Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Mystery of Marriage

The question of gay marriage, having already been broached in a number of places, has come to roost in Maryland (not that it is likely to be the last). Thoughtful people are divided about the right conclusion; I have been on both sides of the fence myself, and transitions have been at once painful and tedious; not a little rhetorical shrapnel has exploded, more than once, too close to my head for comfort. (Hoping to keep that shrapnel to a minimum, I repeat here that I am a homosexual myself, one who attempts to live chastely, in accord with Catholic teaching, which may be found in the Catechism, paras. 2357-2359.) What ought a Christian -- or any person of good will -- to think of the matter?

Marriage, says St. Paul in Ephesians 5, is a great mystery -- translated into Latin as sacramentum -- and has reference to Christ and the Church. This much we know from revelation, and this we could not have learned on our own. That marriage, in one form or another, exists in basically every culture and has roughly the same form and implications does tell us that it is a manifestation of the law of human nature, but it would tell us nothing of its mystical significance, as understood by the Catholic Church.

Now, it is an element of Catholic teaching -- one violated by ostensibly Catholic governments many times over the course of history, but never mind -- that anything which is known solely through the medium of revelation, and could not be known through human reason however consistently and persistently exercised, is properly the province of the Church, not the state. Only the Church has the authority to authoritatively teach those truths revealed by God and not known through any other medium. There are some truths which are not revealed at all, like the multiplication table, known through unaided reason; and there are some which one could reach through reason or through revelation, because both are adequate to produce the conclusion. Reason alone is the province of the state. Anything known solely through revelation is outside the state's ken, and it would be wrong -- a usurpation, a gross injustice -- if it attempted to enforce doctrines proper to the revealed sphere. Tendering respectful regrets to St Augustine, this is why the political persecution of heretics, although it has not always been adequately denounced by the authorities of the Church (though sometimes it has), has at any rate always been wrong.

Returning to the subject at hand, we are now in a position to formulate a right approach to the problem. Is the belief that marriage ought exclusively to involve one man and one woman, without any variation in the gender or number of the partners, something known only through Christian revelation, or is it known through human reason as well? If it is known through reason, then it is right and proper for the state to publicly recognize the fact, and enshrine it in law. If, however, this truth falls solely into the province of the Church, the state certainly ought to do nothing about it.

Viewing things through a strictly social lens, I believe it is safe to say that the sociological purpose of marriage has always been the begetting and rearing of legitimate children. (I specify "legitimate," because of course many societies have not only had hordes of illegitimate children, but turned a somewhat indulgent eye toward the manner of their getting -- on the part of the male, anyway.) For this purpose, most societies have deemed it necessary to have one man and one woman put in a permanent bond, a covenant, for the raising of said children.

There have been two major, conspicuous exceptions to this pattern. One is polygamy and the other is divorce. Both were tolerated for Israel under the Old Covenant, though Jesus Himself tolerated neither of them. But their genesis is fairly easy to see: the one, due both to the extreme predominance of men in the cultures where it prevailed, and possibly to a shortage of men on account of wars and so on; the other, because people often get tired of each other and want somebody else, and most societies have seen fit to enshrine the fact in law. (I am not here addressing the question of marriages that are invalid in themselves, and are therefore eligible to be broken up through annulment -- a formal declaration that there was no valid marriage in the first place -- rather than divorce. Msgr. Ronald Knox, a contemporary of C. S. Lewis, has an excellent bit on the subject in his sermonic collection In Soft Garments; but this issue, while interesting, is beside the point.)

Both, however, share premises with the view which our Lord says was "from the beginning" -- that is, an element of the law of human nature, which every sin departs from. Lewis puts it best when, somewhere in Mere Christianity, he says, "Men have disagreed over whether you ought to have one wife or four. But they all agreed that you shouldn't simply have any woman you liked." Both polygamy and divorce are clearly declensions from, not mere alternatives to, the ideal of a permanent covenant between one man and one woman. They rely on monogamous marriage for sense to be made out of them. Polygamy literally consists in multiple marriage covenants made severally -- the man and all his wives were not part of one covenant; he simply had multiple individual marriages. Divorce, even more obviously, depends on marriage for its existence, since it is the destruction of marriage.

