Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Church on Marriage: Over two thousand years, an argument against same-sex matrimony has been built. We break it down.

Published in Out In Maine

It may surprise you to know that the Catholic Church teaches that marriage isn’t actually about the two people who are “joined in holy matrimony” on their wedding day.

Nope — it’s about their offspring. This is perhaps some of the common ground the Church has found with theological apostates (evangelical Protestants and Mormons) with which it has allied in the past decade, spending immense amounts of capital — moral, political, and financial — to block the incoming tide of same-sex marriage.

Nevertheless, it’s worth exploring the reasoning behind the Church’s objections to same-sex marriage. Partly this may count as what political operatives call “opposition research” — a Sun Tzu-inspired attempt to truly understand the opponent, the more easily to emerge victorious. But more than that, the Catholic Church has been talking about marriage longer than just about anyone. Its arguments have been ground by the ages, sharpened by insights of thousands of scholars, and honed into a fine edge by experience. Let’s see what that effort has produced.

Appealing to tradition
Brian Souchet, director of the Office for the Protection and Defense of Marriage with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland (which covers the entire state of Maine) opens what will become a nearly two-hour interview by enumerating the social ills that the Church sees in the modern world: high cohabitation without marriage, single parenting, kids without involved fathers, kids born out of wedlock. He calls these all “results of a breakdown in marriage,” by which he means the modern American societal tendency to “ignore the fact as men and women that [marriage is] not just about us men and women.”

In one sense he’s right. Despite Church teachings to the contrary, the divorce rate is as high as ever; couplehood, pregnancy, and childrearing are happening outside married male-female couples all the time.
Beyond the possibly self-evident reason that not everyone believes what the Church teaches, not even all Catholics do, it turns out.

“If the faithful don’t understand the significance of marriage . . . that’s where we need to start,” Souchet says, beginning to lay out the history of the Church’s teachings on marriage. In sum, they are that “love and commitment is necessary but not sufficient” for marriage. What’s required are a man and a woman together permanently, with “openness to bringing new life into the world,” he says.

He correctly observes that Catholic teaching has expressed this view since almost the very beginning, and refers me to Pope Pius XI’s 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii — which itself refers to an 1880 encyclical by Pope Leo XIII, a 1789 letter of Pope Pius VI, the decisions of the 16th-century Council of Trent, and to Saint Augustine’s writings in the fourth and fifth centuries.

The contribution of Souchet’s own employer, Bishop Richard Malone, to this 1600-plus-year history is a pastoral letter entitled “Marriage: Yesterday — Today — Always” in which Malone argues that marriage is defined in the universal “natural law” as between a man and a woman, and expresses concern that people are trying to change that.

“We can look throughout antiquity and see marriage as between a man and a woman,” Souchet says — and he’s right. Here again, though, he — and Catholic doctrine — chooses not to observe the same-sex relationships that were present “throughout antiquity,” though admittedly those couplehoods may have lacked the specific label of “marriage.”

Following the thread
Souchet claims that “the true test” of same-sex marriage is: “Can this new notion of marriage . . . stand up on its own without being forced on people by the law?” Same-sex attractions and relationships have endured and recurred through the ages, despite being outlawed for most of the last two millennia. The answer to his question is “Yes.”

Bishop Malone’s pastoral letter also asserts that marriage has always been about children. He cites as evidence “the writings of the third-century jurist of the Roman Empire, Modestinus, who captured the common understanding of marriage with the following definition: ‘Marriage is the union of a man and a woman, a consortium for the whole of life involving the communication of divine and human rights.’ ” No mention of children there.

Then Malone cherry-picks United Nations proclamations to his advantage. He cites the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to support his claim that children are “meant to have a mother and a father.” (In fact, the Convention mentions only “parents.”)

Malone goes on to claim that marriage “is not a ‘right’ that can be given or denied.” That ignores another UN document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states clearly: “Men and women . . . have the right to marry.” (The Declaration says nothing about same-sex marriage, but its inclusive intent is obvious, since it confers the marriage right “without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion.”)

Malone also formally declares what most people already know — that biological ability to procreate is not, in fact, a precondition for marriage. This is in keeping with longtime Church teachings, but undermines the notion that a marriage can only be between two partners whose sexual intercourse can fertilize an egg. “An infertile couple continues to manifest” the full blessings of marriage, he writes, including being able to care for children by adoption or volunteering.

Why does the Church care this much about marriage? There is a worldly reason in addition to the holy ones, and it’s self-perpetuation of the Church itself. Pope Pius XI makes this clear in Casti Connubii:

“God wishes men to be born not only that they should live and fill the earth, but much more that they may be worshippers of God,” he writes, going on to say that children are “a talent committed to [parents] by God . . . to be restored to God with interest on the day of reckoning.” (It’s worth noting that Casti Connubii also puts the Church squarely in support of a living wage, redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor, and government programs to help the needy.)

