Is Gay Marriage Good for Families?

In connection with the same-sex marriage controversy now burning in California, I read the following about a priest from a famous gay-friendly parish in Pasadena:
The Rev. Susan Russell of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, who has been blessing same-sex unions for 16 years, told the San Jose Mercury News this month that she supports same-sex marriage because she favors “everything we can do to build up the values that make strong families. I think the values matter more than the gender of the people making up the heads of those families.”
Now if I thought, with Reverend Russell, that same-sex marriage actually would strengthen the institution of the family in America, I would be in favor of it, regardless of how unnatural I consider same-sex marriage to be. There are things worse than unnatural sexual relations, and one of these is the increasing breakdown of the married two-parent family. Blessing sodomy would be a small price to pay for rescuing the institution of marriage.
In the last few decades, millions and millions of American kids have had to grow up without fathers. I’m not thinking mainly about kids whose parents get divorced. That’s certainly an important part of the problem; but a far, far more important part is the situation of kids whose parents were never married in the first place. One of the great by-products of the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s was the social and moral legitimacy of illegitimacy (i.e., out-of-wedlock birth and parenthood). It is now the most normal thing in the world to run across kids whose mothers were never married to their fathers.
In the bad old days these kids were called “bastards.” But as the English-speaking world grew more gentle, this extremely harsh term was retired in favor of an expression that was only moderately harsh: “illegitimate children.” But by now that locution too has gone to the graveyard of offensive expressions. What, then, shall we call these unfortunate kids? The answer seems to be, “fatherless children.” Of course these kids have fathers in the biological sense of that word; that is, they were conceived as a result of sexual intercourse between a man and a woman (or, as is often the case, between a boy and a girl or even between a man and a girl).
All too often, however, these kids don’t have fathers in the more important trans-biological sense of the word. That is to say, they don’t have fathers who take year-after-year responsibility for them, who live in intimacy with them on a day-to-day basis, who supply them with the financial and emotional support they need, and who provide them with moral models of adulthood and manliness. Our exceedingly “tolerant” American culture has given boys and young men permission to sire a child and then take a walk — and millions and millions of these boys and men have chosen to do what has been culturally permitted.
Of course, it wouldn’t be quite the disaster it is if the mothers of these fatherless children were all college graduates with good jobs and good incomes. But this kind of mother is very far from typical. Typical is the mother who is poorly educated, with weak job skills and an inadequate income. In other words, those girls and women who give birth to fatherless children are the very ones who can least afford to do so.
Compounding the evil is the fact that the problem is worst among African Americans. For many years now, around two-thirds of all black children born in the U.S. have been born to unmarried women. In many lower-class black neighborhoods, the fatherless rate is 80 or 90 percent. Among lower-class blacks, the institution of the married two-parent family has been, for all practical purposes, destroyed. Given this situation, how can we expect black Americans to gain economic parity with whites, to do well in school, to have low crime rates, and so on? The simple answer is, we cannot. For the past nearly 400 years, American blacks have suffered an unending series of curses: first, the curse of slavery; next, the curse of segregation; today, the curse of fatherlessness.
And so along comes Reverend Russell to suggest that same-sex marriage will make for strong families. How wonderful if true! But is it true? I’m a little wary when I hear this prediction coming from an Episcopal priest, since the Episcopal Church has begun to tilt in the direction of weirdness in recent years. Still and all, the Episcopalians I know strike me as very sensible people, so I won’t allow myself to be deterred by the probable fact that Reverend Russell belongs to the weirdness wing of the church.
But then I put the idea of same-sex marriage in historical perspective. It is an idea that emerged from the gay movement, a movement that had its dramatic commencement at the Greenwich Village Stonewall riots of 1969. And the gay movement in turn was part and parcel of another and more comprehensive movement, the generalized Sexual Revolution 1960s and 1970s. So the demand for same-sex marriage is, among other things, a continuation of the program of the Sexual Revolution.
But has the Sexual Revolution ever been friendly to the married two-parent family? Not at all. Up till now, everything it championed has had the effect of undermining the married two-parent family. Think of the list of behaviors that the revolution has sanctioned: premarital sex, multiple sexual partners, unmarried cohabitation, pornography, no-fault divorce, abortion, homosexuality, etc. Has any of this tended to strengthen the institution of marriage?
Why should I believe, then — indeed, why should anybody believe (except, of course, for those in the weirdness wing of the Episcopal Church) — that the Sexual Revolution, with its long anti-family history, has suddenly done a 180 and is now moving in the opposite direction? I hope it’s true — but I simply cannot believe it.


