With the Marriage Plebiscite being distributed to all Australians on 12 September, and a count of the results being collected in November, it is crucial for Christians to understand and moreover, be able to explain to others, the reasons for their position on marriage.
Because Marriage is foundational to society, the government has agreed that the whole nation has a right and indeed a duty to provide feedback via a voluntary plebiscite on the proposal to allow same-sex “marriage”.
Many people find it difficult to articulate and defend their core beliefs on marriage, especially if they are on the “no” side, because the media are generally heavily in favour of the “yes” vote and the “no” case is not publicly being well made. The problem with the way this issue is being discussed in Australia is that it is being defined as an “Equality” issue. The assertion is made that same-sex attracted people are being discriminated against. What I would like to do here, is reframe the issues at stake so that we can see more clearly the way to defend what most Christians instinctively know is right, but are not sure how to explain, especially when faced with angry and emotional others accusing us of being ‘haters’ or ‘spewing filth’ as I have seen in some online commentary.
The first thing we need to say is that this is not about hating people with same-sex attraction. God loves all people and wants them to enter into a deeply fulfilling relationship with Him. However, if we love God, we love Truth itself and therefore we need to seek the Truth about what Marriage is.
The second thing to say is that it’s no use discussing marriage with non-Christians by quoting the Bible. Non-Christians do not regard the Bible as authoritative, so we need to find another area of common ground. Fortunately, the Catholic Church has a very rich history of philosophy grounded in a respect for reason, so in my discussion below, I will not be talking about God, but about philosophical positions that both Christians and non-Christians can share.
Thirdly, we cannot possibly start this discussion without defining what Marriage is. And it is when we look at this, that we discover that the “no” and “yes” cases have a fundamentally different way of looking at Marriage. The problem with the “equality” argument, is that it doesn’t say exactly what we want to treat equally – or rather, it’s not marriage as a concept that it wants to treat equally, but rather self-defined and infinitely adjustable minority groups. In the words of Ryan T. Anderson, Marriage Equality depends on Marriage Reality. And Marriage Reality depends on describing Marriage correctly. Essentially, there are two competing views on marriage, and I will describe them below.
The #1 View of Marriage. In this worldview, marriage is that relationship which unites a mother and father with the children that their relationship produces. Some 2,400 years ago, Aristotle said that we can analyse any community in terms of the ACTS that the community engages in, the GOODS that they seek, and the NORMS or COMMITMENTS that they live by. Looking at marriage, we can see that there is one ACT engaged in by the husband and wife that defines their marriage. This Act is grounded in the Anthropological truth that the bodies of men and women are complementary. All of our bodily organs can function correctly on their own – the heart can beat on its own, the kidneys can filter the blood on their own, the eyes can see without recourse to another individual – but the sexual organs require input from another human being of the opposite sex to complete their function. Together, the man and the woman form a one-flesh union. And so complete is this union, that within the 24 hours following, a baby might be conceived and subsequently born nine months later. So the GOODS produced as a result of the marriage are the children. This is based in the biological truth that human reproduction requires both a man and a woman. This tells us that the love-making Act that makes the marriage relationship marital, is also the life-giving act that produces the Goods that are the result of that union. The act is not only unitive because of the love between the spouses, but also generative. This then leads to the COMMITMENTS arising as a result of their Act – the Commitments to raising the children arising as a result of the love-making life-giving Act. This is why spouses make commitments that are comprehensive both in time and in exclusivity and are declared as part of the marriage ceremony: “till death do us part”, “forsaking all others I take you to be my lawful wedded spouse”. You don’t do that with your business partner or your flatmate. Marital exclusivity is about the sexual act itself – it doesn’t include activities like who you can play tennis with or join a choir with. These commitments are grounded in the social reality that children deserve both a mother and a father. A large body of research data shows that the well-being of children in two-parent, intact families significantly exceeds that of children in single-parent families. And research is increasingly showing that genetic differences between males and females are important for providing balance in child-rearing. I’m not saying that same-sex attracted people are bad parents, but with the best will in the world, two dads or two mums do not replace a mum and a dad.
The #2 View of Marriage. There’s a competing vision of marriage that sees it rather as an intense, emotional, romantic and care-giving relationship. The determining factor is that of all your relationships, this one relationship is your most intense, your most romantic, your BFF par excellence, where you have an exchange of care-giving between the partners, who are not differentiated by sexual preference. This view has as its motto “love is love”. Everyone who does not subscribe to this view may be consequently regarded as a “hater” or a “homophobe”, despite the fact that any opinion on homosexuality is irrelevant to the #1 Vision of Marriage.
But the second definition of marriage can’t explain all the marital norms, i.e. the life-long commitment and the exclusivity – and it certainly can’t explain the history of marriage legislation over time. If the second view is true, then why can’t someone just abandon the marriage when they fall out of love, or when someone more exciting or attractive comes along? If the second view is true, then what is to prevent it being exclusive – why not have the occasional secret ‘fling’ for the sake of a few moments of ‘love’? What is there to prevent this sort of relationship being monogamous – why not make it a throuple or allow polygamy? Why not say, like the Mormon polygamist, “I love them all!” There is nothing in the #2 definition of marriage which grounds the relationship in monogamy, exclusivity and permanency.
For this reason, I see the second view of marriage leading to the complete erosion of the concept of marriage over time, as those things that currently make marriage special (monogamy, exclusivity and permanency) would become irrelevant. Of course, it is only the sexual revolution of the 1960s that has made the #2 view of marriage possible – with easy contraception eroding the link between the unitive and generative aspects of marriage and leading to the hook-up culture with its consequent explosion of non-marital childbearing, and no-fault divorce eroding all three pillars of marriage: monogamy, exclusivity and permanence. So it’s no surprise that some people come to the conclusion that sexual preference is no big deal either. The subtext of the marriage debate is that heterosexual people have made such a mess of marriage that there is no reason any more to restrict access to marriage across a wider spectrum.
Neither does the second definition of marriage explain why the State takes an interest in marriage. Obviously the State has an interest in creating a stable society. And stable societies are made up of smaller units of families. When families are dysfunctional, everybody is affected. With a decreased commitment to the traditional understanding of marriage and family, there will be an associated increase in anti-social behaviour, depression, anxiety and other mental-health disorders, and diminished societal cohesion. There is no reason for the State to have any interest in people’s personal love lives, apart from the fact that the State is interested in the welfare of children, since neglected, abandoned, dysfunctional, depressed and anxious children are a burden on the State.
I haven’t yet addressed the other flow-ons from the re-definition of marriage – limits to freedom of speech and freedom of association, as well as persecution for sincerely held religious beliefs, but will return to them in the coming weeks, along with a discussion of why this is not an “Equality” issue.
I would just like to acknowledge my indebtedness to Ryan T. Anderson, Sherif Girgis, Robert P. George, and Michael Quinlan, from whose work I have borrowed heavily.
In the meantime, here is a copy of a Facebook conversation I conducted with a friend of a friend, to assist you in having your arguments ready to defend the Catholic position.
Further reading and watching:
- Getting the Marriage Conversation Right: A Guide for Effective Dialogue by William B. May
- What is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense by Sherif Girgis, and Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert George
- How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice: Civil Responses to Catholic Hot Button Issues (Revised and Updated) by Austen Ivereigh and Kathryn Jean Lopez
- Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom by Ryan Anderson