Idealism versus realism
Beyond its logical failings, though, the fundamental flaw in the argument espoused by the Church (and Souchet) is that their ideal of marriage is substantially different from how marriage is actually entered into, carried out, and experienced in the world today.

For example, Souchet says, offering a quaint picture unreflective of an America in which even a large majority of Catholic women use some form of birth control, “given enough time, a male-female relationship will produce children.”

Certainly the Church is entitled to teach that its followers adhere to a certain standard, real, ideal, or otherwise — and to deny membership to dissenters.

The problems arise when that standard is applied to civil law. The Church is well aware that this distinction exists, and hasn’t objected though (to choose an example relating to marriage) civil law lets non-Catholics be just as married as Catholics, despite Church teaching to the contrary.

In writing about Church law and civil law, Malone writes that both descend — independently — from what philosophers have long called “natural law,” the unwritten Way Things Actually Are. He says our best clues about what natural law truly is are in Church law and civil law, noting that both have evolved — separately — toward what their respective leaders have come to believe are more perfect reflections of universal truths.

That’s when he gets his wires crossed. While the Church hierarchy gets to set policy in its realm, the people of a democracy are where that system’s power lies.

A reader can almost hear Malone thundering as he winds down his letter: “Those who would attempt to redefine marriage to include or be made analogous with any other kind of human relationship are suggesting that the permanent union of husband and wife, the unique pattern of spousal and familial love, and the generation of new life are now only of relative importance rather than being fundamental to the existence and well-being of society as a whole.”

In reality, society has the power to, and may well in November, decide at the ballot box that there are, in fact, other relationships that are of equal significance to marriages recognized by the Catholic Church.
Souchet argues that such a decision would move Maine law farther away from natural law. So I ask: Did the Church — and civil law — get the natural law wrong?

“We sure had a long time to get it right,” Souchet laughs. He pauses. “If we did, we’ve been getting the natural law wrong for millennia.”

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Half-lives: Mad Horse's cutting choice of Zindel's Gamma Rays

Published in the Portland Phoenix

When a group of tender seeds are exposed to toxic radiation, the ones receiving the smallest dose develop normally; those that are moderately exposed mutate into larger-than-life oddities, and the ones getting the heaviest dose wither and die. That's the finding of the science experiment that gives The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds its title.
It is also the heartbreakingly human lesson imparted by watching Paul Zindel's Pulitzer and Obie-winning play, produced by Mad Horse Theatre Company at Lucid Stage, under the direction of Chris Horton.
In an intricately run-down apartment converted from a former market (designed by Stacey Koloski), Beatrice (Christine Louise Marshall) is raising her two teenage daughters — shrinking-violet Tillie (Veronica Druchniak) and her older sister, the mercurial Ruth (Ruth Gray) — with an attitude that could easily be called radioactive. Self-absorbed, neglectful, and angry at the world, Beatrice is also mocking and belittling of her daughters — and, as written, even more darkly menacing when she's been drinking.
She blames her daughters for her life not turning out how she hoped: widowed, unemployed, and forced to take in elderly boarders on the brink of death for the pittance of cash it earns, Beatrice goes so far as to call her children "two stones around her neck."
In a play that is as allegorical as it is expository, it is the radioactive Beatrice herself who lives a self-professed "half-life," and condemns her daughters to the same. She cuts them in half with her mockery; she keeps the bright, science-fascinated Tillie home from school; she allows Ruth to discover one of the boarders dead — a trauma that gives Ruth recurring convulsions.
When Tillie is announced as a finalist in the school science fair, Ruth becomes her biggest cheerleader, berating her mother with excitement about the family's sole success. The revelation also ignites a spark of pride in Beatrice, brightening her countenance — until her past returns to haunt her, extinguishing the flame and sending the family into a deeper spiral as the play ends.
The contrast between Beatrice's moods, however, is not as sharp as it could be; Marshall's character is too upbeat at the beginning — and not in the "killing with kindness" sort of way that would end up making her creepier. She's also not dark enough in the middle and the end, leaving the menacing shifts largely in the audience's interpretation of the language, rather than in the emotional energy coming from the stage.
When Nanny (Muriel Kenderdine) appears, serving the play only as an early target for Beatrice's scorn and derision — the role has no lines, and only a couple of facial expressions: blankness, and a smile (twice) — Marshall's tone and face are too friendly to give weight to her biting threats and scorn. And a laugh line about murdering the family pet and causing Ruth more convulsions got some chuckles, but carried none of the sinister intimidation it should have dripped with.
Marshall has been darkly menacing to great effect many times on Portland stages; the choice to moderate her character's extremism has another casualty, too: flattening the performance of the only experienced actor on the stage for most of the play. Druchniak and Gray are high-school students, and talented ones: Druchniak's ability to utterly disappear on stage borders on Cheshire-like; Gray's flip-flopping moods seem very genuine teenager. While their characters have some irregularity written in, their inexperience accounts for some additional unevenness.
Mad Horse has chosen a play that is both strong and deep enough to make the production powerful, and the final scene, just after the dread moment arrives when the effects of the toxic radiation truly begin to blossom, is both poignant and pitiful — leaving the audience to ponder, after the blackout, what in fact remains of these half-lives.

