marriage

Dr. Robert George, professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, recently weighed in on the “Gay Marriage” debate. In his article, “What is Marriage?,” published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, Dr. George argues that the common good of our society requires that we legally enshrine the traditional view of marriage and that the common good would be damaged by legally enshrining homosexual partnerships as marriage. In arguing from natural law through an analysis of the essential components and structure of marriage as understood through the light of reason, he makes an important contribution to the defense of traditional marriage. Because he relies exclusively on natural law, advocates of the revisionist view of marriage cannot dismiss the traditional view simply by classifying it as solely a religious position that has no place in public discourse. Further, by providing strong reasons in support of traditional marriage that are consistent with but do not appeal to articles of faith, Dr. George offers a means of explaining a position we may intuitively agree with, but have been unable to articulate or explain persuasively. While I certainly recommend reading the article in full (here), for those who might benefit from a summary, following is a distillation of Dr. George’s argument (I’ll be following up with a summary of his responses to common objections to his position in a second essay). 

The Basic Argument for the Legal Recognition of ONLY Traditional Marriage

Before making his argument, Dr. George clarifies that he is arguing from the basic assumption that marriage is a moral entity independent of the law; that is, marriage is not simply a legal construct. He argues this is a reasonable assumption because if marriage were only a legal construct, it would be whatever the law says it is. As such, the revisionist (those who advocate for the legal recognition of homosexual partnerships as marriage) would not be able to argue that the law is wrong in failing to recognize homosexual partnerships as marriage. In order to argue the law is wrong, the revisionist must appeal to some understanding of what marriage is. Additionally, if marriage were merely a legal construct, no one, including revisionists, could argue that it would be inappropriate to recognize as legal marriage any type of relationship, including polygynous, polyandrous, polyamorous, incestuous, bestial unions, and even unions between persons and inanimate objects. Unless the revisionist is prepared to open the door to the legal recognition of these relationships, he must accept that marriage is not merely a legal construct but a moral entity.

Before delving into Dr. George’s argument, which I present here in syllogistic form, the view of marriage Dr. George is analyzing should be kept in mind, because whittling down his argument to the bare essentials, as I have done here, somewhat obscures the comprehensiveness of the traditional view of marriage from which Dr. George is operating. Dr. George begins his article setting out what he refers to as the “conjugal view,” which holds that “marriage is the union of a man and women who make a permanent and exclusive commitment to each other of the type that is naturally (inherently) fulfilled by bearing and rearing children together” (a union “seal[ed] (consummate[d]) and renew[ed]…by conjugal acts–acts that constitute the behavioral part of the process of reproduction, thus uniting them as a reproductive unit). While this view holds that marriage is inherently valuable, its orientation toward the bearing and raising of children gives marriage a “distinctive structure” that includes norms such as monogamy, fidelity and permanence.

As a reading of his article would show, his argument is consistent with and even enhances the complex reality of conjugal marriage, despite the fact that his argument focuses primarily on one dimension–the bodily dimension–of this reality. In order to recover what is lost in this condensed version of his argument (and do greater justice to the nuances of Dr. George’s argument), I conclude by briefly reintegrating the concepts in the summary into a more complete view of conjugal marriage.

I.  Conjugal Marriage and Homosexual Partnerships are Fundamentally Different:

(1) Conjugal marriage is the most comprehensive relationship possible between human persons in that it includes the union of wills, minds, resources and bodies.

(2) The body is an integral part of the human person, not just a possession (we distinguish between vandalism and assault because the body is not a possession like one’s car or home).

(3) Therefore, any relationship that is to be as completely comprehensive as conjugal marriage must include the union of bodies, not just minds, wills and resources. (from (1) and (2)).

(4) Complete bodily union involves the coordination of bodily parts for the common biological purpose of the whole (e.g. the heart is completely unified with the body of an individual in that it coordinates with other bodily parts for the common biological purpose of sustaining the organic life of the individual).

(5) The most complete bodily union possible for human persons is the sexual union of couples of the opposite sex (like the heart with respect to the individual body, the reproductive organs of the couple coordinate for the common biological purpose (reproduction) of the whole (the man and women)).

