For the Love of Sex and Marriage
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?