David R. Carlin Jr. is a politician and sociologist who served as a Democratic majority leader of the Rhode Island Senate. His books include "Can a Catholic Be a Democrat?: How the Party I Loved Became the Enemy of My Religion" and "The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America." Carlin is a current professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island at Newport.

  • Bender

    Now if I thought, with Reverend Russell, that same-sex marriage actually would strengthen the institution of the family in America, I would be in favor of it, regardless of how unnatural I consider same-sex marriage to be. There are things worse than unnatural sexual relations, and one of these is the increasing breakdown of the married two-parent family. Blessing sodomy would be a small price to pay for rescuing the institution of marriage. . . .
    But has the Sexual Revolution ever been friendly to the married two-parent family? Not at all. Up till now, everything it championed has had the effect of undermining the married two-parent family. Think of the list of behaviors that the revolution has sanctioned: premarital sex, multiple sexual partners, unmarried cohabitation, pornography, no-fault divorce, abortion, homosexuality, etc. Has any of this tended to strengthen the institution of marriage?

    Marriage is not a utilitarian construct, and to look at the issue of same-sex “marriage” and the sexual revolution from a utilitarian perspective is hardly the answer.

    Whether same-sex “marriage” and “free love” help or hurt, whether they strengthen or weaken the family is entirely irrelevant. Even if they were the greatest things ever invented by man, they still would not be a moral good. The utility of such things is irrelevant. Same-sex “marriage” and sex outside of marriage are morally bad because they are both contrary to truth and to love. And those are the only relevant considerations here. Not utility, not whether they appear to usher in a utopia of worldly bliss or not, but truth and love.

    Simply more utilitarianism to confront these evils is not the answer. Rather, it only exacerbates the problem.

  • R.C.


    How much of the following quote would you have said were it to stand by itself, and not as part of a piece in which it was rhetorically convenient?

    Now if I thought…that same-sex marriage actually would strengthen the institution of the family in America, I would be in favor of it, regardless of how unnatural I consider same-sex marriage to be. There are things worse than unnatural sexual relations…. Blessing sodomy would be a small price to pay for rescuing the institution of marriage.

    You’ve previously given the impression of more orthodoxy than that. I don’t wish to put words in your mouth if they aren’t what you mean to say…but would “one could almost be in favor of it” be perhaps better than “I would be in favor of it?”

    For of course rescuing marriage as a cultural norm is vitally important: It outweighs many priorities. “One” could almost, easily, understandably, sacrifice many other laudable priorities to achieve it.

    But I’m not sure that it’s worth the lives of the entire human race, let alone a decrease in unwed child-rearing, to so renounce Christian teaching on sexuality as to pretend that sodomy isn’t sin…and to do so sufficiently publicly as to “bless” as “marriage” (i.e. give a sacramental status to) pairings centered on that particular sin.

    It doesn’t seem to be a position that martyrs, who, after rejecting opportunities to recant some Christian doctrine, sometimes died scratching the word “Credo” (I believe) in the sand with their fingertips, or on flagstones in their own blood, would believe in.

    Amid all the utopian pablum and simpering pieties which festooned the television show “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” I recall one episode where the captain taught young ensign Crusher a platitude which had the ring of God’s truth in it, like the ring of hard iron: “A Starfleet officer’s first obligation is TO THE TRUTH.”

    For in morally-challenging situations, one can only hope to decide rightly when one understands the situation. Yet the evidence of any one individual’s five senses is usually insufficient to provide total understanding of even simple circumstances. We must rely on the testimony of others, to know the truth, in order to then do what is right.

    And how can we do that, if what we hear from others is not true? When the world is awash in lies, right action is constantly made difficult. The world’s hard enough to know even when one is not being told lies.

