By Stephen G. Adubato
As the United States continues to legally and culturally recognize lifestyle choices that conflict with the teachings of some religions, religious institutions have had to think seriously about their mission and employment policies. Is firing a teacher who enters into a same sex marriage pastorally insensitive, or a matter of moral consistency? What about teachers in Catholic institutions who divorce and remarry without an annulment, or who indulge in more private sins like fornication or using artificial contraception?
As with most controversies that are sensationalized by the press, it’s always helpful to take a step back and look at the different factors at hand. In order to respond in a more nuanced and sensitive way, it might help to consider the drastic changes in what philosopher Charles Taylor would call our “social imaginaries.”
In his 700 page tome A Secular Age, Taylor defines social imaginaries as “the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations.” In contrast to social theories or one’s intellectual convictions, social imaginaries focus on “the way ordinary people ‘imagine’ their social surroundings” which “is often not expressed in theoretical terms, but is carried in images, stories, and legends.”
Needless to say, the social imaginaries surrounding matters of faith and morals have shifted dramatically since the Middle Ages. A few centuries ago, it was common for someone to assent to the doctrines of a religion while personally not following them in his or her private life. Being a “bad Catholic” was more of the norm than a shocking scandal. “Bad Catholics,” according to theologian Aaron Taylor, “knew the moral rules taught by the Church, and they broke—even flouted—them, particularly when it came to sex.”
In this regard, things may not have been so different from how they are today. “They did not, however, argue that the rules should be changed to confer moral approval on their behavior. Despite their moral failings, bad Catholics also tended to maintain a high regard for the Church’s sacramental and spiritual rules and practices. They attended Mass, were devoted to the Virgin Mary, and expressed love for the Blessed Sacrament precisely by not receiving it in Communion when in an unworthy state to do so.”
And thus, someone could believe that sexuality is ordered toward unity and procreation, and that fornicating, contraception, and engaging in same sex relations is not what God wills for them, and still do it anyway…with the option to repent and go to confession. “Sometimes,” continues Taylor, “bad Catholics confessed, made a half-hearted attempt to mend their ways, and then slipped back into their old sins like a comfortable pair of slippers. They were never, on that account, excluded from the Church.”
This is largely how non-procreative sex was construed in the past. Take, for example, those who experience inclinations to be intimate with people of the same sex. They had the option to channel that desire into deep friendships or an artistic or religious vocation, perhaps struggling along the way, but with the awareness that they could repent for sinful action and be forgiven.
The way we “imagine” identity, morality, and desire nowadays is different, to say the least.
One of the catalysts of this shift began with what Charles Taylor calls the “spirit of reform,” which emerged around the 14th century. Religions used to have a “two tiered system” in which the spiritual “elites” (clerics, consecrated people) would adhere strictly to their beliefs and attend to more “spiritual matters,” while the lay people would adhere less strictly and attend to more worldly matters (thus the acceptability of being a bad Catholic).
As more active religious orders who had a presence outside of the cloister (Franciscans, Dominicans) came on the scene, there was a new drive to encourage piety and holiness for all people. Taylor claims that this same spirit is what inspired the Protestant Reformation, and several centuries later went on to inspire Vatican II’s “universal call to holiness.”
Aaron Taylor recognizes that while the universal call to holiness may “in itself” be “sound teaching…poor catechesis has meant that it is misinterpreted as teaching that the Church on earth is a club for holy people. As a result,” he continues “Catholic morality is either softened and bowdlerized to reassure people that they are already saints, or it is put forward with such intolerant rigidity that sinners are driven out of the Church, made to feel that their mere presence in the congregation is a source of ‘scandal.’”
The new social imaginary that emerges from this shift allows for less gray areas: you are either a good, “orthodox Catholic” who assents to everything the Church teaches and attempts wholeheartedly to adhere to all of it, or you become a “cafeteria Catholic” who follows the teachings that make the most sense to you (or that are easiest to follow) and expect the Church to conform its doctrines to your tastes…or you can just become an “ex-Catholic” and leave the Church altogether. Out goes the possibility of holding the objectivity of the Church’s doctrines in tension with the reality of one’s moral incoherence without falling into cognitive dissonance.
The change in social imaginaries was shifted further by the rise of relativism and expressive individualism. Reality is no longer understood to be created by God and ordered toward particular ends (the basis of metaphysical realism). And so happiness is less about living in accord with the design of the Creator, but rather is about expressing oneself and being true to one’s identity–without harming others, of course.
Thus why for many people today, the claim that marriage is an exclusive lifelong commitment between a man and a woman that is open to procreation no longer holds any ground. Accordingly, fornication–as long as it is consensual–is a way of expressing one’s feelings for another. Gay people (a category that as Foucault will remind us, didn’t come into existence until the late 19th century) are not chosing to transgress against the laws of Nature, and thus deserve the right to express their desires and have their unions formally recognized by the public.
We can’t afford to ignore the reality that “there will always be some group of people in the Church,” argues Aaron Taylor, “for whom the pain of not being able to…conform their lives to Christ’s demanding teachings despite repeated effort…The Church as a whole,” he insists, “needs to learn again how to look on this pain, to feel at home with it, without fleeing from it either to the right hand”–by outsting people for their moral incoherence–“or the left”–by trivializing their sins. “If the Church cannot do that, it cannot enable people to grow morally.”
Thus why I wonder how firing someone who gets married to another woman–believing that she is being “true to herself”–is going to help her (or others involved at an institution) to think more deeply about what constitutes the nature of selfhood and the truth of our sexual desires. Before deliberating on whether or not to fire an employee for acting against the moral teachings of the religion that the institution is affiliated with, administrators ought to first consider the discrepancy between social imaginaries.
Perhaps by shifting from a defensive, “political” stance to a pastoral and educative one, matters might unfold more fruitfully. More can be accomplished if clergy and administrators ask how they can accompany their employees to develop a deeper spiritual understanding of their mission within the institution. This position would not only be helpful to people who “publicly defy” certain moral precepts, but would ideally help everyone to grow to understand how the religious beliefs of the institution they work for can deepen their sense of purpose in their work.
Stephen G. Adubato studied moral theology at Seton Hall University and currently teaches religion and philosophy in N.J. He also is the host of the “Cracks in Postmodernity” blog on Substack and podcast. Follow him on Twitter @stephengadubato.