Monday, August 08, 2005

Gay marriage international

Currently, five jurisdictions accept same-sex marriage: Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, Spain, and the American state of Massachusetts. Scandinavian countries are sometimes mistakenly placed in this category, but what they have is closer to civil unions, not full marriage. To be sure, some restrictions persist in Massachusetts owing to lack of federal recognition. Still, the intent there is to provide gay-marriage rights as much and as soon as possible.

At first this quintet seems an odd lot. And in view of its long tradition of cultural conservatism, Spain almost seems a cuckoo in the nest.

Further examination, though, discloses a number of common features.

1) All these jurisdictions lie on the sea, and have had distinguished histories as maritime and trading nations. Other things being equal, such intercourse serves to foster tolerance.

2) They all demonstrate a comfortable degree of wealth. According to one calculation, Massachusetts led all US states in GDP per person, with $44,000 as against the national average of $38,000. In the world context, the sovereign nations enacting gay marriage statutes had impressive GDP figures: Canada, $29,700; Belgium, $29,000; Netherlands, $28,600; and Spain, $22,000.

3) Demographic parallels are notable, with low birth rates (Spain the lowest, well below replacement), and high rates of longevity. In the year 2000 life expectancy was as follows: Canada, 79.4; Spain, 78.8; Netherlands, 78.3; Belgium, 77.8; Massachusetts, 77.

4) The final factor to be noted is the most surprising, and that is the role of Roman Catholicism. Spain is credited with 99% Catholics; Belgium, 75%; Canada, 45%; and the Netherlands, 34%. There are actually more Catholics now in the Netherlands than Protestants (25%). Among all the American states, Massachusetts is surpassed only by Rhode Island in the proportion of Roman Catholics in the population.

This last category (4) seems counterintuitive. Because of the Whig theory of history, reinforced by the Weber thesis a hundred years ago, we have come to think of Protestant countries as standing in the forefront of progress. Much battered by specialists, the "Protestant ethic" remains the conventional wisdom. According to this notion, we would expect Protestant countries to be in the vanguard, with Catholic ones far behind.

Some would say that recognition of gay rights is not a sign of progress, but of decadence. Such is the view of Nazi theorist Rudolf Klare, many in Islamic countries, and doubtless many evangelical Christians. Yet most enlightened observers would see the abolition of the sodomy laws and the emerging pattern of recognition of gay marriage as part of the universal spread of the horizon of human rights.

Another point is that in recent years the influence of the Vatican has been declining in Western countries, even nominally Catholic ones. Churches are increasingly empty, while contraception and cohabitation are widely practiced. So perhaps a two-stage model is needed for the last factor: first Roman Catholicism; then its attenuation.

Local circumstances have played a role: in Quebec, spearheaded by the modernizing Quiet Revolution. In Spain the Church came to be deeply compromised by its links with the Franco regime. Still, all relevant points considered we are left with the position that religion, even in a somewhat ghostly form, may retain significance, even in societies that are increasingly secularized.

There is more. Ultimately the roots of factor 4 lie in a set of events that unfolded two centuries ago. In 1791 the French Constituent Assembly abolished the sodomy laws. This was the first time this had been done in any European country.

To be sure, the French decriminalization did not occur in an intellectual vacuum. The roots of the change go back to Marquis Cesare Beccaria. In his 1764 treatise on crimes and punishments, the Italian reformer argued that the sodomy laws were failing to deter homosexual conduct and should be dispensed with. Translated into all the main European languages, Beccaria’s work was widely acclaimed. It is the fountainhead of modern progressive criminology.

In keeping with the legislative decision of 1791, sodomy was omitted from the Code Napoleon of 1806. The victories of Napoleon’s armies ensured that this beneficial change would spread to European countries adjacent or nearly adjacent to France. These included Belgium (then known as the Austrian Netherlands), Holland (the Netherlands proper), Italy, and Spain. Because of an accident of geography these countries were mostly Catholic. Even the Netherlands, as has been noted, has had a substantial Catholic element.

Thus Catholicism as such had originally nothing to do with the change. Yet once it had been imposed, decriminalization of sodomy was accepted in such countries, and became part of their tradition. By contrast, such staunch Protestant countries as England and the Scandinavian nations, untouched by the Napoleonic invasions, retained their laws against same-sex conduct.

Be that as it may, let us return to the present. Some hold that the best test of the validity of a theory is its predictive capacity. Which will be the next countries to adopt gay marriage? Perhaps Portugal will benefit from a spillover effect, as Belgium arguably did from the Netherlands. Yet is Portugal wealthy enough now?

In addition, Ireland and France suggest themselves as candidates. However, Ireland has only recently emerged into prosperity, and (except for Belfast, not part of the Irish Republic) has not enjoyed a great seafaring tradition, as English and Scottish bottoms mainly carried its trade. For the present, the French path may be blocked by the PACs, a form of civil union that provides most of the benefits of marriage. So this question remains moot.

Which countries are, conversely, likely to resist gay marriage? Surely the rejectionist tendency will continue to blight the vast realm of Inner Eurasia, from Russia through the Muslim republics of Central Asia, and on to China. Islamic countries in general seem poor candidates. In Latin America the influence of the Code Napoleon has been beneficial, but the other effects seem lacking. Poverty persists. Historically outsiders have done much of the sea faring. However, Brazil may fit the bill, and in fact the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul shows significant stirrings in favor of gay marriage. Let us hope that this small foothold spreads.

The crystal ball remains a bit cloudy. For, as Samuel Goldwyn aptly noted, it is hazardous to make predictions--especially about the future.

(Grateful acknowledgment is made for some suggestions from Arthur C. Warner of Princeton)


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3:44 PM  
Blogger Stephen said...

There is some historical irony in that Massachusetts fits the Catholic pattern (in the present, not in its foundation!).

Is it not leftist governments that have recognized same-sex marriage? It is a socialist in Spain who pressed equal adoption rights as well as equal recognition for same-sex marriage.

11:26 AM  

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