“Unabashedly Theological”: An Exclusive Interview with Dr. Douglas Farrow
Wabash Conservative Union: Your book is, to use your own words, “unabashedly theological” in places, and you say that “culture, law, and politics can never be completely atheological”. Recognizing the truth of that statement, and also recognizing the importance of defending marriage theologically as well as politically, how would you respond to those who nevertheless say that if conservatives are going to win the debate on gay marriage, or for that matter any other issue of morality such as abortion, we need to avoid framing the issue in theological terms?
Dr. Douglas Farrow: I think avoiding theological terms is a reasonable strategy in order to engage people at a level they are already familiar with. If they don’t understand theology, there’s no point using theological terms. But a philosophy or ideology, or even a strategy, has to be rooted in some kind of worldview, which implies something or other about God – if only, perhaps, that God does not exist – and therefore has a theological dimension. And so at some point, if the conversation is going to remain meaningful, it’s going to have to get to the bigger questions. Certainly with a topic like abortion or marriage, one is dealing with fundamental questions of human flourishing – and human death, in the case of abortion – about which one cannot possibly have meaningful views that do not go to these big questions. It seems to me that you’re not respecting either yourself or your interlocutor if you’re not prepared at some point to engage the big questions.
WCU: Should we make no allowance for those who are concerned about the separation of church and state, then?
Farrow: Well, the separation of church and state in no way implies that matters of state are unconnected to religious issues. Anyone who sees it that way is making a quite elementary mistake, frankly. The state is simply the set of instruments by which civil society runs itself, and civil society is more or less civil because it has certain perspectives on what human beings are, and what their purposes are – Augustine would say, what their “loves” are. The way it organizes itself in terms of the state is going to reflect its worldview. I think it’s silly to say that procedure can be isolated from substance, law from morality, etc. All separation of church and state means or ought to mean is that the state does not control religion, nor religious authorities the state.
The separation of church and state means in the first place that the state doesn’t dictate to the church or the synagogue or the mosque what their religious convictions should be. Now to a certain extent it also means that the church and the synagogue and the mosque don’t dictate to the state how it must act – that is, they don’t control the legislature or the legislation. But the legislature and its legislation are bound to reflect the worldview of the citizens, and the citizens go to the churches and synagogues and mosques, etc., in order to shape their worldview. So there is a proper influence of religion on the state, which doesn’t in any way undermine the notion of separation of church and state.
If the state could do nothing that had any religious implications, how could it legislate on something like abortion? Because whatever it says on abortion implies something about whether fetuses are human and about what a human being is. You can’t address that kind of question without treading onto religious ground. I find it incomprehensible that someone would suppose that the separation of church and state means that one cannot speak religiously or theologically to issues that have an impact on the state itself and what laws it passes and how it enforces them.
WCU: Do you think it’s possible to make an argument based on natural law that makes no appeal to religion?
Farrow: No, I don’t, and I’ll tell you why. “Natural law” has both an adjective and a noun: one has to have a theory of law, and one has to have some idea of what nature is. Whether one’s view is that nature exists because God created it, or that nature is somehow God, or perhaps a Carl Sagan view in which the mystery of nature is a sort of substitute for God, or an atheistic view that nature is simply all there is, one still has to say what one means by nature, and that puts one onto theological ground. Natural law is something that everyone can and should engage. But one cannot talk about it sensibly if one must stop every time one bumps up against a term with theological connotations or a question with theological implications.
You can’t hold all these views simultaneously – you can’t believe what Carl Sagan believed about nature and at the same time believe what the author of Genesis believed about nature. You have to make some decisions about what you mean when you say “nature”, and those decisions are theological. So just as I don’t think church and state separation means you can’t bring in theology, I don’t think natural law means you can do without theology either. We’re human beings and behind our reflection on all of these issues always lurk the big questions that theology and philosophy address. Human life is simply not as rich or as meaningful if we hide from these questions as it is if we embrace them and wrestle with them, as I tried to show in Recognizing Religion in a Secular Society (McGill-Queens 2004).
WCU: If I could ask you to expand on something in your new book, Nation of Bastards (BPS 2007): you mention Humanae Vitae briefly but don’t really go into it. What role do you think contraception has played in the decline of marriage, since obviously it is another way of separating marriage and sexuality from children?
