Wendell Berry and the Marriage Conversation


Over the past couple days, there’s been much wailing and gnashing of teeth among some of my friends, thanks to a doozy of a Wendell Berry speech in support of same-sex marriage. And when you read the speech, the wailing and gnashing is more than understandable.

One of the highlights is this passage:

“If I were one of a homosexual couple — the same as I am one of a heterosexual couple — I would place my faith and hope in the mercy of Christ, not in the judgment of Christians. When I consider the hostility of political churches to homosexuality and homosexual marriage, I do so remembering the history of Christian war, torture, terror, slavery and annihilation against Jews, Muslims, black Africans, American Indians and others. And more of the same by Catholics against Protestants, Protestants against Catholics, Catholics against Catholics, Protestants against Protestants, as if by law requiring the love of God to be balanced by hatred of some neighbor for the sin of being unlike some divinely preferred us. If we are a Christian nation — as some say we are, using the adjective with conventional looseness — then this Christian blood thirst continues wherever we find an officially identifiable evil, and to the immense enrichment of our Christian industries of war.”

Others are doing and have done a fine job responding to the errors and fallacies inherent in Berry’s line of thinking, so I won’t repeat their arguments.

Nor will I be doing any of my own wailing and gnashing of teeth here.

That’s not, mind you, because I’m not seriously disappointed. I am. Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow holds a dear place in my heart as one of the finest, loveliest, and truest renderings of faithful love in fiction. I also have great respect for much of his non-fictional musings on community, food, and stewardship. I’ve always admired the man’s work, so his striking lack of clarity on a subject that so profoundly affects community and the human person is gravely disappointing.

But, at least for me, it’s not entirely shocking.

Perhaps I’m growing a bit jaded, but frankly, I just can’t muster up much shock when anyone supports same-sex marriage anymore, let alone when that support comes from a Protestant who has gone on record with his support for contraception as a means of population control.

Berry, like the majority of men and women in this culture, has bought into some head-poundingly wrong ideas about marriage, sex, and sexuality, and support for same-sex marriage is the logical end of those ideas. No-fault divorce and contraception are at the top of that list of ideas, but close behind is a materialist conception of the body and sex, as well as a denial of gender complementarity and even a denial of gender itself.

More simply put, if marriage is just about me—about what I want and what makes me happy for as long as it makes me happy, not a divinely ordained and life-long vocation—then same-sex marriage makes perfect sense.

Likewise, if children are just choices—things to be had if and when I want, rather like iPods and big screen TVs—then same-sex marriage again makes perfect sense.

And if sex is nothing more than the best recreational activity around—to be enjoyed with whomever I want, whenever I want, and as often as I want, with no meaning beyond physical pleasure—then (surprise, surprise) same-sex marriage makes perfect sense.

The same holds true if my body is just a tool, a shell, a piece of material to be used and manipulated however I see fit, and if the differences between men and women can be boiled down to chromosomes and the kind of toys we were given to play with as children. In both cases, then, one more time, same-sex marriage makes perfect sense.

To people who don’t understand the meaning of marriage, the gift of children, the sacredness of sex, the witness of the body, and the nature of sexuality, there is little to no reason to oppose same-sex marriage…at least no good reason not grounded in instinct or prejudice.

For those who do understand those things, however, there are a million good reasons to oppose same-sex marriage, reasons motivated not by ignorance or fear or hatred, but by a genuine love of the person and a desire to see them live the lives for which they were made.

Several months back, I was chastised roundly on this site for saying that we were losing the same-sex marriage battle. Despite all opinion polls to the contrary, I was told that those opinion polls were wrong, that we hadn’t yet lost a single vote on the question when it was put to the people and not to legislatures.

Well, this past November, we lost a heck of a lot more than a single vote. We lost every vote. In every state where the issue was on the ballot, same-sex marriage triumphed. And the reason it triumphed is because as a culture we have bought into a vision of marriage, love, and the human person that is eminently compatible with same-sex marriage.

If we want to reverse course, if we want to change the tide, we’re not going to do it simply by talking about marriage as an institution, tradition, or even the rights of children.

We, of course, need to fight the legalization of same-sex marriage tooth and nail in the body politic, but we also need to change the conversation in the Church and culture. We have to focus on the root problems, not just the symptom.

What we have to do is reform people’s way of seeing and thinking, helping them recover what modernism stole from us, namely the sacramental worldview. I think John Paul II’s theology of the body is the best tool we have in our toolbox for doing that, but that’s another post (or book).

Regardless, until we do that, even if we somehow manage to squeak out another victory or two here or there, same-sex marriage will continue to be a losing issue for us in the long-term. And the disappointment of an ill-reasoned Wendell Berry speech will be the least of our problems.

Emily Stimpson is a Contributing Editor to “Our Sunday Visitor” and the author of “The Catholic Girl’s Survival Guide for the Single Years.” Her next book, “Everyday Theology of the Body: Musings on the Mysteries and Manners of the Sacramental Worldview,” is due out later in 2013 from Emmaus Road Press,

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org


About Author

Emily Stimpson is a freelance writer, based in Steubenville, Ohio. She writes regularly on all things Catholic, with a special focus on the Church’s teachings on marriage, sexuality, and femininity. A contributing editor to Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly and Franciscan Way Magazine, her books include "These Beautiful Bones: An Everyday Theology of the Body" and "The Catholic Girl's Survival Guide to the Single Years: The Nuts and Bolts of Staying Sane and Happy While Waiting for Mr. Right." You can read more of her writing at www.emilystimpson.com.  

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