    So, in charity, our first obligation really is to the truth: We thereby avoid “teach[ing] one of these little ones to sin” (and the attendant millstone). Sin is sin: Is the cost ever great enough to make us say otherwise? I don’t think it is.

    Anyway, I agree with your argument overall. I just thought that one facet of it went awry.

  • Tim Shipe

    There is a big difference in making an argument based upon utilitarian considerations only- as in- forget about objective truth and let’s just look at the end result- along the lines of the ends justifying the means. I don’t think Prof. Carlin meant to rely on philosophical pragmatism.

    Maybe the professor can confirm that he is attempting to draw an argument from the “know them by their fruits” type of reasoned proof. In this type of argument you don’t go as so far as to establish an alternative universe where you suspend the moral norms and definitive teachings of the Church.

    As Catholics attempting to hold the line against a society that is increasingly moving in the wrong popular direction on a number of important issue fronts- we must deploy the evidence found in the real world of consequences- the case for non-negotiable issues like abortion and for prudential judgment issues like the decision to invade and occupy Iraq are going to require both an overview of the moral norms/natural laws, and a look at the fallout in very human terms, if we are going to do right by our society- being all things to all men, so that we can convince them of the truth.

    The same applies to the situation of same-sex attraction and coupling. Catholics have historically been pretty slow to respond to the challenge of real-life same-sex attraction. I’m not talking so much about preaching against same-sex marriage from the pulpit- I’m talking about going back in time and dealing with the fact that most parishes didn’t offer much in the way of Catholic support networks for same-sex attracted parishoners and members of the community who would have welcomed the help at a time when society at large was more viciously-inclined toward “homosexuals”.

    If groups like “Courage” had been the norm around the country- well-publicized and supported by parish priests and the laity- the Catholic church may not have become seen as an untrustworthy source of information for people who were drawn toward same-sex sexual attractions.

    As Catholics we often have the objective truths and the teachings on our side, but when compassion is not front and center at the battle lines of humanity in the real-world – well the Church is made to sound like a clanging gong. Is it any wonder why so many are led astray by compassionate people who fail to deliver the truth, but do offer kindness, and emotional supports. It ends up being a false compassion, but to offer truth without significant supports also creates negative outcomes like what we are witnessing today. As is usual- Catholic truth and loving compassion are a both/and proposition. This far down the historical line having a legal war on the definition of marriage is a tough place to try to rediscover our need for compassion- but when I think of someone trying to deal with strong sexual desires for someone of the same sex, if those feelings of attraction approach what I feel as a heterosexual- then I know in my heart that these people are in need of a whole lot of support/helps if I want to love them as a brother or sister, and not merely condemn them for their weakness. With the ascendency of “Gay Pride”, this has become an incredibly difficult situation- but Catholic compassion and offers of help must be forthcoming even where it is no longer appreciated or welcomed. We don’t give up the truth to love, but we cannot be fully truthful without tangible, agapic love offered to those most in need of God’s mercy.

  • David W.

    …and a jolting reminder that the “Good Old Days” weren’t so Good in several important respects.

  • Adriana

    In following Tim’s comments, I notice a mild disapproval in David’s comment about the word “bastard” being replaced by gentler terms.

    While changing the word does not change the fact, the term indicates a scandalous fact that lasted for too long in the “good old days”, the stigmatizing and punishment of the innocent victim of the sin. I was aided by the sexual double standrad that says that a man can have all the sex he wants, but a woman has to be pure – which resulted in punishing the person who actually took responsibility for the child, while leaving untouched the one who did not.

    From there can come a mindset that these children were not properly people – and with the years it can percolate that they might be better off dead (Do I recall an old movie with Nancy Kwan, “The world of Suzie Wong”, in which the promiscuous heroine is redeemed when her child dies, and she can marry and be respectable again?)

    Yes, there was a lot of evil preaching that led to abortion, but the ground had been prepared through the ages by that callousnes that David seems to miss.

    As go gay marriage – I suspect that its effect on the family is about neutral. Yes, it says that it does not matter who you partner with, on the other hand, it says that such partnering has to follow prescribed forms – and probably eschew promiscuity.

    In any case, it is not the main danger to the family, nor its main support. The issue could go away tomorrow, and the family would be in still the same dire straits it is now.

