Love, Thomism, Jews, and Gay Marriage

Love is what you bring into your circle of concern. You value it for your own happiness and the happiness of the other. It’s what you’ve found a way to work with rather than wall yourself off from, marginalize, and demonize–and this thereby evokes the better angels of your nature. It creates a virtuous cycle of ever greater peace, cooperation, and tolerance in the world.

Pope Francis tried to move recently in the direction of love with gays, attempting to “welcome” them into fellowship, and to recognize their “gifts,” and this received vigorous resistance from those focused, not on love, but on fear of God’s anger at humans not using the essential forms of their sex organs in accordance with their primary function (procreation).

But Francis was trying to avoid Thomas Aquinas’s error with the Jews, which proved a devastating and historic failure of love. Aquinas could not work with Jews as insiders within Christendom, but determined to treat them as outsiders and outside of God’s circle of grace. He referred to Jews specifically as “outsiders” and advised the Countess of Flanders in a 1271 letter to continue an exclusionary policy towards them: “[I]t is good that Jews throughout your province are compelled to wear a sign distinguishing them from Christians. The reply to this is plain: that, according to a statute of the general Council, Jews of each sex in all Christian provinces, and all the time, should be distinguished from other people by some clothing.”

This custom of course blocked assimilation of Jews in Europe. It was a historic “love fail” in the heart of Christian Europe. The Jews’ fellowship and gifts were pushed away by Christians, and the cycle of the worse angels of human nature came to the fore and proceeded from thence.

Distinctions were being made that blocked the workings of love.

Thus when we focus on something other than the circle of love in formulating our ethics, we run the risk of failing to reality test, and of failing to respond with a sense of proportion.

So it is with gay marriage. There is the danger among contemporary Thomists of straining out the gnat to swallow the camel; of making distinctions that block the working of love. By focusing on essentialism as opposed to love, one risks evoking the worse angels of human nature with regard to a whole class of people.

This is potentially a far worse sin than any that married gays or lesbians might (supposedly) commit in the bedroom.

In Aquinas’ letter to the Countess of Flanders is also this sentence: “This [wearing of an identifying marker] is also mandated to them [the Jews] by their own law, namely that they make for themselves fringes on the four corners of their cloaks, through which they are distinguished from others.”

In other words, Thomas justified his callousness and “love-fail” toward Jews by basically saying, “Hey, they have distinguishing manners of dress anyway, so it’s okay to force on them an insignia of our own dominance and control.”

The force of Thomas’ recommendation to the Countess of Flanders is thus not weakened by the additional sentence, but actually illustrates the question-begging entailed in Thomas’s advice. If Jews are already distinguishable by dress, why heighten distinctions even more?

Clearly, the purpose of Christians marking Jews off with a yellow star was to assure that if Jews wanted to ever pass as non-Jews they would be breaking the law. Thomas was boxing Jews in. If the Jewish community, or individual Jews, were to ever seek greater assimilation with Christians, or dress like Christians, the required yellow star would prevent them from doing so. They could never be permitted to pass as part of the “in group.”

This is why the opposition to Pope Francis’s desire to “welcome” gays and acknowledge their “gifts” within the Catholic Church is so noxious. Wherever religion is drawing us away from an expanding circle of love, something is wrong. The very controversy reveals a heart of darkness lurking in the contemporary Catholic Church. Gay equality and marriage is not about trying to sacrifice truth or the right not to associate to one group’s civil rights. People have to come toward each other from both directions, and with a sense of respect, dignity, and equality. Nobody should be forced. Respect for conscience dictates that people should not be forced.

But somebody also has to go first. Francis, in trying to “welcome” gays and recognize their “gifts,” took a step forward. And gay Catholics who want to marry are saying, “We want some formal structure to the expressions of our relationships and sexual desires.” That’s a step as well.

Working with gay people–dialoguing with them, welcoming them, etc.–is work. It’s the work of love. Imagine how different the history of Europe might have gone had Thomas advocated the assimilation of Jews into Christendom, not via conversion, but simply in fellowship, welcoming them with equality and noticing their gifts?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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