The arguments for traditional marriage to avoid
Marriage is under assault, and in just the last month, we have seen some surprising, depressing concessions: Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi opined to the press that Christians could accept
“civil unions” of same-sex couples. Former Republican vice-presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan told a town hall meeting in Wisconsin that while he still opposed homosexual “marriage,” he supported the “right” of same-sex couples to adopt children. Evangelical Christian pastors, afraid of alienating younger members of their churches, have begun to back away from this issue. Even Catholic and Evangelical leaders whose views are orthodox have become reluctant to “pick this hill to die on.” A gifted writer and Catholic priest confessed to me, “I have held off on commenting on the marriage issue. I’m just too frightened of the backlash.”
Proponents of same-sex unions have gotten so cocky that they have begun to criminalize the opposition. In Quebec, a government ministry is partnering with homosexual activists to monitor and punish as “hate speech” opposition to same-sex unions. As Brian Brown, President of the indispensible National Organization for Marriage, told the Catholic Leadership Conference in Charlotte, N.C. on April 25: “Make no mistake: defenders of natural marriage are being tarred with the same brush as racists. Our views are being delegitimized, and we are being stigmatized. Soon we may be legally sanctioned. That means that any Christian church that defends traditional marriage will be treated as Bob Jones University was when it enforced racist policies. That is the future, unless we fight.” Once we grant that same-sex couples can marry, it becomes a fundamental right – the kind of right that courts routinely rule trump lesser rights, like the right to practice the controversial tenets of a minority religion.
If you think Mr. Brown is being an alarmist, take note of what is happening in other “free countries.” In Denmark, the government has ordered Lutheran churches to offer same-sex wedding ceremonies. In Canada, a private Catholic school has been ordered by judges to stop teaching Christian sexual morality. Do you really think that American authorities will act any differently once Christians have been tarred as the moral equivalents of skinheads? No wonder that topless lesbian protestors felt bold enough to assault and degrade an elderly Catholic archbishop who’d defended Christian sexual morality. They knew that their bullying would be winked at. “Those people” deserve what they get.
It is clear what we are losing: not just the assistance of the state in supporting the natural law, but our actual, day-to-day freedom to practice our faith. Faithful Christians are being shoved out of the mainstream of acceptable society and into the fever swamps inhabited by race cranks.
What is less clear is why we are losing. How did an issue (same-sex “marriage”), which recently seemed so outrageous that the great Christian moralist Bill Clinton led the effort to ban it nationally, become a seemingly unstoppable “civil rights issue”? What happened was that we have failed to argue effectively, and have thoughtlessly granted the opposition’s major premises. We have thought with our hearts and felt with our heads, and generally failed to defend either faith or reason. It is time to start from scratch.
Let us first list the arguments not to use:
- We must defend the theological concept of “marriage.” We are not here engaged in a rear-guard action to protect the sanctity of the sacrament of marriage by enshrining it in law. That battle was lost after the French Revolution, when civil marriage was recognized by Enlightenment lawmakers. We do not aspire to outlaw divorce and remarriage, or hand marital law over to diocesan tribunals.
- We are afraid that our own marriages will somehow be tainted when the same name is used to describe homosexual unions. In fact, we have learned to live with remarried neighbors, whose relationships do not fit our sacramental definition, and we could equally live alongside homosexual couples – if the sanctity of terminology were the only thing at stake.
- We oppose homosexual unions because what “those people do” disgusts us. The “ick” factor is a poor basis for making moral distinctions and could equally be used to ban marriages between the ugly or the obese. Interracial marriage was once as repugnant to millions of Americans as sodomy. But bans on “miscegenation” were always wrong and it was right when they were repealed. Our objection to same-sex unions is not visceral but moral.
- We oppose same-sex unions because they further undermine an already fragile institution: marriage. It is true that the marriage rate has plummeted, and the divorce rate is alarmingly high. That is a problem of heterosexual behavior, which predates (and may have helped enable) the “gay rights” movement; if we try to blame it on someone else, we will rightly come off as fools.
- We oppose same-sex unions because homosexual behavior violates Christian moral norms. While this may be true, it is not a constitutional basis for making a law in the United States. It might fly in the Philippines or Mexico (for the moment), but don’t try it here. Even natural law arguments against homosexual actions can equally apply to contraception, which we aren’t trying to make illegal. Pick your battles, folks.
- We are concerned that same-sex unions will lead to legal recognition of polygamy, or men getting married to their German shepherds or their Chevys. Really, who cares?
All these objections to same-sex unions, which may occur to us spontaneously and help motivate many people, are logically flawed and rhetorically useless. When we wheel them out and liberals who aced the SATs shoot them down in flames, we have no right to be surprised.
But there is a powerful, valid set of arguments for opposing same-sex unions and reforming marriage laws in a wholesome direction. I learned it from the single best resource out there on the marriage fight: Getting the Marriage Conversation Right, by William B. May of Catholics for the Common Good. It takes less than an hour to read, but it will transform your thinking, as it did mine.
Its thesis is simple: marriage is not primarily about guarding the property rights or policing the sexual behavior of the two adult partners contracting the covenant. The only reason the government has any cause to meddle in the private, romantic associations of its citizens is the presence of innocent, helpless third parties: children. If babies really came from the stork or grew in the garden, the government would be completely out of line in trying to enforce a single, normative legal framework for romantic relationships. That really would be tyranny.
But marriage exists as a legal fact to account for the rights and interests of children – and by extension, their mothers. So the state is not overreaching when it tries to encourage men to support the children whom they father – indeed, to stick around and really be fathers. It is natural for children to grow up with two parents of opposite sexes, and the law ought to encourage that without being unduly punitive to others. Having parents of each sex present is the primal human experience of the family, and the burden of proof ought to rest with those social experimentalists who claim that same-sex couples, single parents, or polyamorous ménages are just as beneficial to children.
Social science is famously easy to manipulate, and researchers who aren’t biased in favor of experimental families are afraid of ruining their careers, so don’t expect that you’ll find abundant research to settle this question. But the point can be made more simply and effectively: ask someone who claims to favor same sex unions or adoption, “Do you really believe that it’s just as healthy for boys to grow up with no men in the house, or girls to grow up with no women? Are the sexes so indistinguishable as to be interchangeable units?” Most people know better. Once you focus their attention on the real good protected by marriage – the best interests of children – then a true dialogue can begin.
Of course, it won’t end there. Logical implications of child-centered marriage extend far beyond the government’s refusing to recognize same-sex unions or adoptions. Once we look at marriage not as a temporary sex contract but a stable structure for rearing children, we need to reexamine no-fault divorce laws, which are centered entirely on the wishes and interests of grown-ups. We might reconsider the use of IVF technology to grant the wishes of infertile couples at the expense of thousands of “surplus” embryos either aborted or consigned to limbo in freezers in labs across the country. We’d have to rethink quite a few things. But then, the moment we cease to be crassly selfish, a whole new world really does open up, and that is one of the key insights of the Gospel.
Next week, I will examine the flawed arguments offered in favor of same-sex unions. Stay tuned.
John Zmirak is the author, most recently, ofThe Bad Catholics Guide to the Catechism. He blogs at The Bad Catholics Bingo Hall.