THE EFFECT OF GAMMA RAYS ON MAN-IN-THE-MOON MARIGOLDS | by Paul Zindel | directed by Chris Horton | produced by Mad Horse Theatre Company | at Lucid Stage, in Portland | through April 1 | 207.899.3993

Driving forward: Behrens's solid second effort

Published at

If there is a male equivalent to "chick lit," Peter Behrens's latest novel, The O'Briens, is probably it, a detail-rich, character-driven historical novel that lightly touches issues of family loyalty and individual aspirations. Less weighty, and less gripping, than his 2006 debut novel, The Law of Dreams, the present tale follows Joe O'Brien, the patriarch of the title family, from childhood in the late 19th century into his dotage in 1960.

Industrial and military history appear almost as characters — as does New York City, regularly and sometimes jarringly — guiding the human players along their courses, which are more beautifully embellished straight lines than twisting paths of plot.

Sadly, the deep echoes of Joe's failure to make his peace with a merciful action taken in his youth require Behrens to shallow out other aspects of his story. An early metaphor serves as an example: Joe gets engaged and then, moments later, he and his fiancée literally watch two people die in a plane crash. The moment is beautifully drawn, though, with precision and grace amid the tragedy.
THE O'BRIENS | by Peter Behrens | Pantheon Books | 384 pages | $25.95

Living history: An object lesson in research as storytelling

Published in the Portland Phoenix

John Brown's body may now lie a-mouldering in his grave, as the song suggests, but in life the Connecticut-born Kansan settler who led an assault on a federal installation in Virginia almost never stopped moving in his passionate zeal to rid the United States of the scourge of slavery.

In Midnight Rising, historian and master narrator Tony Horwitz tracks Brown, who was the country's most famous domestic terrorist until Timothy McVeigh, on his tireless travels between the western frontier where he began his campaign, the northeastern cities from which he drew financial support, and finally to the all-out strike near the national capital that led to his hanging in 1859.
In a meticulously researched account, Horwitz demonstrates his first-rate ability to weave documents together to form a compelling, well-rounded picture of how Brown's life, actions, and legacy resonated such that two years after his execution, he achieved his goal: to spark an armed conflict that would sweep slavery from America's shores, an epic battle that ensures Brown's soul is indeed marching on, even up to the present.

MIDNIGHT RISING: JOHN BROWN AND THE RAID THAT SPARKED THE CIVIL WAR | by Tony Horwitz | Henry Holt and Company | 365 pages | $29

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Press Releases: Distant view

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Of all the coverage of Olympia Snowe's decision not to run for re-election this year, the Maine media should have been expected to handle it best. Close to home, with insider knowledge available and solid connections to sources on the ground — that's the best preparation for a breaking political story.

