The question of same sex marriage can be very personal and highly emotive. Indeed we all probably know same sex couples, perhaps family members and friends. When I think about this issue I think of a very close homosexual friend of mine and I’m always terrified of hurting him. The explosive word in this debate is ‘homophobia’ and while phobia is generally associated with fear, in the context of homophobia it’s more often associated with hate and violence and therefore lends itself to being used disingenuously to close down debate. It happens. Nonetheless we need to acknowledge that homophobia exists and that homophobes need to get over themselves! Every human being – without qualification – should be treated with “respect, compassion and sensitivity.” However, for the vast majority of people this is a matter of conscience – on both sides.
We’ll begin by exploring marriage as most of us have known it, but although this is clearly a Catholic blog we’ll work independently of all religious argument. It’s something of a surprise to most people to discover that Catholicism argues in the first instance from nature and reason, and only then appeals to revelation. So there will be no religious arguments. We’ll then move on to ask an important question; what’s our understanding of marriage? If we can answer this question I think we’ll go a good way to understanding why some people are for and some people are against the equality of same sex marriage. So we’ll try to tease out our understanding of marriage by considering the characteristics of marriage. This seems to be a reasonable way to proceed.
Traditionally a man and a woman met, they married and then started a family. Nowadays a man and a woman meet, they’ll often have a child or two and some years later they might marry. Now I’ve simplified it somewhat but I’m sure you can see that essentially we’ve reversed things, turned things upside down and inside out!
Now, the thing about traditional marriage – and this might surprise you; it was pure genius. At some point in history, probably to do with the influence of the Judeo-Christian religion – but as we’ll see this influence is itself based on something a priori – marriage brought together some important details about human life, and it brought them together in the interests of the common good. This bringing together in love and the common good is the essence of marriage. The details are just there, staring at us. The most obvious detail is that the human being comes in two different shapes, male and female, and yet the shapes fit together – the sheer brilliance of nature – and when they fit together one of them will occasionally come away carrying a new and unique human life, another human person whom she’s able to nurture and feed – he cannot do this in the same way. It assumed into itself the fact that one shape can never do some things while the other can, but that both shapes working together can often do everything, that the shapes are very different but nonetheless absolutely complementary. It brought into itself the realization that this shape thing wasn’t just physical but went much deeper, that it’s also psychological – men are from Mars, women are from Venus – a woman isn’t a man and a man isn’t a woman, a father isn’t a mother and a mother isn’t a father yet each complements the other.
It brought into itself an important truth about human life; no other species requires the best part of twenty years to grow up, to reach maturity (some of us never quite get there!) – a fragile task fraught with dangers – and traditional marriage saw much wisdom and indeed nature’s hand in making child-rearing a shared responsibility, ideally the shared responsibility of the child’s biological father and mother who provided the child with the secure home of their married love, “’til death do us part.” Most importantly traditional marriage incorporated and made tangible the belief that children should never be deprived of the unique and important roles of a mother and a father, never, ever, where possible. It brought together all these strands of human experience and more, physical attraction, sexual attraction, companionship, friendship and much more, and brought it all together into a unified whole – marriage; it was pure genius.
Pure genius or otherwise the belief that the traditional family is the ideal place to rear children, while never unproven empirically, and not likely to ever be unproven, has been slowly eroded culturally. In effect what we once brought together in marriage we’re now pulling apart; sex from marriage, sex from love, sex from babies (conception), sex from male and female complementarity, love from commitment, children from biological fathers and mothers. It’s not so much that we’re turning marriage upside down and inside out, rather, as Rabbi Sacks suggests, we’re pulling it apart. The reason we’ve developed in this manner is that we now have a greater emphasis on me and my personal satisfaction, so that everything is expected to serve me, including marriage. This emphasis expresses itself concretely as ‘choice’ – the freedom to choose. While choice is undoubtedly a good thing, we need to remember that a choice, indeed every choice, is only as good as the process used to make it.
We’ve been eroding the significance of marriage for most of my lifetime, pulling it apart, so it seems only logical that at some point we’d start pushing it this way and that way, adding additional parts, omitting other parts, putting parts together, according to choice, choice that’s guided by nothing more than love, romance, and equality. It’s not surprising then that we’re now pushing marriage to include equally two men or two women. Soon we’ll start pushing it in other directions. Why not? If marriage means nothing more than love, a little romance, and equality, then a bisexual person who loves a man and a woman at the same time has a right to marry both. Why not one man and two women or vice versa? If marriage understood as love, romance and equality, and nothing more, doesn’t amount to a redefinition of marriage, then what in the world will?
While many proponents of same sex marriage view it as a unique issue, a simple matter of equality, for many others it’s part of much bigger development, that of gender ideology. Gender ideology means that I choose whether I want to be male or female, and I can change at any future point if I so choose. There are no givens anymore. Male and female are not given by nature; they’re choices. It’s as if the human being has detached from nature, at least in his or her mind, as though the human species is no longer an integral part of nature but stands outside it. This is all the more remarkable in light of ecology, as if the human species alone stands beyond all ecological concern. Can we really do this? I expect Pope Francis will have something to say about this in his next encyclical.
It’s quite possible that ultimately this unraveling of traditional marriage might bring us, not just to something like the perceived paradise of marriage equality, but to the complete removal of marriage and traditional values from society. A long shot, perhaps. Still, I’m sure we have takers for it? At any rate, I suspect we’re not redefining marriage because the family has changed – nobody denies that – we’re attempting to redefine marriage because we no longer understand the meaning of marriage in the first place.
We move on now to explore the meaning of marriage. It’s this, our understanding of the meaning of marriage, that’ll determine how we vote in the referendum. It’s here that we find the fault line.
