Same-Sex Marriage: Threat or Aspiration?
The debate over legalizing same-sex marriage has become a worldwide issue. On Sept. 4 Pope John Paul II denounced the notion to the new Canadian ambassador to the Holy See, Donald Smith. The issue also has been the subject of court decisions and legislative actions throughout the United States and was taken up by both presidential candidates in their campaigns. The way of addressing the issue often seems to be more a matter of political maneuvering and power struggles than moral dialogue or ethical analysis, yet occasionally one does find clear arguments advanced by careful thinkers. One such contribution was offered in the June 7, 2004, issue of America in an article by Msgr. Robert Sokolowski titled, The Threat of Same-Sex Marriage.
Sokolowski’s essay has the virtues of clarity and consistency. Readers know where he stands, and why, on recent proposals to give legal recognition to same-sex marriages. His central claims can be summarized as follows:
1. Recognition of same-sex marriages would mean that marriage will be defined by the exchange of sex. This is a redefinition of marriage that breaks with the traditional notion according to which procreation specifies what a marriage is.
2. If marriage is a contract that brings benefits and protections to adults who are simply friends rather than procreative couples, then it would have to be extended to all groups of people who wish to be friends. If marriage is defined more specifically, as a contract that gives legal status to consenting adults engaged in a specifically sexual relationship, then it would have to include multiple partners rather than just couples. Restricting the contract to two adults would be arbitrary from the point of view of those who would like to have legal status granted to polygamous or other multiple-partner sexual relationships.
3. The desire to detach procreation from marriage reflects the modern rejection of teleology, the ancient principle that the nature of things determines their good and proper functioning. The modern commitment to the mastery of nature by technology explains why many contemporary people find it possible to believe that marriage and sex do not have inherent purposes rooted in their natures.
4. Sex is defined as the power to procreate, and the first and defining characteristic of marriage is the physical procreation of children. Mutual love is not on a par with procreation, though the marital relationship ought to be informed by love or mutual benevolence. Anyone who separates sexuality from procreation lives an illusion and lies about the matter, and these vices lead in turn to a host of other moral problems. The most obvious truths become obscured.
These four claims capture the essential points, if not all the details, of the ethical argument put forth by Sokolowski against the legal recognition of same-sex marriage. His argument is straightforward, and his moral logic articulates a way of viewing this matter that is expressed by some members of the magisterium and their intellectual collaborators.
The argument contains a number of different kinds of claims. The first is based on a general vision of the place of sex within marriage; the second concerns the extension of marriage to the general category of friendship (i.e., one that is neutral with regard to procreation), joined to a slippery-slope argument that begins with an ethic justified by the decisions of consenting adults; the third laments the modern abandonment of final causality as the key point in a cultural context that makes proposals for legal recognition of same-sex marriage plausible to significant proportions of American society; and the fourth claim argues for the return to the traditional belief that marriage is for the sake of procreation.
It is important to note that his argument is based on reason, especially common sense observations of human behavior shaped by a Thomistic view of human nature and its intrinsic ends. There is little doubt that the modern fascination with the mastery of nature has had some destructive effects on society, on the natural world and on social institutions. It connects, in complex ways and in tandem with other cultural and economic factors, to a variety of problems related to sexual ethics: the reduction of sex to a tool for entertainment and recreation and its detachment from love as well as procreation; the legitimation of sexual behavior solely by the choices of consenting adults; and the threat to human dignity, particularly the dignity of unborn life, by the emergence of barely restrained reproductive technology. This having been said, other features of this argument suffer from significant defects.
The first claim, the heart of the argument, maintains that same-sex marriage would re-define marriage as the exchange of sex. Yet those gay people who wish to marry profess to do so because they love each other and want therefore to pledge themselves to each other in a permanent commitment. Many gay people, like many straight people, already exchange sex without desiring any such commitment. The argument thus fails to acknowledge the aspirations and ideals that motivate gay people who want to marry. From the point of view of authors like Andrew Sullivan, the civil law ought to extend to gay couples the same legal protection and social support that is already granted to married heterosexual couples. Marriage in this view is not simply about an exchange of sexlanguage that sounds a bit like the old manualist conjugal debtbut about intimate, caring, interpersonal love. Sokolowski’s emphasis on the primacy of procreation actually represents a reversion to an earlier preconciliar ethic that represents a substantial departure from the more personalist theology of marriage developed by Pope John Paul II.
More Than Friendship
It is also important to recognize that marriage is not only about friendship in any very broad sense of the term. It is about a romantic and sexual relationship that joins two people in a lifelong and exclusive bond. The template for this bond is heterosexuala union of complementary opposites, as John Paul II has described in his many talks. The monogamous and exclusive nature of this love is said to be a reflection of its depth and profundity; it is not the kind of love that a person can share with more than one beloved. Considerations of interpersonal love as well as of justice (and particularly equality) militate against polygamy or other forms of multiple-partner marriage (polyamory). Having more than one partner in a marriage necessarily creates an imbalance of power and leaves the relationship structurally open to the destabilizing force of sexual jealousy.
