The Future of Marriage Reconsidered

Among American conservatives it seems to be common knowledge now that marriage is on the rocks. According to the Pew Research Center, just over half of American adults 18 and older are now married. This is a record low, and most indicators suggest that marriage is continuing to decline. In many demographics, co-habitation and illegitimacy have become normal and in no way stigmatized. This is terrible news for American children, whose prospects for a healthy and prosperous life are significantly diminished by the loss of stable, secure homes headed by married mothers and fathers.

Even as traditional marriage collapses, same-sex marriage has asserted itself, and the speed at which the American public (or at least the persuadable middle) has come to accept it is breathtaking. Same-sex marriage has long been a cause celebre for the hard left, but increasingly the voters are moving in the same direction. The movement now enjoys support from young Americans and the nation’s most powerful courts. It sometimes seems that these trends are irreversible, given the left’s success in vilifying traditional marriage supporters and strangling rational public discourse on the subject.

Strangulation is a particularly effective strategy for the left, because the arguments in favor of traditional marriage are complex, and require sustained attention. For the grandchildren of the sexual revolution, the left’s simple argument in favor of same-sex marriage (“why not?”) seems so utterly definitive that most are uninterested in further discussion. The left’s characterization of conservatives as homophobic bigots is accepted more or less on face, and there the debate ends, before it has even begun.

What does this mean for marriage as a whole? Same-sex marriage supporters love to argue (some disingenuously, but others with apparently real conviction) that this social trend in favor of marriage will help revitalize the institution as a whole. This seems unlikely. Until Americans can regain a clearer sense of what marriage is and why we need it, the institution will continue to decline. Offering civil marriage to same-sex couples will not clarify anything; quite the contrary, it will further entrench the idea that marriage is a nebulous arrangement that can mean anything the participants wish. To young people and the poor, marriage is coming to seem as mysterious and as it is unattainable. This creates a pool of natural sympathy for same-sex couples, who seem like fellow travellers on the quest for relevantly similar goods, but the bitter irony is that the same sex marriage agenda is actually putting that goal further out of reach.

At this juncture, it may be appropriate for social conservatives to reconsider our strategy. Of course, we cannot simply fall silent on the subject of same-sex marriage, in the first place because the left is bringing the fight to our very doorsteps, and in the second because it is necessary to articulate the truth about marriage for the sake of our own children. We cannot allow fear or shame to prevent us from defending the truth.

Nevertheless, it is wise to be realistic about the limitations of the natural law argument as a strategic tool for bolstering the institution of marriage. Liberals have convinced many Americans (and particularly the young) that extending civil marriage to homosexual couples is a basic requirement of justice. This is foolish on many levels, but young people are not receptive to that message at the present time. Having very little understanding of what marriage is, they see no reason why same-sex couples should not do it, and it is psychologically gratifying to regard themselves as being more tolerant, enlightened and fair-minded than their benighted forbears. A full frontal assault on that position is unlikely to yield much fruit.

There may, however, be another way to make progress on the marriage front. As I argued in last week’s column, even liberals have mostly come to agree that marriage is a good thing. This marks a genuine change from the liberal position that dominated the 1980’s and 90’s. Skeptical conservatives sometimes suggest to me that the (apparent) liberal embrace of marriage is little more than a feint, which ultimately serves their larger goal of normalizing homosexuality. Liberal pundits and politicians may indeed have made that calculation, and if so, they have succeeded in dramatic fashion.  But the fact remains that, whatever their motives, liberals have begun preaching that marriage is important, that children especially need it, and that the instability of marriage (particularly among the poor) is a serious problem that should excite our concern. And the remarkable truth is that young people are starting to believe these things.

Social conservatives have a hard time believing that there could be any good news nowadays with respect to marriage, but this is good news, as far as it goes. Americans are fairly united now in their belief that marriage is a good and necessary thing. We need to do a better job of using that point of agreement to our advantage in bolstering the case for conjugal marriage.

