For the Love of Sex and Marriage

The groundwork has been set.

On the front page, Tod Kelly is ready for the country to have it out over same sex marriage, and he’s optimistic that the proponents will win. I suspect a mostly universal acceptance of same sex marriage will take longer to arrive than Tod does, but there’s little denying he’s generally right about this, despite the slow-going progress and political setbacks the gay rights movement has seen.  They’ve made incredible gains, especially in the culture, where it may matter most.  We’re at a turning point, no mistake.

It occurs to me that in none of my recent commentary and analysis on events and topics related to sexuality and marriage have I clearly stated how I understand the meanings of sex and marriage.  With President Obama taking his cue from his tight-lipped VP, the voters of North Carolina enshrining their view in their state constitution, and my fellow bloggers here at the League giving their individual takes, now seems as opportune time as any to gather my thoughts and, as plainly as I can, state my irrelevant views.  Yes, you read me right.  The meaning of sex and marriage as I understand them are mostly irrelevant to the discussion.  I’ll explain why below.

First, my confession: I am quite smitten with the contemporary, still developing Catholic conceptions of human sexuality and marriage, which to my mind belong together.  What is marriage?  It is a sacred, insoluble, in some cases sacramental bond in which a man and a woman become one flesh, potentially creating new life; it is an institutional union that, ideally, supports a lifelong commitment of love, the good of the spouses and the community, and, if literally fruitful, gives order to the rearing and education of children.  That’s how I define marriage.

But here’s the thing: this definition ain’t the legal definition anywhere in this country.  Engaged couples can obtain a marriage license without any belief in the sacred, with no intention of staying true to one another, with every intention to prevent pregnancy, and with a signed prenuptial agreement just in case things don’t work out.  Their good needn’t be an end of their marriage.  They don’t even have to love one another.    Marriage means to each couple whatever they want it to mean.  Once joined, they are legally united and receive the legal rights associated with the institution, but the rest is up to them.  As practiced overall, the convention of marriage is little more than a shell.

This is why people who for whatever reason oppose same-sex marriage will lose this culture war.  The groundwork has already been set by heterosexuals in their marriages.   If memory serves, Dan Savage has made this point repeatedly.  My co-blogger at Vox Nova, Mornings Minion, echoes it.  So to an extent does Mark Shea.  As the Joker says to Batman, “You’ve changed things. There’s no going back.” Regardless of whatever Maggie Gallagher, the Catholic bishops, or I think marriage means, the concept also has a basic social-legal meaning, a meaning that does not correspond to our ideas.

Someone might object that our definitions share the one-man/one-woman aspect of the typical legal definition, so there’s at least some correspondence.  This is true, but it’s irrelevant.  Because marriage has, legally and socially speaking, no intrinsic link with procreation and the good of the spouses as a complementary unit, nothing grounds the notion that legal marriage should be limited to couples of complementary sex.  Without the transmission of life and this good of the spouses being natural ends of marriage, what logical reason is there to prohibit same sex couples from marrying?

Same sex marriage opponents are destined to lose the philosophical battle for the foreseeable future because very few if any of them will insist on incorporating openness to life and the good of the spouses into the legal definition.  Advocates for same sex marriage are just being consistent.  Contrary to Dennis Prager, whom Tod quotes, the push for same sex marriage is not the most radical redefinition of marriage in history: that redefinition already took place!  It’s done, Dennis.  Rush Limbaugh’s changed things. There’s no going back. Culturally, socially, legally—it’s done.  The door is open.  The opposition can try and shut the door all they want—and they will try—but there’s no bolt without a link between marriage and procreation.  Without that bolt, there’s no locking the door.  Same sex couples want equal treatment under the law.  Why would they settle for anything less?

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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23 Responses

  1. Rodak says:

    “It is a sacred, insoluble, in some cases sacramental bond in which a man and a woman become one flesh…. .”

    Hmmm. “Insoluble” in which sense?

  2. GordonHide says:

    I guess marriage started out as the institutionalisation of the ownership of women by men. Hopefully it’s already evolved a lot since then. We can hardly be surprised that it continues to evolve. I look upon the latest moves as an attempt to make the institution more relevant to more of the general population and thus make society more equitable.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      No doubt. Even the ontological meaning to which I give assent is no Platonic Form, but an evolved convention that will continue to develop in light of theological, philosophical, psychological and sociological advances, not to mention people’s experiences.

      Regarding the legal-social meaning of marriage in the U.S., what we’re seeing now is less an evolution and more the consequences of a previous evolution of meaning: the inclusion of same-sex couples into the institution follows logically from divorcing legal marriage from a natural or conventional end of fecundity.

      • Mike Schilling says:

        More ambiguity 🙂 I’m sure you meant “end” as “goal”, but in fact today’s serial monogamists (Hi, there, Mr. Speaker!) tend to divorce their wives at just about the time they reach the end of fecundity.

