What will be the outcome of the social and legal changes that have led to the recent Supreme Court holding that fundamental constitutional principle requires the sex of the parties to be treated as irrelevant to marriage?
We can’t be sure of all the details. Yogi Berra points out that “it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future,” and the Bible itself emphasizes the inscrutability of the relations between the sexes—as Proverbs calls it, “the way of a man with a maid.”
Even so, reason, tradition, and doctrine can give us some guidance: reason by picking out basic functional aspects of the situation, tradition by crystallizing understandings found to wear well as guides to reality, and doctrine by sorting out confusing situations in an authoritative way.
What they tell us, first and most obviously, is that sex has a natural function in human life—it’s the way babies are made—and the physical and emotional constitution of men and women is oriented toward that function. If that weren’t so the human race would have died out a long time ago. So the sexual complementarity of man and woman, and the sexual bond between them, establish and order the characteristic setting in which children most favorably develop and men and women find something central to their nature.
Among the other animals such arrangements seem entirely innate. Among human beings, who are remarkably adaptable, there is a cultural component, so that they vary somewhat by time and place. Even so, the variations must accept innate functional tendencies. Culture affects the expression of natural sexual complementarity and family ties, but it can’t eliminate them, turn them into something else, or come up with some fundamentally different arrangement that works remotely as well. Attempts to radically transform human nature haven’t worked, and when seriously pursued have led to catastrophe. With that background, what reason is there to expect the current attempt to abolish sex as a principle of social order to end well?
A second point is that current understandings of sex make no sense. We’re told that it’s too fluid, multifaceted, and individual to subordinate to any restricted scheme of expression. We’re also told that it’s too strong an impulse to restrain much at all, and attempts to do so will only result in lies, cruelty, hypocrisy, and scapegoating. Under such circumstances the best thing to do is insist on consent, and support people in their efforts to work out the pattern of sexual expression that seems most satisfactory to them.
The line of thought is confused. If sex is so multiform, and backed by such strong impulses, why doesn’t that make strong rules necessary? After all, it tends to bring vulnerable people, like children, into the picture. Wouldn’t any sane society concern itself very seriously with the situation into which those people—who are, after all, the future of the human race—find themselves? Why think their elders are reliably going to invent something workable for all involved based on erratic personal impulse when they can’t even lose 5 pounds and keep them off? Has the whole world been hopelessly confused about fundamental human concerns until five minutes ago?
Also, there are other aspects of life that are multiform, backed by strong impulses, and important for how people live. The pursuit and use of power and resources provide an example. So should each of us invent his own relation to those things, decide for himself how he will go about pursuing and using them, and receive the support of social custom and public authority for whatever his decision may be? Abolish institutional restraints, so everything can be fluid and everyone can find his bliss! If that’s the progressive approach with regard to sex, where people are notoriously irrational and vulnerable third parties (like children) become involved, why isn’t it the progressive approach with regard to relations among grown-ups, like politics and economics? Our accredited deep thinkers haven’t worked out the parallels, but they should.
People today try to maintain the human significance of sex and its connection to an ideal of humane order by identifying it with love. Sex can support close personal connections, and those who wish to use it that way are thought to deserve formal public recognition and celebration of sexual connections they want to endure and help organize their lives. That is why the United States Supreme Court has redefined marriage to include couples of the same sex, a decision that is thought to show that in our country love has finally won.
The approach isn’t going to be very productive, because the “love” that it treats as the meaning of sex and sole foundation of marriage is purely subjective, with no function or definition that does not grow directly out of the immediate feelings of those involved. Under such circumstances marriage becomes a matter of taking feelings as a guide. How can that approach give rise to an institution capable of stabilizing feelings and providing an ideal and enduring form for their expression?
Marriage as traditionally and naturally understood can guide us in our actions because it is a functional structure that transcends the individual and links men, women, families, and generations into a network that binds all of society together. It does so because by the identity of the parties and the nature of their connection it gives rise to new life that must be cared for and brought up. Babies are what men and women make when they come together sexually, and inability to consummate a marriage—to come together in a way that by natural function makes babies—has traditionally made it invalid.
The fact that babies sometimes don’t appear, because the parties are sterile, is no more relevant to the nature of the connection than it is to the identity of the parties as male and female. Human relations are not techniques that reduce without remainder to the functions that order them and give them their importance. A soldier is still a soldier, and a friend a friend, even if he is incompetent and his efforts to defend his country or help his companion are reliably useless. But if something basic about him made him forever incapable of doing any of the things that normally defend nations and help friends—if he were born without a brain, for example—it would be difficult to speak of him as a soldier or friend.
So what will happen, now that a basic aspect of human life is completely misunderstood by our rulers, and they’ve turned the misunderstanding into enforceable doctrine and declared it fundamental to our legal, political, and moral order? Man is a rational animal, so radical misunderstanding of basic features of life means radical dysfunction. In the case of sex that dysfunction is exemplified at our colleges by the hysteria about rape and the alcohol-fueled hook-up culture, and among those who never go to college by cynicism about relations between the sexes and growing abandonment of marriage. Placing hope in a sentimental ideal of self-defining and self-sustaining romantic love sweeping all before it and lasting a lifetime isn’t going to make things better, and is an obvious recipe for disillusion.
So the result of today’s social progress will evidently be a worse life for all. Quite apart from doctrinal considerations, that’s not the sort of thing the Church should cooperate with and exactly the sort of thing she should oppose every way she can. The rulers of the Church are now considering how they will deal with the situation. Let us pray they decide well.