The homilist, a priest of impeccable orthodoxy, was enumerating the challenges facing the Church today. But I quickly found myself being greatly annoyed at his mention of the attacks being made on “traditional marriage” which were threatening our cherished tradition of “religious liberty.” Now, to be sure, what annoyed was not that he chose to criticize those who are attempting to subvert all rational standards of justice; with that, I wholeheartedly agree. Rather, what annoyed me was his implication that the marriage we are defending is merely “traditional,” and that attacks on that tradition are primarily an issue of religious liberty. On the contrary, marriage is rooted in necessary facts about human nature, and so to frame it as an issue of religious tradition or religious liberty seriously undermines the significance of our position and plays all too easily into the hands of those who aim to destroy the true nature of marriage.
First, it is crucial to our argument that marriage is not merely a “traditional” institution. While in one sense it is a simple indicative truth that Christians are defending marriage as it had been understood from the dawn of civilization against those whose arbitrary whim would force a new definition upon us, in another sense, however, this is a radically inadequate designation for our position in this fight. The problem lies in the connotation that our understanding of marriage is merely traditional. This is a problem for, if it is merely a human tradition, it is a sociological construct, and as such can be changed in accordance with the evolving standards of a developing society. It is in this vein that our opponents might point out that slavery was a human tradition of long standing, but was overturned in light of the enlightened standards of modern society. In this way, no mere tradition carries any true moral force, for it is simply a relic of a bygone age. The tradition of restricting marriage to two adults of the opposite sex is, they insist, one such insignificant tradition that we may now dispense with.
To grasp the underlying importance of this distinction, it might be helpful to recall that this is, at bottom, another permutation of the ancient debate about whether ethical principles are rooted in mere custom (nomos) or in nature itself (physis). Socrates rose to his prominence by challenging the Sophists in Athens on just this question. In an era of great social change, the Sophists tried to justify the new mores by insisting ethical principles are customary, and so vary according to time and place. In that sense, ethical principles are merely arbitrary rules we adhere to because the society has freely chosen to embrace them, but they have no intrinsic moral significance: a custom was binding only insofar as it was socially accepted, and so transformed public opinion justifies a transformation of custom.
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This, of course, is the argument of those who insist that marriage can be redefined to accommodate homosexual unions today. We might note, however, one consequence of this positon is that this redefining of the institution has to remain infinitely plastic: once another innovative relationship becomes socially accepted (polygamy, for example), that too must be accommodated by the newly redefined institution of marriage. (This illustrates why this argument is not an instance of the “slippery slope” fallacy: since it is simply an application of the principle that insists on the rolling redefinition, it is an utterly logical conclusion which we draw, and not an unjustified inference that goes beyond what the principle entails.)
Against the Sophists, Socrates insists that ethical principles are grounded in nature: they are unalterable truths discovered by reason, not customs constituted by an act of the collective will. Upon inspection, it is obvious that this is the sort of thing marriage is, and was understood to be by the “tradition.” It is based on the biological constitution of the sexes, ordered toward the physical and—more crucially—spiritual complementarity of the spouses, and brought to full fruition in the procreative union of the couple: this conjugal view of marriage, so ably described and defended by Robert George and many others, establishes that this is something wholly natural and necessary for the good of the human race.
This, then, brings us to the second issue: that the defense of marriage is not primarily an issue of Christian religious liberty. It cannot be, because the institution of marriage predates the Church; it is only because marriage is self-evidently crucial to establishing a just and peaceful society that the Church began to bless the institution. St. Thomas Aquinas, following St. Augustine, distinguishes the two natural ends of marriage, the union of persons and begetting offspring, from the supernatural ends of marriage as represented by its sacramentality. Thus, marriage as a natural institution is part of the natural law. Since the precepts of the natural law follow upon the modes of acting characteristic to the perfection of any being, we can understand the precepts of marriage based upon human nature’s essence as a rational animal: inasmuch as humans are animals, the end of marriage (like all animal unions) is the rearing of offspring; but the primary end, reflecting humans as rational persons, is the unique friendship between two persons. This union of persons has both chronological and ontological precedence over offspring, for it is what makes the procreative truly human and guarantees that the offspring will enjoy the stability of the familial union for many years.
