This season's hot topic, spurred by the pending case before the Supreme Court of Hawaii and now the U.S. Supreme Court's Romer v. Evans decision, is same-sex or "gay" marriage. Editorials in the mainstream secular press have favored it nearly overwhelmingly, even though it is without precedent in any civilized society.
Two columns earlier this year in the Northern Virginia Journal newspapers by Karen Murray illustrate the tack taken by columnists beating the drum for this latest development of the sexual
revolution. In both, Ms. Murray asks a good question: "What does marriage have to fear" from same-sex marriage? Her answer is, not surprisingly, "nothing." To Murray, same-sex marriage is a simple issue of justice to gays, will promote a more stable lifestyle among gays, and will redound to the advantage of any children being raised in gay households. (The same argument was made more
recently in the "Doonesbury" cartoon.) Its benefits seem so obvious to her that she cannot conceive of a real argument that the institution of marriage will be affected. Of course, right-wingers (to Murray, who else would question gay marriage?) can raise either of two kinds of invalid or pretend arguments. People who have "talked to God" either directly or indirectly can make sincere arguments on religious grounds, but these are ipso facto inadmissible in our secularized political environment. Then there are insincere smokescreens by homophobes and other people who think gays are "weird." That's it. Case dismissed.
I'd like to suggest that Murray's short list is a bit too short; there definitely is a valid argument, and Christians, especially Catholics, should be making it regularly. Right now, it is hard to reduce it to a neat 15-second sound-bite, but perhaps even chat may come with time. Unfortunately, most current arguments made by Christians are religious statements which seem to play to her
hand; they are more statements of authority or belief than arguments totally based on fact. A good example is a recent statement by Archbishop Stafford of Denver. He praised normal marriage as "the foundation of civilization for the past 1500 years" and noted that people "have read reality through its nuptial/ marital/covenantal meaning." Promoting homosexual
activity "as a valid moral option" directly assaults "the ancient moral vision which, for more than 15 centuries, has established the private and public responsibilities indispensable for the free
order of society." What he said is true and inspiring, but would make not the slightest dent in the consciousness of someone like Murray, unless it should cause her to wonder why, if same-sex
"marriage" is such an undiluted blessing, it has been overlooked for all of recorded history.
In defense of the archbishop and other Christians who have tried to respond to the demand for same-sex marriage from their religious beliefs, it should be noted that this is not the first time an institution or doctrine which has been unquestioningly accepted for aeons is suddenly challenged, and whose defenders found themselves grasping, at first ineffectively, for an appropriate response. In fact, history is full of similar instances, although our era may be the most "challenged." We live
in an age which can almost be defined by its proclivity for questioning practically every received doctrine and belief, and by the way our dominant attitude-shaping institutions have shifted the benefit of the doubt from the defenders of the status quo to its challengers. This shift in the burden of proof has undoubtedly helped ensure the success of the sexual revolution, which has systematically challenged the rationale for one thing connected with sex after another. That said, however, it is definitely high time, if not too late, to catch up with the need for an effective response. Much rides on it.
We need to move the foundation of our argument from the religious to the scientific. The validity of many of the tenets of our Christian beliefs been well proved by the social sciences. Thus, there is nothing particularly religious about the argument I propose. Its main premise is that societies have a life-and-death interest in ensuring their own survival, and thus a responsibility to act to further that interest. The importance of this approach was acknowledged, although not developed, by Cardinal Bernard Law. Queried by the National Catholic Register in Portland, Oregon, earlier this summer, about the Hawaii case, the cardinal said "The issue is- what is marriage? What's the State's interest in marriage?" (Register, July 7, 1996).
This article attempts to develop just this line of thinking. It is structured as follows. First, one must consider why societies recognize marriage in the first place. This involves specifying certain needs which societies have, which societies consider to be satisfied by marriage. Second, having identified the needs, we must consider what characteristics marriage should have to fulfill that role. Third, we consider how extending the privilege of marriage to same-sex couples would affect the ability of marriage to do what societies need it to do.