  • dave carlin

    No, it wasn’t just a matter of “rhetorical excess.” If it could be shown that same-sex marriage would strengthen the American married two-parent family, I’d be willing to put up with it — as a civil institution only, of course, not as a form of Catholic marriage. It is a good old Catholic rule that we may/should tolerate lesser evils to prevent greater ones.

  • dave carlin

    You apparently hold something like a Kantian theory of morality, according to which consequences don’t count. While I admire Kant’s theory to a certain extent, I can’t agree with it. I hold instead a Catholic theory of morality, according to which consequences DO count, although they are not the only things that count.

  • SWP

    I suggest, Mr. Carlin, you read this article from First Things.

    You forgot to mention the number one thing that has undermined the institution of marriage: Contraception. And so I can agree with Adrianna, who really should be consulting a therapist for her grievances against the church, that the problem won’t go away with gay marriage. Gay marriage as a SIN was made possible by the widespread SIN of contraception.

    Better yet, Adrianna, consult a confessor and not a therapist. You could stand to reeducate yourself about SIN and its effects. I meanwhile will pray that St. Joseph intercede for you, a man who stands as an example of purity for ALL men and women, you callous ignoramus.

  • Todd

    Dr Carlin’s essay was a headscratcher for me for a little while. It seems as if he’s playing at being provocative. That’s more the role of the commentariat, but okay …

    It strikes me that there’s some confusion on the nature of social and individual sin as it impacts both the institution of the family and individual families.

    Sadly, IC’s sort of caught in a plank, speck, eye situation and indulging in a bit of a victim mentality to boot. It’s popular (not to mention convenient) to blame the so-called Sexual Revolution for the erosion of the family. But the reality is that many factors work against marriage and the family, and some of them–gasp!–even come from conservatives.

    What is really lacking in the discussion on same-sex unions is that many conservatives have bought into the culture of victimhood hook, line, and sinker. Instead of focusing on the positive ways to build up marriages, they criticize others besides themselves, then cross their fingers and plug their ears and hope it will all work out Right in the end.

    Certainly, individual persons can have a set of values not 100% aligned with what is liberally or conservatively pc, yet still possess a good degree of truthful reality.

    I don’t know if Rev Russell is right or wrong. But I do know I agree with the thrust of the importance of good family relationships. I don’t mind aligning with that principle.

    What I do know is what I need to work on in my own relationships, and if someone bothers to ask me, I’ll tell them what it is, and maybe that, in turn, helps others. There is certainly more good that can be done by focusing on the positive needs of man-woman-children relationships in a family. To that end, the opposition to same-sex unions strikes me as an issue I know many are passionate about, but doesn’t really strike at the core of what the modern family needs. Try to define marriage legally all you want, but I’m still a doubter that it’s going to strengthen the man and woman struggling to tie things together.

    For those of us who’ve rejected modern victimism, two entirely separate issues.

  • Joe Marier

    It’s always conservatives that should abandon politics and tend to their own gardens, of course. Liberals can do as they please, with only the mildest of criticism.

  • Charlie King

    Hi Dave,
    I guess I don’t understand all the conjecture about the possibility that if Homosexual Marriage could help people then you might support it. What the heck are we saying? The Bible calls homosexual behavior an ‘abomination’. How can we be any clearer than that. Did we just say that the Bible is just a nice book to have around and that it may or may not be applicable in our lives? Or are we saying that we may need to revise the Bible to fit what we think is a our new way of looking at things. Sounds an awful lot like ‘Sometimes abortion can be a good thing’.
    God sets the laws and we follow them, even if we don’t like them and think we have a better idea.

  • Adriana


    Of course there are grievances (and you do not know the wosrt of it – let it be said that the catholic church should not play politics because then it has to share the blame when things go wrong). I advice that you read Chesterton, who says that if there were so many reformers in Church history it was because the Church needed reforming. And I recall his comment that to keep silent in the face of folly or blindness would be thinking that a man is a dutiful son because he does not speak up when his mother is close to a precipice.

