First, love. It is impossible to have love without truth, but sadly all too possible to have truth without love. Perhaps no where is this more on display than in the marriage debate. Too often Christians in America fail to discuss sexual ethics in the spirit of love. Given our lack of charity, the Supreme Court’s recent Obergefell ruling should not surprise us.
Indeed, more than once I have heard even conservative commentators remark they found the liberal argument for same-sex marriage more compelling than the counter-arguments. And I must confess, I can understand why they think that.
The popular arguments presented in defense of traditional marriage are half-baked and flimsy at best. Appeals to Scripture are useless in a culture that does not acknowledge Scripture as true, let alone authoritative. Things become even more muddled in a Protestant America that has no authoritative interpreter of Scripture anyway (hence, many Christians support same-sex marriage). Compounding all this is the reality that religious convictions come off in secular America as little more than judgment and condemnation—not exactly an aid to the cause of traditional marriage.
Appeals to history and The Way Things Have Always Been amount to nothing more than a logical fallacy. We cannot measure the truth-value of any idea by its oldness or newness. Is it any wonder, then, that many on both sides of the spectrum find these bad arguments, seemingly bereft of love, wanting?
Worst of all, while these caricatured arguments of the genuine conservative position get passed around, the more nuanced, thoughtful reflections are drowned out by the noise. Perhaps most disillusioning is it seems the distorted arguments have most of us so charged and defensive that sincere questions and seeking get uncharitably misinterpreted, projected upon, and shut down immediately by bias.
But the fact remains: the issues raised by the marriage debate are not self-evident, and they deserve to be carefully navigated. While appeals to history alone are fallacious, the fact that human civilization has always recognized the union between a man and a woman as unique should give us pause and make us wonder why that might be. But most importantly, no matter where we sit, we need to be allowed to ask questions. We can relax and entertain thoughts for the sake of growth. There is no need for our guards to fly up instantly, potentially cutting us off from deeper reflection.
In fact, it might be useful to highlight some truth-seeking and critical thinking basics. Controversial issues make us defensive, and same-sex marriage is no exception. Most of us tend to decide entirely too quickly where we stand, and then seek out writers who agree with those inclinations. Rarely do we afford ourselves the opportunity to take a genuine journey of thought.
For the sake of reflection, however, we can temporarily put our opinions down. In the process, we will either discover things we have not considered before or affirm things we already know. Either way, we have nothing to lose and only things to gain. We need not be afraid or threatened. At the very least, learning to feather out and question our most basic assumptions, though uncomfortable, will teach us to revere the complexity of things, which in turn will help us respect our neighbor even if she comes to different conclusions than we do.
But we must be willing to dig deep. To travel into the foreign lands of entirely other paradigms, seeking to see through the eyes of others for the sake of understanding, not necessarily agreeing. Key in this process will be reading articulate, fair, yet unapologetic perspectives from across the spectrum. Especially in regard to serious, complex matters like sexual ethics and the role of the state in marriage, we must avoid making the call based on terse internet articles or blog posts. This is not to say these things can’t help us—hence I am writing this piece—but just to say they probably should not have the last word in the forum of our hearts and minds.
Especially in the case of the marriage debate there are those writers on both sides who will challenge us and make us think. Find them and read them. Then sit and reflect.
Surprising Common Ground
Doing so will reveal that, contrary to popular opinion, there exists a profound level of common ground between both deep thinkers on the so-called “Left” and the “Right.”1 This realization should allow us to restore some of the peace afforded by mutual respect.
Most especially we would do well to note that there are thinkers on both sides of this discussion who are seeking what is best for people—individuals and societies alike. They may come to different conclusions, but their goal is the same and commendable. Ultimately, we may decide those on the other side are seriously or even dangerously mistaken, but at the very least we can acknowledge that the best of both sides only want to love others.
Additionally, no reasonable player on either side is looking to restrict freedom. Rather both sides are looking to promote human flourishing and liberate people from false and destructive paradigms. They simply have different visions of how to achieve this.2
It should also be said that no one is looking to “legislate morality” (though, to be sure, it is incorrect to say morality can never be made law of the land; in some cases it has been and should be). No reasonable defenders of traditional marriage want to see same-sex sex acts or relationships made illegal. Christians believe in the doctrine of free will, and maintain that we must be the arbiter of our own choices.
