Have you ever been inside a dark place and then suddenly walked outside into the bright sun? It can seriously be blinding. You’ve got to stop for a few minutes for your eyes to adjust to the light before you can see anything! Light can be just as blinding as darkness. I think the light of truth is like this sometimes. Often those whose lives are lived in darkness are turned off by the truth when it’s presented to them. In much the same way that we need to stop and adjust our eyes to the brightness, below are some tips when engaging in discussions about same sex marriage, a topical subject no doubt, so that the truth can be revealed in the full context of itself more slowly and therefore likely to be better received.
This is not a collection of valid arguments though at times it may presume some. It is rather a framework or an approach within which one would insert the necessary objections and reasons. Though there is no particular order in which these steps need to be taken (the flexibility is intentional so that it could be moulded to the flow of the discussion) there are stages within which all points should be met before proceeding to the next. These three main sections are simply; setting the stage, the discussion, and the conclusion. A bit obvious, I know, but every objection, particularly to such a lively topic, should be contextualized.
(A quick contextualization for this reflection: I had a twitter discussion with a man – I think a gay man – regarding same-sex marriage. He is the son of a famous home town sporting hero and works in the media. He is no slouch with the grey matter but his philosophy is poor. The below approach is what I used through the discussion though some points have been developed or added afterwards upon my reflection.)
Setting the stage
Understand the forum. Each forum has restrictions, not in content necessarily but in the way things can be expressed. Always prefer to meet in person rather than discuss over the internet. Tone, context and attitude are best expressed when talking rather than in a small section of words.
Remember that it’s a person that you are dealing with. They have sensibilities we need to address, and they may have hurdles to overcome. Often they are very passionate about the topic, as we may well be. We must always remember through the discussion that it’s the position they hold that we are disagreeing with; not the person (we will address more of this later on).
Define and distinguish. It is most important that if we mention a word that the meaning is understood by both parties. A word like “marriage” in the social context is fluid and needs to be pinned down, at least for the sake of the discussion. Definition lines are frequently blended as feelings dictate, at least as the social clime dictates. Keep check of emotions and stay logical: be both empathetic and sensible.
Know your objective. It is important to have in mind what you hope to achieve through the discussion (and don’t lose sight of it). You are not going to “win” total support of your point of view, but there is an objective that you might have in mind; you may or may not need to state it. A little foundational step is more important than any other step taken on the way. I chose to make my objective known to this man: “I want to present to you a point of view you may not have heard”. Another might be, “I wish to show you that not all who oppose same-sex marriage are bigots” being careful to define “bigot” too.
Fundamental to this discussion is separation of “person” and “act”. This confuses some people but many understand that they are not their feelings, their dreams, their thoughts or even their image so why not their acts too. While all these are influenced by who we are, none of these define who we are. Once this distinction has been made progress in the discussion is easier. When doing this, try to avoid the word “you”. Even something collective such as “gay people” often has negative undertones; “people with same sex attraction” is better received and implies the church’s teaching of the recognition of personhood and the separation of their acts. And already it alludes to not having to follow through on attractions, which is part of the message they may not have heard before.
There are a number of defences for marriage. This would be the time to go through the myriad of options but rather than look at any, we will look at the way to hit what you need to for the person with whom you’re engaging for each person will respond to different points.
Try to dictate conversation by use of questions. Clarifying questions and the use of philosophy can expose the limits of their thoughts. Often through this process, the earlier definitions are challenged. Find situations where their thought may not be appropriate – for example, if marriage is only for two people who love each other, then why can’t cousins marry, or brothers, or parent and child? Questioning this exposes the limit from which they need to justify why it is unacceptable or concede that these relationships are acceptable.
Stick to one question at a time. This is a common occurrence in apologetics anyhow, but don’t get distracted by a litany of accusations; often this tactic is used for deflection, disinterest, and avoidance of the topic at hand. Until the question has been addressed, repeat it, repeat it and repeat it in as many different ways as possible. Yes it can get annoying, but tell them they haven’t answered the question, then restate it again. More clarification may be required on one or both sides as to if the objection has been satisfactorily met.
On the issue of homosexuality in general the Catechism of the Catholic Church is quite compassionate, some might say surprisingly so. It reads:
“They (homosexuals) must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfil God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter.” (para. 2358)
(Feel free to read the whole section: 2357 to 2359).
Respect. Compassion. Sensitivity. Sacrifice. Difficulties. These are the things that need to be highlighted, particularly if the one standing for same-sex marriage is also anti-Catholic (even anti-religious).
Remember that every person is created with equal dignity. You do not hate the person; this is often something they are looking to confirm. Always, always, always avoid the use of the word hate. Towards the end of the discussion I was asked directly “Do I care what a persons sexuality is?” I responded, “I treat all people equally. Everyone is created in the image and likeness of God”. The leading question posed was bait. In the Twittersphere (as it has been called) a tweet can be retweeted and retweeted travelling around the world quicker than lightning (literally). I have no doubt that he was looking for something negative and condemning of all gays so he could unleash a rainbow fury on me. Needless to say he did not retweet this.
Lastly it may be helpful that same sex marriage is part of a bigger picture, and what you oppose is intercourse outside of wedlock. This bigger category includes adultery, divorce, and premarital sex. It may also be helpful (though it may be confusing) to add that the purpose of sex is procreation. Therefore we also oppose contraception, sterilization and abortion. When I mentioned this, the person I was discussing with joked “man, you must really hate society!” I understood what he meant but I corrected saying that it was sorrow I felt for society, not hate. The conversation then quickly died.
This framework allows us to engage with supporters of same-sex marriage through rational conversation and allows both sides to be heard. If through the process we can portray ourselves with clarity, the Church’s teaching with reasonable accuracy, and treat the other with dignity, both parties can walk away with integrity and respect. We can ask for more than that but we are likely not to get it. Continue praying for them and all who support same-sex marriage, but most importantly, be examples of a happy and healthy marriage, witnessing what marriage really is to your family and friends.