The Intellectual Origins of Same-Sex Marriage

In today’s “liberal” culture, as religious observance declines, the moral tide goes out, seemingly beyond the drop off. The Supreme Court decision of June 26 concerning DOMA is the most recent in an effort to “liberalize” traditionally held moral norms that owe their original establishment to the faith convictions of a once (and mostly) Christian people. Other norms include the prohibition against contraception, sodomy, adultery, no-fault divorce, abortion, and now euthanasia.

How easy it is to underestimate the salutary effect of grace, not only on our reasoning, but also on the exercise of our freedom. Without the operative effects of grace on the soul, the morally degenerate effect of original sin pervades the social order, and the efficacy of the law written on our hearts falls into disrepute, and with some ferocity it seems, especially when it comes to homosexual behavior (Romans 1:18-32).  As it now stands, original sin is shaping a culture of marriage and family life that bears little resemblance to the human good. What ultimately stands behind the gay marriage proposal is a perverse rationale that originates in certain philosophical presuppositions we find all the way back at the inception of liberalism. It is these principles that have led, by a kind of necessity, to the perverse moral conclusions to which we are now being forcibly subjected.

To expose some of these presuppositions behind the gay marriage movement and how we got here, let us return to the Enlightenment. It is there that we find some of the deepest roots of our current situation, although not all of them. Three ideas, in particular, are formative and they have each received their due condemnation from Pope Leo XIII (and subsequent popes), whom I prefer to cite since he enjoyed a certain historical proximity to the institutionalization of these ideas. The first is the privatization of faith, which is how I will describe the classical liberal understanding of the separation of church and state. The difficulty is not with the idea of distinguishing the respective roles of church and state in public life, something Pope Leo XIII did quite commendably (Immortale Dei, no. 13). The difficulty is rather in how the Encyclopedists relegated matters of faith to the private sphere. Leo XIII describes it thus:

And it is a part of this theory that all questions that concern religion are to be referred to private judgment; that every one is to be free to follow whatever religion he prefers, or none at all if he disapprove of all. From this the following consequences logically flow: that the judgment of each one’s conscience is independent of all law (Immortale Dei, no. 26).

The second idea is the exaggerated primacy placed on the exercise of individual liberty, which some liberals touted as our highest political end. Here’s how Leo XIII describes it:

But that harmful and deplorable passion for innovation which was aroused in the sixteenth … invaded the precincts of philosophy …. From this source, as from a fountain-head, burst forth all those later tenets of unbridled license which … were wildly conceived and boldly proclaimed as the principles and foundation of that new conception of law which was not merely previously unknown, but was at variance on many points with not only the Christian, but even the natural law (Immortale Dei, no. 23).

The third idea is the liberal notion of social contract theory, which essentially means that civil authority originates in the will of the people and not from God (contra Wisdom 6:3 and Romans 13:1). Leo XIII goes on in Immortale Dei to say this:

Amongst these principles the main one lays down that as all men are alike by race and nature, so in like manner all are equal in the control of their life; that each one is so far his own master as to be in no sense under the rule of any other individual; that each is free to think on every subject just as he may choose, and to do whatever he may like to do; that no man has any right to rule over other men. In a society grounded upon such maxims all government is nothing more nor less than the will of the people, and the people, being under the power of itself alone, is alone its own ruler. (no. 24).

Let’s look first, then, at the privatization of religion and its consequences for marriage.

One of the principle motives behind separating church and state was to relegate matters of faith to the private sphere, so that those public matters shared by church and state would be placed directly under the authority of civil government alone. One such example of this was the newly acquired jurisdiction over the institution of marriage, whereby liberals now permitted divorce and remarriage. Admittedly, the liberal ideal of separating church and state has actually worked out well in some areas, but the institution of marriage poses a particular difficulty in this regard, as Leo XIII was prescient enough to explain in his encyclical on marriage, Arcanum.

Because marriage is a public institution, liberals believed it belonged under the direct jurisdiction of the state. Here’s how Leo XIII describes it:

[T]hese men will on no account allow matrimony to be the subject of the jurisdiction of the Church. Nay, they endeavor to deprive it of all holiness, and so bring it within the contracted sphere of those rights which, having been instituted by man, are ruled and administered by the civil jurisprudence of the community. Wherefore it necessarily follows that they attribute all power over marriage to civil rulers, and allow none whatever to the Church …” (Arcanum, no. 17).

As a result, today it is custom to liberal society to segregate the religious aspect of marriage, which belongs to the private realm, from the juridical aspect, which belongs to the public domain of civil government (Arcanum, no. 23).