With that, an important distinction needs to be made: the difference between the morality of same-sex sex acts and the state’s recognition of same-sex relationships as identical with opposite sex ones. Too often these threads get knotted up and confused in the cultural conversation. My focus will revolve not around the morality of same-sex sex acts, which is a separate discussion, but on understanding marriage and whether the state has any need to acknowledge it.
What is Marriage?
That said, I submit that at the heart of this debate is not who has a right to get married. The question, rather, is what is marriage? Or put another way, what is it exactly that people have a right to?
Traditionally, marriage has been defined as the unique and singular human relationship that is formed between two persons of the opposite sex and is exclusive, permanent, and open to life. Before we assume this is merely a subjective definition that can be manipulated, we ought to consider the idea that marriage has an objective nature that can be either entered into or cut across.
To illustrate this point, we would not consider a man and a woman who live together but never took vows of permanence “married,” but rather say they “co-habitat.”
Similarly, we call betraying a boyfriend or girlfriend “cheating,” while we call betraying a spouse “adultery.” Why the distinction? Because adultery violates the exclusivity that is inherent to the character of marriage, but not necessarily to the nature of dating.
That leaves us with the third component of traditional marriage, openness to life. If openness to life is intrinsic to the nature of marriage, then marriage must be a relationship between persons of the opposite sex for only such persons can create life by the sexual act.
If one recognizes these three components—permanence, exclusivity, and openness to life—as ‘the stuff’ of marriage, then I think it is clear that certainly most adults can enter into a marriage if they so choose.3 But the reality is not all adults are interested in forming a permanent, exclusive, open-to-life relationship with another adult. Some of us prefer to date and never make an exclusive and permanent commitment. Some of us knowingly intend to contracept and never be open to children, which in Catholic theology prevents a sacramental marriage from coming into existence (if one is not a fan of our positions, he must at least admit we’re consistent!). And some of us choose to be in romantic relationships with people of the same sex, which cannot produce life, and therefore would not be considered marriages in this sense.
I think it valuable to point out that none of this is particularly personal or offensive. The Church has simply recognized with a word the unique kind of relationship that is exclusive, permanent, and open to life, highlighting that this bond is the basis of the entire human family. Put another way, the male-female commitment that produces children is an important reality in the Church, and also in the world and society, so it seems fitting and proper to have a name for it to distinguish it from other types of human relationships. Other types of relationships, by the way, which may or may not be just as valid as marital relationships, but are simply different than the marital union.
The major take away here is that, for the Church, marriage has an essence that simply is. It is not mere semantics that we are arguing over, but actual metaphysical, objective realities that exist outside of human subjectivity.
Marriage and the State
Although all this addresses how the Church understands marriage, it does not answer the question of how the state should define and understand it. Does the state have any interest in recognizing the kind of singular and unique union that is permanent, exclusive, and open to life? Benefits aside, can the state have a word to distinguish permanent & exclusive unions that create new citizens from myriad other human unions?
Dr. Ryan T. Anderson, a senior fellow with the Heritage Foundation, would say yes.4 He explains the legitimate interest the state has in limiting the number of orphaned children and single parents by recognizing traditional marriage. The social science of the last fifty years is clear: the ideal environment for children is a home with their married mother and father. Therefore, incentives for couples who create children to unite exclusively and permanently is a benefit for the state, healthier for any children who arise from the union of mother and father, and helps produce a more stable society.
Certainly this is not to say the particular benefits the state currently reserves for marriage shouldn’t be extended to other household make-ups, but simply to say that having incentives in general for couples who create life together to stay together seems appropriate.
This said, the issue nevertheless remains complex. It is true, for example, that some same-sex couples adopt children, and could assist the state in that way in limiting the number of orphans.5 It is also true that many keen conservatives see a major flaw in the state’s involvement in the marriage business at all. Before the French Revolution, marriage belonged totally to the Church. It was only after the French Progressives tried to scrub their world of Catholicism that the state began codifying marriage, helping reduce in our minds the metaphysical reality of the sacrament to a mere legal agreement. The traditionalists of that time were appalled by this, and would surely find it curious that many of today’s conservatives are unwittingly borrowing from the liberalism of the past in looking to the state to settle questions about marriage.
