Wednesday, May 26, 2010

At the heart of marriage

A reader sent me a link to this blog post by a gentleman who doesn't much like the habit Catholics and others have of using scare-quotes around same-sex "marriage":
One of the little tics that Catholic opponents of same-sex marriage have developed is to refer to it as "marriage." As in this from the USCCB's latest letter to Congress:
The movement to redefine marriage to include two persons of the same sex (a.k.a. same-sex "marriage") has changed the law substantially toward that end, at both the state and federal level, and it has become increasingly clear that laws like ENDA have been instrumental to those changes.
The point would seem to be that because marriage by definition cannot be between persons of the same sex, it is necessary to use quotation marks lest anyone imagine that we are acknowledging that such a thing can or could exist. And, moreover, that since marriage is a sacrament in the Catholic church (this year's very Catechetical Sunday theme), the word itself must be kept free from pollution.
The blog writer then goes on to point out that Catholics often use phrases like polygamous marriage or incestuous marriage without the scare quotes--so why put them around same-sex "marriage?" Clearly polygamous marriage or incestuous marriage also don't fit the sacramental model, so why reserve the scare quotes for same-sex "marriage?"

It's a good question, and it deserves a good answer. I'm not, of course, a Catholic apologist or theologian, so if my answer fails to be as good as it ought to be I will hope for correction from those more qualified to address these matters--but here's my offering:

Marriage, as the Church understands it, is both a natural and a supernatural state. As a natural state it originates in the Garden of Eden, with God's command to Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and to subdue it (Gen 1:28). But after the Fall, human beings sometimes failed to live according to the natural state of marriage. Polygamy, incest, and even divorce/remarriage were examples of human failings in regard to natural marriage.

But even as these things represented failings, they also did not alter the key reality at the heart of marriage: marriage was, and is, ordered toward the physical unity of man and woman in that act which alone among human sexual behaviors is potentially capable of producing new human beings. That act is, of course, called sexual intercourse.

The polygamist erred in believing it possible to engage in this act with a multiplicity of women without changing the morality of the act. The incestuous tribe erred in taking as husband or wife a person too closely biologically related to themselves. The divorced/remarried person erred, and still errs, in making a promise of fidelity, exclusivity, and permanence to one person--and then turning around and making the same promise a few years later to someone else. But none of these people errs by redefining marriage in such a way as to make sexual intercourse between the spouses not only unnecessary, but indeed, physically impossible.

A same-sex couple cannot engage in sexual intercourse. They can, of course, perform a variety of sex acts on and with each other, but none of those acts has ever been considered to lie at the heart of what marriage is (and, indeed, some of them are forbidden even to married people from a Catholic moral perspective). But that act which alone among human acts is potentially capable of creating a new human life is not an act which they can engage in together.

The Church has always taught, and continues to teach, that people who are not capable of the act of marriage, that is, of the act of sexual intercourse, cannot be married--even if they are heterosexual. That is, a heterosexual man who is physically incapable of the marriage act, or a heterosexual woman who is physically incapable of the marriage act, cannot enter into a valid marriage even with a member of the opposite sex, from the Church's point of view. It should be noted that this same thing does not hold true for a husband or wife who becomes incapable of the marriage act at some time after the marriage. But if, at the time they seek to marry, one or both spouses is not physically capable of the marriage act, they cannot marry. It should be noted, here, that the impediment refers only to the ability to engage in the marriage act, that is, sexual intercourse--a marriage is not invalid, nor is it rendered invalid, if the couple can engage in sexual intercourse but are infertile. There is a lot of misunderstanding about this from the same-sex side of the argument; the way to understand it is to recognize that the gift of new human life is a total gift from God, Who is the Author of life, and Who may chose to bless one family abundantly with children while asking another family to carry the cross of infertility for a time, or even for the whole of their married lives. But the God Who blessed Sarah, and Elizabeth, and Hannah with children when they were thought to be barren can also give life where that was not thought possible--so long as the couple is capable of engaging in the one act of all human actions which has the potential of resulting in a child.

