Coming to Grips with the Copernican Revolution

Those things which I am saying now may be obscure, yet they will be made clearer in their proper place.  --Nicolaus Copernicus.

Sometime in the next couple of weeks, Pope Francis will bring to an end his Synod on the Family, in the form of an exhortation.  Much of the talk connected to this exhortation deals with whether, and to what degree, he is going to relax the rules about divorced people obtaining communion.  Some, perhaps more optimistic, folks hold out hope that he will say something nice about LGBT folks.  We shall see.

None of this, though, is remotely sufficient to move the needle in a real way.  The Synod on the Family was called by the Pope "to reflect on the reality of the family."  (Final Report of the Synod, paragraph 3).  The Bishops, while perhaps making a good faith effort to do so, clearly failed in their task.  They failed because they failed to come to grips with the fact that the concept of family, as understood by a large segment of the members of the Catholic Church, especially in the West, is fundamentally different from the way it was understood two hundred, even one hundred, years ago.  As a result, the Bishops attempted to fiddle at the margins of the old formulas and concepts around family, when in fact, in order to truly understand "the reality of the family" in the present tense, they needed to start from scratch.

This paradigm shift in thinking about the family is the product of the fact that culture (again, especially Western culture) has undergone a Copernican revolution.  When Nicolaus Copernicus declared that the Earth rotated the Sun, as opposed to the Sun rotating the Earth, he was on one level stating a simple empirical fact, backed up by solid mathematics and data.  But he also understood very clearly (and, as a result, was more cagey about his statements than contemporaries such as Galileo) that what he was saying was more than a simple bit of science.  The notion that the Sun revolved around the Earth was enmeshed in a much broader understanding of the world, and as such abandoning geocentrism forced you to eventually rethink a whole host of other concepts.  It requires a different way of thinking about "common sense" and observations--after all, it certainly looks to an observer on Earth that the Sun moves across the sky.  It decentralizes, and thus relativizes, everything on Earth, including us, removing us from the center of the cosmic story.  It requires a different way of thinking about the Bible, since a straight reading of the Biblical text would seem to support geocentrism.  It privileges science over theology as epitome of human knowledge.  And so on.

The Copernican cultural revolution, which I think we are in the middle of (or, perhaps, maybe 60% or 70% through), is likewise simple in its basic formulation--instead of beginning from the assumption that men and women are ontologically different (with some, albeit not particularly relevant, commonalities), we start from the premise that men and women are basically the same, notwithstanding some discrete differences.  Many of us take this for granted--of course men and women are basically the same, of course women can do pretty much everything men can.  Because we take this for granted, we don't realize how radical this idea is, how foreign to everything that our not-so-distant ancestors believed.

All of this comes to a head in any discussion of family.  Prior to 100 years ago, "family" was a completely hierarchical institution with rigid, pre-set roles.  The man had all economic, social, and political power, while the woman was more or less a baby-making machine.  The woman was subservient to the man because women were seen as naturally and ontologically subservient to men.  "Love," defined as the deep mutual affection to two equal parties, was not necessary (or even desired from some points of view) in a marriage.  No doubt that examples existed of couples that loved each other every bit as much as any modern couple; no doubt marriages existed where women exercised control and autonomy.  But nothing in the institution or the conceptual understanding of marriage supported these things--and if they happened, they happened entirely at the pleasure of the man, who was legally and socially empowered to exercise total dominion over his wife.  (I should note, parenthetically, that this view was not quite universal--my ancestors seem to have had a more egalitarian understanding of marriage, even through the Christian period.  But Ireland appears to have been the exception that proves the rule).

Don't believe me?  Read any of the biographies of female saints before, say, 1900.  Either the Roman martyrs like Agnes and Agatha, or the medievals like Claire of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, Hildegard of Bingen, and Julian of Norwich--all of them were trying desperately to get away from being married.  Why?  Because marriage meant serfdom.  In contrast, religious life meant education and empowerment and freedom.

