Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Marriage Equality, Transubstantiation and the Catholic Church

Magic is a supernatural technique that seeks to produce changes in the world through incantations or prayers, ceremonies, rituals and the casting of spells. There are plenty of other techniques employed in magic, but that's the essence of it. When a magician performs certain rituals and chants the proper words with the right attitude and an exercise of will, the world will change in response. Lead becomes gold, love blossoms in a heart where previously there was none and for the briefest of moments the normal laws of physics and science are suspended. At least, this is what magicians believe.

The Catholic Church performs magic every day in the form of Mass, which at its core features the miracle of transubstantiation. The doctrine of transubstantiation maintains that the bread and wine of the Eucharist is transformed into the Body and Blood of Jesus. Literally. In all important ways, the wine has become blood and in all important ways the bread has become flesh. Never mind that no scientific test will ever be able to show any difference in the bread and wine before and after the ceremony. The fact that the bread  stills registers as bread to every one of our senses and defies every experiment we could in theory devise to show that the bread is anything other than bread is inconsequential.

The qualities that show the body of Jesus to be bread are "accidents." We use the term here to describe all the qualities of the bread that are unimportant to its its actual definition. Think of an automobile. The fact that the automobile in question is pink is of no consequence. The color of an automobile in no way alters the fact that it is in fact an automobile. The same could be said of an automobile with four flat tires, or one that is missing parts of its engine. The details about an object that in no way affect the essence of the object are accidents.

In the case of the bread transformed into the body of Jesus through prayer and ritual, these "accidents" include every possible physical descriptor of the object in question. The body of Jesus in this case is composed of wheat, is a small wafer of decidedly un-flesh like texture and taste, and includes virtually no human DNA. If I ran a test, in which I took a sanctified host from a Mass and placed it on a table with two other exactly similar Hosts that have not been put through the proper ritual, no one on Earth could say with certainty which was which, except for maybe a Saint.

Now I don't bring this up merely to expose what I think is a very odd and unscientific thing for otherwise reasonable Catholics to believe, I bring it up because  many Catholics who believe that bread can sometimes actually be the body of a man-God also believe that it is impossible for a marriage to exist between two people of the same sex.

Reacting to the passage of same-sex marriage here in Rhode Island, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage said:
The meaning of marriage cannot be redefined, because its meaning lies in our very nature. Therefore, regardless of what law is enacted, marriage remains the union of one man and one woman – by the very design of nature, it cannot be otherwise.
To which I ask, "Why not?"

The very design of nature that Cordileone refers to absolutely mandates that bread be bread and wine be wine until it rots or is digested. No natural process can transform bread into the flesh of a man who lived 2000 years ago. In order to accomplish this miracle, Catholics believe that a priest, a man who undergoes years of serious training, must perform the sacred ritual in a very precise way while muttering the proper incantations (or prayers).

Why can't the same man, in performing the act of marriage, unite two people of the same sex, natural law be damned? Isn't a marriage another sacrament, another kind of ritual, another kind of magic? Why can't the church accept a kind of transubstantiation of marriage and find some sort of intrinsic reality of marriage in which the gender of the participants are merely "accidents?"

An Oak Tree
These thoughts came to me as I was considering a piece of conceptual art by Michael Craig-Martin entitled An Oak Tree.  From Wikipedia, "The piece, described as being an oak tree is installed in two units - a pristine installation of a glass of water on a glass shelf on metal brackets 253 centimeters above the ground, and a text mounted on the wall...

"The text takes the form of a Q&A about the artwork, in which Craig-Martin describes changing 'a glass of water into a full-grown oak tree without altering the accidents of the glass of water,' and explains that 'the actual oak tree is physically present but in the form of the glass of water.' Craig-Martin considered 'the work of art in such a way as to reveal its single basic and essential element, belief that is the confident faith of the artist in his capacity to speak and the willing faith of the viewer in accepting what he has to say'."

Craig-Martin was utilizing the absurdity of conceptual art to call into question the absurdity of transubstantiation. What I am wondering, and quite sincerely despite the light tone I am maintaining here, is why, once we open the door to things being in essence other than they are in reality or according to some rigid concept of natural law, we should assume, as Cordileone declares, that some things cannot be be redefined?

The answer may not lie in natural law, Catholic ritual or the nature of reality. It may instead lie in deeply held yet unacknowledged bigotry towards the LGBTQ community.

Cordileone's statement declares that children need a mother and a father, a fairly common refrain on the anti-equality side of the debate, and one that is framed as one of doing well by our children. This is why Cordileone calls marriage equality "a serious injustice."

This idea, that children are in a less than ideal situation when in families with same-sex parents has no basis in reality.

That's the magic of bigotry.

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