Aristotle—no Christian—recognized that the union of persons has priority for two reasons. First, because the goal of human life is happiness, and happiness requires friendship. True friendship, however, can only exist between virtuous people; indeed, true friendship is formed so that, in seeing in the other another self and genuinely wanting the happiness of the other for his or her own sake, there is mutual encouragement toward human perfection in the virtues. Marriage is the paradigmatic instance of this friendship in virtue, where the spouses are united as equals seeking the happiness of the other.
St. Thomas will affirm this in noting that this unity in virtue is the real ground for spousal attraction: “There is a virtue proper to both husband and wife that renders their friendship delightful to each other.” It is because of the natural goodness of this union that marriage is then ordered naturally toward procreation. (This fruition in procreation does not follow necessarily, however, because of possible biological impediments.) Goodness is self-diffusive, and the goodness of mutual love united in virtue is naturally fecund, so that the love and virtue can be shared with another human being. Yet that union in virtue always has primacy; it is for this reason that St. Thomas will say the marriage of the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph is a perfect marriage.
The second crucial point that Aristotle recognizes about marriage follows from the first. This marital union in virtue, which is ordered also to the begetting of children, becomes the foundation for the polis, not just through its procreative act, but also through its inculcation of virtuous friendship. All human societies are formed in order to attain a common good. The married family exists, as we saw, for the common good of mutual edification in the virtues. Political society simply builds on this; as St. Thomas, commenting on Aristotle, puts it, “Every association is established for the sake of some good…. [T]he good to which the political community is directed is the supreme human good.” The supreme common good is the improvement and happiness of all persons; but as the attainment of that common good presumes the existence of virtue, the family (especially those with children), as the first school of virtue, is the foundation for society as a whole. Indeed, civilization has been defined as the communication of excellence from one generation to the next; in this way, marriage that forms spouses in virtue, and communicates that to children, is the sine qua non for civilization itself.
Thus, even apart from all revelation, marriage has always been recognized as indispensable to man’s happiness; but both marriage and happiness are constituted by the fact of human nature and the objective needs of society. It is not a tradition that can be changed; nor is it a revealed truth to which only believers are subject. Recognizing these facts, the Church began—relatively early in its history—to bless marriages, for the union in virtue needs to be strengthened by the gifts of grace; grace perfects nature, and the blessings of grace help the spouses grow together and to stay together in the friendship of common virtue, which they then pass on to their children.
Again, it should now be clear that marriage is not merely a tradition; nor is it a peculiarly Christian sacrament. Rather, it is rooted in human nature and is the foundation of society’s efforts to attain a common good. In light of this, the only question about homosexual marriage should be: Is homosexual marriage even possible? Many have recognized the impossibility of homosexual marriage leading to procreation. What I would add is the impossibility of homosexual marriage realizing a union in virtue. If vice is, as St. Thomas says, acceding to the inclinations of sensual desires against the order of reason, homosexuality cannot be anything but vicious. Thus, “homosexual marriage” is a contradiction in terms: a union of virtue cannot be characterized by vice. It is, as I have suggested elsewhere, an Orwellian term composed of juxtaposed incompossibles, similar to “war is peace” or “freedom is slavery.” Indeed, this whole debate brings to mind another quip from Orwell: “We have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men”
But if homosexual marriage is not possible, what is it? To what do people refer when they are talking about it? It is, in fact, a mere fiction. In fact, many marriages today would be fictional: marriages that are temporary, marriages entered into out of selfish reasons, marriages motivated by greed or lust, are not real in any sense, for they lack the defining characteristic of permanence grounded in virtue. Only these marriages merit the name real or factual marriages. While the courts may pretend that these fictional unions have the legal trappings of a marriage, they are never real, they are never factual. Yet this brings to mind one last invocation of Orwell, for if the Leviathan state, in its quest to redefine reality, forces us to take fiction for fact, is there any limit to the powers of government?
Nevertheless, even in the face of the Leviathan, we remain hopeful, for we are confident that in the end reality will win out over fiction, for fiction can never meet the needs of people who live in the realm of reality.