Sometimes that may mean turning the conversation away from same-sex marriage, and focusing on arguments to which the young are more receptive. I have found in discussions with my undergraduate students that their comments can sound surprisingly conservative, and that many elements of the Catholic view of marriage are appealing to them so long as same-sex marriage is not the topic under discussion. In their ignorance and insecurity, they are fairly open to learning about marriage, but that openness tends to dissipate as soon as I challenge the one fact that they think they have clearly established: that marriage is something same-sex couples can do. I think these trends in my students are probably mirrored in the American public as a whole. Too often, Americans stop listening if they are told in advance that they are listening to a defense of heterosexual marriage. If they are not told, they may listen with considerably more attention.

Gay rights activists have for a long time been pressing an “argument from acquaintance, in which they suggest that homosexuality will be normalized as Americans increasingly get to know openly homosexual people. The presumption is that we will all be impressed by the normalcy of these couples, and will come to appreciate that their partnerships are not significantly different from heterosexual ones. This will lead us to abandon our groundless bias in favor of heterosexuality.

What if the process worked the other way? The available sociological evidence indicates that homosexual couples, even if legally married, are significantly less likely to conform to the traditional conjugal ideals of fidelity and permanence. What if we could persuade the American public that fidelity and permanence are essential to marriage? This is a much more winnable fight, and it offers a promising long-term payoff. As people gain a clearer understanding of what marriage is, they may start to appreciate (even without the benefit of instruction in the natural law arguments) how same-sex pairings are not well suited to it. In a few decades’ time we may find that it is no longer necessary to discuss natural law in order to convince people that marriage necessarily joins together a woman and a man.

Confusion about marriage creates terrible pain, particularly for the children who are deprived of a stable home with a mother and father. Thinking about this makes us eager to rectify the situation immediately, but unfortunately, it is not within our power to do so. What we can do, however, is lay a firmer foundation for the future. Let us endeavor to re-form the sensibilities of today’s impressionable young, so that the time may eventually come when they can appreciate the truth about marriage.

(Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Rachel Lu


Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

  • don

    I hope you are correct Rachel, but I fear you are not. I know a number of people who have been married multiple times and also think marriage is a good thing . . . and hope to do more of it in the future. Their lifestyles are generally accepted and even celebrated by most of the community. While there may be a tacit endorsement of marriage by the left, that favorable outlook is tethered to an understanding of marriage that is fundamentally flawed. The modern concept of marriage is highly romatic and highly disposable. American views on marriage, as with all things, are built around how America now conceptualizes how the universe is ordered. I fear the core of the conceptualization, has been deeply corrupted and will be difficult to repair.

  • Marcellus

    “What if we could persuade the American public that fidelity and permanence are essential to marriage?” Good luck with that.

  • Tradmeister

    Permanence essential to marriage? It was Ronald Reagan himself who was the first divorced and remarried man in the White House.

    And plenty of our so-called conservatives have already fully affirmed homosexual civil unions, which still qualify as a wholesale abomination. Even Paul Ryan is onboard with homosexual adoption.

    We’re not going anywhere with regard to this issue. For starters, almost all ‘conservatives’ are simply conservative-leaning liberals and will not take any substantive stand against homosexual relationships. And when we threw our lot in with masonic tenets as the framework for our polity, we undermined Christ’s reign and the proper bulwark of immutable values in public policy.

    We’ve made our bed with our shortsightedness and expediency. Until we choose to unmake it, the only course of action is to learn to lie in it.

    • lifeknight

      Paul Ryan is a wimp. He is a politician first and a Catholic way down the line.

  • Steven Jonathan

    Dr. Lu,

    I find your proposed solution troubling. Eventually “even without the benefit of instruction in the natural law arguments”??? A time when “it is no longer necessary to discuss natural law” ??? There is no doubt we have lost much ground in the debate, but it seems to me that you are proposing new tactics using the methods that caused us to lose ground in the first place. As good citizens we ought to live by right principles grounded in truth goodness and beauty. The scheming, power seeking calculating strategies belong to the other side, our side is to be uncompromisingly principled. We are not losing because we haven’t calculated well enough, it is that we have given up so much moral ground that their calculating works easily against a much weakened moral fabric. The answer now is white martyrdom, soon it will be red. We are to speak the truth in love and to make it clear, even though it will cost us dearly. We are not playing the same sport, we do not speak the same language as the liberal licentious left.