    I did not accuse the Church’s doctrine – but to its falling in step with the wordly wisdom of its day, and sharing its prejudices. I do accuse it of keeping its doctrine the province of learned clerics and letting parish priests make do with the little knowledge they had and the prejudices they had absorbed when growing up.

    There has been much corruption in hte history of the Church – and had it not been for it, neither the Reformation nor the French REvolution would have been so powerful. To deny it in the past is to lie, and to presume that corruption will not come again is folly.

    As you’ll note, I did not say that it was the Chruch’s doctrine that a man can have sex as much as he likes, while a woman must kept herself pure (which, if you do the math, results in the business of prostitution). It was what people beleived, before the Chruch came into being – and kept believing long afterwards, and while the Chruch insisted in sexual morality for both sexes, it ended up being corrupted in this, as to many other things.

    And believeing the wrong things has consequences, even if they take centuries to bear fruit.

    You speak of sin, well, it is a sin to fail to recognize that oneself has a share of the blame, and to refuse to amend one’s ways. I think that there is a saying about the mote in your neighbor’s eye…

  • nan

    I didn’t read any of the comments – I’m just answering the burning question and the answer is “NO!”[smiley=shock]

  • R.C.


    I see. I wasn’t entirely sure (and you can’t really say that you made it crystal-clear, by-the-by) whether you were talking about enshrining “gay marriage” in law or in doctrine. Your reply says you meant law, not doctrine…which means you’re saying “Let the state call it marriage, tho’ not the Church.” (In the hypothetical event that such a policy were “good for families.”)

    Okay, that puts you back under the umbrella of orthodoxy, in theory.

    In practice, though, I find it difficult to imagine the Church making such a distinction between doctrine and law, in the manner you suggest.

    Let’s say that we did have reason to believe “gay marriage” was “good for families.” Are you saying that the Church, or Catholics, could then support passage of a law which would legalize such unions, and still preserve her teaching role to the nations on matters of faith and morals?

    It sounds pretty ludicrous to me. I have a hard time believing that the Church could say, “Gay marriage isn’t; gay sexual activity is disordered and sinful…and by the way, because it’s good for families, gay marriages should be enshrined in law.” John Kerry’s “I voted for it before I voted against it” couldn’t top that for muddying the message!

    No. The most the Church could do, even if she thought that “gay marriage” could possibly benefit families, would be to not oppose its legalization. Anything more than that, and she’d lose her ministry as teacher of truth…which would be bad for families, and people in general!

    So, I agree with your phrasing, “If it could be shown that same-sex marriage would strengthen the American married two-parent family, I’d be willing to put up with it — as a civil institution only, of course, not as a form of Catholic marriage.” (Emphasis mine.)

    But I also agree that this will never happen…”this” meaning the discovery that this is a way to strengthen families. “Gay marriage” as a civil institution likely will happen, I’m saddened to say. But it will not make anything better for families. If anything, it will further undermine the already weak cultural ethos of faithful lifelong monogamy.

  • Bookmark

    Mr. Carlin hits the nail on the head with his connection between the sexual revolution and the push for gay “marriage.” I can add another layer to the connection he draws out. The sexual revolution emphasized pleasure over responsibility, with the result that people who did marry tended to look more for self-fulfilment, shifting the focus of marriage from commitment to an institution to personal satisfaction. If the criterion for judging marriage is ‘what I get out of it’ it’s no wonder we end up with so many broken families. At the same time, if personal satisfaction is the key, what right does the state have to discriminate against the personal satisfaction of two people of the same sex?

    In other words, the popular appeal of the push to redefine marriage as including two people of the same sex depends on the fact that it has already been redefined in so many people’s minds already: from commitment to an institution to personal satisfaction. Yet this same mental redefinition is the main reason that the institution of marriage is in crisis. The conclusion is that the CAUSE of the marriage crisis is the REASON given for justifying same sex “marriage.” So how can gay “marriage” be anything but harmful for families?

  • Caroline

    Fortunately, none of us are being placed in the position of having to decide whether to support gay marriage on the grounds that it might help strengthen families. It doesn’t.

    There is increasing evidence in the field of psychology (which, understandably, is hard to get published these days) that the majority of homosexual relationships have a far higher correlation with domestic violence, promiscuity, depression, and drug and alcohol abuse than the majority of heterosexual relationships.

