The Incest Argument is Back!

Apparently, the German Ethics Council recently argued that laws forbidding incest between brothers and sisters ought to be abolished. Bloggers on the Catholic Right, always alert for signs that gay marriage is leading us down a slippery slope,* have pounced on the story. Damon Linker, who is not a member of the Catholic Right but does like to ask questions that make progressives uncomfortable, is suggesting that this development, well, ought to make progressives uncomfortable.

So I think it’s a good time to drag out this old post to remind everyone that the Catholic Right, and just about every Christian who has ever used “natural law” to argue against gay marriage, ought to find the story from Germany discomfiting, too. Because they can’t answer Linker’s questions, either.

*For the record, Germany does not recognize same-sex marriage.


From 2012:

Dear Catholic Right:

You know how every time you get into an argument about gay marriage, you ask, “Well, if we allow gay marriage, what logical reason do we have to disallow brother-sister marriages?”

You should really stop that.  Here’s why:

If you are an orthodox Catholic, you probably believe in monogenesis—that is, you believe that all of humanity descended from two original humans, Adam and Eve. You also believe that God commanded Adam and Eve (and by extension all of their children) to be fruitful and multiply. Period. These are non-negotiables, as Pope Pius XII pointed out in his 1950 encyclical Humani Generis.

In order to be fruitful and multiply, Adam and Eve’s kids had to have sex with each other. Ergo, you believe God commanded incest. God can’t command something that’s contrary to God’s will, and no commandment from God can ever be unnatural.

So there’s no getting around it: by that logic, brother-sister incest is natural.

Now, I’ve seen some attempts to explain this away.  One suggestion is that Adam and Eve’s kids got a special dispensation to have incest, but as soon as there were enough people to make incest unnecessary, it became unnatural. That doesn’t fly for two reasons. First, natural law doesn’t work that way—the whole point is to figure out what’s timeless and unchanging. Nothing that was natural for Adam (or his kids) can possibly be unnatural for us.

The second is that it doesn’t square with Old Testament history, which is full of incestuous unions, even hundreds of years after they would have been necessary. Abraham’s marriage to Sarah, for example, came ten generations after Noah. By that time, Abraham could have married plenty of unrelated women—we know Hagar was willing to make him a baby—but he chose Sarah, his father’s daughter. And that union was blessed in the sight of the Lord.

Catholics can rightly point out that Church law has since proscribed brother-sister unions, and that such unions are therefore, for Catholics, now a sin.  But Church law holds no weight in our legal system. This, again, is why you use natural law in your arguments against gay marriage.

So why do we ban brother-sister marriages? Most people will tell you it’s because we don’t want brothers and sisters reproducing, since pregnancies that result from those unions have an unusually high incidence of problems. This wouldn’t have been a problem before the Fall, obviously, because that’s when disease and death entered the world.

But as she ages, every woman is at a greater risk for producing a child with birth defects and genetic disorders. And this risk increases every year of her reproductive life. If a woman gets pregnant at 45, the risk for down syndrome is about 40X higher than it was when she was 25. And I don’t see the Catholic Church arguing against marriage for women over 45, or asking those already married to practice celibacy. Nor should they—I’m just pointing out an inconsistency here.

Besides, we have models for allowing marriage among partners we hope won’t reproduce—several states allow first cousins to marry, but only after they’re too old to produce children. Arizona, for example, allows first cousins to marry if a) they’re both over 65, or b) they get a doctor’s note proving that one partner is infertile.

In the twisted thinking of certain natural lawyers, these marriages are okay because they’re “ordered” towards procreation, even though to enter one, one partner has to prove incapable of reproducing.

So let’s say you live in Arizona. A brother and sister (let’s say the sister is infertile) come up to you and ask you why, legally, they shouldn’t be allowed to marry. What are you going to say?


You can’t argue that it’s unnatural.

You can’t argue that it’s to prevent a risk to potential children.

You can’t argue, in our constitutional system, that it goes against Church law.

So you’re stuck, aren’t you?  It’s best not to bring this subject up.  Seriously, stop.

Baroque Homecomings


Anyone reading this blog probably also reads every word Elizabeth Bruenig writes, so I feel no need to point y’all to her beautiful post on longing, capitalism, and football in Texas. But I did think of a way to make myself useful, since I know that some of my readers come from outside of Texas.