At this point, some of my same-sex attracted opponents will argue that I'm making it sound as if marriage is all about sex! My answer to that is--well, it is. Not, of course, in the sense that sex is the only thing married people ever do or think about or desire, but in the sense that the life of physical unity and its results in terms of the little gifts of love who wander around the house needing diapers one minute and driver's ed the next (from the perspective of many parents)--yes, marriage is about the sexual unity of husband and wife, and the great blessings this fruitful unity can produce, the precious gift of new souls for the Kingdom of Heaven, entrusted for a time to a mother and a father who are only too aware of their own failings and shortcomings.

Are polygamy, incest, and serial divorce serious attacks against the love and unity of the married couple and the family? Yes, they are--but they aren't, at their root, so much an attack against marriage as a grave distortion of it. If sacramental marriage is a mirror image of the mystical union of Christ and His Church, then these distortions of marriage are like a funhouse mirror reflection--containing, here and there, glimpses of the truth, but too twisted and bent to be recognized.

And same-sex "marriage" is, to these, the empty frame of a mirror against a blank wall, simply because it does not contain any recognizable aspect of what the concept marriage means at all. With no sexual complementarity, with no possibility of engaging in the marriage act of potentially-reproductive sexual intercourse, with no reflection of the mystical union of Christ and His Church, what does the relationship of two people of the same gender have in common with marriage, anyway? That it involves two people (most of the time)? That those two people are romantically and physically involved? Those two criteria also describe a whole host of other human relationships which do not aspire to be called marriage, and indeed, which would not seek the term provided they had the slightest understanding of it.

When Catholic writers put the scare quotes around same-sex "marriage" (as I often do), it's not done to be snide or insulting (or at least, I don't mean it that way, ordinarily). It's done, instead, to point out that calling the pairing up of two same-sex people a "marriage" is to ignore the sexual reality that has existed at the heart of the concept of marriage from the earliest human history, a reality that has prevailed in the understanding of that concept in every major civilization that has ever existed. Even when distortions like polygamy have occurred, those distortions did not deny the importance of sexual intercourse or of the potential producing of children--far from it.

But same-sex "marriage" advocates do deny the importance of sexual intercourse to the concept of marriage. They also deny the importance of child-bearing, motherhood and fatherhood as complementary concepts, the capacity for sexual union as a central reality of marriage, and other such ideas.

To the same-sex "marriage" advocate, two men or two women can "marry" because there are two of them and because they are romantically and physically involved. Philosophically speaking, this is not unlike declaring that a slice of bread is the same thing as a chocolate chip cookie, because both are baked and made primarily of flour--ignoring the role that yeast plays in one, and that sugar and chocolate play in the other. But anyone who crumbles a slice of bread over a bowl of ice cream, or tries to place ham, mustard, and cheese between two chocolate chip cookies, is unlikely to buy that the superficial similarities of bread and cookies outweigh the many important and intrinsic differences.

In a word, I place scare-quotes around same-sex "marriage" because it involves such a difference in the definition of the word marriage from the one I, and most people in human history, have understood that I find the word out of place in context. If I were to write of a chocolate-chip-cookie ham "sandwich" I would use scare quotes, too.


David said...

Thanks, Erin. It clarifies a lot of your position.

I hearken most people who support gay marriage would liken the divide, if we use your analogy, to a chocolate chip cookie and another form of cookie (snickerdoodle, perhaps). Both are cookies, made differently, but can function in much same way and with similar appearances (use white bread and wheat bread for the sandwich metaphor if you please). They might taste differently and provide different nutrients, but in a same way we can't forget that Grandma's chocolate chip cookies will be different than David's rendition or David's mother's.

The true disconnect is that while there are legitimate differences as you mention, there's debate on the significance of those differences in policy. Most people, including myself, are not content to have it settled as some transcendent quality associated with being male or female (or the fact it's a choc. chip cookie). If those qualities cannot be elaborated or elucidated ("a child needs a mother and a father" for example) without becoming effectively intangible and circular, then you'll always have trouble convincing the others that it's more like bread than just a cookie without chocolate chips.

