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,



  • Paulspr

    Emily: I’d like to have this conversation with you.

    1. What government interest is advanced by depriving gay couples of the legal rights and benefits associated with marriage? I see none.

    2. Which part of the “traditional wedding vows” are gay couples unable to fulfill? I see none.

    If gay couples are able to fulfill the requirements of marriage that billions of people have repeated in front of their families and there is no governmental interest that is advanced by banning them from marriage, isn’t it required by our constitution that they be permitted to marry?

    The only thing that banning gays from marriage does is stigmatize them in order to intentionally treat them differently. I don’t think that is something that Jesus would support.

  • Marvin Derks

    The definition of marriage in a secular society must never side with one religious definition over another and in fact, must never include any individual religious concept whatsoever. To do otherwise creates a potential for theocracy, which we all know leads to destruction of society. The Catholic definition of marriage is based on religious concepts and therefore must be excluded as well as any other religions’ definitions.

  • Paulspr

    Is it any wonder that Wendell Berry has taken this stance? Anti-gay marriage campaigns have never been about marriage. They are about gay people being “gathering storms” or “threats to children” or a menace to our schools. You can’t take the high road after you’ve allowed others to take the low road. Faithful Catholics never spoke up for gay people when these vitriolic campaigns were waged against them. They liked the result even though it never reflected the country’s view about marriage. We remained silent as prejudice and discrimination were inflamed against gay people since it accomplished our preferred goal.

    You can’t claim it’s all about “protecting marriage” when every ad that has ever aired has been about inviting prejudice against gay people. Don’t be dishonest.

    • http://www.facebook.com/raleman74 Richard Aleman

      Paul, your response embellishes the truth. Marriage has always been at the forefront of the discussion (what it is, why the government involvement in marriage, etc.). Yes, no doubt, the impact redefining marriage has on children isn’t irrelevant (and the social science bears this out), and neither are the impacts same-sex “marriage” have on our educational and legal system. My apologies in advance, but to deny these consequences of redefining marriage is to be dishonest and dig one’s head in the sand.

      • Paulspr

        No, I’ve lived in two states where marriage fights have ensued, and the truth about marriage has never been part of the conversation. Ever. In fact, Mark Mutty, the Bishop’s right hand man, flat out stated that the anti-gay marriage campaign was based on lies and hyperbole, but that was “all they had”. Please feel free to watch him on you tube. Then lets have a conversation about the facts.

        • Chris R

          Paul, you are confused. No wonder if you get most of your info from the main stream media. My pro-gay “marriage” friends often insist on debating scarecrows too.

        • Joe M

          I don’t even know who Mark Mutty is. Your suggestion that everyone who disagrees with gay marriage is complicit with everything everyone in the world has done against gay marriage is absurd.

          • Paulspr

            Mark Mutty is the Bishops right hand man in Maine. He ran the anti-gay marriage campaign in Maine in 2009 at the request of the bishop. He admitted on camera that their ads were untruthful and based on lies. You can go to YouTube and search Mark Mutty hyperbole and watch him admit it. Or you can continue to ignore the truth that our church is involved in these campaigns that are based on lies.

          • Joe M

            Mark Mutty is not “the church.”

            I have no doubt that some members of our church somewhere have over-stepped appropriate bounds over this issue. And that is wrong. However, what those people do is entirely irrelevant to the merits and activities of anyone else.

            What you have here is a very unremarkable observation followed by a spurious accusation.

          • Paulspr

            The church, including the bishop and some diocese and parishes gave money to the campaign. They provided the funding to air the false and lie riddled advertisements. Did the church speak out whe the campaign used lies and deception? The same false ads were used in previous campaigns. Did the church expect this campaign to be different?

            The truth is that the church is more than willing to stoop to lying, preying on prejudice, and inciting animosity against gay people as long as it accomplishes their goals. They’ve proven that time and time again. If we continue to let it happen, then it’s our responsibility as well. We shouldn’t stand idly by while gay people become the victims of the church.

          • Joe M

            Maybe it would help if you were to clarify what your specific definition of “the church” is?

          • Patrick

            Joe, please. The facts show that the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church in Maine, used the church’s human and monetary assets in Maine, exactly as Paulspr said. It wasn’t 2 rogue priests and a part-time nun, for crying out loud.