Bruenig writes:

Homecoming is a fifth season in Texas. It asserts itself in hazy late summer and reigns until the depth of autumn. Traditionally, the boys give girls homecoming mums to wear, and the girls give the boys garters. The mums can cost upwards of $100, some larger than dinner plates, their ribbons trailing the ground. They sport miniature mascots, fake flowers, blinking lights, lashings of glitter and sequins, and each year grow more ostentatious. My mother has a collection of four from when she was a high school cheerleader.

I never got one. I never got asked to a homecoming dance, or prom. My mom tried to show me how to do my makeup.

The homecoming mum, in this form, is a uniquely Texas tradition, and it struck me that, though Bruenig describes the practice well, readers might have a hard time visualizing exactly what she’s talking about. So I thought it would be worthwhile to link Bruenig’s post to these photographs by Nancy Newberry, which were featured last year at SlateJezebel, and NPR. Okay, that’s just about everywhere, but still, maybe you didn’t see them.

These are mums:



Look at those things! They take engineering. They take effort. They make no sense and they offend all notions of proportion, style, and good taste.

One of my other gigs is writing about Latin American literature and culture for my department’s literary blog, and right now I’m tasked with writing up a new exhibit at the Benson Latin American Collection on the legacy of the Baroque in the New World. The exhibit connects the ostentation of the triumphal arches that Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora designed for the entry of a new viceroy into Mexico City in 1680 with the postmodern poetry of Severo Sarduy and the kitschy art of the landmark MCASD exhibition on the “Ultrabaroque” (2000). The idea is that the baroque is a spirit and a style, rather than a historical period. In this, the exhibition follows a 2012 book by Monika Kaup, in which she argues that we can see the spirit of the baroque in North American lowrider culture and in certain styles of hip hop, and hip hop-influenced visual art.

The cool thing about the baroque (understood this way) is the way it travels, the way it infects (José Lezama Lima compares it to a glorious virus) and devours (Haroldo de Campos compares it to cannibalism) the cultures it encounters. The Benson exhibit traces Sor Juana’s New World Baroque not just into modern Latin American writing, but into a drive-in theater in San Antonio and into contemporary installations like (San Antonio native) Franco Mondini-Ruiz’s Infinito Botánica.

This is pure hypothesis, but considering the fact that football culture is common throughout the American South and Midwest, but the mum-giving ritual is pretty much limited to Texas, the US state that shares the longest border with Mexico, I don’t think it’s crazy to read the mum as a manifestation of the baroque spirit.

At the very least, Texas mums share the strange appeal of baroque art. They trade in superficiality and excess, yes, but also in exuberance and  accessibility—or at least the illusion of accessibility.  Mums are expensive, as Bruenig points out, but with them distinctions between high and low culture disappear. As with the baroque, you only need a sense of awe, not “taste” or an upper-class sensibility, to appreciate their splendor. Newberry’s photos capture all that, I think, and in doing so, illuminates the ambivalence that Bruenig expresses in her essay.


Two Quick Things for Sunday, September 21

1. Silliness from the Catholic Right

I don’t visit much these days, but I stopped by last week and, oh, man, do I have some silliness to report back. Joshua Bowman has a list of “Five Ways Gay Marriage Affects You—Even if You’re Not Gay or Married.”

All five “ways” on the list are pretty bad, but the first one takes the cake. Bowman says gay marriage threatens your freedom of worship, and he cites as precedents what’s happened to the state churches of England and Denmark:

In 2012, the legislature of Denmark passed a law requiring churches in that country to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies. Last year, a gay couple in Britain announced they were suing the Church of England even though the recently passed law there was drafted with strong religious freedom protections. If they win their legal battle, England will join Denmark in requiring state-sponsored churches to endorse same-sex marriage.

Ooh. That sounds scary!

What’s that you say? England and Denmark are in a fundamentally different situation than the US, because they have established state churches? Well, don’t be so quick to dismiss the danger. I have it on good authority the Queen of the USA is considering forcing our state church to perform gay marriages, too. She’ll get to it right after she’s done taxing Santa Claus and putting a speed limit on the Easter Bunny.

2. Leonard Cohen’s “Almost Like the Blues”

A couple of months ago, I compared the knowledge of faith to the experience of “understanding” we get when listening to a blues song:

The Creeds don’t “answer” the questions of faith the way a mathematics teacher demonstrates arithmetic. They “answer” them the way the return to the tonic in a blues progression answers the tensions raised by the sub-dominant and the dominant chords.