(6) Given what complete bodily union involves ((4) above) and that only the sexual union of heterosexual couples can achieve this ((5) above), only opposite sex couples can achieve the most complete bodily union possible for human persons (recall, however, that while the complete comprehensiveness of a conjugal marriage requires full bodily union, it is only a necessary not a sufficient condition, and requires the union of the persons in other respects (.e.g. union of minds and wills), of which the bodily union is the sign, seal or consummation–see last section below for a fuller explanation).

(7) Therefore, the complete comprehensiveness of conjugal marriage is possible only for couples of the opposite sex (from (4) – (6)).

(8) Homosexual partnerships cannot achieve complete bodily union and, as a result, cannot achieve the most completely comprehensive relationship definitive of the conjugal view of marriage (corollary of (7)).

(9) Therefore, due to the complete comprehensiveness of the conjugal view of marriage, it is uniquely different from homosexual partnerships (from 8; also, see the last section below for a more expansive description of what the complete comprehensiveness of the conjugal view of marriage, including its complete bodily union, involves).

II.  Treating Homosexual Partnerships Differently is Not Unjust Discrimination:

(10) Discrimination is the act of making a clear distinction between things based on the different features of those things.

(11) Unjust discrimination consists of treating two things that are the same as different (e.g. A teacher giving an ‘A’ to one A paper, but a ‘B’ to another A paper) or of treating different things differently, but not in the way that each deserves (e.g. A teacher giving an ‘A‘ to an A paper, but an ‘F‘ to a B paper).

(12) Therefore, treating homosexual partnerships as different from conjugal marriages is not unjust discrimination (from (9) – (11)).

[Note that this is a philosophical argument for treating the the two types of relationships differently. While this provides a foundation for arguing they should be treated differently under the law (i.e. in relation to the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution), further argument would obviously be needed.]

III.  Homosexual Marriage Would Undermine Traditional Marriage:

(13) Culture shapes laws and laws influence culture.

(14) Legal recognition of homosexual partnerships as marriage would, therefore, shape society’s understanding of marriage (from 13).

(15) The Legal recognition of homosexual partnerships, which lack complete bodily union and thus complete comprehensiveness, would increase societal understanding of marriage as based fundamentally on emotion, and emotions are transient and inconsistent (i.e. the marriage remains only so long as the couples continue to be “in love” with each other).

(16) To the extent the legal recognition of homosexual partnerships promotes marriages based on emotion, it would obscure marriages based solely on friendship, which may be capable of greater permanence because they are based on the union of minds and wills.

(17) Even if the legal recognition of homosexual partnership does not obscure the idea of marriage based solely on friendship, even these marriages lack the inherent reasons for exclusivity and permanence possessed by conjugal marriages which involve complete bodily union and thus orientation toward the rearing and bearing of children (see last section below for a more complete explanation of this).

(18) The legal recognition of homosexual partnerships as marriage would also communicate that no parenting arrangement is better than any other (same sex parents would be on par with opposite sex parents) and would eliminate social pressures for husbands to stay with their wives (because of the damage done to traditional marriage and the inherent reasons for permanence it implies).

(19) Therefore, the legal recognition of homosexual partnerships would undermine societal understanding of the connection between marriage, children, the permanence and exclusivity this connection supports, and thus contribute to marital instability (from (15)-(18).

IV.  Homosexual Marriage Undermines the Common Good:

(20) Children fare best when reared by wedded biological parents in a stable, permanent, exclusive, marriage (Dr. George’s article cites several studies in support of this premise).

(21) The common good of society requires that children grow into health, well-adjusted, responsible adults (and if the family does not accomplish this, the state and society will have to deal with the consequence).

(22) Therefore, legal recognition of homosexual partnerships as marriage would injure the common good of society (from (20)- (21))

V.  Homosexual Marriage Threatens Moral and Religious Freedom:

(23) If homosexual partnerships and conjugal marriages are treated the same legally, any discrimination between the two as being different and as conjugal marriage being better would be considered unjust under the law.

(24) Therefore, legal recognition of homosexual partnerships as marriage would diminish the moral and religious freedom of parents to direct the education of their children (that this could happen, recall, e.g., Catholic Charities in California having to discontinue adoption services for refusing to place children with same-sex couples).

