminarians and college fellows at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, Calif.
There is a paradox in the exhortation of Saint Paul in his second letter to Saint Timothy: “Preach the word; be diligent in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.” When “in season,” Christian preaching is plentiful, accepted and easy. It is in the “out of season” time, however, when it is rejected, that Christian preaching is most difficult and most needed.
Today, I will look at marriage as a case study involving huge social attitude changes over the past few years and the task we face in the future. I will look at mistakes that have been made, the impact that rapid changes in the social order have had on society and individuals and I will suggest an approach for preaching on marriage when it is “out of season.”
WORLD TURNED UPSIDE DOWN
Before 1997 the place of traditional marriage in the United States appeared assured. The sole controversy, and a brief one at that, was over polygamy in the 19th century when Congress allowed the admission of Utah as a state so long as it prohibited polygamy. In 1997, however, an Alaska judge ruled Alaska’s marriage law unconstitutional because it allowed only marriage between heterosexuals. Several Alaska legislators, in reaction to the court decision, proposed a constitutional amendment declaring simply that marriage in Alaska was between one man and one woman.
An organization was formed to campaign for a “yes” vote. The reaction of many to our efforts then was “why bother” with such a campaign. Support for traditional marriage was surely a no-brainer and the amendment would pass easily. Indeed, the opposition was lightly funded. There were a few newspaper ads by liberal clergy plus a letter-writing campaign and some opinion columns in the local newspaper, but little money. On election day 68 percent of voters approved the amendment and Alaska was the first in the country (and would soon be followed by 30 states through either legislation or the ballot box) to ensure that traditional marriage was the law of the state.
Fast-forward to today, a mere 17 years later. Everything has been reversed. The homosexual marriage movement is aggressive and well funded. State legislatures have enacted same-sex marriage laws; states which had adopted traditional marriage laws have reversed course; and, most importantly, the judiciary has moved aggressively to trump any democratic decision by the people, imposing homosexual marriage on the nation by judicial fiat. Polls show the rapid change in public attitude, leading many public leaders to “evolve” from their previous support of traditional marriage and follow the new trend.
Now the liberty of individuals, business and churches is being challenged. Laws have been enacted and more have been proposed in the name of tolerance to suppress any objection to same-sex behavior. Those who support traditional marriage or disapprove of homosexual activities, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church does, are labeled bigots. In a world turned upside down, a no brainer in 1998 is bigotry in 2015.
SILENCE HAS CONSEQUENCES
This brings me to the second part of this case study. In 2012 Anchorage residents had to vote on a ballot initiative that aimed to enshrine sexual orientation as a prohibited discrimination classification to the Anchorage civil rights law, placing it on the level of race and religion. Proponents, who gathered thousands of signature to place the proposal before voters, falsely claimed that churches would be unaffected by the change. Ten days before the election, the polling margin of those in support of the change shrank from over 20 points to just 9 points in favor. Then on election day the initiative was voted down by a 14-point margin — a 23-point switch in just 10 days.
As this case illustrates, we see rapid and contradictory shifts in public attitudes on issues involving legal acceptance of homosexual behavior. A vital factor has been the relentless pressure of post-modern culture. The culture has vigorously adopted a libertarian view of sex, totally divorced from and opposed to traditional standards of sexual responsibility and fidelity, which was accompanied by a clear set of rules passed on from generation to generation. We, and particularly our children, have been bombarded with a broken notion of sexuality dressed up as liberation.
But homosexual “marriage” is not, by itself, what is destroying marriage. Homosexual marriage merely contributes to the rapid deconstruction of society’s most basic institution. Consider the changes that have long been underway. In 1970, 95 percent of all births were to married couples — last year that had dropped to only 59 percent. Less than half of all kids today (46 percent) live with traditional married parents in their first marriage, down from 73 percent in 1960.