    There are no easy answers now and there is no amount of calculation or scheming or convincing that will have any kind of lasting effect. The only real answer will be found on our knees mourning for our own sins and the sins of this dreadfully fallen time. We must return to teaching our children from the principles of divine law and natural law. I find that telling kids of all ages about the law written on their hearts and in the book of nature is adequate to begin to recover the truth in language necessary to order things properly- but it is costly.

    I do admire your courage in confronting this issue, but I worry you are barking up the wrong tree. We don’t need power to change hearts and minds, we need moral fortitude and the resolve to commit to the sacrifices necessary to be instruments of Christ’s peace, to pick up our crosses and follow Him- that is the only real solution and one now hardly likely to happen no matter what tricks we employ.

    • Rachel Lu

      I’m trying for both the fortitude and the persuasiveness. I hope I would have the courage to face martyrdom, but I think less dramatic means of conversion are still worth trying.

  • Jenny

    I think the answer is to discuss the purpose of marriage. We have such a high divorce rate in this country because many people do not understand the true meaning of marriage. Once the purpose of marriage is really understood and lived authentically, then the reason why gay marriage isn’t possible (and divorce for that matter) will become clear and maybe we will see more families consisting of a married mother and father.

    • If the “true meaning” of marriage is procreation, what does that mean for Straight couples who either are unable or have no desire to have children? And if marriage provides a more stable environment for children, wouldn’t it make sense to give Gay couples with adopted children the option to marry?

      • Adam__Baum

        Forty or fifty years ago, the cry of the social left was that marriage was an unnecessary social convention that did nothing to enhance, alter or seal an existing relationship. Now in the last twenty, but especially the last five is that it is an essential public franchise that will stabiilize homosexual relationships.

        So it is with the itinerant fixations of the left that if you wait long enough (not very long), they’ll be disagreeing with themselves.

      • HigherCalling

        The true meaning of human sexuality is simultaneously procreative and unitive. Each is achievable only through the natural ordering of human sexual behavior within marriage. These are not merely figurative ideas — they are objective realities. The most complete physical union of two people can only occur between male and female — two becoming one flesh. In conceiving a new human life, husband and wife contribute equally genetically, uniting them biologically in the child. They are also united dynamically because their bond as husband and wife cannot be properly understood apart from their relation to their child, and the child’s bond with his parents cannot be properly understood apart from his parents’ relation to each other. Also, husband and wife are united eternally by their sharing in the creation of a new human life who possesses an immortal soul — an incarnation which, through their union, will continue for eternity. This is the Catholic meaning of marriage and family and is the foundation of the Church’s teaching of human sexuality.

        The absolute impossibility of same-sex intercourse to produce new life explains why homosexual couples cannot achieve the fullness of unity possible for married heterosexual couples. Only within sexual complementarity can procreation be possible. In principle, a man and a woman can procreate. Whether either is infertile or past child-bearing years is incidental. An infertile heterosexual couple can still remain open, in intention and in action, to new life, and achieve the aim of marital unity. By contrast, two men or two women cannot procreate. That reality is not incidental, it is absolute. Sexual behavior, rightly ordered, must accept an openness to new life, for that is its purpose. Homosexual intercourse is utterly closed to new life. Their attempts at a marital union will be frustrated by the definitive fact that members of the same sex are not complementary and thus cannot achieve true physical or spiritual unity. Children adopted into a same-sex “marriage” are being placed in a situation that is disordered (by definition) from the get-go — overcoming that fundamental fact is asking more of a child than could ever be considered fair or just.