The clearest example of this is the story of Catherine of Siena.  All of the accounts say that young Catherine was a knock-out.  So, at an early age, she scarred her face with lye in order to intentionally make herself ugly, and thus unattractive to any potential suitor.  When I first encountered this story, I thought it was an anti-body, sex negative story--she wanted so much to avoid any carnal encounter that she went to these radical means, signifying that having sex is the worst thing ever.  That was certainly part of it, but the more I think about that story, more I think that Catherine was making a pragmatic choice.  Nothing that she did in her later life--get educated, lead a religious movement, chastise Popes, etc.--would have been possible if she had been married, and no one understood that better than she did.  Scarring your face with lye is a hardcore solution to the problem of being married, but Catherine was a hardcore person, and her strategy worked.

Fourteenth century Catherine of Siena could only be an independent woman by mutilating her face.  Her twenty-first century counterparts, however, don't need to go to those extremes to be treated as an equal.  This is not to say that there are not inequalities and problems remaining.  Nor is it to say that every marriage is organized along the lines of the equality of the pair.  But the vast majority of marriages in the West at least aspire to this ideal, even if they don't reach it.  And a marriage which begins from the premise that the man and the woman are equal, autonomous parties coming together for their mutual benefit and affection is a fundamentally different thing than marriage as it was previously understood.

To see how far we have come, consider the Duggars.  Their whole raison d'etre is that they reject this redefinition of male-female relationships.  They represent the far of end of the spectrum in American society, to the point where many consider them beyond the pale.  And, yet, I think you can easily argue that the Duggar model is more egalitarian than the median marriage 300 or 400 years ago.  I mean, the Duggar women can write articles on various topics that go out to general publication; that would have been unheard of in previous eras.  My point is that even the people who are self-consciously holding back the tide of history have been pushed significantly up the beach.

The Catholic Church has not acknowledged this revolution in understanding the nature of men and women.  Instead, it has tried to retrofit bits and pieces of the new paradigm into the old formulas.  This is done, in large measure, to preserve the basic idea that the Catholic Church is always right and never changes.  As a result, we get Catholic doctrine on gender and marriage and family that is basically the equivalent of Ptolemy's "epicycles,"--a complex set of work-arounds designed to preserve the bottom line conclusion that the Earth is the center of the universe, while attempting to reconcile the incontrovertible facts that suggest otherwise.  So women are of "equal dignity" to men and can do everything men can do in the public sphere--except of course be priests, which rests on the ontological differences between men and women which apparently exist exclusively for that purpose.  Sexuality is about the flourishing of the couple's mutual love, except when you use the Pill it somehow becomes per se impossible for the couple to love each other.  Men and women are "complementary" and bring essentially unique perspectives, except that men (like, for example, Pope John Paul II) are fully able to understand and explain the totality of sexuality.

I suspect that this exhortation from Pope Francis will be yet another epicycle, albeit a modest one.  And, as with Ptolemy's epicylces, we are beginning to reach the point where the epicycle system is breaking down in the face of its own complexity--it requires too many epicycles to explain the phenomenon we observe, and so it collapses under its own weight.  The solution is not more epicycles.  There are only two real solutions--reject this revolution in toto and take us back to the "Good Ol' Days" of total female subservience, or acknowledge that a revolution has occurred and see where this leaves us.  And, it should be said, folks is the West--men as well as women--are not going to sign up for choice #1.

Doing the second requires, to some degree, starting from a blank piece of paper.  Augustine and Aquinas (and, to a large degree, Paul as well) don't help us here, because they thing they are talking about when they say the word "marriage" is not the thing we are talking about when we look at modern couples.  If we begin from axiom that the union of two autonomous and equal people is a holy union, what are the proper norms for such a union--both in terms of how the participants behave toward each other, and in terms of how the broader society should relate to the union?  In a Christian context, how should such a union model Jesus's life and message?  Does it matter anymore whether the two people are of a different gender?  How does the raising of children, both biological children and otherwise, fit into this framework?  Is the concept of "marriage," with all of its historical and cultural baggage and contingency, even helpful?

These are difficult questions, and no doubt different people will have different answers to them in good faith.  It will take time to work these things out, just like it took time to work out all of the consequences of heliocentrism.  Copernicus and Galileo, for example, assumed that orbits are circular, while Kepler later showed them to be elliptical.  But heliocentrism would never have happened if Copernicus and Galileo were focused on trying to come up with newer and more complex epicycles.  The first step is to acknowledge that the revolution has occurred.  Right now, that's not happening, at least not Catholicism.


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