The Meaning of Marriage (Part 2)

Interview With Princeton's Robert George

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PRINCETON, New Jersey, MARCH 21, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Proponents of same-sex "marriage" often claim that allowing same-sex couples to marry cannot possibly harm anyone else's marriage, as the relationship is distinctly private.



This argument prompted scholars from across the disciplines to gather together to offer distinctly "public reasons" for the preservation of the institution of marriage as a male-female union.

Their results have been gathered into a new book, "The Meaning of Marriage: Family, State, Market and Morals" (Spence), co-edited by Robert P. George and Jean Bethke Elshtain.

George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University and serves on President George Bush's Council on Bioethics.

The scholar shared with ZENIT why the ability to choose and meaningfully participate in marriage is dependent upon legal and cultural institutions that support that choice.

Part 1 of this interview appeared Monday.

Q: You describe the good of marriage as a "one-flesh communion of persons." Is that a distinctly religious concept?

George: No. The intrinsic value of marriage, understood as a comprehensive, multilevel sharing of life founded upon the bodily communion of sexually complementary spouses and naturally ordered to procreation and the upbringing of children, can be grasped, and has been grasped, by people of different faiths and by those of no particular faith.

The teachings of most, if not all, religions extend to marriage in one way or another, but the good of marriage can be known, and is known, by reason, even when unaided by revelation.

Even when it comes to providing a critical reflective account of marriage, John Finnis has made the point that the greatest philosophers of ancient Greece and jurists of pre-Christian Rome were able to articulate the foundations of a sound understanding of this great human good.

Of course, the language of "one-flesh union" derives from the Hebrew Bible and is powerfully reaffirmed by Jesus in the Gospels. For Jews and Christians, revelation reinforces and illuminates a great truth of natural law.

Q: Section 1652 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "By its very nature, the institution of marriage and married love is ordered toward the procreation and education of the offspring and it is in them that it finds its crowning glory." The Catechism thus appears to describe marriage in purely instrumental terms. Can you clarify how your position is consistent?

George: Sure. I have already remarked that married love and the institution of marriage are naturally ordered toward procreation and the upbringing of children.

But this is not to say that children are extrinsic ends to which marital union, in its sexual dimension or otherwise, is a mere means. "Ordered toward" does not mean "is merely a means to."

Perhaps the best evidence that the Church recognizes the intrinsic value of marriage and does not treat it merely as a means to procreation is her clear and unwavering teaching that people can have reason to marry, and may legitimately marry, and can be fully and truly married, even when the infertility of one or both spouses renders procreation impossible for them.

Marriages of infertile spouses are true marriages. They are not pseudo-marriages. They are not second-class marriages.

Because human beings are constituted as they are, thus constituting the human good as it is, it is intrinsically fulfilling for men and women to unite in a form of communion apt for -- "ordered toward" -- procreation and the upbringing of children even where, in their particular case, they will not be able to conceive or rear children.

Spouses truly become "one flesh" in their marital intercourse even when temporary or permanent infertility means that conception will not take place. It is worth noting that for Jews and Christians marriages are consummated by completed sexual intercourse, not by achieving the conception of a child.

However, nothing in the affirmation of this great truth contradicts the equally great truth that children conceived as the fruit of marital communion are indeed the "crowning glory" of marital love.

Children are not operational objectives of the sexual union of spouses or of the institution of marriage; rather, they, are gifts supervening on marital love to be welcomed and cherished as perfective participants in the community -- the family -- established by their parents' marital communion.

Q: Does the Church's recognition of the validity of infertile marriages contradict its teaching that marriage is necessarily the union of a man and a woman, rather than a union of any two persons, including persons of the same sex?

George: No. The key thing to see is that the Church, consistently with what we know by the light of natural reason, understands marriage as fundamentally and irreducibly a sexual relationship.

Any two -- or more -- people can live together, caring for each other and sharing each other's lives in many dimensions. But for a marriage to be brought into existence and be completed, a comprehensive, multilevel sharing of life must be founded on the bodily -- biological -- union of spouses.

A man and woman pledged to permanent fidelity to each other must become "one flesh" by virtue of the consummation of their union by intercourse in which they fulfill the behavioral conditions of procreation -- whether or not the non-behavioral conditions necessary for conception to take place happen to exist.

In the absence of true biological union, persons cannot be sharing each other's lives in the uniquely marital way; their sharing of life cannot be a comprehensive sharing, one in which their communion at other levels is founded on their bodily communion.