Sadly, though, the in-state coverage was neither as thoughtful nor as comprehensive as were the news items produced by out-of-state outlets. As I've said before, the Lewiston Sun Journal, mostly in the person of tireless reporter Steve Mistler, has had the best coverage in Maine (see for more).
But the cost of the other papers' sluggishness (and Mistler's comprehensive updating of lists of people taking out petitioning papers from the Secretary of State's office) has been a lack of exploration of the mess all these prospective successors to Snowe are vying to get into.
POLITICO broke the story of intra-party warfare going from cold to hot about the same time as Snowe's announcement, with Utah Senator Orrin Hatch targeting Snowe in a mailing seeking support for his reelection campaign, suggesting her moderation was undesirable even to a longtime friend and Senate colleague.
North Carolina political scientist Jonathan Weiler noted in the HUFFINGTON POST that reporting of Snowe's complaints against partisanship unfairly placed blame for polarization across the political spectrum, when it squarely belongs in the Republican column, where "right-wing extremism has gone mainstream."
STATE OF ENLIGHTENMENT political blogger Joe Joffe observed that Snowe's decision came in the midst of a massive battle over women's health and related issues — a set of questions that had largely been settled in moderate ways under the George W. Bush administration but have resurfaced because of rabid extremists' opposition to Obama's continuation of those policies.
And Maine's media also refused to depart from Snowe's own narrative that she was successful at being a moderate and in creating opportunities for real progress. Jonathan Chait in NEW YORK MAGAZINE, however, argued that while Snowe has been given great power in many political debates, "She has used it, on the whole, quite badly." That piece specifically criticized her for using the concepts of moderation and centrism not as a means to a public-policy end, but as "a matter of political self-preservation."
It takes a broad media diet to uncover reporting on all the various ways in which Snowe's decision either changes the political landscape or sheds light on how that landscape has already been indelibly altered. But you won't hear about that from any of Maine's daily newspapers, who repeatedly act as if they can — and should — be the only places Mainers get their news. (Distressingly, they often are.)
• Also missing from the local media was much digging into WHY SNOWE MADE THIS DECISION when she did.
The best summary of that reasoning came in a single paragraph at the end of a front-page New York Times article by Congressional reporter Jonathan Weisman, published the morning after Snowe's bombshell. It's worth reproducing in full:
"Ms. Snowe may have just grown fed up. At raucous Republican caucuses in February, her name was greeted with jeers from some Tea Party activists. Republicans had seized control of the governor's mansion and the State Legislature in 2010, but for the most ardent conservatives, it was not enough, Ms. [Georgia] Chomas [a cousin and close confidante of Snowe] said. Ms. Snowe had turned 65. Ms. Chomas's mother, who was like a mother to Ms. Snowe, had died, followed by the mother of Ms. Snowe's husband, John R. McKernan Jr., and the mother of her late husband, Peter Snowe."
Elegantly presented, well-reported information with strong sourcing close to the senator. That's what Mainers got by seeking media from farther afield.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Rating the #Snowe coverage - print and online

Published at

In the hours and days following last Tuesday’s shocker announcement that US Senator Olympia Snowe will not seek a fourth term in the Senate, the breaking-news ability of Maine’s mainstream press has been stretched in ways it hasn’t been in recent memory. This was no disaster/fire/accident story, where flames are visible and the players all gather in one place.

Rather, it was a political story, touched off by an email blast, with players around the state (and around the nation, if you count the major parties’ senate-campaign power brokers). And much of the early reporting was gut reaction (the governor swore; Dems rejoiced) followed by speculation about what it meant for not only the US Senate race in Maine, but nationally for the balance of power in the Senate, as well as statewide, regarding Congressional seats, and legislative ones too, as every political climber in the state saw real daylight above them for the first time in many years.

As such, it was a prime opportunity for the daily newspapers to step up and embrace what mainstream media outlets still quaintly call “new media.” Which is to say, the power of the Internet to reach and engage their audiences.

Unsurprisingly, it was the Sun Journal, led by energetic “new media director” Tony Ronzio, that led the pack, posting an early collection of reaction and preliminary analysis on Storify. (It included the pair of tweets breaking the news, from former SJ political reporter Rebekah Metzler, now at US News and World Report.)

The day after Snowe’s announcement, he hosted a CoverItLive chat with various political-watchers and several readers. The conversation was kept moving by interjections of facts, often provided by Sun Journal political reporter Steve Mistler (who also blogged up a storm) and regional editor Scott Thistle, but also supplemented by UMaine Campus editor Michael Shepherd. It was also supplemented by a series of ongoing polls on thought-provoking questions — about who can win (Michaud and Cutler tied, then Pingree, Summers, and King; Raye’s got no shot ), who in DC will miss Snowe most (Collins over Obama, with Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid tied for third), and who Snowe’s announcement hurts most (GOP over Dems, independents not at all)

The Bangor Daily News came in second, with strong contributions from the political blogs PineTreePolitics and PollWays (though neither is written by a staffer, and PollWays writer Amy Fried, a UMaine political scientist, was in the Sun Journal’s online chat), and a rudimentary — and uninteresting — online poll asking if readers were “sad to see Olympia Snowe leave her Senate seat.”

The Press Herald had a weak online showing, with several reported stories and columns, but for online-extras, there was just a slideshow of file photos of Snowe through the years and MaineToday Digital executive editor Angie Muhs’s Storify collection, which started about five hours after the news actually broke, leaving her posting just a bunch of reactive and speculative tweets, though admittedly grouped by theme (“caught many off guard,” “political speculation,” “reaction from those already in the race,” “Snowe was quickly praised,” and the like).

In related news, the TV stations’ general managers just saw their finances perk up considerably. Whatever happens, there’s going to be a massive amount of money spent on TV ads. How much? Snowe herself had about $3 million in the bank — to defend a secure seat. Now that it’s open, the numbers will be astronomical.