A Plumbline in the Wind

The world is going to the dogs, but I refuse to learn to bark

Psalm 119:173 Let thy hand be ready to help me, for I have chosen thy precepts.

A Plumbline in the Wind Near Lauder, Scotland: Sheep on a hillside

What’s Love Got to Do with It?

14 April 2015 · No Comments

On same-sex marriage

I am a Catholic, and as such I have certain beliefs about marriage and sexuality that would be, I think, sufficiently well known, but not shared, perhaps, by many of my fellow citizens. However, I am presently undertaking to write on the subject of same-sex marriage not as a Catholic or a Christian, but as a historian with some knowledge about human societies.

It appears to me that the arguments advanced on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate are faulty, and faulty in such a way that the arguments advanced by the opponents of same-sex marriage fail to meet those advanced by its proponents. There are three main lines of argument raised against same-sex marriage: first, that homosexual acts are immoral, unhealthy, or both; that children are best raised by two parents of different sexes; and that having same-sex marriage is the first step on a slippery slope to polygamy and incestuous unions. The proponents argue in their turn that their opponents are motivated by an unreasoning animus toward homosexuality or homosexual persons (which may be a reaction, if not a reasoned response, to the first objection); that not allowing same-sex marriage is discrimination against a class of persons; and that “the government should not tell us whom we can love.”

We can dispose of the last easily. Anyone who thinks that love and marriage “go together like a horse and carriage” in the sense that they are inseparable, and that “you won’t find one without the other” has more faith in Sammy Cahn than in the evidence of his own eyes. Inseparability is not, of course, even a feature of horses and carriages; I have seen many more horses without carriages than with them in the course of my life. While one might argue that love in marriage is a good thing, experience teaches us that there are marriages without love. Indeed, it is only in the last few centuries that love, in particular romantic love, has been considered a good basis for marriage. If love in marriage were automatic, St. Paul would not have needed to tell husbands to love their wives any more than he needed to tell them to swallow their food. Nor does a person always marry the person he or she loves. History—indeed daily life—provides many examples of persons who enjoyed romantic love, and even sexual relations, without marrying or demanding to be married. While many societies have or have had strong regulations against sexual activity, if not love, outside of marriage, the modern West is not one of them.

Many opponents of same-sex marriage conflate their opposition to it with their opposition to sexual activity outside of a lifelong, exclusive marriage commitment. They contend that marriage is “one man and one woman for life” and that any deviation from that standard is roughly equal in wrongness. One violation in a society might lead to another; thus stopping same-sex marriage is essential for stopping the progress to polygamy. They have it backwards. When marriage is considered as a social institution apart from any religious definition, polygamy partakes of the essential nature of marriage in a way that same-sex marriage does not. That is, polygamy does not change the definition of marriage; same-sex marriage does.

Marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman. Different cultures have regulated it in different ways. These differences include how closely the man and woman may be related to one another by blood, with how many women a man (or how many men a woman) may be in this relationship at the same time; the degree to which the relationship is sexually exclusive; and whether the relationship is permanent or temporary. There have also been restrictions on which social groups, be they racial or ethnic groups, social classes, or clans, may intermarry with one another. But a man and a woman are always the parties to this relationship.

In the case of polygamy (when we use the term, we generally mean polygyny—a man with multiple wives—although there are societies where polyandry occurs and a woman may have more than one husband), it is not the case that there are more than two persons in a marriage, but rather that the man has entered into marriage with more than one woman. Solomon’s seven hundred wives were not married to one another; Solomon had entered into seven hundred marriages.

Similarly, there may be limits on whom one can marry. In the state of Michigan, I cannot marry my mother, my daughter, my sister, my niece, or my first cousin. However—except perhaps in the case of my mother or my daughter—there have been societies in which none of these restrictions applied. The pharoahs of ancient Egypt regularly married their sisters; uncle-niece and first-cousin marriages are not uncommon in many societies today. On the other hand, some societies have restricted marriage partners more strictly; in traditional China, two persons of the same surname, even if no blood relation could be discovered, could not marry.

Societies have also differed on the permanence of the relationship. In the contemporary Western world, it is fairly easy for either party to dissolve the bond; in imperial Rome it was almost as easy. In many places, it is not difficult for a man to divorce his wife, but not the reverse. Likewise, many societies have tolerated a man’s keeping concubines or otherwise engaging in sexual relations with women other than his wife. Generally the same liberty was not allowed to a married woman; but one hears of places where a man’s hospitality includes access to his wife as well as to his table.