Be clear I'm not arguing about Church doctrine but where it intersects with our society. There are already many marriages that wouldn't fit all three essential characteristics you mention but they are still validated.

"what does the relationship of two people of the same gender have in common with marriage, anyway? That it involves two people (most of the time)? That those two people are romantically and physically involved? Those two criteria also describe a whole host of other human relationships which do not aspire to be called marriage, and indeed, which would not seek the term provided they had the slightest understanding of it."

I have to wonder if this is an inconsistency: either there is no similarity at all between gay relationships and straight relationships ("these criteria also describe a whole host of other human relationships..."; contra: a mirror against a blank wall) or they're more similar than you'll allow yourself to admit since to do so would dissemble the rest of your framework.

What exactly are you comparing the gay men and women who seek to call their relationships marriage to? That segment you wrote seems to imply their motivation is no different than the random friends-with-benefits pair who gets a marriage license "just because." Clearly (or I hope you realize) more goes into it, with similar trepidation, hopes, and concerns.

bearing said...

I prefer not to use the term marriage at all, precisely because the scare quotes can be interpreted as snideness. And I wouldn't use it for a modern polygamous relationship either...

There's always some other word that can be used. And if we get to the point where same-sex unions are accorded a legal status equivalent to marriage in the eyes of the state, then I'll be saying and writing "legally married" a lot, I suppose.

Kim said...

Brilliant post--thanks!

Red Cardigan said...

David, no inconsistency intended. I'm writing as a Catholic, of course, and as a Catholic I would say that relationships like that of cohabitating heterosexuals, adulterous heterosexuals, etc. do have one thing in common with gay relationships--they are all ordered around objectively evil acts (e.g., fornication, adultery, homosexual acts).

But those similarities (e.g., two people, physical and romantic relationship, centered around evil acts) don't add up to marriage. Adulterers know they are not married to their partners in adultery, no matter how sincere the attachment. Fornicators know they are not married to their partners in fornication--again, regardless of the depth of feeling or duration of the relationship. Only homosexual sex partners seem to think that having two people and a romantic/physical relationship gives them enough in common with marriage to agitate for that term to be applied to them--this, despite the difference I've already mentioned regarding the nature of sexual intercourse and its connection to marriage.

Of course, the secular world sees little difference between fornicating/adulterous pairs and marriage, anyway--but I'm speaking as a Catholic here.

The Playful Walrus said...

Thoughtful post.

To me, from a completely secular standpoint, the fact is that polygamous and incestuous marriages have been historically recognized and practiced around the world, including among royalty. Any same-sex pairing was called marriage only in very rare circumstances, if at all - until very recently in human history.

And that brings to mind that if we can have laws that deny licensing of polygamous or incestuous marriage - thus requiring that a person only have one spouse who is not closely related to them, then surely we can have laws that require a pairing to be inclusive of both sexes to be licensed as marriage.

It is the difference between calling spoiled milk milk and calling water milk. We don't think we should drink spoiled milk, but it is milk. Water simply isn't milk. And many would argue that there's poison in the water.

We talk about these issues in depth here.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Well written and coherently presented. Its important to remember that the Supreme Court of Massachusetts was very explicit in recognizing that they had jurisdiction only over civil marriage, not over what a church chooses to recognize as a marriage.

The doctrine of any church aside, marriage has, from the dawn of human history, been about sexual intercourse between a man and a woman. There are many cultures which tolerated or even respected homosexual liaisons, but none ever considered these a marriage.

Assuming the maximum acceptance of men and women with a homosexual orientation as full civil participants in society, there is a curious me-tooism about demanding that their relations be termed "marriage." Very real concerns, like rights of hospital visitation without interference from scandalized family members, can be taken care of without making "marriage" an infinitely malleable concept.