        The objective realities of human sexuality and marriage are not made up by the Church. They are merely recognized by the Church as natural facts that, when accepted, lead to the greatest possibility for human flourishing. For a marriage to be complete in every detail, the marriage bed will, as nature dictates, be both procreative and unitive. This is what is meant by “consummation” in marriage. Thus, married heterosexual couples using contraception do not consummate their marriage unless the marriage bed is fully open to new life — where husband and wife give totally of each other, participating with God in His creation.

        • lifeknight

          Very nicely said! I wish we could get a homily like that at holy Mass!

        • “The most complete physical union of two people can only occur between male and female — two becoming one flesh.”

          I prefer not to dwell on the mechanics of sex, whether the couple in question is Gay or Straight. Whether any couple is having sex to begin with is beside the point. Even convicted felons who are sitting on Death Row are allowed to marry. Even quadriplegics are allowed to marry. From a Constitutional standpoint this is all irrelevant. Unless the Constitution only applies to people who are Straight (i.e. heterosexual), there is simply no legal justification for denying law-abiding, taxpaying Gay couples the same benefits, protections, and opportunities that Straight couples have always taken for granted.

          • slainte

            “…..there is simply no legal justification for denying law-abiding, taxpaying Gay couples the same benefits, protections, and opportunities that Straight couples have always taken for granted….”
            Civil unions provide the benefits, protections, and opportunities you describe.

          • redfish

            You’re right, legally, whether any couple is having sex is besides the point. A gay man could marry a lesbian woman, too. Or a gay man could marry a straight woman. Or a straight man could marry a lesbian woman. So why bring up gay and straight?

          • robert chacon

            There is legal justification. In defining marriage between a man and a woman, one is not being denied marriage due to the fact he or she has same sex attraction. African Americans cannot be denied the vote for the color of their skin. But an African American woman can be denied the vote if she is incarcerated. Discrimination CAN be based on BEHAVIOR. In the case of marriage, a same sex couple DENY a child a mother AND a father. This denial is unjust, and if we say we are concerned about our children, then their rights should take higher priority than our adult desires.

            It is this family formation that helps define marriage. It is not ones sexual orientation that precludes one from marriage. Gay men have married straight women and had families. It isnt the state of being gay that precludes one from marriage. If that were the case, it would be discrimination. Its in the familial nature of marriage that the homosexual precludes himself from true marriage. A gay “marriage” is simply a legal fiction created in the minds of those who support it. Redefining marriage to suit our own particular needs is like claiming my donkey is a horse. The new doesnt serve the needs the original was created for. If you want to define a gay relationship, call it anything you want, but there is a very appropriate societal reason for a legal distinction. And that reason is the rights of children to have both a mother and a father.

          • givelifeachance2

            Homosexuals should be permitted to marry someone of the opposite sex. That is the sense in which we already have marriage equality.

            And there is something very bigoted about any homosexual couple, who are denying either a man or a woman a part in the relationship, and therefore denying the children a mother or a father.

  • “Even liberals have mostly come to agree that marriage is a good thing.”

    Of COURSE it’s a good thing, and I say that is someone who is about as liberal as they come. And that’s why I believe the morality of Gay marriage is comparable to the morality of Straight marriage: It is morally and ethically preferable to encourage people
    toward monogamy and commitment, rather than relegating them to lives of loneliness and possibly promiscuity. So YES: Supporting marriage equality is the true conservative position.

    Studies have repeatedly shown that the benefits are substantial:
    1: Married couples typically contribute more and take less from society.
    2: Married couples support and care for each other financially, physically and emotionally and often contribute more to the economy and savings.
    3: Individuals who are married are less likely to receive government entitlements.
    4: Individuals who are married statistically consume less health care services, and often give more to churches and charities.
    5: Married couples are better able to provide care and security for children.

    So what sense does it make to exclude law-abiding, taxpaying Gay
    couples from this place at the table? Why is it, for example, that Straight
    couples are encouraged to date, get engaged, marry and build lives together in
    the context of monogamy and commitment, and that this is a GOOD thing … yet for
    Gay couples to do exactly the same is somehow a BAD thing? To me this seems
    like a very poor value judgment.