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          Yes. But good point. And another reason opposition to same-sex marriage has little political life remaining. Too many of its esteemed champions care nothing for marriage. They’ll play to people’s fears and bigotry and panic, but their efforts have nothing to do with preserving an ideal. Their “end” is power.

    • BlaiseP says:

      I dunno. These days, marriage seems to be about the bride. The groom sorta stands there at the front of the church in his little penguin suit, an otherwise irrelevant appurtenance to the entire proceeding. The happy couple walks back up the aisle. She takes the ring off his finger and puts it in his nose and attaches a little chain to it and they live happily ever after until the lawyers enter the story in Chapter VII.

  3. Burt Likko says:

    To adopt Jaybird‘s terminology, it sounds like what you’re calling:

    …a sacred, insoluble, in some cases sacramental bond in which a man and a woman become one flesh, potentially creating new life; it is an institutional union that, ideally, supports a lifelong commitment of love, the good of the spouses and the community, and, if literally fruitful, gives order to the rearing and education of children.

    …is MEG (marriage in the eyes of God), while the debate is about MES (marriage in the eyes of the state). I don’t think there’s much argument that MEG, at least for a Catholic or an adherent of a spectrum of other faith traditions, is inherently related to procreation. I also don’t think there can be much rational argument that MES was decoupled from nearly all of the attributes of MEG that you describe long before same-sex marriage arrived on the scene as a serious political issue.

    So more out of curiosity than anything else, what do you say is the appropriate relationship between MEG and MES (if any)? Is your vision of MEG a motive of, or to put it more mildly, an informant to, your voting behavior, in a fashion similar to the way Tim Kowal describes in this colloquy?

    • I, too, thought of Tim’s comment when I read this, and thought this post was an excellent answer to it.

    • Jaybird says:

      I’ve always argued that I generally don’t have the competence to distinguish whether a marriage “really” is a marriage in the eyes of God or whether it isn’t. This makes me wonder how someone else gains the competence to make such a call.

      Usually, when I ask someone to explain how they know what they know, it usually ends up with me deeply suspicious that they don’t have any more competence than I do.

      • Kyle Cupp says:

        You’ll never get a job in an ecclesiastical marriage tribunal with that attitude.

      • mark boggs says:

        Don’t they know it in their hearts?

      • Mike Schilling says:

        It’s n to all that complicated.

        Rule 1. It is not a marriage in the eyes of God if the initial meeting, courtship, or ceremony took place on a reality show.
        Rule 2. It is not a MiteoG if the most memorable accomplishments of the couple are his wealth and her cleavage.
        Rule 3. It is not a MiteoG if it’s his Mth and her Nth and M + N > 6.

        • Jaybird says:

          Liza Minelli and David Gest?

          • Mike Schilling says:

            I’m in some ways very comfortable with my masculinity. I have no problem admitting that The Princess Bride is my favorite movie, or that the end of Field of Dreams makes me cry, or that nothing bores me more than fight scenes and explosions. But knowing enough about Liza Minelli to discuss her life? I mean, geez, is there a Rambo marathon somewhere we can watch?

          • Jaybird says:

            I looked for the .gif of Sylvester Stallone dancing (from that scene at The Party At Kitty and Stud’s) but I couldn’t find it.

            I’m content knowing that you know the one I’m talking about.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Excellent question, Burt. As a religious believer who’s also a secularist, I’m of the view that it would be wrong of me to impose my religious beliefs, about marriage or anything else, through the force of law. However, I also have purely rational arguments and reasons for some of my moral, social, and political positions, and I’m more than willing to bring these into consideration when I vote.

      The question, then, is whether I see any rational arguments for my ontological understanding of marriage and/or any aspects of that ontological meaning. Regarding the latter, I might. I could probably give philosophical support for some of those aspects, at least as ideals. Admittedly, I have not, to date, despite some attempts, worked out a comprehensive philosophy of marriage, so I’d probably go back and forth on various premises and arguments.

      However, while I haven’t formulated a comprehensive philosophical understanding of marriage, I know right of that bat that it wouldn’t be reflected in the current legal meaning, which basically allows marriage to mean whatever each couple wants it to mean. If, hypothetically, I concluded philosophically that marriage was naturally ordered toward the transmission of life and therefore could exist only between a man and a woman, that is not the current meaning of marriage in the law, and the current legal meaning of marriage gives me no basis on which to exclude same sex couples.

      Does that make any sense?

      • Kyle Cupp says:

        An addendum: as I’ve argued elsewhere, I think the “is-ought” problem makes arguing philosophically for any absolute definition of marriage problematic. It’s one thing to assume that the telos of procreation is a normative end of human sexuality and marriage; it’s quite another thing to prove it. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it philosophically proven. I see it assumed all the time.