And we don’t assent to them the way we assent to our mathematics teacher after she shows us how to count on our fingers. We assent to them the way our heads start nodding to a blues song. When you say “Amen,” it is, or should be, the way you answer Freddie King when he says, “Let me hear you say yeah.”

It’s not 1 + 1 = 2. It’s I-IV-V-I.

I’m not the first person to make that comparison, by any stretch of the imagination, but it was cool to hear, via David Zahl at, these lyrics from Leonard Cohen’s new album:

There is no G-d in heaven
And there is no Hell below
So says the great professor
Of all there is to know
But I’ve had the invitation
That a sinner can’t refuse
And it’s almost like salvation
It’s almost like the blues

Have a good week, everybody! Posts on Robert Reilly’s Making Gay Okay and Anthony Esolen’s Defending Marriage are coming soon.

Drinking with Women, Ctd.

This time on TV.

So, I’ve long been fascinated by the theological implications of booze. And I’ve also spent some time thinking about the ways theological conservatism (if that’s the right term) goes hand-in-hand with a heavily gendered view of drinking—one best summed up by Taylor Marshall’s insistence that “virtuous drinking involves male friendship, plain and simple.” Marshall writes:

It’s usually a time for men to remove themselves from the company of women that they love and sit together around a fire pit, in the darkness, or on the back porch. Some of the most meaningful conversations that I have had with my father, my brother, and my friends have been over a Scotch. Real relationships are forged. It’s a beautiful thing.

As I’ve made clear, I don’t think this way.

Which is why one of my favorite TV shows these days is Comedy Central’s Drunk History, in which comedian Derek Waters goes to the houses of his friends and fellow comedians, watches them get totally tight (to use Hemingway’s term), and records them recounting historical events with surprising detail and accuracy. The show mixes intelligence and silliness; it uses good actors cleverly, having them re-enact the scenes that the storytellers recount, often to hilarious effect. But another reason to love Drunk History is the way it treats women.

In this great post from a few weeks ago, blogger Amma Marfo writes that Drunk History is “the best place on TV to be a woman right now” for, oh, lots of reasons. First, while the show tells some familiar stories (the Alamo, Lewis & Clark), part of the its mission seems to be recuperating lesser-known pieces of history, and those often involve the stories of women that you don’t usually hear about—like Sybil Luddington, Mary Ellen Pleasant, Mary Dyer and Oney Judge.*

And on Drunk History women get to tell the stories, too. They’re authorities. Not just on “women’s history” or female characters, either. Marfo writes:

[A]lthough the story of Patty Hearst’s capture is told by a woman, so is the story about the pair of matches between Joe Louis and German boxer Max Schmeling. All narrators, according to Waters, are selected for their likeability and excitement about the story they’re about to tell. The show has featured several men who fit these credentials, but it has also selected some exceptional women to do the same. The result? Women are allowed and encouraged to be smart in a space that doesn’t typically allow for it.

Marfo points out that popular culture usually portrays drinking as a source for either danger or embarrassment for women; the hardcore (mostly) Catholic theologians I chase around on this blog portray drinking as a source of boys-only bonding, a place where men get to exercise, together, their right to determine meaning and value.

Those points are interrelated. A world where women can’t be drinking buddies is a world where women can’t be authorities. And what Drunk History illustrates, really well, is that a world that takes women seriously—as authorities and as drinking buddies—is a lot richer, a lot more fun, than one where they are not.

Anyway, in case you missed the link up there, you can find Marfo’s post here. Check it out!


*Don’t know about Sybil Luddington, Mary Ellen Pleasant, Mary Dyer and Oney Judge? Neither did I. That’s why I love this show.

Refining my Point: a Response to Gobry and Cupp


This weekend, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry wrote a great response to my response to his piece at The Week. His post included some necessary corrections to what I wrote: I take his point, for example, on the theological distinction between metaphor and analogy. As I say on my “about” page, I always welcome input from those better trained in theology than me  (which is just about everybody) and Gobry’s post is an example of what I mean.

Then, on Monday, Kyle Cupp built on the conversation, arguing that “the fatherhood of God is more than a metaphor, but the analogy of fatherhood doesn’t preclude our addressing God by other names and titles, including ‘Mother.’”

Reading both pieces, I realize I need to refine my point. I was too breezy in my first post, what with the “Relax” title (I almost titled it “Frankie Say Relax”) and with my sentence “Who cares if it takes imagination to see the fruitful love of God for his Church in the marriage of Charity and Sylvia?” That was the general tone of my post.