A homosexual pair, for reasons I hope I need not elaborate in much detail, cannot produce offspring no matter how theoretically fertile one or both of the parties. It therefore cannot constitute a marriage in the sociological sense we have been dealing with.

But what of the other significances of marriage? After all, even hardline conservative Catholics rarely insist that begetting children is the only reason for marriage. True; and it is, in fact, Christianity itself which set forth those other reasons. "Mutual society, help, and comfort that one ought to have of the other," as the Anglican rite has it (or used to have it -- one can hardly keep pace with the fluctuation of their traditions) is something we can see through reason, but of course that is scarcely specific to marriage; indeed, if marriage were our only source of society, help, and comfort, life would have come to a parlous pass. As for being in love, eros in the strict sense, attitudes to that (Catholic or otherwise) have been consistent through time and space only in being at variance. Everything from ranking eros nearly among the virtues, to making it practically a vice, to devout indifference about the whole question, have prevailed; there's no good seeking a consensus down that road. Nor has there, until very recently -- the last century or two at most, I believe -- been any attempt to regard eros as intrinsically connected to marriage, and many people, from swooning poets in the twelfth century to frivoling cynics in the twentieth, have regarded eros and marriage as positively irreconcilable. It is only Christianity that has elevated marriage from a covenant focused simply on progeny to a sacrament, mystically setting forth the relation between Christ and the Church. So if we trust the Church to tell her that there is something more to marriage than children, what grounds can we offer for not believing her when she tells us what the something is?

Of course, we might argue that we merely happen to agree with the Church for other reasons, but in that case we had better have some solid arguments to hand when asked why we wish to define marriage in a way that -- for better or worse -- has never been done by any human society in history. (This is not to say that there have never been societies which were highly tolerant of homosexual behavior, but that is another matter.) If we happen to feel (or wish?) that marriage is just a symbol of our love, fine; but why should the government be compelled to bestow any legal status on a private romance? If it is a pragmatic question of inheritance and visiting rights in hospitals and the like, naturally people ought to be able to make out their wills as they please and see whomever they like when they are sick, but reinventing marriage is not precisely the obvious solution. If it is a matter of the right to adopt children, I fear I must say, frankly but without relish, that I do not support it; not because I expect lesbians or gay men to be bad parents -- not in the least -- but because, psychologically, a child needs both a father and a mother; to deprive them of either causes quantifiable psychological detriment, as anybody can see from the results of single parent families, rapid successions of partners, and the like.

Perhaps the most troubling dimension of the whole discussion, though, is the determination on the part of some (not all) gay activists to have the question decided without discussion. Not legal discussion, of course that will take place. But one argument that I, at any rate, have frequently heard upon the lips of fellow homosexuals is that lesbians and gay men deserve the right to get married, period. End of talk. To even raise the question, with such people, constitutes bigotry.

That, no person of integrity and respect for others ought to countenance. Those who are deeply convinced that their position is right should not need to bully people: only to state the facts and exhibit their implications, clearly, logically, and calmly. A phrase from the Second Vatican Council's decree on religious liberty, Dignitatis Humanae, is very much to the purpose: "The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power." I refuse to agree that any alteration of one of the fundamental building blocks of any human society -- perhaps the single most fundamental building block -- should or can be accomplished, or even halted, without an honest investigation of the realities behind the current state of affairs, and the implications of the change being considered.

That such implications are too little considered is, I think, adequately illustrated by the fact that Catholic Charities in the District was forced to shut down its adoption and foster care services after the passage of the new laws on marriage -- not because it objected to the laws, but because those laws would have compelled such organizations to provide services to lesbian and gay couples as well, even if such services violated their religious beliefs. One of my great disappointments with the gay movement generally is that, in its understandable (and, with qualifications, laudable) desire to establish equality and liberty for homosexuals, it does not seem prepared to look closely nor to keep a strict conscience when it comes to recognizing other people's liberty and equality. That is not right.