Full Bodily Union is Not Only Essential to but Reflects the Comprehensiveness of Conjugal Marriage

Dr. George’s argument relies on an analysis of the bodily dimension of marriage and, more specifically, is grounded fundamentally on the premise that the body is an integral part of the human person (by basing his argument on this premise, he is correcting the Cartesian mind-body split that has infected our culture, a split that treats the person as merely mind and will and the body as an instrumental appendage (See John Paul II’s Theology of the Body for the theological counterpart to Dr. George’s effort to reintegrate the body into our understanding of the human person)). In order for a relationship to be completely comprehensive, as required by marriage, it must consist of a completely comprehensive union of the whole of two human persons. Because the human body is an integral part of the human person, a relationship that lacks the most complete type of bodily union possible for human beings lacks the completely comprehensive union required for marriage and is therefore not a marriage. The most complete type of bodily union possible for human beings can only occur between a man and a woman. As such, marriage can only be between a man and a woman.

As this argument implies, while sexual intercourse between a man and woman is necessary for the comprehensiveness that marriage requires, it is not sufficient. Just as the body is an integral part of the person, so too is the mind, will and heart. The union of these dimensions of each person is also necessary for the comprehensive union required for marriage. It is due to the complete comprehensive union of marriage that marriage also requires exclusivity and permanence. The complete unity of one person to another requires the unity of each person’s past, present, and future. In this way marriage requires permanence, or exclusivity in time. Likewise, marriage must be exclusive–each person devoted to the other and to no other–because a completely comprehensive union cannot be achieved if one’s attention and loyalties are divided.

Importantly, the conjugal act–the complete bodily union between a married man and woman in marriage–is not only an essential component of the completely comprehensive union that marriage requires, but both is and represents the characteristics of the completely comprehensive union of the other dimensions of married persons. As Dr. George points out, for bodily union to be completely comprehensive requires the “union of organs into one healthy whole, total and lasting for the life of the parts.” The total comprehensiveness of bodily union not only requires unity “through time (hence permanence),” but also “each time (hence exclusivity).” Thus, the completely comprehensive bodily union in marriage is, in itself, complete, permanent and exclusive, but in being so, signifies and even truly ‘embodies’ the complete, permanent, and exclusive union of the couple’s minds, wills, and hearts (this is why, according to Dr. George, the conjugal act “seals” or “consummates” the couple’s total marital union). This means, of course, that sexual intercourse between a man and woman cannot be a completely comprehensive bodily union and thus marital unless it occurs in the context of the complete, permanent, and exclusive union of the other, non-bodily dimensions of the couple’s lives. In that context, however, it both is and represents the couple’s total unity.

Not surprisingly, then, the nature of authentic conjugal acts, an essential component of real marriage, are not only oriented to the bearing and raising of children but are found only in the most appropriate context for childrearing–conjugal marriage. Obviously, due to the fact that authentic conjugal acts involve (and require) the complete bodily union of a man and a women, they are inherently procreated and thus oriented to child-bearing (this is true whether the couple conceives a child or not, just as a baseball team’s coordinated acts on the field still constitute playing “baseball” whether they win or not). Further, as explained above, authentic conjugal acts are complete, permanent and exclusive just as the marital relationship as a whole is that these acts help to create and of which they are a part. Thus, unlike other less comprehensive relationships, permanence and exclusivity are inherent to the structure of conjugal marriage. Granting the veracity of the studies Dr. George cites that conclude that children fair best when reared by wedded biological parents in a stable, permanent, exclusive, marriage, it follows that the only relationships of the type in which authentic conjugal acts can occur–i.e. heterosexual marriages–are best suited to the bearing and rearing of children.

This hopefully makes clear that while Dr. George’s argument focuses primarily on bodily component of marriage, it is both entirely consistent with the much richer, complex traditional understanding of marriage, and even helps to explain certain features such as exclusivity and permanence and the relation of these features to the bearing and raising of children. Further, while the argument is consistent with the traditional Christian understanding of marriage, it does not depend on religious assumptions. As such, it has the potential to persuade those who do not share such beliefs and, at the very least, to deflect charges that those against “gay marriage” are religious bigots without any rational basis for their view.

As mentioned, this summary does not address the responses Dr. George goes on to make in his article to number of common objections. His responses do much to bolster his argument. A summary of his responses is forthcoming in a second essay.

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