Despite the great variety in customs and regulations regarding marriage, there is always one essential: it involves a man and a woman.

This description of marriage holds regardless of the attitude of a society regarding attraction between persons of the same sex or homosexual relations. In the history of the West, the most striking example of a society that approved homosexual relations is ancient Greece, specifically Athens. The Athenian gentleman’s boy lover was a standard feature of his life, and the relationship was presumed to be good for both the adult and the youth. In theory, sexual acts were considered demeaning and impure, but we have sufficient evidence, including the visual evidence of vase-paintings that could not be shown on family television, that they were not uncommon. (We might note in passing that, given the age of the boys involved, these acts would, in modern America, get the adult male thrown in jail, but times have changed.) Most or all of the men involved in these relationships had wives with whom they also had sexual relations, and we know that many of them had sexual involvement with other women as well. Nevertheless, literary evidence suggests that love for a beautiful boy was considered more ennobling and spiritual (especially if kept on a spiritual level) than love for a mere woman, since women were generally of low status in ancient Athens, and assumed to be incapable of higher thought and sentiment. But the most dedicated pederast in Athens, even if he might prefer boys to women for his satisfaction, ever confused the relation with his lover and that with his wife. Love was one thing; marriage, perhaps, was another.

Marriage is a feature of human societies created first by custom and only later by law. To regulate marriage by law characteristic of settled cultures; in some of those it is also a religious institution. In the Western tradition, laws involving marriage in the secular sphere have recognized marriage and defined its effects on such issues as property rather than creating it. Until the beginning of the modern era, the formation of marriages was the work of the Church (or synagogue, in Jewish communities). The notion of a marriage created under state auspices has only been part of the civil order in the United States over about the last 150 years, and partially to some other countries over the last 225 years. Before the late nineteenth century in the United States, and before 1789 anywhere else, there was no such thing as civil marriage. All marriages were carried out under the auspices of a church or other religious body, or were common-law marriages, entered into privately. Marriage licenses were first introduced in the Church of England to avoid the need for posting banns of marriage for three weeks before the wedding, so that the wedding could take place quickly. State-issued marriage licenses were introduced in the United States largely to enforce laws against cousins marrying, to control sexually transmitted disease by requiring a medical exam, and, in some places, to prevent miscegenation. In continental Europe, civil marriage was introduced after the French Revolution as a way of having the state take over the functions of the Church.

Before there were marriage licenses, the state only defined what the legal and economic implications were to a man’s and a woman’s being in the state of marriage. With the civil regulation of marriage, the state also took on the task of defining the restrictions on the formation of marriage. The prohibition of bigamy was a feature of common law deriving from cultural traditions as well as from Church law. The advent of polygamy among the early Mormons strengthened this prohibition with statutory measures. In many jurisdictions, there were prohibitions of the contraction of marriage between persons defined to be members of different racial groups. These prohibitions would not have been considered necessary if the marriages in question would not have otherwise been possible: indeed, in other contemporary societies, even in the Americas, marriages that would have been forbidden in the United States were recognized.

We now see the state not only regulating marriage, and not only forming marriages, but actually defining what the relationship is. This is a different matter from regulating the contractual relationship of marriage. The state could easily pass laws stating that the marriage relationship had no effect at all on the property relations or other legal actions of the parties: for example, providing that in case of intestacy, the decedent’s property would pass to his or her blood relatives or to the state, with the spouse having no claim on it. This would not change the nature of marriage at all. Similarly the state could define other contractual relationships that would have exactly the same terms as marriage; indeed, the state could define some other contractual relationship in that very way. To define marriage as a relation between members of the same sex, however, is to redefine fundamentally a feature, not of the legal system, but of human culture.

I oppose the redefinition of marriage, therefore, not because it will lead to other bad things, or because homosexual acts are immoral, much less because I think I can tell people whether they can love one another or not. Marriage between a man and a woman, regardless of its terms, is a foundation of human culture. To redefine it fundamentally is to remove the most essential cornerstone of human society. It is not social change; it is social suicide. There is no wrong that demands so fundamental a disruption in order to right it.

Tags: Politics and society