The Spiritual Stakes in the Marriage Debate


June 6, 2014

Judges across the country are busy rewriting state marriage laws, overturning democratically adopted measures defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and setting the table possibly for the United States Supreme Court to complete the coup by decreeing the redefinition of marriage in every state. Consequently sexual difference is being erased from the marriage laws of more jurisdictions nationally, and perhaps soon in all of them.

To their credit, defenders of marriage’s time-honored but now imperiled definition wage their defense in secular terms. One need not be Christian or even religious to appreciate the value of upholding the institution of marriage as once universally understood, precisely because it unites as equals the two most fundamental divisions of humanity by joining husband and wife, and it affirms the natural human right of all children to be reared by both their mom and dad. Officially rendering the institution indifferent to the absence of either sex ignores these unique social dimensions, raising clear secular concerns. In a moment, however, I will argue for the need to go deeper than secular reasoning, engaging the issue morally, theologically and spiritually.

First one must acknowledge that the secular case for defining marriage as the union of the sexes is met with tremendous cultural pressure seeking to discount as irrelevant the overarching public value of bridging sexual difference and encouraging stable procreation. Same-sex marriage advocates will not countenance an exclusive sexual commitment to someone of the opposite sex, thereby refusing to treat men and women as equal. In the eyes of the same-sex couple, when it comes to romantic love, the other sex is not equal to their own sex. Marriage recognition ceases to affirm in every such commitment the equality of both sexes.

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In a relationship consisting of both sexes, where each participant vows to love the other as one’s self, each then equally loves both sexes. The sexes, though not the same, are treated as equal. Yet in the same-sex situation, each participant categorically vows that only someone of his or her own sex, not the other sex, is to receive one’s utmost love. Redefining marriage thus promotes an ironic and subversive principle of inequality between the sexes.

The harm to children posed by redefining sexual difference out of marriage is associated with this preferential regard for one’s own, but not the other, sex. Every child is the offspring of both sexes. Thus nature gives children through their biological parents an opportunity and incentive to relate to and equally cherish both sexes. Nature thereby prepares every child to contribute to social harmony generally by learning human relations from parents on both sides of the sexual divide. It is from this natural reality that a child’s human right to the care of both mom and dad originates.

Casting aside sexual difference as unnecessary to marriage recognition by the state causes an injustice because it thwarts this natural incentive and corresponding human right. The concern expressed here arises irrespective of the love and care that any adult may be prepared to bestow on any child. It is the conduct of the state, obliged to respect human rights, that provokes the complaint. When the state ignores sexual difference as a public value, the equality between natural parents in a child’s life is likewise dismissed as irrelevant.

The official message conveyed to children in the custody of same-sex partners is one of parental inequality based solely on sexual difference—you don’t have your absent daddy in your life because your mommy who is raising you now loves another woman, and you as a resilient child must learn that facilitating your mommy’s preference for someone of her own sex is more important in the state’s eyes than encouraging your mommy and daddy to raise you together. It is this governmental subtext, pronounced when marriage is redefined as other than the union of the sexes, which harms children.

Don’t Ignore the Theological Arguments
For Catholics as well as other people of faith, the secular case, as persuasive as we might think it to be, and as necessary as it is politically, is not enough. Who is willing to die to self in defense of maintaining a legal definition? If it were only a question of enforcing strictly secular norms, one’s convictions regarding the matter probably would not be as strong or as deeply held.

The transcendent moral, theological and spiritual truths also at stake here should spark one’s passion. Few will stand ready to be a martyr merely to preserve a section of the civil code. But many do desire, if God permits and sustains them, to endure any persecution necessary to uphold God’s love, justice and mercy. It is because marriage is made in heaven, not in some Federal courtroom, that we must be ready to give our all in its defense.

This being said, philosophical inquiry necessarily shapes our understanding of divine reality. Professor Robert George and others have ably described the nature of the conjugal act so as to explain why, from the perspective of secular reason, marriage has been and should continue to be understood as an institution and relationship built on that act. A greater appreciation of the unitive and procreative features of becoming one flesh, which make the conjugal act the only apt means of consummating the marital promise, helps one to understand the moral, theological and spiritual significance of sexual difference.

Morality is not just a collection of various abstract rules and injunctions. Morality addresses real persons in real-life situations, and moral principles have as their subject personal dignity. To say that sex is immoral outside of marriage—properly understood as the conjugal union of man and woman committed to each other exclusively for life—is to say that it offends the dignity of those persons who engage in it.

Even sex within marriage violates each spouse’s worth when it is not conjugal. Karol Wojtyla, in his pre-papal reflections on love and responsibility, emphasized the moral implications of how in non-conjugal sexual relations, whether between persons of the same sex or of the different sexes, the participants are mutually used for pleasure; those forms of sex which are neither unitive nor procreative can only be for pleasure, and pleasure for its own sake is only self-regarding, not other-regarding.

No person, as God’s beloved, deserves to be treated in one’s body as the impersonal means of another’s pleasure. When we oppose the redefinition of marriage, we necessarily reject on moral grounds non-conjugal sexual relations that devalue persons.

Theology reveals the drama of our redemption and hoped-for salvation as a conjugal event. Over fifty years ago the Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, taking his cue from the early Church Fathers, began writing about how the one flesh union of man and woman images the inner life of the Trinity, and affords a glimpse into the mystery of God’s relationship with the world and Christ’s bond with the Church. His reflections anticipated many of the issues raised today in the marriage redefinition debate.

Within the Trinity and between God and humanity, there is an exchange of giving and receiving that is mirrored in the conjugal act and from which, however mysteriously, the sacramentality of that intimate joining shines through in a marriage of baptized persons. If marriage reflects even dimly these cosmic realities by virtue of sexual difference, which makes the conjugal act possible, then in the one flesh union of husband and wife we have a concrete sign that God is not remote and disconnected, but has become one flesh with us through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without this capacity for one-flesh conjugality, a relationship lacks the real and comprehensive unity necessary to signify and make present in the world the internal communion of the Trinity and the external communion of God with humanity.

Spirituality demands a personal response receptive to God’s initiative because our relationship to God is conjugal. God has made us male and female in order to facilitate our entry into the beatitude of heaven, where all who remain faithful to God’s love will participate in the conjugal life of the Trinity for eternity. Our soul, sexually embodied, must be integrated with our flesh and will in order for this conjugal communion to be consummated.

This is where chastity operates. Any desire that inclines one to engage in non-conjugal sex does not flow from or move towards this body-soul integration and for that reason bears the earmarks of concupiscence. Nor can one’s psychological orientation mark one’s identity over and against one’s fundamental status of being a child of God, found precisely in our being made either male or female (see Genesis 1:27).

These are the foundational propositions, embraced as true, to which we witness when we as Catholics defend marriage against redefinition. We discern through secular inquiry that sexual difference is a compelling social reality and we believe that marriage, because of sexual difference, is even more significant as a matter of faith. Whatever persecution we will encounter for holding these beliefs we can endure because we know that so much more than preserving a human tradition is at stake

Editor’s note: The image above titled “The Sacrament of Marriage” was painted by Pietro Longhi.


  • Daniel Avila

    Daniel Avila is pursuing a Masters in theology at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, IN. He is a retired attorney with extensive experience in pro-life and family public policy.

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