In the December 15th edition of Newsweek, both Jon Meacham in his editor’s note and religion editor Lisa Miller in her front-page article mock arguments from scripture. At the same time, they invoke that same Bible’s authority for a “more general” message of “inclusivity,” in order to lobby for making gay marriage a sacrament. Meacham and Miller paint all opposition to the radical re-definition of marriage as hateful bigotry, comparing it to racism, and labeling appeals to the authority of the Bible against homosexual “marriage” and homosexual acts as fundamentalism. Indeed Meacham goes further: it is “the worst kind of fundamentalism.” How much worse than suicide-bombings and beheadings he does not make clear.
Others can dissect the theological and factual howlers in these essays. Here I want to correct the assumption made by Meacham and Miller that the case against same-sex “marriage” must be a Biblical one. Instead, both by faith and by reason one can see that genuine marriage must be heterosexual, that sexual acts outside of marriage are immoral, and that the state, therefore, should not declare any same-sex unions “marriages,” nor actively encourage sexual acts outside of marriage.
Consider some facts.
In every society we find the following type of community: men and women committed to sharing their lives together, in the sort of community that would be naturally fulfilled by their conceiving, bearing, and raising children together. This is marriage. That such a community does exist in every society is indisputable.
In every culture men and women are attracted to each other, wish to commit to each other in a stable relationship, and perform sexual acts that might result in children. Hence every society encourages men and women—ideally, before they perform such sexual acts—to form the sort of community that will be a suitable environment both for the flourishing of their romantic love and for the flourishing of whatever children they may produce: marriage.
Sound philosophical reflection helps us identify what is going on here. The marital communion of the spouses is both good in itself (and so not a mere means to bearing and raising children) and at the same time intrinsically fulfilled by bearing and raising children together. Genuine marriage is sexual in nature and includes a bodily union: without sexual intercourse the marriage has not been consummated, that is, completed. But this sexual relationship is intrinsically linked, indeed, fulfilled, by the procreation, bearing, and raising of children. By contrast, co-habiting same-sex couples form one relationship. If later they decide to collaborate in raising an adopted child, they form a new and distinct relationship, since there is no intrinsic link between their sexual relationship, on the one hand, and their cooperation to raise a child, on the other. Unique to marriage is the fact that the bodily, emotional, and volitional relationship between the man and the woman is intrinsically oriented to being prolonged and fulfilled by their becoming a family. It is the same community that begins between the spouses on their wedding day, and may be prolonged and enlarged by becoming a family later on.
Advocates of same-sex “marriage” often argue that since marriage is a community oriented to raising children, and same-sex couples sometimes do raise children, such couples should qualify as marriages. But if having the purpose of raising children were sufficient to qualify as marriage, then orphanages, and some groups of religious women or men, could also be labeled as “marriages,” which is absurd. Likewise, other arrangements are sometimes called “marriage,” but in reality these are different types of relationship. For example, men and women often cohabit and view children as an optional extra or as burdens to be avoided. Or two or more individuals sometimes form alliances for the sake of raising children (for example two sisters, or several celibate religious men or women). But neither of these relationships are marriages: they have distinct purposes or goals.
Other advocates of same-sex “marriage” view marriage as only an emotional relationship, and the sexual acts as extrinsic symbols of that emotional connection. Since same-sex couples can intend their sexual acts to symbolize their love or affection, these unions (they contend) qualify as marriages. But, as just noted, genuine marriage is in fact a multi-leveled relationship that encompasses the bodily, emotional, volitional, and intellectual aspects of the spouses. In genuine marriage the bodily sexual acts are part of the marital union, not just extrinsic symbols. In sexual intercourse between a man and a woman (whether married or not), a real bodily union is established. Human beings are organisms, albeit of a particular type. In most actions—digesting, sensing, walking, and so on—individual male or female organisms are complete units. However, with respect to reproduction, the male and the female are incomplete. In reproductive activity the bodily parts of the male and the bodily parts of the female participate in a single action, coitus, which is oriented to procreation (though not every act of coitus actually reproduces), so that the subject of the action is the male and the female as a unit. Sexual intercourse is a unitary action in which the male and the female complete one another, and become really biologically one, a single organism. In marital intercourse, this bodily unity is an aspect of, a constitutive part of, the couple’s more comprehensive, marital communion.