Regardless, what I think these reflections help illumine for us is the rather simple question of whether or not the state can recognize different unions differently—not in any discriminatory sense, of course, but simply in a discerning sense.
A Rebuke of Christians
At this point, it seems appropriate to add some thoughts that hopefully will allow Christians to grow in humility, and thereby compassion, when confronted with our neighbors who have same-sex attractions.6
First, it is useful to remember that though all of us might not struggle with same-sex attraction, we are all nevertheless in the same boat. We each have our temptations, and certainly our sexual temptations. That same-sex attraction has been singled out and especially loathed over, say, adultery or masturbation or contraception, is nothing but hypocrisy, plain and simple. More than this, the spirit that would have us recoil or sit in judgment of any sinner is not a spirit from the Lord, but from Satan. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, too many of us are willing to be morally, biblically, and intellectually right, yet spiritually wrong.
To be sure, it is nonsensical to sacrifice Truth on the altar of Love since love by definition includes truth. But Our Lord is clear: truth can only make a difference in people’s lives when it is undergirded by love.7 If we are missing that, we have bigger problems than a person with same-sex attraction.
Secondly, Christians would be wise to do some serious examinations of conscience regarding our role in the current state of the culture. If moral relativism concerns us, we should take a long, hard look at doctrinal relativism, and realize it is the latter that helped give rise to the former.
Finally, if we are Christians who accept contraception, we may want to consider this question: if marriage is not an institution intrinsically open to life and we can contracept without violating it, on what basis is same-sex marriage a problem in the first place? Why, in other words, must marriage be between persons of the opposite sex if children are not the proper end of marriage? If we exclude openness to life from the equation, and are left simply with a permanent and exclusive bond as the requirement for marriage, then what is the harm in two men or two women wanting a permanent and exclusive bond?
It it is the third aspect of marriage—openness to life—that renders marriage an institution requiring both sexes. If we eliminate this aspect from our understanding of marriage, we eliminate the need for marriage to be diverse with both a male and a female partner.
With all these thoughts in view, one can’t help but wonder when in fact America re-defined marriage. Was it with the recent Supreme Court ruling? Or when Christians started thinking divorce was possible and contraception moral?
The point is same-sex marriage did not come out of nowhere. In many ways, we paved the way for it, and we would do well to bear that in mind.
This post was edited on September 8, 2015.
About Sherry Hinton
Sherry Hinton is a Catholic convert from Baltimore, Maryland. She was raised Baptist, became Anglican as a teen, and converted to Catholicism during her college years. She graduated Summa Cum Laude from Regent University with a degree in Theology & Church History. She is blessed to teach and explore the Great Books of the Western Tradition at several classical academies, one of which is ecumenical. She lives with her husband, Allin, who also converted to Catholicism. They hope to attend St. John’s in Annapolis to go through their Western Classics program together. In the meantime, they adore going deeper into God and his reality through the power of the Holy Spirit present in the Catholic Church he gave to us.
- Here it must be said the American Religious Right is hardly representative of all Christian thought on marriage and many other issues. Christians have been reflecting on the nature of life for over 2,000 years, and have profound, nuanced, and expansive perspectives that run much deeper than what is often propped up as the “Christian perspective” in American culture.
- The true tension of many of our cultural disagreements lies here: the modern view that joy is found by conforming our external world to our internal desires vs. the Christian view that joy is found by conforming our internal desires to an external good. Namely, God and the objective form of reality as he made it. For more on this generally, see C.S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man, and relating to the marriage debate, see Michael W. Hannon’s, “Against Heterosexuality” published on firstthings.com
- Including the infertile, who “have the right to marriage because they have the capacity to perform the conjugal act that is naturally ordered to procreation, even if it can’t lead to procreation for reasons unintended by them” (Andrew Greenwell. “Answering the Question: the Right to Marriage and Infertile Couples.” catholic.org)
- Ryan T. Anderson. Truth Over-Ruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom. Regnery Publishing. 14 July 2015.
- The consensus verdict regarding whether children do best with two parents regardless of gender vs. if they do better with both a mother and a father has yet to be delivered by the sociologists.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2358: “The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. They do not choose their homosexual condition; for most of them it is a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.”
- Mark 12:30-31; 1 Corinthians 13:1-3: etc., etc.