It is by performing marital acts -- acts that are procreative in type, whether or not they are reproductive in effect; and even if, due to disease, defect or a woman's age they cannot result in procreation -- that a man and woman pledged in permanent fidelity to each other consummate and renew their marriage as a one-flesh union.

This is why marriages cannot be between more than two persons, however fond they are of each other and however committed to the group each may sincerely be; and it is why marriages cannot be between persons of the same sex.

Once we understand marriage as truly a one-flesh union, we see that sexual activity between or among members of polyamorous groups or between partners of the same sex, however much they may desire it or find it satisfying, is inherently non-marital.

Whatever one makes of claims that sexual play can enhance the emotional bonding of participants in polyamorous or same-sex relationships, plainly it cannot unite the sex partners maritally. Whatever its motive, objective or point, it cannot be biological, "one-flesh," unity -- the very foundation and defining principle of marriage.

Please note, by the way, that the Church's teaching here reflects her understanding of the body as fully participating in the personal reality of the human being, and not as a mere subpersonal instrument for achieving ends or inducing satisfactions desired by the conscious and desiring aspect of the self -- considered, as in dualistic theories, as the real person who inhabits and uses a body.

The biological union of spouses in procreative type acts can be true personal communion, precisely because we are our bodies -- though, of course, we are not only our bodies -- we are body-soul composites. We are not non-bodily persons -- minds, souls, consciousnesses -- residing in, or supervening on, and using non-personal bodies.

Q: If marriage is so self-evidently good, then why does the state need to intervene to preserve it? Couldn't it be preserved in churches and religious communities where it is celebrated and lived in the fullest sense?

George: This is a superficially appealing proposition.

Its appeal fades, however, the moment we consider both: a) the importance of marriages, and thus marriage considered as an institution, to the well-being of society and the state; and b) the vulnerability of marriage as an institution to social pathologies and to ideologies hostile to marriage that weaken the institution's immunities to these pathologies.

The most powerful and basic reason for the public's interest in marriage and its institutional health is its unique suitability for protecting children and rearing them to be upright people and responsible citizens.

As Brad Wilcox, Maggie Gallagher and other social scientists who have contributed to "The Meaning of Marriage" have shown, few things are as important to the public weal -- and in our current circumstances almost nothing is more urgent -- than creating and maintaining a set of social conditions in which children being raised by their moms and dads is the norm.

Certainly religious communities and other institutions of civil society have an indispensable role to play, but law has a role to play, too. The law is a teacher.

It will teach either that marriage is a reality in which people can choose to participate, but whose contours people cannot make and remake at will -- e.g., a one-flesh communion of persons united in a form of life uniquely suitable to the generation, education and nurturing of children -- or the law will teach that marriage is a mere convention, which is malleable in such a way that individuals, couples, or, indeed, groups, can choose to make of it whatever suits their desires, interests or subjective goals, etc.

The result, given the biases of human sexual psychology, will be the development of practices and ideologies that truly tend to undermine the sound understanding and practice of marriage, together with the development of pathologies that tend to reinforce the very practices and ideologies that cause them.

Oxford University philosopher Joseph Raz, himself a liberal who does not share my views regarding sexual morality, is rightly critical of forms of liberalism which suppose that law and government can and should be neutral with respect to competing conceptions of moral goodness.

In this regard, he has noted that: "Monogamy, assuming that it is the only valuable form of marriage, cannot be practiced by an individual. It requires a culture which recognizes it, and which supports it through the public's attitude and through its formal institutions."

Of course, Professor Raz does not suppose that, in a culture whose law and public policy do not support monogamy, a man who happens to believe in it somehow will be unable to restrict himself to having one wife or will be required or pressured into taking additional wives.

His point, rather, is that even if monogamy is a key element in a sound understanding of marriage, large numbers of people will fail to understand that or why that is the case -- and therefore will fail to grasp the value of monogamy and the intelligible point of practicing it -- unless they are assisted by a culture that supports, formally by law and policy, as well as by informal means, monogamous marriage.

What is true of monogamy is equally true of the other elements of a sound understanding of marriage.

In short, marriage is the kind of good that can be chosen and meaningfully participated in only by people who have a sound basic understanding of it and choose it with that understanding in mind; yet people's ability to understand it, and thus to choose it, depends crucially on institutions and cultural understandings that both transcend individual choice and are constituted by a vast number of individual choices.