The obvious characteristic of marriage is love. We all agree on this much; marriage is about love. We might qualify it by saying “’til death do us part, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health.” For some people that’s all there is – the question is answered. Marriage is about love, and this referendum is about the equal right of same sex couples to marriage, nothing more and nothing less, so there’s no basis to oppose the equality of same sex marriage. People shouldn’t be denied a shot at happiness. Many people hold this view in sincerity and we need to respect such people. Other people hold – sincerely too, I might add, and they should also be respected – that there are other equally and indeed more important characteristics of marriage. They believe that marriage is about much more than two walking and talking Hallmark cards!
At this point I want to introduce what I think will be quite a surprise. I bet you associate the Church almost exclusively with a religious view of marriage. Here’s the surprise; the Church believes that the primary characteristic of marriage is not found in religion, or in the State, but in nature. Marriage is first and foremost natural and it’s natural long before it’s civil or religious. This is the common ground between religious people and atheists on marriage. So the idea that this debate is about a religious understanding of marriage versus a civil understanding of marriage is something of a red herring. So, for the Church and for many atheists the primary characteristic of marriage is; it’s natural.
Some will include same sex couples in this understanding of marriage simply because same-sex attraction occurs in humans (and elsewhere as far as I know) and is therefore natural, but others believe that ‘natural’ here means more than mere attraction and includes the potential to reproduce and therefore must include male and female complementarity. We don’t see this easily because the modern mind has separated sex and conception. Generally our generation is doing this – pulling things apart. If we ask the question ‘what is sex for?’ it’ll help us to see this point more clearly. Imagine an alien arriving from outer space. He’s no knowledge of the human species. It wouldn’t take our space friend long to figure out what sex is for; “it’s how the human race reproduces itself” he’d say, but it requires male and female. Thus many people consider the complementarity of male and female and the unique potential of a man and a woman precisely as male and female to bring forth new human life to be essential and natural characteristics of marriage.The final characteristic of marriage is the most decisive for many people. People believe in the importance of a father and a mother in a child’s life. They believe these are unique roles. Think about the biological ties at the heart of the mother-baby relationship, think of a mother breast-feeding her baby; truly unique. No less unique, yet different and complementary, is the father-baby relationship. Such important roles should never be excluded from marriage where possible. In fact, children have a right to a mother and a father, and indeed, every child has a mother and a father, even if one is absent, even if both are absent. But if a child doesn’t have a right to a mother and a father then where does the right of a same sex couple to have a child come from? Therefore, many people believe that the important and unique role of a mother and a father for children and for society is an essential and natural characteristic of marriage. To reduce the belief that every child has a right to a father and mother to an allegation of ‘homophobia’ is disingenuous to say the least.
Marriage then is not just about a couple. It never was, and it never will be. More importantly, it’s about children. I once heard a man say to his daughter about his wife’s violent death; “she was just my wife, but she was your mother.” He said it quite naturally as though everybody knows the truth of his statement. The equality of same sex marriage will mean that preference cannot be given to an opposite sex couple – a father and a mother – in the adoption process. Same sex couples will be equally entitled to a child. In effect, the State will deny some children a father and a mother. Indeed, some children will be conceived in such a way that they’ll be deliberately prevented from knowing their genetic mother or father. Of course, it’s much too early to establish the effects, if any, on children reared in same sex marriage environments. It’ll take at least one generation, possibly two, to get an accurate measure. Yet we’re constantly reminded of the importance of gender balance in business, in Dail Eireann, in just about everything, yet it’s irrelevant in the life of a child? Somebody explain that. Two men or two women starting a family will require legislation to support surrogacy, sperm and egg donation, and adoption too, and whether it comes before, with, or after the referendum is irrelevant. It’s clear that marriage is not just about love, not even in the case of same sex marriage. Besides, if marriage is not about children and their welfare there’s no reason for the State to be involved at all. Why bring the State into bedrooms? Marriage is at the very least equally about children, and children deserve the best, and for many people marriage is society’s effort to offer the best; a mother and a father and the security of their married love.
While some will argue that same sex marriage is not changing the Constitution but merely adding to it – I do wonder though how a dictionary might have defined the family in 1937 – nonetheless it will have far reaching consequences. The agents of the State will have no choice but to accept the State’s understanding of marriage or risk sanction. Teachers will be obliged by the State to teach the equality of same sex marriage to very young children, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, and sometimes it’ll be contrary to the wishes of parents. Therefore the consequences of same sex marriage will see the growing arm of the State reach right into the family unit. In effect, the State will seize from mothers and fathers a little more control of the family.
In summary, reasonable opposition to the equality of same sex marriage, as opposed to homophobic opposition, is based on the belief that the family is the foundation of society and that the ideal or normative place for a child to be conceived, born, and reared, is within the married love (’til death do us part) of its biological parents manifesting female and male complementarity and embodying the important and unique roles, for children and for society, of mother and father, and for these reasons opposite sex marriage is deserving of unique protection and promotion by the State.
In conclusion therefore it seems that it’s our understanding of the meaning of marriage that determines our position on the question of the equality of same sex marriage. The question then that each one of us must answer, in conscience, and vote accordingly is: What’s your understanding of marriage? Is it about an adult’s right to a shot at happiness, the right of two men or two women to have a family, or is it about something much greater – not excluding a shot at happiness – but extending to children’s rights to a father and a mother and the security of their married love. Why should a child be deprived of the natural right to his or her mother because an adult man doesn’t want to act against his nature? Surely the rights of children trump the right of an individual or a couple to a shot at happiness or to a family? Surely the rights of children should be enshrined in our understanding of marriage and protected? Surely the rights of children are not just paramount but normative and therefore deserving of a uniquely protected relationship – one man and one woman marriage?