What Next in the Marriage Debate?

A couple of months back, I received a phone call from one of my sisters, reminding me of a wedding reception that she and everyone else in the family would be flying down to Florida to attend.   A nephew had just gotten married in New York, and everyone was eager to celebrate the union.  Was I planning to go, she asked?  The question was slyly rhetorical, as we both knew, since the answer was obviously no.  And not because the cost of an airline ticket was too high, or that I’d sadly made other plans for that weekend.  There was nothing Aesopian about my refusal.  It was simply because I could not think of anything the least bit celebratory about the marriage of two men.

Nor was it, come to think of it, even a marriage—a point I did not raise with my sister, then or later, as she was already wearily aware of my reactionary views on the subject; we’d been rehearsing them for years and years.  She and I are at a complete impasse on the issue and so more and more it simply doesn’t come up.

But, of course, the damn thing just won’t go away, will it?   As witness, for instance, the latest thunderbolt from the Supreme Court effectively announcing the legalization of same-sex marriage.  Thanks to two landmark rulings last month (June 27), the defense of marriage looks to have been completely shot to pieces.  Who’s going to resurrect the institution of traditional marriage now?  The Republicans?  As an old Jesuit I once knew used to say, “It’s going to get worse before it gets a lot worse.”

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Not since the late 1960s, in fact, when acquiescence to the idea of amiable co-existence with the Communist world became a welcome and widespread development among Americans have we witnessed a movement of comparable success in achieving wide cultural and political acceptance.  If anything, the mainstreaming of the gay rights movement has been at an even faster and more far-reaching clip than anything we’ve ever seen.  Not only are we expected nowadays to ratify the right of homosexuals to marry and, yes, to have and to raise children; but to rejoice in the fact that they are finally free to do so.  Who could have predicted a triumph as total as this one appears to be?

So the cause is lost and we all need to come to terms with the new dispensation—is that what I’m saying?   (Do I FedEx the wedding present to my nephew now?)  No, it is not.  Indeed, the cause is most emphatically not lost.  And anyone who hasn’t got a death wish needs to take up arms and get in the fight.  There must be zero tolerance for defeatism on this issue.  Besides, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, there are no lost causes, because there are no gained causes.  So why fight?  In order to keep something alive lest the dark days that are coming find us without even the least scintilla of light by which to steer our way safely beyond the looming shipwreck.

But we have got to fight with weapons commensurate to the struggle.  In the effort we make to turn back the tide of defeat (and history will not look kindly upon us if we fail on this front) some arguments are less persuasive than others, and we need to know which ones they are.

So what arguments won’t work?  Begin with Appeals to Authority, to which not a few Protestant Evangelicals appear particularly vulnerable.  It will be best to avoid them altogether.  And why is that?  Because they are, as St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us, the weakest arguments of all.  Nor, as a practical matter, are they likely to work.  Not now, and certainly not with this crowd, so determined is the homosexual lobby to level every marital distinction sanctioned by Ultimate Authority Itself.  I mean God, of course, who despite clear and unmistakable authorship of the institution of marriage, is not someone to whom any direct appeal is going to succeed.  He may be the primary source when it comes to the meaning of marriage (who can better adjudicate disagreements than the Author of the text?), but, alas, who’s reading his book?  And so what I’m saying is, don’t become a “bible thumper” on this issue, to cite a term used by some to dismiss fundamentalist opponents of homosexuality.  In other words, even though the practice of sodomy is plainly proscribed by Scripture, which, as the sacred Word of God, remains normative for all time, it cannot be our first line of defense.

It also begs the key question that simply cannot be gainsaid in the struggle; it comes up repeatedly in the gay marriage debate and no appeal to scripture is going to allay the force of it.  Which is to ask—as they insistently do—why exactly do we regard it as wrong for two people in lovenot to marry just because they share the same sex?  Do we really want to rob people of their right to be happy?  It is a heart-felt question and on the strength of its sincerity it deserves an answer.

Mr. Lance Morrow, for example, a formidable essayist for TIME and other important secular publications, in a provocative piece written some years ago, put the issue squarely before those of us who hold fast to the existing and immemorial usage of the term.  The time having come, he off-handedly tells us, “for an evolutionary change regarding marriage,” we have simply got to accommodate the desires of gay people.  And why this evolutionary change exactly?  For two reasons, he says.  Because the event of marriage involves neither men nor women, but simply people; and because the essence of being married is not about babies, but about love, the expression of which needn’t eventuate in children.  “If two people want to be married,” he sternly concludes, “it’s their commitment, their love, their risk, and their responsibility.  It is not my business to interfere one way or another, and certainly not my job to check their genitals.”

Well, neither do I, for that matter, nor does anyone else I can think of, wish to do genital inspections in order to determine who’s fit to marry.  But neither do we want to trivialize the fact that the human race consists of people possessing one of two equal yet opposite sets of genitals.  Are these to signify nothing?  Is being male and female so accidental an arrangement, so whimsical a design feature, that in the most intimate exchanges among us it cannot matter how we human beings are arranged?  Mr. Morrow could hardly be more mistaken than to downplay their importance.  Unless he is prepared to dismiss them as merely vestigial, it matters enormously, and across the whole sweep of the human estate, which of the two organs we humans have come into the world equipped with.   Indeed, it is a matter about which even Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and St. Paul himself would substantially agree.  There is just no other conjugal connection this side of perversion.  How else do we relate to one another if not as male and female?  As people?   What airy-fairy abstractionism is this?  I don’t know any people.  It is only as men or women that I’ve any real acquaintance or connection with the human race.

Here lies the best and most immediate line of defense we’ve got.  That in the turn to the subject, that anthropological matrix from which life as we know it unfolds, it is always as an embodied subject that we encounter the other, the specific configuration of whose being will be either male or female.   Again, we humans only know men and women.  Our bodies bespeak a certain language, the grammar and syntax of which are not arbitrary or unjust, but rather profound and revelatory of who we are.  The body is not a mere carapace we inhabit.  And thus in the mystery of love, of that mutual giving of self, it is the body that is bestowed upon the other.  Personhood is mediated by and through the body.  To think otherwise is to fall into angelism.

Yes, but it must truly be another to whom that gift of self is made.  Which is precisely why, at the deepest level of our experience of being sexually differentiated beings, same-sex marriage cannot be countenanced.  Because the union between the two is neither real nor natural, it cannot qualify as a marriage and we mustn’t call it such.  The question is, are there enough real men and women out there willing to summon the courage to say so?


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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