Yet this is actually quite problematic. Marriage is, by nature, a public institution under the jurisdiction of religious institutions. God is the author of marriage after all. Leo XIII describes it thus: “Marriage has God for its Author … and therefore there abides in it something holy and religious; not extraneous, but innate; not derived from men, but implanted by nature” (Arcanum, no. 19). The state, therefore, is but a servant to what God has established by divine decree. Marriage is peculiar in this regard, precisely because God established marriage immediately through the promulgation of natural law. In its ontological character, it is not an institution established by human convention, whereas other institutions such as particular civil governments are.

The first thing Enlightenment liberals did to assert their alleged authority over marriage, then, was to allow divorce and remarriage without recourse to the anthropological underpinnings of natural law or Scripture, that is, according to the nature of marriage. This was the first ‘modern’ attempt to redefine marriage, insofar as the state no longer regarded marriage as an indissoluble covenant. “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matt. 19:8).

Yet, to really grasp the depth of the political conundrum we face, we need to consider the second and third enlightened beliefs, the primacy accorded the exercise of personal liberty and its interpretation within the framework of social contract theory. As we see in Leo XIII’s remarks, the idea behind privatizing religion was, in part, to create a legal asylum in the public square for the free exercise of personal liberty—a natural right no less—but now a principle interpreted according to social contract theory. The rationale of this theory is that the state’s primary responsibility is to guarantee, as an inalienable right, the free exercise of personal liberty, in whatever manner willed by the people—or at least some of them. In turn, civil obedience is binding only so long as the state guarantees this right.

As the sacred institution of marriage was appropriated by the state, it didn’t take long before the logic of social contract theory redefined the meaning of the marriage bond. The marriage bond was redefined as a contract rather than an indissoluble covenant. In other words, liberals assumed a marriage-defining authority over the meaning of marriage by a simple legislative fiat. Ironically, as it has played itself out in our own times, we do not need a legislative vote, or so it seems, to secure the exercise of individual liberty, but simply a court decision, affirming the will of those that decision represents. This exercise of legal positivism is a convenient way around the majority opinion.

What follows from these three philosophical notions—the privatization of faith, the primacy of personal liberty, and social contract theory—is that a “right” is appropriated to individuals to exercise their liberty in the contracting or dissolution of marriages without any regard for the nature of marriage, or its Maker, or the authority of a religious body. If, as a matter of principle, marriage is merely a private matter of individual liberty expressed through a social contract, then what’s to stop the state from further redefining the “meaning” of those contracts, as it has already done?

While at the time of the Enlightenment, the idea of redefining who the contractual partners of marriage could be did not include the unimagined possibility of homosexual couples, it did mean that liberals were free to recognize whatever marital arrangement they felt were appropriate to the commonwealth. Sadly, these philosophical commitments reached our own shores long ago and were deeply held convictions for many of the founding fathers. While clear differences mark the ascendency of liberalism in continental Europe and America—mostly the absence of an established Catholic Church in America—certain philosophical commitments were universal, including the liberal interpretation of separating church and state, the primacy accorded the exercise of personal liberty, and social contract theory. One has only to examine the writings of the founding fathers to see this. I would distinguish here between the philosophical spirit that largely animated the American founding and the form of government established by the constitution. It is from the former that our current problems originate.

All along, liberals have believed that the meaning of marriage is subject to the authority of the state. It has merely taken time for this logic to come now to this immanent conclusion, that it is a “right” of individual liberty and privacy that the state should acknowledge the contracted marriage of two homosexuals. It is a logical necessity, although not necessarily a historical one. Things could be otherwise, were it not the case that our religious culture is eroding in so many other ways.

But, be that as it may, it will be impossible to stem the tide of gay marriage, lest we find a way quickly to confront the underlying presuppositions of the liberal social agenda and its political manifesto. Gay marriage is actually a logical outcome of this perspective. But at least we know where things stand. What we are now facing in this aggressive ascendency of the ‘secular’ is nothing other than the terminal destination of certain Enlightenment principles. It is, as Pope Benedict described it, a dictatorship of relativism. In the absence of public religious conviction, original sin will always rule the day. At any rate, in the end, and only by the grace of God, gay marriage will be neither enlightened nor liberating. Therein lay our hope.


Michel Therrien is the President and CEO of Preambula Group, a nonprofit lay apostolate dedicated to the work of the new evangelization. He has taught at Saint Vincent Seminary and the Augustine Institute and served as president of the Institute for Pastoral Leadership in the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

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