The U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring a constitutional right to gay marriage, even though it only added America to a global trend already regnant in countries including Canada, Argentina and South Africa, was hailed as confirmation that something big had changed. And changed fast.
"The shift on marriage rights has been perhaps the swiftest social change in history," wrote the alwaysperceptive Margaret Wente in the Globe and Mail. "Back in 1989, the year Andrew Sullivan wrote his hugely influential essay in favour of gay marriage, it was a radical idea. The lone poll that asked Americans about gay marriage found that only 12 per cent supported it…. That's lower than the support for legalized polygamy today. In 2008, neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton endorsed gay marriage. But by 2014, more than seven in 10 people living in developed countries said they supported some sort of legal recognition of same-sex couples."
The change was even faster in Canada, where Parliament went from voting against gay marriage by a large margin in 1999, with the Liberal party leading the way, to approving it in 2005, again with the Liberal party leading the way.
Looking back to what I wrote in 2005, I was similarly impressed with the speed of the change:
"All in all, it is an impressive bit of work for a mere 38 years. The same-sex marriage bill that passed the House of Commons yesterday was the final chapter in a story that began in 1967, when then-justice minister Pierre Trudeau introduced his Omnibus Bill. Famous for its decriminalizing of homosexual acts ('…the State has no place in the bedrooms of the nation'), it was the liberalization of divorce laws that led more directly to where we are today.
"And where we are is that civil marriage in Canada is simply the conferring of legal recognition and benefits upon a conjugal relationship, with no reference in principle to permanence, progeny or public benefit. We have achieved, with the redefinition of marriage to include homosexual partners, the reduction of marriage to a mere sexual relationship.
"That is an astonishing accomplishment in less than four decades. Mobilizing the resources of the State behind sex seems rather superfluous; there has never been a lack of interest. An older wisdom sought to mobilize the State behind marriage, which at its core was about bridling unruly passions for the purposes of social stability and the upbringing of children.
"What happened back in 1967? Trudeau's Omnibus Bill made divorce easier, which would in due course flower into full no-fault divorce, which renders marriage the only contract unilaterally breakable by either party, at any time, for any reason.
"It was from there a short step to the conferring of spousal benefits on those who weren't married but in a conjugal relationship. Common-law 'spouses' get the benefi ts without the commitment.
"When civil marriage is thus stripped of its permanence and its commitment, what is left to distinguish a married relationship from any friendship? Sex. Hetero[sexual] or homo[sexual], it doesn't matter. Ergo, same-sex marriage."
Exactly 10 years later, I think that analysis remains largely correct. While same-sex marriage is not just a difference in degree but in kind from traditional marriage and its variants, I think it true that after civil marriage was effectively stripped of much of what makes marriage distinctive, it was but a short step to same-sex marriage.
Yet I was wrong to be impressed with the speed with which same-sex marriage took hold. When looked at in the context of the larger sexual revolution that it is a part of, the march up the aisle to same-sex marriage is not surprising.
The sexual revolution can be understood as the decoupling of things that previously were yoked together. I use "yoked" advisedly, for how one understands that Biblical term goes a long way to determining one's judgment about whether the sexual revolution is truly liberating or not. Sex went together with babies, and because of that with marriage, and because of that with love. The great putting asunder of the sexual revolution was to separate sex from babies (contraception), which in short order broke the link between sex and marriage (divorce and cohabitation), and then between sex and love, which a survey of any university campus or television sitcom will demonstrate. The social history of the 20th century is in large part the story of how popular this putting asunder has been and how quickly it has taken hold.
By the 1920s, technological advances made contraception and sterilization more widespread. (This was also the high-water mark for eugenics, then a very fashionable cause among the educated elites.) However, the Christian consensus that contraception was gravely immoral was still universal. All Christian communities taught that; the denunciations of contraception by Luther and Calvin were fierce and the confessions of their lineage upheld them.
It was only in 1930 that the Anglican Communion, gathered at their decennial Lambeth Conference, reversed itself, teaching that the use of contraception was morally licit in certain circumstances within marriage. (It was at the same conference that it was decided to permit the divorced and remarried to receive Holy Communion.) By the 1950s, contraception was widely thought morally unproblematic in the culture as a whole and in many Christian communities; all this before the invention of the oral contraceptive pill. By 1965, the
U.S. Supreme Court declared a constitutional right to purchase and use contraceptives. From a 1930 doctrinal modification to a 1965 constitutional right is an astonishingly quick social change. By the 1970s, schools were teaching contraception as a social and moral good, and the State was subsidizing it at home and making it mandatory abroad through foreign aid.