So I get why Cupp said that I called the fatherhood of God a “replaceable metaphor,” and I guess I invited Gobry to characterize my argument as saying that “God’s Fatherhood is just a metaphor, and therefore doesn’t have implications for how we view the sexes.” That phrase, “just a metaphor,” shows up a couple of times in Gobry’s response, which is my fault, but it isn’t what I meant. I wasn’t trying to say that metaphors (or analogies) don’t matter—and less still that the language of the Bible doesn’t “teach us anything about what fatherhood means on Earth and what the sexes were created for.”

I agree with Gobry that “wrestling with both/ands is hard–but valuable,” and especially that “there is always an element of mystery, of groping in the dark, but taking a shortcut by simply jettisoning one side of the equation simply will not do.” I didn’t intend to jettison one side of the equation; I did intend to emphasize the side that I think sometimes gets short shrift.

Let me explain.

It seems to me, the Church’s problem is that increasingly, people like me (and, in a different way, Conor Friedersdorf) are able to both accept the Church’s understanding of the meaning of the two sexes and the way they come together in heterosexual intercourse and understand that that’s not how it works for everybody, that there might be other paths to that same point. That is, we can look at a gay couple, see God’s love in them, and not see that as a challenge to our own sense of the importance—both secular and sacred—of fatherhood (or motherhood). This is what I took Friedersdorf to be getting at when he said, “Even if I knew [that procreative sexual intercourse is a special act], however, I would not feel compelled or even inclined to declare homosexuality to be wrong,” and that’s the reason I endorsed his column in my post.

Gobry has an answer, and it boils down to Yes, but that’s not marriage. “To say that other forms of love also reflect God’s glory,” he writes, “misses the point—of course they do.” Putting aside the question of the sinfulness of homosexual acts (which is a big question, but one I’ll not get into today) Gobry’s point is that while we might see God’s love for man in the love and commitment of two men, or two women, the traditional view holds that it’s a categorically different thing. It’s not marriage. Marriage is a bodily and spiritual union, open to life, whose bliss “is an inkling of the bliss of the union of the Persons of the Trinity.”

Except the Church doesn’t say that’s necessarily what marriage is. Okay, more precisely, it does and it doesn’t. Both/and. I know I keep harping on Josephite, or Spiritual, marriages, but I do so because I think they present a tremendous challenge to the Church’s reasoning on marriage. Or would, if not for the Christian imagination.

In fact, one reservation I have with Friedersdorf’s column is that I don’t think he goes far enough. He says that, in the Christian framework, non-procreative marriages are “less reflective of God’s glory,” which leads one of Gobry’s commenters to describe his position as saying that gay relationships are partly good, but not as good as heterosexual ones.

This is difficult to articulate, but while I think that procreation is sacred and adds something to a marriage that isn’t present in a non-procreative marriage (well duh, I guess), I don’t believe that my marriage is one jot better, one iota more sacred, than a non-procreative one.* This is the both/and that Gobry is talking about, and it can definitely lead one into positions that are hard to defend. BUT, and this is a point I was trying to make in my first post, Christianity gives us examples of how to do it. Josephite marriages, which don’t have “organic bodily union,” which aren’t “open to life” in the physical, literal sense, aren’t disparaged by the church as less-than; instead, they’re often talked about in saintly terms. Fulton Sheen got positively flowery describing them:

Here the marriage is of the heart and not of the flesh; it is a marriage such as the stars have, whose light unites in the atmosphere although the stars themselves do not; a marriage like the flowers in the garden in springtime, who give forth perfume, although they themselves do not touch; a marriage like an orchestration, where a great melody is produced but where one instrument is without contact with the other.

So, Christianity shows us that something that lacks that which is said to be essential to marriage, can not only still be marriage, but even be considered among the greatest of marriages.

Gobry writes (in another post I loved) that we moderns have “overlearned” Christianity, and maybe I’m taking this particular lesson too far. And, yes, I know that Josephite marriages are still male/female, and that they have precedents in the Christian tradition (you know, starting with Joseph and Mary) that gay marriage, obviously, doesn’t. But their existence makes the prohibition on gay marriage a whole lot harder to defend. And, anyway, with something like the radical possibility inherent in Christianity, it’s hard to know where to stop learning.


*By “non-procreative” marriages, I mean not only gay marriages, but also those that are childless by choice. And I’ve written before (here & here) that I think elderly marriages ought to be grouped with those, since, the example of Abraham & Sarah notwithstanding, past a certain age people aren’t getting married with the intent of having kids.