John Thayer Jensen said...

Siarlys (I wish I knew how to pronounce his name) said:

the Supreme Court of Massachusetts was very explicit in recognizing that they had jurisdiction only over civil marriage, not over what a church chooses to recognize as a marriage.

The difficulty, as I see it, to this idea - attractive to some - is that marriage is not first of all a religious concept but a human. You cannot usefully separate the religious aspects of what people recognise as a marriage from the secular. And homosexual relationships, whether called marriage or not, are damaging to society.


Siarlys Jenkins said...

John, the name is Welsh, the si is pronounced like an sh in English, so you could almost pronounce it Sharles, but with a hint of a third syllable on the end. (Yes, I also know how to pronounce a double-l).

I'm ambivalent about whether homosexual relations are, per se, damaging to society. I'm pretty well convinced that some people are by nature inclined that way, and we don't really know exactly why. The reasons may be legion.

I've written at length why I think the Massachusetts Supreme Court made a legally unsound decision, and why at least one of the dissenting opinons (it was a 4-3 decision) got it right.

(Caution, I tend to be long-winded when nobody is around to tell me to get to the point).

You have every right, as a citizen, to advocate official disapprobation of homosexual relations as damaging to society. However, even if a majority of your fellow citizens do not go along with you on that. you STILL have a constitutionally protected right to adhere to a church which expresses doctrinal disapprobation of homosexual relationships. The distinction is a worthy one.

Magister Christianus said...

A little late in the comment on this one, but I agree that there is no such thing as a homosexual marriage, regardless of the punctuation used in expressing this mythological concept. There can no more be a homosexual marriage than there can be a square circle. It is a matter of definition. As a result, I tend to opt for "sodomite union." A tad harsh, but I prefer truth in labeling.

John Thayer Jensen said...

@"Magister Christianus" - regarding "sodomite union", I had thought of "homosexual union", but decided that I had as much difficulty with the 'union' bit as with the 'marriage' bit.

The difficulty we are having is, in part, due to the misappropriation of language. This is, of course, an old story. The countries that used to have "War Ministries" now have "Defence Ministries". I am told that the word 'homosexual' itself is a Nineteenth Century attempt to get 'round 'sodomite'. We are now supposed to say 'gay' instead of 'homosexual' - which I have, so far, been unwilling to do - but eventually, linguistic terrorism (using 'he' as the generic third person singular pronoun will get a person in big trouble these days, if he tries it :-)) can lead to real change of language. 'douche' was once an unremarkable word for a shower. Using 'gay' now to mean ... well, gay! ... is no longer possible.

Still, 'union' seems to me giving in too quickly, as, of course, 'marriage' is. Clumsy circumlocutions, such as 'homosexual attempted marriage' seem a bit precious. When I must refer to the practice, I just use quotes around the word 'marriage' and leave it at that.

The poor English language is, of course, the victim.


Siarlys Jenkins said...

I was tutoring some children of friends of mine a few years ago (the kids are all in college now -- how time flies as I get older), and one of the girls was reading "The Witch of Blackbird Pond," one of my favorite oldies. In it, a young man gets a crush on the female protagonist, and is described as admiring "her gay figure." This was circa 1950s. The young lady reading the book stopped and asked "What does THAT mean?" I had to explain about the evolution, or devolution, of language. Back in those days, a building contractor might name a street in a new subdivision after his daughter, Gay. Later, the residents petitioned to change the name, and outraged people who call themselves gay showed up to protest the petition in their inimitable style.

I'd just as soon say, those two men live together, and not be bothered with exactly what motivates them to do so. But then, we'd have the problem with "the love that dare not speak its name" -- chaste, nonsexual love that men used to be able to freely share, with no insinuation about their masculinity.

Karol Józef Wojtyła said...

Secular marriage and religious marriage are two different things. Our homosexual brothers and sisters want the rights and responsibilities that go with secular marriage. I have never heard of any instances where people want the Church to change its views.