Editor’s Note: John Copeland Nagle is a professor at the University of Notre Dame Law School. The views expressed in this column belong to Nagle.
The Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision is unprecedented, though not just for the reasons you’ve heard.
It marks the first time a dissenting judge encouraged those who agreed with the outcome to celebrate a decision that he believed was wrong.
“If you are among the many Americans — of whatever sexual orientation — who favor expanding same-sex marriage,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts, “by all means celebrate today’s decision.”
That ability to genuinely appreciate the views of those who disagree with us is a hallmark of humility. Roberts worries that the majority’s approach belies such humility.
He believes the Supreme Court’s legitimacy depends on “the perception — and reality — that we exercise humility and restraint in deciding cases according to the Constitution and law.”
Roberts thinks the decision announcing a constitutional right to same-sex marriage “omits even a pretense of humility, openly relying on its desire to remake society” as it sees best.
This may not bother those who concentrate only on the “right” outcome, rather than how we get there.
Consider, though, the response to last week’s news: Pope Francis’ encyclical calling for a radical overhaul of how humanity relates to the environment.
Many of the same people who applauded the court’s same-sex marriage ruling also applauded the Pope’s encyclical, and vice versa. In some respects, the encyclical is breathtaking in its condemnation of a “throwaway culture” and his plea for a wholly new lifestyle.
That doesn’t sound too humble. But humility is a deep concern of the Pope’s, too.
“Once we lose our humility,” he worries, “and become enthralled with the possibility of limitless mastery over everything, we inevitably end up harming society and the environment.”
Without humility, he adds, we experience “a general breakdown in the exercise of a certain virtue in personal and social life” which “ends up causing a number of imbalances.”
Those imbalances affect us all because “the world cannot be analyzed by isolating only one of its aspects, since ‘the book of nature is one and indivisible,’ and includes the environment, life, sexuality, the family, social relations, and so forth.”
And yet Francis realizes that humility applies equally to our understanding of the world and to our efforts to govern the world.
The encyclical repeatedly acknowledges that neither the church nor anyone else has a monopoly on the wisdom and discernment needed to formulate the public policies needed to solve our environmental and societal problems.
In other words, we need both environmental humility and legal humility.
Humility toward the environment emphasizes the need for restraint and for care given our lack of knowledge about the environmental impacts of our action.
Humility toward the law cautions against exaggerated understandings of our ability to create and implement legal tools that will achieve our intended results.
Taken together, these two understandings of humility could ensure that we are equally careful in how we approach both the effects of our actions on the natural environment and the effects of our laws.
That is the tension that we confront when addressing both our environmental problems (especially climate change) and our social controversies (especially those involving sexuality).
With climate change, some continue to deny the harmful effects of our actions even as others fail to acknowledge that the very size of the problem calls into question our confidence in our proposed measures to solve it.
With sexuality, our hesitant steps toward distinguishing the imperatives of morality and law – our ability to craft laws that recognize different moral understandings of marriage – may be cut short by the court’s insistence that only one answer is acceptable.
Saint Augustine claimed that “almost the whole of Christian teaching is humility.” The Supreme Court’s decision on Friday suggests that Christian teaching is out of place in 21st century United States.
Let’s hope that humility proves otherwise.