When Doctrine Overrides Humanity
November 2nd, 2013
Thomas Peters, NOM’s communications director, shows us the limits of empathy.
Peters suffered a diving accident that left him with a fractured fifth vertebrae, a severe spinal cord injury, and doubtful prospects for recovery. Fortunately, it seems, he’s doing better than most with this kind of injury, though he still may never walk and has limited use of his upper body. Recently, on NOM’s website, he posted “Reflections on my Time Away.”
It’s a sad read, and not just because of his trauma. I had hoped for a moment that it might be inspirational. I thought of Republican Senator Mark Kirk, who had a stroke in January 2012. A year later he was able to climb the steps of the Capitol, and a few months after that he issued this statement:
When I climbed the Capitol steps in January, I promised myself that I would return to the Senate with an open mind and greater respect for others.
Same-sex couples should have the right to civil marriage. Our time on this Earth is limited, I know that better than most. Life comes down to who you love and who loves you back — government has no place in the middle.
Thomas Peters has experienced no such epiphany, which makes it bittersweet for a gay man like me to read his moving tribute to family:
The accident has taught me the essential value defended by the principle of subsidiarity: the value of family and friends as the first line of defense when things go badly. My family and friends have come forward to help my wife and I in ways that have taken our breadth away. They brought us meals, helped pack and move our home, loaned us their cars, contributed their professional advice like how to plan our financial future and cover medical expenses, they have organized prayer groups for us, designed wristbands to help remind people to pray for us and offered us gifts so generous I have had to firmly say no because they are simply too much. The man is never poor or alone who has good friends. My wife and I simply could not gave survived this were it not for our dear family and friends.
The accident has taught me more about the incredible gift of marriage. My father, during his speech at my wedding reception, said the sacrament of marriage gives us the grace to do the impossible. I have met people during these months who think it is incredible, even impossible, that my wife and I survived a trauma like this having been married only three months. I tell them it helps to marry the right woman and get married the right way, the way the Church taught the two of us what marriage is and why it should be honored. People have told us that they are inspired and receive hope from the witness of our marriage – it inspires us too, I respond! We feel it is possible to face anything, even a future of me paralyzed, so long as we cling to each other, to God, and to our marriage vows.
That’s hard to read, because even as you’re thinking, Exactly, exactly!, you also know Peters is still determined to deny you the right to marry, deprive you of the honor and and hope and inspiration that come with it:
But make no mistake, as soon as I am able, I am coming back to fight harder than ever for all of these things [the causes of life, marriage and religious freedom] because I know now that it is prayer that makes the warrior his strongest.
Mark Kirk’s stroke left him with greater empathy and the courage to act on it. It didn’t merely deepen that empathy — it broadened it, too, extending it to a greater chunk of humanity than it had previously known. When the senator calls his stroke “a gift from God,” we can understand what he means, even as we’re daunted by the great price of that gift.
But not so for Peters. His empathy extends only to those who are like him. He sees his family and friends and supporters as people, but gays and lesbians are only abstractions. He can’t conceive of us as actual human beings gifted with marriages that we experience in just the same way that he does with his wife. If he did, he could never come back determined to destroy them.
For Mark Kirk, faith and tragedy gave him a light to see more of humanity. For Peters, a self-described “American Papist,” they led him into the legalism and strictures of his religion. They led him away from humanity.
What might it be like for Peters to follow Mark Kirk’s path? I see a clue in NOM’s blog posts. They refer to the Senator, but do not mention his stroke or the reasons for his change of heart. They simply call him a “GOP turncoat.” His actual life and experience are irrelevant. For them he’s defined simply by his betrayal of their doctrine.
This, I think, is what happens when doctrine overrides humanity, and here I find I butt up against the limits of my own empathy. I’ve never gone through a trauma as terrible as what Peters is dealing with now, and I can only struggle to imagine how it would feel. I don’t know how I would cope, what refuge I would take, what comforts I would seek. I suppose I can see why Peters would shy away from being labeled a turncoat by those he depends on the most.
Simply put, I can’t fault him for falling back on what he knows. All I can do, then, is congratulate him on what he’s accomplished so far, wish him strength in his battle ahead, and hope that recovery of the body is matched by growth in spirit and soul.