Farrow: Marriage has been shaped by Christianity for two millennia. On the Christian view of marriage, the three goods of marriage – procreation, proles; chastity or faithfulness, fides; and the unitive dimension, the sacramentum – make three strands of a single rope that binds human beings to one another in a fruitful way in the intimacy of marriage: a communion between husband and wife that’s also open to the appearance of children. And of course contraception is about not procreating. When you cut the proles strand by promoting contraception, you do serious damage to the other two goods of marriage as well, and eventually the rope snaps.
The practice of contraception did not take hold on our society in a large-scale way until the 1930 Lambeth Conference (of Anglican bishops) said that a limited use of contraception was morally acceptable. Openness to contraception began to change the face of western culture in dramatic ways. Other factors, from the industrial revolution to the invention of the pill, which was first marketed in 1958, were required for this attitude of openness to contraception to work its way all through western society. The contraceptive mentality, as John Paul II called it, has reshaped our understanding of marriage. The detachment of marriage from its procreative purpose, such that the weight began to fall entirely on the unitive strand, created a context in which same-sex marriage became conceivable. If marriage is just about close relationships through sexual intimacy, then it doesn’t appear quite so obvious any more that marriage is something between a man and a woman.
WCU: On the subject of changing the definition of marriage, do you think allowing homosexual couples to live in so-called “civil unions” could be an answer, since at least that way the name of marriage isn’t being misused, or do you think that would be just as bad as allowing homosexual marriages?
Farrow: The language is important. I don’t think that “marriage” understood in unitive terms only, and therefore as equally open to heterosexual couples and same-sex couples, is really the same thing as marriage under the traditional definition. So is there any advantage in creating the category of “civil union”? Well, yes, in that it eliminates one point of confusion from the discussion. But that raises the question: What is a civil union for? How does it help society to organize itself in fruitful ways? Of course, the conversation is complicated by the fact that the term “marriage” is coveted, because the term “civil union” can never command the same level of approbation.
On the other hand, many of the people who say they want “same-sex marriage” don’t actually want marriage at all. There are many intellectuals who have been clamoring for change who see same-sex marriage as a proximate goal only; their ultimate goal is to deregulate sexual relations altogether and see the institution of marriage disappear. Until we’re all quite clear about that, I really can’t get too invested in their conversation. I really detest the dishonesty in saying “We’ll argue for change in the definition of marriage and we won’t tell anybody what we’re really after.” I prefer the frankness of the people at BeyondMarriage.org.
But consider this: neither same-sex “marriage” nor civil unions (sexually conceived, rather than as practical domestic partnerships) are very useful to society as a whole. So why are we even having this conversation? It wouldn’t be happening if there weren’t quite an interest among heterosexuals as well as homosexuals in deregulating sexual relations generally. There’s a consensus, in some quarters, across “orientation” lines, and I think the main goal is the deregulation of sexual relations rather than the establishment of something called same-sex marriage.
WCU: So you think, then, that promotion of the complete jettisoning of the concept of marriage will follow inevitably from the promotion of homosexual marriage?
Farrow: The disappearance of marriage as a publicly recognized institution is the direction in which we have been moving and will probably continue to move. Hence the word play in the subtitle of my book, Nation of Bastards: Essays on the End of Marriage. I mean “end” in the sense of telos, the goal of marriage, and I have tried to say something constructive about that, but also in the sense of finis – meaning that we’re not going to have marriage anymore, at least for civil purposes.
WCU: How important is it to your theology of marriage, and your idea of how society should recognize marriage, that you are a Catholic, rather than another kind of Christian?
Farrow: I got involved in the marriage question even before I became a Catholic and I know lots of non-Christian people, never mind non-Catholic people, who share my concern about marriage. Anybody, religious or otherwise, who can recognize what the United Nations has generally recognized – that a child needs the support of his or her own parents – knows that this marriage fight is significant, because same-sex “marriage” by definition is closed to procreation and to the question of the care of children by their natural parents. The sociological studies all show that, on the whole, children do not do as well, on any of the major indices, without their natural parents. Of course there are exceptions, especially among children adopted into good homes. But overall, children from broken homes do not do as well as children from homes that are not broken. So you don’t have to be religious, you don’t have to be Christian, you don’t have to be Catholic, to understand that there is a lot at stake here. Do we or don’t we want an institution that binds parents and children?
