Suggesting that Christians stand at another “Gamaliel moment,” drawing on the comment spoken by the First-Century Rabbi in the Acts of the Apostles, Catholic Moral Theologian Tim Muldoon of Boston College offers an interesting insight about how Christians — Catholics more specifically — should approach the political discussions of the legalization of same-sex marriage. The title of the article is: “Gay Marriage and the Gamaliel Moment.” This is particularly timely given the New York State Legislature’s focus on this issue in recent weeks.

Muldoon writes:

Gamaliel was a first-century rabbi mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. Speaking about Jesus’ apostles, who were preaching about Jesus against the strict orders of the local judges, Gamaliel advised leaving them alone rather than prosecuting them:

. . . if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God (Acts 5:38-39).

Gamaliel’s insight was that new ideas that are not rooted in God eventually fade away, but new ideas that are rooted in God are here to stay. He further understood public sympathy for those who take courageous stands in the face of persecution: the public is likely to take the side of the underdog against the people in power, regardless of whether they are right or wrong. His exhortation to avoid legal proceedings was predicated on the belief that the movement would eventually fail to draw people’s interest.

Christians are at a Gamaliel moment with gay marriage, meaning that we must relinquish the legal battle in order to refocus on the moral one. I believe the main reason why people perceive it to be an issue of equal rights is because most Americans enter discussions about law through a door marked “freedom,” and they perceive a failure among states to recognize the freedom of gay people to enter into marriage.

He goes on to carefully explain his approach in light of the disconnect that activists protesting same-sex marriage from a religious standpoint fail to acknowledge: their arguments are simply not admissible in the legal discussion. Instead of focusing so much on fighting a legal war, perhaps Christians concerned about a “biblical notion of marriage” need to look at their own lives and the ways in which they do or do not model this example of Christian living in the world. Muldoon keenly lists a number of problems related to marriage in a similar way that do not evoke the same sort of zealous protest: “And instead of targeting gays, we must turn the focus on ourselves and ask why our impoverished understanding of marriage has led to widespread non-marital sex, divorce, cohabitation, adultery, and general misery—especially for children, teens, and young adults.”

He goes on:

The Gamaliel moment means that we have to be realistic about how common that “freedom” door is. It’s an inadequate door to enter the discussion about marriage, but it’s the one most people use these days. My concern is that overemphasis on the legal question of gay marriage may, in fact, distract us from a more robust public witness, a more persuasive model of sexuality that is deeply rooted in a faithful discernment of God’s project. American law is a square hole into which we are trying to force a round peg that is a biblical model of marriage. And in an increasingly pluralistic nation, it becomes easy to target the proponents of the biblical model of unfairly imposing their will on everyone else.

My suggestion is let go of the power game, and instead preach the gospel…My thesis is that Christians ought to let go of the legal argument about what states should call “marriage,” and simply model the radical call of Jesus to live “what God has joined together.”

I think that Tim Muldoon is on to something here, something that people of good will should seriously consider. The manner in which self-described Christians treat their gay or lesbian sisters and brothers in Christ is appalling. Muldoon’s point is well put: if one is really concerned about sexual issues in culture and society, then perhaps it’s time to start living in a way that shows an alternative to the problems one seeks to protest instead of trying to fight political and legal battles that will not and cannot be won.

Photo: Catholic Advocate

5 Comments

  1. I’ve often wondered whether the best way to address this issue is for the Church to move away from protesting and instead go the other way and get out of the civil marriage business altogether.

    Recognizing that the world has shifted to a definition of marriage that is quite different from what the Church teaches (largely because of the acceptance of the ‘contraceptive mentality’ in my opinion), I wonder if it wouldn’t help clarify the questions if ministers who witness marriages according to canonical form were not also deputed to solemnize marriage civilly. This isn’t done in most countries anyway, and I think it would clear the air and admit that the problem isn’t homosexuality per se, but a fundamentally divergent definition of marriage.

    Waiting around for rehearsals and weddings to start when I was a parish priest, I used to have a lot of time to reflect on these things. Thanks for the post!

    1. While I support civil unions and despise ALL negative behavior that is directed towards anybody, the Gamaliel rationale does not sit well with me. It is nothing more than moral relativism that could be used to allow pretty much anything, like drug use or abortion. I stand with advocates of civil unions, but not through this reasoning. Just my two cents…

      1. Thanks for your honest reflection, Jared. I’m not sure I agree with you entirely, while I only quote Tim Muldoon above in part, I think he presents an intelligent and sound consideration. He is a very well respected systematic and moral theologian in the Catholic tradition, I don’t believe that he is advocating anything near resembling what you describe as moral relativism.

  2. Br. Dan:

    I appreciate your sincere desire to eradicate our society of all hatred and division, in this case the unjust and uncharitable hatred and division against those with homosexual tendencies, a hatred which I whole-heartedly agree is “appalling.”

    However, your conclusion, in accord with Tim Muldoon, that “If one is really concerned about sexual issues in culture and society, then perhaps it’s time to start living in a way that shows an alternative to the problems one seeks to protest instead of trying to fight political and legal battles that will not and cannot be won” seems to not to follow from a Christian desire to love all.

    It is most certainly true that any Christian–and certainly any Catholic–is called by God to live in a heroic way the virtues of purity, chastity, and authentic married love. You are very right to point to Muldoon’s reminder that we live in a society filled with sexual confusion, abuse, and outright chaos and all this within the “heterosexual” sphere.

    Yet to conclude that because many heterosexuals fail to live up the call to live out their sexuality virtuously, therefore anyone who seeks to advance the Christian vision of marriage–that is, between one man and one woman–in the public sphere is wasting his or her time (or is even a hypocrite) does not follow.

    Christianity–and most explicitly Catholicism–demands of the disciple of Christ that he or she live heroically the tenets of Christian sexual morality, whether possessing a hetero- or homosexual tendency. Thus, to claim that these “political and legal battles…will not and cannot be won” is to say, first, that it is unquestionably the Will of God that homosexual unions be legalized and second, that God is therefore on the side of those advancing homosexual unions and will be responsible for granting them victory.

    While I applaud your encouragement of heterosexuals to focus their efforts on improving the state of heterosexual marriage and sexuality, I do not concur that it is a waste of time to protect the legal status of marriage as between a man and a woman. The Catholic Church has always and will always know the truth of what marriage is and those who try to stem the tide of popular opinion, defending this understanding in the courts and in the public square, are the ones who follow this teaching of Christ’s Church. Those who advance an agenda in stark contrast of the Church are the ones who, in the end, will not and cannot be victorious.

    1. Many thanks for your comment. I wish only to respond to one point of your post: “The Catholic Church has always and will always know the truth of what marriage is and those who try to stem the tide of popular opinion, defending this understanding in the courts and in the public square, are the ones who follow this teaching of Christ’s Church.”

      The Church had, until very recently and in very many places, prohibited and then discouraged interracial and interreligious marriages, among other arrangements. That the Church (and here I’m not sure how you are defining ‘Church’) “has always and will always know the truth of what marriage is” can be a very tricky statement to defend. Nevertheless, I appreciate you effort to highlight things you consider worth discussing.

      Peace and good.

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