One More Nail in the Coffin

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on gay “marriage,” the culture of atomic eros, claims to reign triumphant and looks forward to forming our culture in the decades ahead. But, all persons of good will have a moral obligation to resist its march, and so I want to remind us of four principles that were always, and must continue to be, at the heart of our society’s long and ugly argument about sexuality, marriage, and the family.

1) A Thicker Conception of the Family
Defenders of marriage have insisted that gay “marriage” would not be the beginning of the unravelling of the family; rather, it would be the last nail in the coffin of western civilization’s turn against that institution. Over the course of a century, the West has steadily reduced and even eliminated the family’s role as the fundamental pre-political unit of society.

Advocates of gay “marriage” frequently claimed that the defenders of marriage were trying to protect a novelty, a historical fluke—the modern nuclear family. An odd critique coming from advocates of innovating the unprecedented, but in any case, to the contrary, we saw the rise of the nuclear family as itself an impoverishment of the institution of family that once had far wider, inter-generationally deeper, and authoritatively thicker branches.

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The thinning of these branches was the decisive and fateful first step that led to the rise of the nuclear family. The nuclear family’s own institutional strength has then been undermined, bit by bit, through the social acceptance of divorce, abortion, contraception, and the valorization of wage slavery and the consequent normalization of dual-income households; it has been wounded by the artificial severance of sexuality from fertility and commitment, of subjective affections from objective relationships, and the triumph of a therapeutic individualism over the claims of our intrinsically social and relational natures.

If the nuclear family is a weak form of family, we should work to revive older ideas of clan, of “familism,” as sociologists sometimes call it, and of la familia as many Hispanics still understand it. The record number of multi-generational households in our country indicates this is a truth Americans are rediscovering out of necessity and on their own.

2) The Campaign to Liberate the Will from Christian Morality
The campaign for gay “marriage” could have begun only after these changes had been wrought, and for two reasons. The proposal that two persons of the same sex could somehow forge a union worthy of the name “marriage” only begins to make sense if one’s imagination of what marriage is has already been abysmally weakened and simplified. If marriage is just one more nominal term for the kinds of passing emotional entanglements one might have over the course of a lifetime, then it will seem to make little more sense to deny it to that particular concoction, no matter how abnormal it may appear, than it would to deny it to two “yuppies” more wedded to their careers than the idea of children and who will probably divorce anyway, once online pornography and midlife crises have upended their fragile bark of vows.

Americans gradually became aware of how marriage changed. Never having thought about marriage and the family very seriously, but having inherited sound instincts about it, they slowly discovered that the marriages they were already involved in were hardly worthy of the name, and so concluded that the name itself may not be worth much. It may just be a name for any relationship that seems to tug at the heart and loins at once.

What provoked them to this rather indifferent bit of reflection was of course the concerted campaign of certain segments of our society to assert the triumph of the will over nature, including human nature. Here, we are not talking primarily about those homosexuals who march in parades in shocking attire or lack of attire, although they are its symbolic vanguard. Rather, I mean that “homelier” cadre of apparently normal persons who see sexual morality as a system of oppression that must be overthrown, whether on therapeutic principles of “self-actualization,” or the crude sophistry of Darwinian biology and moral theory, which claims all custom and tradition as a superstitious imposition on our base, animal natures.

In practice, such persons really wanted to be able to fornicate, cohabitate, adulterate, or divorce without a sense of having violated the bounds of moral goodness. But principle stood in the way of practice, and so they invented any number of modern rationalizations, of new, putatively rational principles to unshackle themselves, and society at large, from the moral authority of Christian civilization. Their goal was to thin and shallow the moral realm until it no longer appeared to extend to our desires and sexual acts. They thus created a realm at once of paramount psychological importance, of far reaching social consequence, and yet somehow morally indifferent.

It is not hard to win the argument against such persons, but they long ago won the culture. What we have witnessed in the triumph of no-fault divorce and chemical contraception is that victory. What we witness in the seismic shift in opinion polling regarding the morality of homosexual acts and the legitimacy of the phrase “gay marriage” is the masses becoming conscious of what they had long ago and unsuspectingly come to believe. One of the best things we can offer our culture is an account of sexuality and the family that can make sense of the instincts we all already have about it, one which respects its power and directs it to good ends.

3) The Qualified Genius of the Nuclear Family
If the nuclear family as it has been traditionally understood is a surprisingly modern and thin species of the foundational institution of society, it was nevertheless a form mostly sufficient to a society as destabilized as modern industrial democracy. Alexis de Tocqueville found the women of early-nineteenth-century America less charming and more worldly wise than their French counterparts, and he saw that this was all to the good. In an economy where everybody works and where fluid capital rather than the solidity of land is the source of wealth, the complementarity of man and wife, each with their distinctive responsibilities in the household, was essential to their prosperity. Any revival of a deeper and thicker conception of family would have to begin with the rediscovery of the irreducible and complementary roles of husband and wife that are central to every historical conception of family but are the ne plus ultra of the nuclear family.