When a couple have mutually consented to marriage—the kind of union that would be fulfilled by bearing and raising children together—then the biological unity realized in their sexual intercourse embodies that community. In sexual intercourse they unite (become one) precisely in that respect in which marriage is defined and naturally fulfilled. They have consented to a communion procreative in kind, so their acts that are procreative in kind embody their communion. In that way the loving sexual intercourse of a husband and wife realizes a basic aspect of human flourishing: the good of marital union.
Given the above considerations, it is clear that the charge that the denial of same-sex “marriage” is unjust discrimination, or hateful bigotry, is a canard. In order to be genuinely married, a couple—any couple—must: (a.) commit themselves to the type of personal union that would be fulfilled by bearing and raising children together; and (b.) perform the conduct by which they become biologically one, conduct that, with the addition of conditions extrinsic to that conduct, might result in procreation (and even if those extrinsic conditions do not obtain, as in infertile couples, their act has still biologically united them). (a.) and (b.) together constitute the beginning of a marriage and are necessary for consummated marriage. Any couple who is unable to fulfill those conditions is unable to marry. Not only same-sex couples, but opposite-sex couples who are too young to form a commitment and opposite-sex couples who (because of impotence) cannot consummate their union are unable to marry.
Along these same lines, we can also understand by reason that sexual acts outside marriage—including therefore homosexual acts—are immoral. Within marriage, sexual acts embody (consummate or renew) the marriage. By contrast, in non-marital sexual acts, either the participants do not become biologically one, or they have not committed to sharing their lives in a way that can be embodied by a sexual act. People build up friendships or personal communions by pursuing together a common good. In marital intercourse the common good is their marriage, embodied (consummated or renewed) in that sexual act. But if a sexual act does not embody marriage, it does not embody any other community (sexual acts do not embody sports communities, scholarly communities, or generic friendships), and no genuine good is realized in the sexual act. (Pleasure alone cannot be the common good of their act, since pleasure is a genuine good only if it is attached to a condition or activity that is already genuinely fulfilling. Their experience of embodying union when they are not actually doing so is not a genuine good but is illusory.) Thus, in nonmarital sexual acts, the couple (or, in cases of polyamory, the group) instrumentalize their sexuality (their bodies-as-sexual) for the sake of a mere experience—either the experience of pleasure or the illusory experience of the bodily-personal union without its reality.
What does all of this mean for public policy? In a well-ordered society, the state should give legal recognition to real marriage, promote it, protect it, and privilege it over other sexual arrangements—as a good for the spouses and the children their union may form. The state has an essential interest in the health of marriage. Generally speaking, children will receive the best and most loving care if they are raised by their biological parents, who have formed a community aimed at providing the most suitable environment for any children they may help bring into being. Almost always, children can count on their mothers to care for them when they are young; the institution of marriage is dedicated to ensuring, as much as possible, that fathers also will fulfill their responsibilities to the children they help procreate, and to the mothers of their children. Furthermore, where the institution of marriage is strong, people’s sexual passions and energies—frequently difficult to control, often leading to self-centeredness and exploitation—are channeled toward intelligible goods, namely, marriage and family.
If the state declares same-sex unions to be equivalent to marriage, it will profoundly obscure the nature of marriage. In effect, it will send the message that marriage is centrally about the romantic attachment and sexual relationship of adults to each other rather than about a relationship which by its nature is oriented to and suited for becoming family. Doing that would almost certainly further weaken the institution of marriage.
These points are open for all to see, whatever faith one has, or if one has no faith at all. To pretend that only religious “fundamentalists” oppose the radical re-definition of marriage advanced by same-sex “marriage” advocates is doubly distorting: first, the biblical and theological cases are not fundamentalist; second, there are reasoned arguments that do not presuppose faith against that proposal as well.
Patrick Lee is the John N. and Jamie D. McAleer Chair in Bioethics at Franciscan University of Steubenville and the director of the Witherspoon Institute’s Program on Bioethics and Human Dignity. He is the author, with Robert P. George, of Body-Self Dualism in Contemporary Ethics and Politics and is a contributor to Public Discourse.