Divorce witnessed a similarly rapid transformation in both law and culture, as did the rise of cohabitation outside of marriage. Divorces were hard to obtain in the 1930s and 1940s. By the late 1960s, no-fault divorce in various places made it easier to get out of a marriage than a lease on an apartment. The extension of equivalent-to-marriage status to common-law couples was an equally speedy cultural and legal change.
The abortion rights movement gained some political and cultural purchase in the 1950s. Within 15 years, de facto abortion on demand was the law in Canada and de jure in the United States.
On matters pertaining to the sexual revolution, the norm has been rapid change. The sexual revolution has often been linked with the civil rights, anti-war, anti-establishment movements for social change of the 1960s. Yet the sexual revolution was embraced more speedily and more comprehensively than other contemporaneous causes. Expanding the scope of sexual liberty for oneself proved more popular than advancing the rights of other races, the economically poor or the ecologically at risk.
The sexual revolution both answered and advanced the desire for personal autonomy, the great driver of social change in the age of democracy and economic liberalism. Its triumph in gay marriage is just the latest step on its quick march through all the institutions of society. Furthermore, that raw assertion of personal autonomy has now found expression in the celebration of the transgender, whose autonomous will can apparently determine even the biological realities of sexual difference.
Ten years after gay marriage became law in Canada, many of its advocates observe that life has gone on largely as before: nothing much has changed, save for expanding the scope of personal autonomy for gay men and women. In part, they are right. Nothing much has changed, if only because a great many things have been changing very quickly for a long time. Gay marriage is more of an end than a beginning; though with all revolutions, it is difficult to see the end until it comes, often in unexpected ways.
An Ecology of the Poor
At the same time as Canada was getting accustomed to the novelty of gay marriage, in August 2005 National Geographic ran a cover story on the future of energy titled "After Oil: Powering the Future." It was a follow-up to a feature in June 2004 that reported that "oil, no longer cheap, may soon decline. Instability where most oil is found, from the Persian Gulf to Nigeria to Venezuela, makes this lifeline fragile. Natural gas can be hard to transport and is prone to shortages. We won't run out of coal anytime soon, or the largely untapped deposits of tar sands and oil shale. But it's clear that the carbon dioxide spewed by coal and other fossil fuels is warming the planet…."
Ten years on, two things struck me upon reading the article, which I discovered — truth be told — in a waiting room. (The world will long run out of oil before waiting rooms run out of National Geographic.) The first was that 10 years ago a survey of the future of energy gave scant attention to what would be the most significant energy development of the past decade, the affordable production by fracking of shale oil and natural gas. It's hard to know where the next big thing is coming from.
The second was the lead illustration for the story: a photograph of two elderly nuns walking on the Great Plains of North Dakota. The sisters at Sacred Heart Monastery had installed two wind turbines on their property, slashing their electricity bills and embracing, for ethical and economic reasons, a green future. A decade later and the environment is the summer's big religious story after Pope Francis released his encyclical letter Laudato Si' in June on "care for our common home." Those North Dakota sisters could have been the poster nuns for Francis' ecological teaching.
What struck me as novel in the Holy Father's teaching is not the theology of care for creation, which after all goes back to Saint Francis of Assisi, from whose Canticle of the Creatures the encyclical takes its name. Rather, what is innovative is that Francis advances what might be called an ecology of the poor. He looks at the social order from the perspective of the poor. What is the ecology in which they live? That includes the natural environment but also the human conditions of their lives.
For example, Pope Francis discusses urban green spaces and access to drinking water. Neither are issues for the rich of the world, whose environmental policies are not concerned with such realities of daily life. Consider, for example, a favourite environmental priority of the rich countries: bike lanes in downtown cities. Bike lanes and the associated bike rental programs are very expensive to implement and operate, requiring significant subsidies. Yet bike programs are for the affluent, predominantly affluent men. They are not for the poor. That is not the ecology of the poor that Francis promotes.
The main news out of Laudato Si' , of course, is that Francis accepts the science that global warming is real and largely man-made. That is the scientific consensus, to be sure, but not without credible dissenters, pejoratively called deniers.
One such that caught my attention was the 1973 Nobel laureate in physics, Ivar Giaever, a former supporter of Barack Obama who declared recently that the President's — and the Pope's — position on global warming was "dead wrong."
"Global warming really has become a new religion," Giaever said in an interview last July. "Because you cannot discuss it. It's not proper. It is like the Catholic Church."
He meant the Catholic crack as a criticism of the state of science. But after Laudato Si', he speaks better than he knows.