1) SOCIETY'S NEEDS
To remain vital, every society must ensure stability in the present and provide for its future. Everyone, including the homosexually oriented, depends on these things being done, and done well. The two objectives are closely related, and children are at the focus of both. Providing for the future means bearing, educating and socializing children; children are our social security, economically, physically and emotionally. If there are not enough of them, there will eventually be a disproportion between those able to work and those who cannot, and the burden of supporting the dependent population can become so severe chat it strains society's bonds. (See: "Contracepting Social Security" by W. Patrick Cunningham, Culture Wars, July/August 1996.) If the children are not raised properly, the well-being of those who depend on them later is threatened as much as, if not more than, if there are too few children.
Marriage provides for society's future by formally constituting the family. The traditional family- husband, wife, and natural children-is the only way societies have ever found of providing well for stability in the present and for our future. The family is the first community, the original unit which precedes and forms the basis of all larger and subsequent units. It is the original school for children, where they are taught all the values and mores that form them in how they interact, first with one another, and later with others to whom they are not related. It is irreplaceable in that it is a community of love, a community based on love; what parents do for children out of love cannot be
replicated in a setting where the same tasks are done for pay.
As all who have undertaken the task of raising a family-and those who merely observe with detachment-will agree, it is an awesome and difficult business. For a couple to bear and raise children, and often even to stay together, is hard work and expensive. In its own interest, society must do what it can to ease those burdens and reward what is so central to its stability and
continuation. By easing some of the financial burden and elevating the stature of the family, society hopes to induce its Citizens to follow in the footsteps of their parents and grandparents and form
Marriage can thus be seen as a formal institution structured by society to help it meet its needs for stability in the present and continued existence over time. In marriage, a couple makes a formal, public commitment to one another to live as a single unit; the community endorses and ratifies that commitment. It also extends special recognition and usually various financial privileges to couples making this commitment. Its reason for doing so, as noted above, is its expectation that the couple will form a family unit, to bear and raise properly the children the society needs. Society's interest in all this is the children, period. Aside from the expectation of childbearing and child-raising, it
has no strong interest in making marriage a privileged institution.
It should be noted that society recognizes marriage in two ways: legally and morally. Both have positive and negative aspects. Legally, society may give marriage positive stature by granting financial benefits such as tax reductions, rights of inheritance, etc., to married couples. The community may also legally prohibit activities considered to weaken marriage or the family-passing
laws prohibiting or restricting divorce, adultery, sodomy, contraception, renting to cohabiting couples, etc. Extra-legally or morally, society grants its approval and recognition to married
couples by establishing a climate favorable to the institution; and it also provides social disapproval of things destructive of marriage and family life even when not legally proscribed. The legal and the moral obviously influence one another. Ideas have consequences, one of which is their embodiment in law; and law is a great teacher and shaper of attitudes.
2) THE KIND OF MARRIAGE SOCIETY NEEDS
The traditional understanding of marriage, and of the family that results from it, lines up perfectly to provide for the key needs identified above. Marriage once meant a permanent bond, the only
approved locus for sex (i.e., marriage both establishes an exclusive sexual relationship and only the marriage relationship legitimizes sexual activity), and children. It went without saying that it was a man-woman relationship. Males and females have a natural complementarily in the process not only of procreating but also of raising children, and children thrive in an atmosphere of stability and commitment. Children also need the role models of both father and mother for their complete development. The atmosphere of stable commitment also helps regulate all of society's rhythms.
3) WHAT MARRIAGE HAS BECOME AND THE RESULT
One would hardly recognize in today's marriage the institution which the previous section argues best meets society's needs for stability and continuation. The villain of the piece is the generations old social experiment called the sexual revolution. It has gradually drained the content from marriage, and with it, the vitality of the family. The main thrust of the sexual revolution has been to enable adults to separate sex from children and relieve them of binding commitments to one another. I'm not enough of an historian to know which came first: trying to chicken out on our lifetime commitments to one another, or separating the egg from the sperm. Whatever the order, the sexual revolution attacked, and gradually weakened, the covalent bonds of the marriage-sex-children triad. No-fault divorce vitiated permanence; first contraception and then abortion made the connection between sex and children optional; respected marriage gurus touted "open marriage." With sex no longer meaning children, the institutional warrant for marriage was questionable, and hence the fashionability of "living together."