          • Joe M

            A) Assuming that is true, how does it contradict my position that those people are not “the church” and that their actions do not represent what “the church” deems right? How is it not absurd to accuse people who have no knowledge or agreement with it of being complicit?

            B) It has yet to be factually established that this campaign was as dubious as Paulspr suggests. Given the sloppy logic used so far, I have my doubts.

          • Paulspr

            The bishops aren’t the church? The diocese aren’t the church? In North Carolina, the diocese of Raleigh gave $50,000 and the diocese of Charlotte gave another $50,000 from church coffers to the anti-gay campaign. This is the same campaign that had a preacher say that parents should “slap their sissy children” on a campaign conference call and incited anothe preacher to say that the gays should be locked behind an electric fence to die. I don’t remember anyone in the church speaking against those horrible actions after they gave the money that created and sparked the “conversation” of which Emily speaks.

            The truth is that the church abandoned gay people and purposefully helped create animosity against them when they should have been protecting them as Jesus taught, and for that, we should be ashamed.

          • Joe M

            Those are individuals within the church, yes. “The church”, no. It is wrong of you to suggest that everyone must behave as you want them to or they are complicit with people you disagree with. Take up your beef with people directly. Don’t accuse others that had no involvement of doing something against your causes.

            I’m sure that there were people that were part of this campaign that disagree with gay marriage in a civil way. Most likely the vast majority of them. If that is the case, it’s wrong of you to criticize one aspect, even if it is deserved, as being “the campaign”.

          • Paulspr

            So, you can support the holocaust becaus there were some good things about it? That’s your point?

          • Shawn

            Nice red herring, there went your credibility.

          • Joe M


            You can support the prosperity of German people while being against the holocaust. You can support traditional marriage while being against hating gay people.

            Are you starting to understand?

          • Patrick

            Joe, rarely is someone as wrong as you are. Institions in this world act through their authorized representatives. That’s how we know that “Exxon” spilled oil, that “America” caught and killed Bin Laden, and that “the Roman Catholic Church” has educated millions of people. Your posts on this website collecctively show a petulant, childlike refusal to be a critical thinker. Sorry if that hurts your feelings, but you’re dealing with important issues. Come on, already.

          • Joe M

            I can’t say that my feelings have been hurt as I don’t think your accusation has any merit.

            You are conflating organizations that are fundamentally different from each other. The Catholic Church is not an oil business. In fact, it’s part of the doctrine of the Catholic Church that people are flawed and will not always live up to it’s standards. That includes people who have been put into positions of authority.

            An authority in the Church doing something against Church doctrine does not change Church doctrine. Nor does it mean that everyone that is part of the Church is complicit with their actions.

          • Patrick

            JoeM: There are none so blind as those who will not see.

          • Joe M

            Patrick: There are no arguments as fallacious as those that are ad hominem.

          • abadilla

            “The bishops aren’t the church?” They are the leaders of the Church, yes.

            “The diocese aren’t the church? Yes, a diocese is part of the universal or Catholic Church.

            “This is the same campaign that had a preacher say that parents should “slap their sissy children” on a campaign conference…” That is wrong whether it was said by a lay preacher or by a priest or a bishop.

            “incited another preacher to say that the gays should be locked behind an electric fence to die.” People say stupid and un-Christian things every day. Are you sure these words came from a bishop or a lay person? I can tell you for sure neither reflects the official teaching of the Church. As a matter of fact, they contradict what Joe quoted for you from “The Catechism of the Catholic Church.”

            “I don’t remember anyone in the church speaking against those horrible actions.” Any bishop, priest, deacon, Sister or Brother or the Pope who hears such hatred should indeed speak up against it. Why they didn’t, I have no idea, but the teaching of the Church on homosexual acts is not hateful but a recognition that it is far off what we understand by marriage.

          • abadilla

            Patrick, if the bishops of Maine were lying the Vatican would have told the bishops of Maine to stop lying. If the Holy See did not do such a thing, you can bet what Paul calls “lies” is the truth in the eyes of the Church.