I don’t deal much with the sociological issues in Nation of Bastards, however. Rather I argue in the book that there’s another important reason for seeing the marriage issue as an absolutely vital one – a reason that has to do with the political liberty, not only of parents but of every citizen, whatever their sexual orientation. For same-sex “marriage” makes the family itself a creature of the state, subject to state control. It eliminates the family as an effective restraint on the power of the state. That is my main concern.
But to return to your question: I think it is true that the Catholic church has amassed the richest tradition of thinking about marriage that exists anywhere, and out of the resources of that tradition have come some of the most profound insights respecting contemporary disputes. I personally have been helped in thinking about marriage by various papal encyclicals and by Catholic theologians past and present, and also by drawing on the life and fabric of Catholic society. So I’m quite happy to say that Catholicism is especially capable of putting a clear and helpful light on these issues.
WCU: If it’s so important for children to be raised by their own natural parents, do you think any adopted children are as much at risk as children being raised by homosexual couples?
Farrow: Such evidence as I am aware of – and there isn’t a lot, because we haven’t had homosexual adoption for very long – suggests that children are indeed more at risk when raised by same-sex couples or guardians. But a child can be raised by the wolves, like Mowgli, and do well in a certain sense of “do well.” We have to be careful not to generalize in such a way that we make assumptions about particular children or adults. Also, children can be disadvantaged, but respond to their disadvantage in ways that make them a better person, and come out stronger and more fruitful as a human being than someone who had all the advantages. But those who go around saying that children are often better treated by adoptive parents, whether of opposite sex or the same sex, are not supported by the data.
Fortunately, the ideal that the child should be raised by his or her natural parents is still pretty much entrenched in readings of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and of international covenants; the bond between the child and the child’s natural parents is still regarded as the most natural and intimate of bonds. Some of us, of course, have experienced natural parents whose behavior was abominable; again, you cannot generalize in such a way as to remove the exceptions. But the ideal is not divorce and remarriage and children being handed off from parent to parent to parent, whether those parents are straight or gay. The ideal is that children remain with their own natural parents. The onus is on the person arguing against this to show that this universal instinct is somehow wrongheaded. I think that’s a pretty tough row to hoe.
WCU: In your book, you say that no person can be called a bastard who has God as his father and the church as his mother. Could you elaborate upon that a bit?
Farrow: First of all, let me clarify my use of the word “bastard.” The title Nation of Bastards is drawn from Rousseau, who remarked that a nation or society composed only of bastards could not long continue to exist. But the book is not about the increasing incidence of children being born out of wedlock. It is about the effect on all of us of a new “marriage” regime that cuts procreation and children out of the picture altogether and transforms the institution of marriage, and the family itself, into a creature of the state, robbing it of its natural rights and freedoms. What I’m arguing in the book is that we are actually giving up our independence and becoming wards of the state – bastards in that sense – because the new definition of marriage transforms our natural relations into legal fictions.
But what did I mean by the line you just quoted? I meant that no one – whether a bastard in the political sense I have in view, or a bastard in the sense of being born out of wedlock, or perhaps even created in a petri dish for some inhuman purpose – or for that matter just called a bastard for doing nasty things – no one, I repeat, fails to be an object of the love of God, which is concretely expressed in the communion of the church and is open to us no matter who we are or where we came from. I wanted to make clear that no matter what our own parents do with or to us, or what civil society or the state does to us, or our particular religious community for that matter, there’s still redemption. There’s still hope. There’s still the love of God and a kind of “family” in Christ whose love will last forever.
But there will be no redemption for us as a society, no redemption for our nation or civilization, if we are prepared, in our lust or in our apathy, to cast off our collective birthright and to reject the natural family unit as the fundamental building block of human society.
Here again I will be unabashedly theological. The book I have written is about political destinies, not personal destinies. It doesn’t treat, for example, the question of the morality of same-sex relations, which would have to be the subject of a different book. But in the last analysis it’s not just a political argument. No matter what kind of book I’m writing, or what kind of context I’m speaking in, if I can’t say that there’s a God who made us and who loves us – a God to whose design and purposes for us we do well to pay glad attention – then it doesn’t seem to me that I’ve said the most important thing.