The sexual revolution attacked both the legal framework surrounding and protecting marriage and the family and the moral climate. On the legal front, Supreme Court decisions overturned laws against contraception and abortion, States liberalized laws regulating divorce, and various laws affecting homosexual behavior have been challenged. In addition, there is a movement to establish a "right" of open homosexuality. Morally, the legal climate, technology and media-led opinion have all greatly influenced society's approvals and disapprovals. Living together and voluntary single parenthood receive hardly a blink today, whereas families with more than two children can expect many arched eyebrows and the obligatory query "don't you know about birth control?"
The result is, I would argue, that at present we're not doing well at providing for the future or ensuring stability. Birthrates are barely at replacement level, and fewer and fewer of the children
born are being socialized well. Crime, especially violent crime, has been rising and some analysts, such as Princeton Professor John DiIulio, say the worst is yet to come. The reason is the
breakdown of marriage and the traditional family. The evidence relating deviations from the traditional family structure to problems for children is flooding in. Children raised by single
parents and the children of divorce don't do as well in school as their counterparts raised in traditional two-parent families, and have more behavioral problems. They are more prone to criminal behavior, to premarital sex and abortions, and to divorce if they
4) HOMOSEXUAL "MARRIAGE?"
The sexual revolution gradually brought us to the point where the complex fabric of laws and mores which together supported and sustained marriage and the family has largely been unravelled. We
are beginning to see the effects on social behavior. More to the point, these changes have gradually eroded our understanding of what marriage is. No longer is marriage considered universally in
the public mind as a permanent union; no longer is it considered to have any necessary connection to children; no longer does it universally bind to fidelity; and that sex should be reserved for
it is today's unthinkable thought. Marriage has become a mere diaphanous thing. To Murray, for example, it means a public declaration of "the mutual devotion between any pair of adults," a
pledge of "support, loyalty protection of the partner's privacy" which "others are expected to honor and reinforce."
The evolutionary emptying of the concept of marriage, and the concomitant acceptance of homosexual relations-both products of the same revolutionary forces-largely explain the drive for
homosexual "marriage." Who, homosexual or heterosexual, could conceive of same-sex "marriage" if marriage meant more than it does today? More than anything else, our increasing technical
ability to sever the biological link between sex and children, and the contraceptive mentality that grew from it-the belief that to separate sex from its natural consequences was not only natural
but a right-probably paved the way for tolerating homosexual relations. But tolerance is not the same thing as acceptance. And even though marriage may now be but a shadow of its former self,
it still retains some power to make sexual activity legitimate. So, same-sex couples grasp at it even when so many heterosexual couples find it superfluous. They may not believe society needs
the institution of marriage, but it would salve their consciences and help them hold their heads high in public.
5) SAME-SEX MARRIAGE: WHAT IT WOULD DO TO MARRIAGE
In view of the foregoing, it is easier to see what extending marriage to same-sex couples would do to the institution of marriage.
1) It would remove marriages sole original defining characteristic, that it is a union of one man and one woman.
2) Although it would not change much of what is left of marriage-because not much is left today-it would lock in the 'gains" of the sexual revolution. That, by itself is extremely serious: what
society really needs is the restoration of marriage; same-sex marriage would continue marriage on its present search for the bottom. That would further solidify the notions that sex need not
have a necessary connection to procreation, nor marriage to children. Similarly, it is hard to imagine that same-sex couples-especially males-would want to see marriage restored to being a
permanent and exclusive union. Male homosexual relations are inherently so transitory that many gay activists opposed same-sex marriage on the grounds that it would be so restrictive of the gay
lifestyle that failure would be virtually guaranteed. In short, marriage would be further solidified as a meaningless institution in which society has no inherent interest, unless one makes the
leap (not uncommonly implied today) of saying that society's real interest is in making us all feel good by legitimating every conceivable choice.