    What really irks me is when people say I somehow don’t support “traditional marriage.” I have countless Straight (i.e. heterosexual) friends, some single and some married, and if any of those single friends of mine finds a compatible person of the opposite sex to get “traditionally married” to, no one will be happier than me. Why would anyone wish to deny the same happiness and commitment to their Gay friends?

    • Rachel Lu

      The first reason for refusing to support “marriage equality” is the (I believe) fact that homosexual and heterosexual coupling simply are not the same. I think this is true metaphysically, and I think the sociological data also indicates that homosexual couples behave differently from heterosexual ones, most importantly in their diminished commitment to fidelity and permanence. I disapprove of attempts to use legislation to cancel nature. It doesn’t work, and the effort does us no credit.

      Presumably you would argue, as many do, that homosexual couples will behave like heterosexual ones if we treat them like heterosexual couples. I think this is unlikely. But for those who *do* believe it, I think it would be best to devote your energies to trying to persuade homosexual couples to prove their fitness for the traditional-marriage-like model by living it. That seems much more fitting than haranguing skeptics to believe contrary to the evidence.

      But insofar as we’re concerned about the health of society, I think the harsh truth is that it just doesn’t matter very much whether homosexual relationships are stable or not. (Of course it matters to the individuals involved, and I’m not suggesting that this is unimportant. But here we are arguing about what is best for society at large, so I am focusing on that goal.) Homosexual relationships are not fruitful. Disordered homosexual relationships will not beget unwanted or neglected children. As social problems go, the collapse of marriage among heterosexuals is a much, much bigger social problem. And frankly, there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that same-sex marriage will help shore up heterosexual marriage.

      What might help heterosexual marriage is a recovery of the foundations of conjugal marriage, which ties all these desirable elements (fidelity, permanence and mutual support) into a coherent organic package. But “marriage equality” clearly will not help us to recover those ideals.

      • Paul McGuire

        So the recognition of a same-sex couple as officially family, which marriage provides, is not important? For same-sex couples raising children, it is important to have both of them recognized as parents to promote the marital stability that is so important for the children. Many states require a couple to be married before they can adopt.

        Also, what if one of the two is in the hospital? Some hospitals can be very limited in who they let visit. We don’t deny the right of people to attempt a life-long commitment in heterosexual marriage even though a lot of people abuse the privilege or are unable to stay committed. Why should we avoid formalizing same-sex relationships simply because some couples aren’t able to commit?

        For most same-sex couples, the idea that they can marry their partner is still very recent. I know many same-sex couples in California who have been together for many years yet never thought about marriage because it was so far from the realm of possibility that they didn’t even bother planning for it. Wouldn’t it be better to give gay and lesbian youth something to strive for so we can suggest they aim for relationships from the start rather than engaging in promiscuous behavior?

        • Adam__Baum

          “Some hospitals can be very limited in who they let visit.”

          That’s what advanced medical directives are for.

        • robert chacon

          Again, what is the societal value of stability in a homosexual relationship? It serves no purpose. Regarding, children, homosexual couples should not be denying a child a mother and a father in the first place. Other than this one singular issue, however, all other rights normally granted to normal married couples, such as insurance or health benefits, hospital visitation should be allowed. Society should have no concern if I want to leave my IRA to life long partner or if he should be able to visit in the hospital. But it is not a marriage and as such children should be guaranteed the right to start life with a mother and a father.

  • Steve Frank

    I hate to sound like a pessimist, but I think Western culture is too far gone to be changed by any arguments, including the well intentioned ones being offered by this author. I’ve heard it said that given human nature, a slide into paganism is inevitable in any free society that enjoys long periods of peace and prosperity. That would certainly categorize the West since World War II. Which means it would probably take something cataclysmic like another World War or something of equal magnitude to wake the West up from it’s stupor and reverse the sexual revolution. Short of that, Christians will need to prepare themselves for living as a despised minority in a decadent culture, much like the Christians of the first three centuries.