That rediscovery has been frustrated chiefly by the interference of the state. Unmarried women and divorced mothers have it rough in our age. But, rather than serving as a force for the revival of a genuine masculinity and responsible fatherhood, they have mostly turned—have been encouraged to turn—to the state. A federal agency or program is to be created for every stage of life and to substitute itself for the functions once performed by husbands and the family unit as a whole.

During the same time that President Obama had discovered it was politically expedient to declare his support for homosexual “marriage,” he was also discovering how advantageous it was to become explicit about his vision for the future of American women. Thus, “Julia,” was born: a girl without parents and with an invisible and insignificant child, whose life will be guided by the state from cradle to pill to the grave. Only a society that is deeply short of social capital and stunted in its understanding of the role of men as family men could find any appeal in the unbearable lightness, the lonesome sterility, depicted in such a campaign. As Tocqueville predicted, people pursue individualism to become “free” and “equal to everyone else.” But, thus isolated from the social fabric and rendered weak by their “equality,” they turn jealously to the state to compensate for the void family and civil society once filled.

4) We Need to Conform to the Order of Nature
It does not take a comprehensive anthropology or theory of human nature to make a decisive case against gay “marriage,” it takes a syllogism. a) The government has an interest in marriage because marriage constitutes the one institution and environment where the future of our society, children, can come into being and thrive; b) that institution requires one man and one woman if it is to function fully; c) therefore, any other arrangement may, at worst, hurt this compelling state interest or, at best, be a matter of indifference to it.

But, as 2) indicates, ours is not an age to listen to prudential syllogisms. Our society is utilitarian, but not in the sense that it is susceptible to a kind of grinding calculus regarding outcomes of “greatest happiness for the greatest number.” Rather, we are utilitarian only insofar as we refuse to recognize goodness as a real property of things and, so, perceive some things as intrinsically good and natural while others are intrinsically disordered or perverse. Modern society is based on a contempt for nature and recognizes only useful goods. To claim that something has a necessarily inviolable integrity, that it is good in itself, is merely to tempt a modern person to say, “goodness and value are just matters of opinion,” that he might the more readily violate it and subject it to the use of his will.

A case at once much broader and much narrower finally had to be made prior to the specific argument against gay “marriage.” We needed, and still need, to help our contemporaries to see that their anxiety and discomfort regarding the abuse of the earth and the polluting of their own bodies is rooted—at least should be rooted—in something more than a superstitious fear of Armageddon by way of global warming or some other environmental catastrophe. It should be, rather, rooted in a desire to conform human culture, as a microcosm, to the normative goodness of nature as a whole, the macrocosm. We seek this conformity not merely out of fear of extinction (good reason though that is), but out of a desire to flourish, to take joy in living according to the pattern laid down by the author of nature. That is the broad argument.

The narrower argument is to help our contemporaries see that homosexual acts are one of a number of things people do in which they violate the dignity and the law of their own nature. Along with the social harm that comes from redefining the family as any dyad drawn together by emotional bonds and bodily desire, the normalization of an activity and a way of life that violates the integrity of human sexuality hurts every single person caught up in it. It hurts the one who engages in those acts beyond measure, turning the strength of his bodily desires against the desire of his whole being for happiness. And it hurts everyone who bears witness to this phenomenon, schooling them to doubt the claims upon themselves of anything greater than the tumultuous waves of one craving after another. This weakens our trust that the family is an institution with binding moral authority.

We need to help our contemporaries reacquire the richer understanding of nature that the western tradition has generally taught. Though our world is fallen, an intelligible order remains within it to teach us what should be the proper, good ends of our actions and what constitutes a departure from those ends. To live in conformity to nature is not to declare that “whatever is is right,” but to recognize that everything, including our sexuality, only becomes wholly good when it is directed to a good end. The genuinely good end becomes visible to us almost as soon as we deny our appetites the right to declare whatever we happen to desire as an absolute good; that is, as soon as we become chaste.

We need to make these four arguments again and again until they carry the day. That day will be a long time from now, I know. But, God knows, it will come.


  • James Matthew Wilson

    James Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor of Religion and Literature in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. He is the author of a chapbook of poems, Four Verse Letters (Steubenville, 2010) and of Timothy Steele: A Critical Introduction (Story Line, 2012), and a collection of poems entitled The Violent and the Fallen (Finishing Line Press). His latest book is titled The Fortunes of Poetry in An Age of Unmaking (Wiseblood Books, 2015). Readers can learn more about his writing at

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