I just read that my governor has signed into law a bill granting many of the benefits of marriage to homosexual couples who create a "civil union" together. I suppose I should be happy that at least they're not calling it marriage. At the same time, one has to wonder how such unions promise society the good that traditional marriage promises, but I tend to think the root of the problem is a misunderstanding of the full meaning of marriage.
As I see it, the chief good that marriage promises society is the promise of a desirable future, which is brought about by the bearing and rearing of children to become mature adults who contribute meaningfully to their society. It goes without saying that homosexual couples cannot bear children, excepting those women who may choose to become artificially inseminated, but certainly male couples cannot bear children in any sense of the word.
As for rearing, yes, through adoption, homosexual couples could indeed rear children, so there is something to be said for that. But even so, it is at best an unestablished good. It seems likely that the child raised by a homosexual couple will have at least some issues similar to other children who are raised without a mother or without a father (in addition to those generally experienced by adopted children). Maybe in some individuals' conception ideal society, it wouldn't matter if a child were raised by homosexuals, but it remains the case today that it presents numerous challenges, emotionally and socially. That said, the challenges such children may face might not be as bad as growing up in numerous foster homes or in orphanages, so I personally can't rule it out as a good for society.
And in cases where artificial means are used to produce children (ignoring other ethical questions on that subject), there should surely be some concern for the child's desire to have and know his or her other "real" (biological) parent. Despite our technologically arrogant objections to the contrary, it appears there really is something to biological parenthood, and so I think we need to be careful when obscuring it--we need to be mindful of the potential damage it will have on such children. Personally, I don't see the good for the child or for society in such a situation.
In any case, it seems to me that such a situation, either the bearing of children through artificial means or adoption, are going the be the exception for homosexual couples, not the rule. They are certainly not the almost inevitable outcome of such unions, as would be the case in heterosexual marriages. Indeed, one would think that the likelihood of childbearing and rearing would be inversely proportionate between homo- and heterosexual couples, i.e., only a small percentage of homosexual couples would bear or rear children while only a small percentage of heterosexual couples would not bear or rear children. And history has proven this to be true.
Of course one might argue that history, societies of the past, have not given homosexual unions a chance in this respect, but as homosexual advocates are all too eager to point out, homosexuality is not an invention of the modern age and even in society's where it is/was not frowned upon, it is/was quite rare for a homosexual couple to rear children. And why should it be common after all? The joining of male to male or female to female does not naturally result in children, and so it would indeed take an exceptional couple to reach beyond the natural fruit of such unions to desire and follow through with the upbringing of children.
The Misconceived Good
I said before, though, that I think there is a deeper problem in this question, one that reaches to a foundational lack of understanding of marriage between a man and a woman. I am thinking here of the focus on love between two individuals as being the defining trait of marriage. One need not look far to see manifestations of this belief--pick up any book or movie that involves a marriage, and you'll almost invariably see a love story that results in a culmination of marriage.
You won't find me naysaying love, certainly not love in marriage, but the issue here is the popular representation of the good of marriage, namely, that it is the culmination of a love story. I dare say it is this conception of marriage that is the chief cause of many ills in our society. I dare it because marriage is the foundation of family and family is the foundation of society. If marriage is misunderstood then the glue that holds a family together becomes brittle and breaks, and when families break apart, society becomes undone at its very roots. And so we have been and are proving here in the West.
So just what is the good of marriage if it isn't what our popular culture portrays it to be? I have spoken already of the good that marriage promises society--chiefly the bearing and rearing of children, but to be sure, there is more good in marriage. Indeed, love between the husband and wife is a great good as well, but it is more than the giddy love that drives love stories to their climax. I would even go so far to say that the giddy love, that feeling of complete elation and enthrallment to passion that we humans sometimes feel towards one another, is not inherent to the essence of marriage.
Now I speak both from my own experience and that of others. There was a time when I was "in love"--when my thoughts were filled with little else than those of my beloved, when my heart sang, my pulse raced, and the mere thought of her painted a goofy grin across my face. Truly it is an awesome and wonderful experience to be so infatuated, better than any drug or food or even sex itself because it lasts longer and has no crashing at the end. I would not deny anyone the joy of it, but I would and do deny that such feelings are essential to marriage. I do because marriage is so much more than this and matters so much more than any passing infatuation.
The infatuation inevitably fades. Surely, there are moments, glimpses, perhaps even real resurgences at times, those times when you again feel truly in love with your beloved, but they are rare, and I would say that their rarity makes them more treasured and enjoyable than if they were constant. Like the beauty of the sun's rays piercing feathery clouds on a cool winter morning, they are wonderful and joyful, to be relished and remembered chiefly because they are fleeting, contrasted with the normal beauty of a clear blue day or a sparkling night.