Allowing homosexual marriage would further dilute the uniqueness of marriage by opening it to all who want it, regardless of their potential to fulfill an essential societal function. If a privilege is open to all, it is no longer a privilege. This great levelling process would further diminish the incentives to bear and raise children. Homosexual marriage is a chimera of the real thing on which society depends for its continuation and health. It would further reinforce the sexual revolution's notion-which is too strong already-that any connection between sex and children is purely optional. It sends the subliminal message that everything should be a matter of choice, that nothing is a given or need be permanent, and that sexual differences are imaginative fictions imposed through socialization. I believe that these effects are enough to fear from extending marriage to same-sex couples.
6) SOME EXTENSIONS AND FURTHER POINTS
Although most of its proponents are reticent to elaborate on this, same-sex marriage would really represent a drop to a new societal or moral low, because it would represent society's formal
endorsement of homosexual activity. By giving it the writ of marriage, society gives it the stamp of approval. As Alexander Pope said of vice, "We first endure, then pity, then embrace."
With homosexual activity, we are now probably somewhere between enduring and pitying; same-sex marriage would be the embrace. Thus would society endorse an activity which its true interest is in eliminating. The hazards to the public health which homosexual sex represents, from HIV infections on down, are well known. Same-sex marriage would only raise them
Those who advocate homosexual marriage often make some related assertions that deserve commentary:
Assertion One: Homosexual marriage wouldn't increase the number of gay kids. Really? Homosexual marriage will-as I believe its advocates intend-boost the acceptability of homosexual relations, which has to raise experimentation. Experimentation among the
sexually confused, as many teens are, leads to many becoming locked in to behavior patterns, in this case, homosexual ones. By blessing and legitimizing homosexual behavior, same-sex marriage would tend to endorse and promote such behavior across the board.
What, pray tell, is society's interest in doing that?
Assertion Two: Not allowing homosexuals to marry worsens the lot of kids being raised in same-sex households. On this, two points. First, we don't know the long-term effects of child raising in same-sex households. At present, it has the status of an underground social experiment. If its anything like the single-parent model-and I believe it is- its something I don't think we want to endorse, period. Second, and in genera!, bringing in kids to this discussion is largely a red herring, the kind of hard case that makes for bad law. If there's one thing the sexual revolution hasn't been about its the interests of children. Its raison d'etre has been the separation of sexual activity from its inconvenient biological consequences by actions taken before, during, or after (often much after) sex. Homosexual unions are rarely about begetting children and only slight more often involve raising
them. We need to get real on this.
Assertion Three: allowing homosexuals to marry would add some stability to the gay scene. Well, maybe. But as I argue above, we're talking about "90s marriage, the kind that uplifts without restricting. Its a marriage contract with the freeing codicils: Open marriage with no-fault divorce if things don't work out. This all we expect of heterosexual aspirants. Wouldn't it be discriminatory to expect more of gays and lesbians? From what I've read about the dynamic of homosexual relations, I find it impossible to believe homosexuals as a group would give up, or be able to give up, their lifestyle. Nor can I imagine they would be
willing to make a commitment to premarital celibacy for the sake of the right to marry. The notion of same-sex marriage, as I understand it, is "marriage and. . . " marriage in addition to the sexual freedoms they now enjoy. And, assuming for the sake of argument that marriage would act as a noticeable brake on homosexual promiscuity, is that a worthwhile tradeoff against the overall damage to society from continuing marriage on its downward
trajectory and from giving a boost to homosexual activity?
Assertion Four: but society already allows heterosexual couples to marry who cannot procreate or who have no intention of procreating so why not same-sex couples? This point is perhaps the most difficult to deal with. The latter group, presumptively fertile couples who marry but (without any serious medical or financial reason) do not intend to have children, are insidious enemies of marriage. With their decisions to make childbearing optional they
have come into marriage as a fifth column to prepare the way for homosexual marriage. They are the freeriders upon the institution, taking the privileges without the burdens. Murray is nearly right to suggest that society has no more interest in granting them a
privileged position than it does homosexual couples. Unfortunately, society has little choice but to continue to allow them to marry, giving them the benefit of the doubt that they may
eventually have children. They illustrate how sufficient abuse of freedom can destroy any institution.
