Reading about the big demonstration in Paris last weekend over a proposed French law allowing same-sex marriage, I paused at a paragraph that said Catholic, Jewish, and Islamic leaders are vehemently opposed to the legislation. The bishops, rabbis, and mullahs all agree that guys marrying guys and girls marrying girls is an unsavory practice that will surely breed “moral confusion.”
My immediate reaction was “Whoa there! Frenchmen are preaching about 'moral confusion'?” In a country whose national motto might well read, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, and Moral Confusion”? In a nation that has produced characters like the Marquis de Sade, Marshal Pétain, Brigitte Bardot, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn? In Paris, a city that has staged morally dubious events such as the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre, the Reign of Terror, and the Dreyfus Affair? If France's religious leaders haven't come to accept a pretty much institutional atmosphere of “moral confusion” by now, they're doomed to spend their lives in a perpetual state of surprise.
I mean, really. Doesn't the name Cardinal Richelieu ring a bell?
Seriously, though, this little French controversy mirrors similar battles over marriage equality in the US and elsewhere, where anxieties about “moral confusion” inevitably translate as: “What will we tell the children?”
Ostensibly, this is a sensible concern, especially in an era when conscientious parents seem to be constantly crouched down, explaining things — most of which need no explanation — to kids. When I was a kid, of course, the customary answer to “What will we tell the children?” was “Nothing.” This was fine with me, even when my parents split up, because their divorce made sense. By the time I hit kindergarten, Mom and Dad had long since ceased to hug and kiss, opting instead for epic, all-night fights on a regular basis.
Nobody had to tell the kids anything, because we'd seen it coming.
We did get some “moral confusion,” however, courtesy of the Catholic Church, which if not for the intervention of our saintly pastor, Father Mulligan, would have excommunicated Mom forever from the sacraments for one of the bravest moral decisions of her life.
Much later, I had a divorce of my own and was living with my second wife in a small town in Massachusetts. My kids from my first marriage, Aaron and Ellisa, spent most weekends with us. Even today, because the breakup of my first marriage was quiet and amicable, Aaron and Ellisa are a little confused. I tried to explain the divorce, but I wasn't very convincing. In this case, there was no fighting, the kids hadn't seen it coming, and they never truly understood why their parents were apart.
Coincidentally, our next-door neighbors in that town were Eugene and Marty, a gay couple who thought my kids were a hoot. Aaron and Ellisa ran in and out of their house all the time. Eugene and Marty, who had been together for years, were outgoing, funny, and generous, with a refrigerator full of stuff my kids liked. They were, by far, our favorite neighbors. Neither Aaron nor Ellisa ever asked why two men were living together in such obvious intimacy. They would have been shocked to learn that the household next door was, at the time, illegal in a dozen states.
When two people who love each other, move in together, and get married, children aren't confused about what's going on, morally or otherwise. Kids understand love. Many kids' first experience in life is being loved, overwhelmingly and unconditionally. Kids know that where there is love — in any arrangement of genders — there is warmth, friendliness, and safety.
Rather than asking, “What will we tell the children?” about marriage equality, perhaps the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim moralists-in chief of France and America, and everywhere else, should wonder, “What will the children tell us?”
Maybe we should shut up and listen. Maybe the message we'd get is that most of the moral instruction we inflict on children goes in one ear and out the other, especially if the kids are smart. Maybe we'd remember that the example we set, in our actions, forms their real moral education. Maybe we'd learn that “moral confusion” is the human condition, from which no child can be — or ought to be — protected. Maybe we'd notice that moral confusion, far from being the enemy of Big Religion, is its lifeblood.