          • Paulspr

            So, gay people are a “gathering storm” and should be locked behind an electrified fence to die according to “the church”? Because that IS what was said, and a simple google search could enlighten you. Instead of constantly posting based on your prejudice, perhaps you could take some time and do some reading.

          • abadilla

            “Instead of constantly posting based on your prejudice, perhaps you could take some time and do some reading.” Hurling insults isn’t going to help the dialogue between us. I asked because I know my Catholic faith well enough that no bishop, no matter how conservative, would say such ugly things and if a lay person said them, they certainly do not represent the teaching of the Catholic Church already quoted to you and others from “The Catechism of the Catholic Church.”
            As for the INTERNET being a source, I would be very careful about that. What if someone found “your” words accusing me of prejudice. Should anyone believe that is the truth about me because they found it on the INTERNET and Paul stated it?

          • Paulspr

            Maine, California, North Carolina, Washington, Oregon, Minnesota…

            Anywhere there has been anti-gay legislation put up to a popular vote, you can find the Catholic Church using our money and donations to fund it.

    • Joe M


      Speak for yourself when you write “we.” I’ve seen many people reject “the low road”, consistent with Church Teaching on this issue:

      “2358 The number of men and women who have
      deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination,
      which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial.
      They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every
      sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These
      persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are
      Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the
      difficulties they may encounter from their condition.”

      Also, you make several untenable claims. For example, “every ad that has ever aired has been about inviting prejudice against gay people.” Really? Have you even seen “every ad that has ever aired”?

      A traditional state definition of marriage is not a “ban.” There is no ban on gay marriage and to my knowledge, nobody with significant authority has called for one. In fact, in every state in the US, gay people are free to live together, have ceremonies, call each other married, wear rings, etc.

      • Paulspr

        Running ad campaigns calling gay people a “gathering storm” or a “threat to schoolchildren” is inconsistent with the church teaching you quote above. What have you done to stop those people that use lies and prejudice in order to incite hate against gay people. Anything? Yeah, I thought not.

        • Joe M

          Given how baseless your first accusations were, I suspect that your “inconsistent” charge is also without merit.

          For the sake of argument, I will assume that your characterization of those ads is accurate. I live on the west coast. I have not seen the ads you are worked up about. How can you possibly expect that I must “do something” about ads I didn’t know existed?

          Do you condone every act and statement of every gay marriage advocate ever? If not, what have you done about the people who get that argument wrong?

          • Paulspr

            You live in the west coast? Washington state, Oregon, and California have all had these ads run in their states. In California alone there were some $40 million dollars worth of anti-gay ads run. Is there another state on the west coast that I’m not aware of?

            Regardless. You know about the ads now. You know about the church’s funding this hate now. Do you chose to ignore the facts and let the church victimize these innocent people, or do you do something about it? My money is that it will be the former.

          • Joe M

            I haven’t seen any of these ads. In fact, I haven’t seen any ads related to the marriage debate at all on tv. Except for one by Google. But, that was a pro gay marriage ad.

            You haven’t established that the ads in question really are hateful. If they are, I disagree with them. Beyond that, I’m not sure what you want me to do about it. Perhaps you can explain that as I have asked before?

          • Paulspr

            Then you must not watch TV or listen to the radio. Anti-gay ads were run millions of times in all those states. Claiming ignorance about the fact that they exist isn’t really a valid excuse. They do exist. Millions of people saw them. The catholic Cburch and knights of Columbus funded them. They harmed real people whether you want to admit it or not. The ads were lies based on independent review. When you lie in order to harm others that is hate.

            Now you know the truth. You can either do something to correct it, or you can continue making excuses for the people theat intentional fan prejudice and hate. That choice is yours.

          • Joe M

            Sorry. I can’t say that I know the truth in this case. Based on your comments, I’m inclined to believe that whatever you claim has a significant probability of being the opposite of the truth.

          • Paulspr

            Please show me where anything that I have said is untruthful.

            Follow the money: http://hrc.org/nomexposed/section/the-catholic-hierarchys-devotion-to-fighting-marriage-equality

          • Joe M

            The burden is on you to support the claims you have made.

            This link is nothing but a complaint that money is spent in lobbying efforts. Are you arguing that religious groups should not be allowed to spend money toward lobbying efforts?



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