The harder case advocates of same-sex marriage raise is couples known, or likely, to be infertile- couples beyond their childbearing years or those with various handicaps rendering them infertile. What's the difference between allowing them to marry and allowing same-sex couples to marry? Isn't the only societal interest involved the more limited one that the union will contribute to the general stability of the community by enhancing the couple's happiness and limiting promiscuity?
The answer is that the two cases differ in at least three major ways. One is the inherently different orientation of the two kinds of unions toward parenthood noted above. Infertile heterosexual
couples, including those beyond their childbearing years, still value children and want to make their unions a sacrifice for raising them. "Physical sterility in fact can be for spouses the occasion for other important services to the life of the human person, for example adoption, various forms of educational work, and assistance to other families and to poor or handicapped children" (Familiaris Consortio, 14). Couples beyond their childbearing years often are raising children from previous marriages and grandchildren. Same-sex unions lack this essential orientation toward both physical and spiritual parentage. Second, even among the relatively few same-sex couples motivated by a desire to raise children, there is a difference of role models. Having two moms or two dads is not the same as one parent of each sex. Third, allowing same-sex marriage says many things about what marriage is and what it means that go well beyond the notion of couples whose main likeness is that none of them can produce children. Restricting marriage to heterosexual couples continues to say that marriage is oriented toward procreation, and that sex is a social act oriented toward procreation and not merely a private rite of the couple.
This essay has been an attempt to show that there is a very real sociological argument against same-sex marriage that is neither religious nor a front for aversion to persons with homosexual
attractions. There are serious public policy reasons for not only keeping marriage heterosexual as it is, but also for attempting to restore its former meaning. Homosexual marriage would further
weaken an already damaged institution, to the detriment of us all-homosexuals included.
I also have tried to show that the push for homosexual marriage, while serious, is best understood as a symptom of a larger and more serious problem with our understanding of sex and marriage. The underlying causes of this serious problem are deeply rooted within our collective consciousness, and involve the acceptance of — even by many profamily stalwarts themselves — of the destructive premises of the sexual revolution. Rooting these premises will be anything but easy; for many, no legislative or judicial remedy is possible. Profamily groups are right to fight homosexual marriage, however; although it may be largely symptomatic, permitting it will only make things worse.
Finally, while the argument here is explicitly nonreligious, Catholics and other Christians should see that there is no inconsistency between the underlying tenets of their faith and good public policy. A useful thought experiment is to ponder whether, and how, society's overall health and stability are
improved by giving up portions of Catholic teaching on marriage and the family. We've seen many aspects of our beliefs rejected as society has "advanced": the permanence of marriage, the evils of
contraception, abortion and sodomy. Now we are being enjoined to jettison the "discriminatory notion" that marriage ought to be limited to one man and one woman as the latest advance. If each of our beliefs has truly limited society's progress toward greater happiness, we should see life getting better and better, and people getting healthier and happier, with the elimination of each. Where is the evidence? The promised benefits, like the horizon, remain ahead of us, out of our grasp.
In the Catholic world-view, as I understand it, there is of course much more to marriage than its benefits to society's continuation and stability. St. Paul tells us that marriage is the concrete sign of the union between Christ the bridegroom and his bride, the Church. Theology also tells us that is also a sign of the Trinity itself — a union of two persons forming a new entity which, through the covenanted love of husband and wife, enables the creation of a third person. These theological realities say to me that marriage cannot be anything else than a union of man and woman. They also
say that the traditional marriage — permanent, heterosexual, life-giving — is the only true sacramental sign of those invisible realities whose existence must be proclaimed continually in the world. It is not in any way surprising to me, therefore, that notions of marriage which deviate from marriage in its totality will be inconsistent with the proper order, if not the very existence, of society. But that is, as the saying goes, a topic for another essay.
This article was taken from the October 1996 issue of Culture Wars. Subscription price in U.S. is $35 per year; $45 per year outside the U.S. Address subscription requests to "Culture Wars"
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