    People understandably make the argument that if a homosexual couple wants to marry, then that indicates that they are trying to go against this trend and introduce stability and commitment into the relationship. If that is their motivation, it’s definitely laudable. I’m just not sure it’s possible to change what could be a natural result of an unnatural relationship by making the relationship permanent.

    Now that homosexual relationships have been socially sanctioned for a while, we will soon begin to see for ourselves the effect that these relationships have on the couple’s children. A book review recently published on this site regarding the effect of a man’s homosexuality on his daughter indicates that this effect will just show us more of the same.

  • Adriana

    The way people argue these things makes me realize that no one had the good fortune, as I did, to take first responders courses, where they would have learned to set priorities.

    Because the way they react to gay marriage as being THE major threat to families is contrary to the accepted practice.

    The one rule is “Check that the airway is open, check that thre is breathing going on, check that the heart is beating and that there is no major bleeding. Once those three are done, then, and only then look at any other injuries. Do not worry about broken bone until you know your patient is going to live.”

    Also, while you are not supposed to move a victim, that does not mean that you are allowed to leave him or her in a burning building. You take him or her out, and hope that whatever damage is done by the moving can be fixed later.

    There is a threat to the family in gay marriage, but it is not the main one. So that we can allow it to let it lie, while we concentrate in the more egregious ones.


  • Andy

    Adriana wrote: There is a threat to the family in gay marriage, but it is not the main one. So that we can allow it to let it lie, while we concentrate in the more egregious ones.

    How silly. We should defend the family from all threats, not just the ones we define as “more egregious” than others. I agree that gay marriage is a symptom of the greater attack on marriage, but that doesn’t mean that it’s okay.

    To extend your paramedic analogy, that would be like treating a man for a severe injury but ignoring the thousand bleeding cuts on his back because, after all, they’re just cuts.

    Where the analogy breaks down is that we don’t have to choose what to defend when it comes to the family. We can stand up for it all.

  • Adriana


    Thousand cuts qualify as “major bleeding”. They do need attending to, but all cuts at once.

    What you ask is that, because a new cut opened up is to ignore all the other ones.

  • Nathan Cushman

    Adriana, where do you get the idea that everyone is fighting “only” gay marriage? We are fighting it politically right now because the legislation/judicial decisions for it are brand new. Most of us are also arguing against abortion, contraception, etc. Meanwhile, people in the Church are adding better marriage preparation classes, teaching Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, teaching NFP, setting up support groups like Courage, and a million other things.

    We are, in a sense, trying to bandage all the wounds at once. At the same time, new wounds are being inflicted. Gay marriage is a new wound. Didn’t you just say we should move the patient from harms’ way before treating them? That is what we want. We must stem the continuing injuries before we can safely treat the harm which is already done. Yet, since this isn’t truly an either/or situation, we can work on many injuries at once.

    There is no need to ignore “gay marriage” to address our other wounds, and while politicians might sometimes only focus on one issue, we as a church can (and do) focus on many.

  • Nathan Cushman

    As a corollary to my other post, I would propose that it doesn’t help anything to defend gay marriage in the hopes that other wounds can be treated first. Why should we fight amongst ourselves on this issue? Wouldn’t we better served if we each worked on treating the wounds we thought were the greatest threat?

    I would recommend quickly agreeing that gay marriage is a problem, and then trying to gain support in the fight to heal the “more egregious” injuries.

    On another note, it is easier to prevent injury than to heal injury. So letting new attacks slide by is counter-productive. It is usually easier to stop a law from being passed than to repeal a law (unless the negative impact of the law is clear, immediate, and affects much of the citizenry personally once applied).

  • Adriana


    The way it is being stressed in Presidential politics probably gave me the idea. There was a liberal the other day making fun of conservatives this way.

    “So you lost your job, your house was foreclosed, your kid is in Iraq and you do not know when he’s coming back, gas prices are out of sight, and you cannot make ends meet. But I got good news: gay marriage is still illegal.”

    At this point, I started looking for geckos – or cavemen…

    In any case it is hard to be worked up for what looks like a GEICO punchline.

  • Mel Menzies

    I can