Another plank in the argument holds that the separation of sex and marriage is due to the modern rejection of the inherent ends of marriage and sex. While some readers will doubt that most couples using birth control are avid readers of Bacon and Descartes, Sokolowski is right to point to broad cultural patterns that feed into a pervasive ethos that looks to technology to provide the clearest and best answers to serious moral problems. This desire to dominate nature and humanity is evident not only in the domains of sex and reproduction but also in our military adventures and environmental policies.
Yet it also has to be acknowledged that some advocates of same-sex marriage argue on the basis of natural human ends and not against them. They maintain that the natural ends of sexuality and sexual behavior include love as well as procreation. Primatologists like Francis de Waal of Emory University and Richard Wrangham of Harvard have shown in considerable detail how sexual behavior in our closest primate relatives, the chimpanzees, naturally functions to create social bonds, soothe fractured relationships, provide comfort in times of stress and promote other pro-social goods. Humans are not chimps, obviously, but there are scientific as well as moral reasons for holding that human sexual behavior functions to enhance the emotional and affective bond between lovers. This claim can be read as a claim that endorses rather than repudiates the age-old notion that human nature inclines to certain ends, the achievement of which contributes to human flourishing. Some advocates argue that, though it may not lead to physical procreation, same-sex marriage provides conditions that satisfy what Pope Paul VI called the unitive purpose of sex. Hence arguments against same-sex marriage need to address this essentialist rationalei.e., one based on an account of natural endsif they are going to be reasonably comprehensive.
Sexual intercourse is the natural way in which humans engage in physical procreation; but, as just noted, there are reasons for thinking that procreation is not the primary (let alone exclusive) natural end of sex. Human beings across cultures engage in an enormous amount of nonprocreative sex. Unlike species in which females go into heat and give clear signals to potential mates, the human species is one of the few in which females manifest constant sexual receptivity (when they are already pregnant, for example, or even postmenopausal).
Nor is it obvious that procreation is the dominant end of marriage. Marriage, after all, is a social and cultural institution whose meaning varies in important ways across historical and cultural boundaries. In the past, marriage in most of its forms has been related to child-bearing and child-rearing. Marriage is the context in which procreation has more often than not taken place, and in general it provides a more nurturing, reliable framework for raising children than do the alternatives. Yet this does not mean that the first and defining character of marriage is the physical procreation of children. The latter phrase sounds as if human beings are like fish, whose main investment (as the biologists like to say) is to make sure that the female’s eggs are fertilized by the male in the right riverbed before they depart. The vast majority of human procreative energy is expended not in physical procreation, if by that is meant simple biological reproductionfertilization, gestation and birthbut in providing children with the proper emotional, moral, social and spiritual upbringing.
This is the broader and more noble sense in which Pope Paul VI spoke about procreation in Humanae Vitae. The extended period of adult child-rearing, preceded by a profound infantile and childhood dependence, is one of the traits that are uniquely human. Yet this level of child care does not mean that childless married couples are any less married than procreative married couples. Marriage has its own integrity, which does not require validation by procreation. This message is important today, when married couples living into their mid-80’s spend the major portion of their life together having nothing to do with procreation.
Furthermore, we are now in a society that gives social recognition to a great variety of relationships outside of marriage. Children are being raised outside of marriage at a higher rate. Middle-class married couples are increasingly delaying childbearing, even into their early 40’s.
The Real World
Some gay couples are adopting and in this way function as procreative units, at least in the broad sense of the term that embraces child-rearing and education. This development provides great benefits for children who would otherwise go without loving homes. The desire to return to a golden age when marriage meant procreation (if it ever really did) is more nostalgic than realistic. Ethical analysis of current proposals to give legal recognition to same-sex marriage thus needs to begin with an acknowledgment of the real world status of the social situation in which we find ourselvesand of the real benefits as well as costs that are at stake in it.
Critics of same-sex marriage have a number of valid concerns, of a broad social nature, that need to be subjected to further examination and discussion. But this further discussion needs to be informed by a perspective that acknowledges that love and commitment are at the center of marriage. If observers want to understand the desire to extend marriage to same-sex couples, they ought to consider the point of view of those couples. The absence of this sympathetic understanding leads to significant flaws in some ways of viewing same-sex marriage. This is not to say that sympathetic understanding provides all the answers, only that it offers a helpful context for conversation. If polemics and political maneuvers have often undermined the possibility of genuine conversation, perhaps Catholics have a duty to examine the issues freshly and without the rancor that so often mars public debate in this country.