Let me issue an indictment against the churches, the Catholic Church in particular. I can count on the fingers of one hand the times I have heard a homily on marriage or the Christian principles of sexuality in the last 40 years. In truth, the debate over marriage was conceded to the post-modern culture by simply not showing up. We have been living on accumulated moral capital, assuming it would hold, only to see it run out. The silence has had severe negative consequences. In the public sphere it is difficult for the laity to make the case for the church’s teaching on marriage and the family.
More importantly, the failure to transmit Christian moral teaching is a disaster for family and social life. The devastating impact falls on children for whom the family is created in order to provide stability and transmit to them spiritual life.
It has been my privilege for the last 26 years to be on the board of Covenant House Alaska, an international Catholic charity for runaway and thrown-away youth ages 13 to 20. Most of these youth have never had parents to teach and mentor them for adulthood. They don’t know how to be parents, but someday they will be and their children will grow up without having acquired that spiritual life which is so necessary for the healthy life of families and nations.
We have a brand new building for our at-risk youth, but it can’t heal the culture that they come from. Preaching on marriage and fidelity, however, can reach people who are aware — thanks to their lived experience — that the culture’s promise of glamour and happiness is false.
For the larger picture, I am pessimistic. There is no standard today by which rival moral claims can be judged. Our modern culture has divorced faith from reason and eliminated the transcendent as the final standard, leaving reason as the sole means of coming to any moral agreement. Although the moral language used today sounds like the old moral tradition, the words have been emptied of their former meaning. Moral decisions — if you can still call them that — are made by autonomous individuals. All that is left to resolve public moral disputes is power, including, the fiat of an activist judiciary and, to suppress dissent, the use of law and public pressure.
ABUSE OF POWER
As you know, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide the marriage question sometime this summer. Overwhelmingly, the federal courts, including in Alaska, have ruled against traditional marriage. It is likely the U.S. Supreme Court will decide 5 to 4 that traditional marriage laws are unconstitutional because they violate the equal protection clause.
Equal protection became part of the Constitution in 1868 as part of the 14th Amendment, one of the three reconstruction amendments adopted after the Civil War. Congress enacted a Civil Rights Act to outlaw the black codes adopted by southern states to isolate and deny rights to the newly freed slaves. Congress feared that the law would be found unconstitutional as beyond the power of the federal government, hence the 14th Amendment.
The Equal Protection clause is now 147 years old. Only in the last few years have some imagined that it now or ever could be used to redefine civil marriage to include same-sex couples. The Constitution has been reduced to an historical document. It has nothing to do with constitutional law today. So the Constitution is created, re-created, changed and altered beyond description by five unelected lawyers. With this case you have four liberals on one side and four conservatives on the other. The fifth vote is Anthony Kennedy who has been the leader in this revolution.
A PREACHER’S POWER
Despite the long odds, there remains a sliver of optimism. Earlier, I described the swift, unexpected changes in public consensus surrounding the Anchorage sexual orientation ballot initiative. Two significant things happened just before that election day in 2012. The archbishop of Anchorage wrote a letter to all parishes along with a newspaper column that carefully explained the church’s position and the dangers that the sexual orientation initiative posed to religious liberty. After the election people told him that he had clarified the issue for them. They believed the ballot measure was wrong but couldn’t express why. Proponents had repeatedly claimed that sexual orientation discrimination was the new civil rights issue. Just before the election, eight prominent black pastors held a news conference. They denied that this issue had any connection with the historic civil rights movement and urged a “no” vote. People still listen to religious leaders. But you can’t influence minds if you don’t speak.
The laity fit in by engaging the culture in the myriad of ways, in ordinary professional and family life and in the public sphere. I would add another duty — pester your pastors. Tell them we need and want preaching on the family, sexuality, responsibility and fidelity. It works. Recently one of our great friars at Holy Family Cathedral in Anchorage preached on the family. I complimented him and he said he remembered my complaint about hearing little such preaching in the last 40 years.
So I end where I began: “Preach the word; be diligent in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.”
The writer practiced law in Anchorage for 46 years and is a member of the Catholic Anchor Advisory Board.