    • robert chacon

      You are a pessimist. Our Western culture is full of history of moral decline and renewal. Perhaps since we arent yet seeing the impacts of this decay or our ears have not yet been receptive to the prophets that have always brought renewal in the past , we are continuing in our secular ways. But the logical implications of our current demands for ever increasing freedoms will only result in chaos , whose cause will eventually be obvious , along with the realization of our need to reform. We may still be in a dark storm, and we will see more clouds, but the day light will be seen eventually. It always has.

      • Steve Frank

        My pessimism is strictly related to whether renewal can come about by argument alone. I never said there is no hope for renewal. You are correct that Western culture is full of moral decline and renewal. For example, after World War I the West entered a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity. The “War to end all wars” was over, medicine was conquering many of the deadly diseases that had plagued previous generations. But with that prosperity came unprecedented moral decline, “the Roaring Twenties” with it’s flappers, the first Protestant capitulations to contraception, etc. Then came the Depression and World War II and with it a retreat of the mini sexual revolution of the 20s. To offer one example, look at Hollywood. Many of the “pre-code” films of the 1920s were quite risque. But by the time the Depression was well under way, the renewal of sexual morals in America resulted in Hollywood’s need to begin censoring itself under the infamous Hays code. Could anyone imagine such a thing happening today? The fact is that as scandalous as the Roaring Twenties may have seemed to Christians of that time, that period was like a Sunday School picnic compared to the post 1960s sexual revolution. Which means (I think) that it will take something much more cataclysmic than the Depression or WWII to alter the current moral trajectory of the West. I could be wrong of course, but if history is any indicator I still maintain that it would require a mass upheaval of some kind to change the Western mindset that this world is a spiritual battleground, not a playground. It’s the well entrenched view of the latter that makes moral renewal by argument alone unlikely.

  • roxwyfe

    The problem with the argument of “marriage equality” is that is tries to make men and women interchangeable and seemingly irrelevant to the relationship. Whether it’s a man and woman, 2 men or 2 women, the homomafia would have us believe that it makes no substantial difference. Men and women are like Lego blocks and can be switched out at random. This is, of course, far from the truth. Until people collectively re-engage their brains and respect logic and intelligence more than feelings this idiocy will continue. Unfortunately 🙁

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      ” tries to make men and women interchangeable and seemingly irrelevant to the relationship.” And, not surprisingly, fails.

      The notion, entertained by its proponents, that SSM will produce a unisex institution of marriage, with identical rights for same-sex and opposite-sex couples is false in fact.

      Despite the recent efforts of the French National Assembly, a leading jurist has analysed the result of their labours as follows:

      “It is necessary, since the law of 19th May 2013 (2013-404) opening marriage to persons of the same sex, to distinguish two marriages

      1. The union, freely agreed to, of a man and a woman in order to found a family. Only this marriage between a man and a woman affects filiation (Title VII of Book I of the Civil Code) [This is a reference to Art 314 of the Civil Code, “The child conceived or born during the marriage has the husband for father”

      2. The union, freely agreed to, between two persons of the same sex, which permits them, within the limits of the appreciation of the interests of the child by the administration and then the judge, to adopt (Title VIII of Book I of the Civil Code) the child of one of them, or a ward of the State or, subject to what is permitted by conventions between states, a foreign child.”

      Marriage equality, even in the hands of its supporters, reveals itself to be an illusion.“Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret.”

  • Gabriella

    A marriage is not a marriage until it is consummated. A homosexual union cannot be called a marriage because it cannot be consummated, can it? Therefore, there is no such a thing as a homosexual marriage. We can only call it that way but it does not exist.
    So all this nonsense about gay marriage is just that, a nonsense! And I do not understand why we are spending so much time and energy on it. There must be other, much more important things we can do with the talents and the time the Good Lord has granted us.
    Wake up, people, we have been trapped. Less attention we give the issue, the better.
    The gay people revel in our preoccupation with their issues. Let’s stop it, for good!