Are We Talking About Marriage or Marriage?

The Supreme Court is now in the process of deciding the constitutional dimensions of the same-sex marriage question. It is, thus, timely to make mention of the fact that the issue cannot be discussed cogently without an understanding of what “marriage” means.

If it is, by definition, a certain kind of relationship between a man and a woman, then same-sex marriage is not a bad idea so much as it is impossible. One might as well advocate for the right of a child to give birth to his parents. On the other hand, if marriage is nothing more, at bottom, than a contractual relationship that generates certain statutory benefits, then the argument is nearly over. The Supreme Court has already determined that the means of consummating homosexual relationships cannot be deemed a crime [1], and it is, therefore, doubtful that the contemplation of same could be legitimately used as a means of invalidating marriage contracts on public policy grounds.

That there are these two perspectives makes plain why those who take different sides on the issue are talking past each other. The dispute is a manifestation, like nothing else is, that there are differences between the belief in Natural Law and Utilitarianism that have pragmatic outcomes. From the Natural Law standpoint, marriage, as traditionally conceived, is written into the very order of things, and its features can no more be changed than the order of the seasons. But from the Utilitarian point of view marriage is a voluntary human association that can be, and ought to be, changed to meet the perceived needs of society and the happiness of its members.

It is well known to those who keep abreast of such things that Utilitarianism has become the dominant paradigm of American social and political discourse. That is why any position on social policy must give an account of itself in terms of readily perceivable consequences as Utilitarianism requires. Without any overt social or political revolution to make it so, Utilitarianism’s consequentialism has won the day.

How much this is so is evidenced when political figures who are presumably pro-family articulate their willingness to acquiesce to same-sex marriage if only it is brought about by popular or legislative vote, instead of by court decision. That is a position that can only be taken by a Utilitarian, because it assumes that the nature of marriage can be changed by popular or governmental will, while from the standpoint of the Natural Law one might as well take a vote on the effect of gravity. This does not appear to be well understood generally.

Now it is at this late hour that we who adhere to a belief in the Natural Law must come to grips with the fact that the defense of traditional marriage is unwinnable in Utilitarian terms. This is because the two sides don’t really mean the same thing when they talk about marriage.

Right now there are many hoping that the Supreme Court will rule that it is a violation of Equal Protection for a state to not allow same-sex marriage. Reasons given for this hope are expressed in terms of such things as adoption of the children of same-sex partners or hospital visitation privileges. But what is critical to observe is that the proponents of same-sex marriage seem to actually believe that it is for the government to grant or deny the right to marry.

Now a good Naturalist will laugh if he is told that the government is withholding his right to get married. The government may withhold certain benefits, and may refuse to recognize his marriage, but it does not have the power to actually forbid marriage. Marriage exists prior to society and can exist independently from it. The Naturalist may fight to get certain benefits or recognition, but those concerns will be viewed by him as quite separate from the question of whether or not he is, in fact, married.

It thus becomes clear why Utilitarians think that those opposed to same-sex marriage are trying to deprive others of benefits, and Naturalists think that those in favor of it are trying to change the name of oranges to apples. The parties to the debate are not arguing in the same universe, and both understand in their own terms the arguments of the other.

Let us here stipulate that no one should be subjected to needless suffering, and that freedom of conscience is a paramount right. [1] Let it be further stipulated that homosexual persons have the right to be free of unjust discrimination. [2] Catholic social teaching is in accord. It follows that gays and lesbians fall within the ambit of these considerations. What, then, could be the natural law objection to changing the definition of marriage for practical and social purposes?

The answer is that words have meaning, and meaning matters. It is the Natural Law position that society is more like an organism than a multiparty contract, and that families as traditionally conceived are to be likened to the cells of that organism. Losing sight of the anatomy of the social organism will help no one, gay or straight.

It should be pointed out that maintaining this insight does not, of itself, require the visitation by the government of any sort of unpleasantness on homosexual persons. It should be further noted that there are heterosexual unions called “marriage” that are not such according to Natural Law, such as “marriages” where a “former” spouse of one or both of the partners from a valid marriage is still living.

That last point is critical, because it must be remembered that the attempt in our society to redefine marriage began long before same-sex marriages became an issue. Homosexual persons did not originate the idea of marriage redefinition. Marriage in Natural Law terms entails a life-long commitment between a man and a woman, and the simple involvement of opposite sex partners does not a marriage make.

It is easy to imagine someone insisting that since we adherents of the Natural Law are a decided minority, then it is for us to come up with a separate term for what we define as marriage. That may be the course of action we have to take, since it is of primary importance to name different things differently. The Latin word matrimonium comes to mind.

In the meantime we should keep our focus on what we are hoping to accomplish. We should not get sidetracked or bamboozled into involving ourselves in arguments about who gets insurance benefits, or who gets to visit who in the hospital. It is not our mission to make life unpleasant for others, nor should it be. What’s more, it cannot be the goal of the Christian Democracy movement to replace the function of the Church. It is our object, however, to help society understand its own nature in order to avoid its engaging in misguided efforts based on mistaken assumptions, and society cannot understand its own nature without understanding the meaning of marriage under the Natural Law.

Jack Quirk