The True Good
But there is something in that--the beauty, the good of marriage is also constant, also "normal" so that we often do not recognize it for what it is. It is that regular pattern of day and night, the constancy of the sun rising and the moon waxing and waning. It is the comfort of air to breathe and ground to walk upon; it is that calm pulsing of blood through vein that assures us we are alive, that our heart is still beating. It is awakening to find your love snoring beside you, and opening the door in the evening with the knowledge that the home is not empty. It is the joy of a shared meal, a walk through the trees, and the watching of a movie. And it is in having an argument, feeling extreme anger, and knowing that it will pass and that the sun will rise again.
I think that this constancy that is known from a true and honest pledge--an oath taken in solemnity to love and to hold, in sickness and health, in passionate anger and in flights of infatuation till death parts us; it is this unquestionable knowledge of commitment to one another that is the chief and defining good of marriage. It is this good--not infatuation, not sex, not even children--that is essential to marriage and is also its primary joy. But it must be understood that this is an unbreakable, unquestionable lifetime commitment that no one, not even those who enter into it, can break.
For if it could be broken, the good would be lost entirely and in fact would never exist. What comfort could we have if the sun could choose not to rise, if the earth could choose to cease its rotation? What true or lasting joy if the ground beneath us could whimsically disappear or the moon could alter its path and tumble to the earth? It would be a life lived in constant anxiety, and any joy or happiness found would be a mask, a salve over an open wound of fear and uncertainty. Such is a marriage where a pledge of lifelong commitment is conditional upon the whims and flights of passion to which we humans are subject. If vows are taken lightly and divorce is always an option then marriage loses its supreme, primary, and defining good; in short, it becomes meaningless and has no real beauty, no real joy.
The Shared Benefit of the Good
It is upon such lifelong commitment that society must be built. It is for this reason why meaningful marriage should be a prerequisite for bearing (or having sex for that matter) and raising children. The foundation of family is unbreakable commitment, a commitment that starts and ends with the unbreakable union between two persons whence all other commitment and marital goods, such as that to bear and raise children, flow from. This is why governments should grant special status to marriage and show preference for unions that naturally result in the bearing and raising of children.
There is no "right" to marriage; there is only the granting of privileges to couples who have made an unbreakable commitment to each other and, preferably, to produce children who will one day do the same. The purpose of government is to secure the common good, not the individual good, and insofar as a union between persons promotes the common good, as it generally and naturally does in the case of heterosexual marriage, the government should work to promote and secure it.
Granted, a similar vow between persons of the same sex does in some ways promote the common good by increasing social stability and, e.g., reducing the financial burden for the treating of diseases spread through promiscuity (and even some will choose to raise and succeed in raising responsible citizens), so I am not opposed to some governmental preference for homosexual unions, but it must be in proportion to the good that those unions promise. They have not historically proven to promote the common good nor do they naturally result in the perpetuation of good society, so how can they claim equality with heterosexual marriage in the eyes of the government? The misguided sense of fairness that suggests that they should be equal needs to be weighed against what is truly right and just, i.e., granting privileges based upon historical and natural good with a view to protecting and promoting the common good.
This is not a matter of us versus them, and it is not even essentially a religious matter--it does not depend upon any revealed truth but is discernable from reason, experience, and history. While I must object, both on a philosophical and a religious basis, to homosexual actions, I can see the value for society in providing privileges to homosexual unions that are in proportion to the good that they propose to society. They just need to be in proportion to the good that typically come of such unions, not a blind extension of the privileges of one kind of union to another.
But I think the larger issue here--the reason that there is confusion about and advocacy of homosexual unions to have the same privileges as those of heterosexual--is due to our core misunderstanding of marriage itself. A society and government that allows divorce on demand and does not provide concrete incentives for marriages to stay together--one that does not help couples to uphold their vows--cannot understand why such fickle unions based on whim should be granted any special status. Indeed, if all marriage is is a transitory union based on passing infatuations, it should not be granted any special status.
A Better Approach
What we need to do to fix things is not further contribute to the demise of society through further dimunition and obscuring of the chief good of marriage by extending it to other forms of interpersonal union. We need, rather, to work to reverse the damages done to marriage already. We need to make divorce more difficult; we need to make it more undesirable. We need to promote lifelong marriage and fidelity, and provide real incentives for it.
We need to make marriage more difficult to get into, not because we want to be mean or ornery but because in making it overly accessible we have cheapened, demeaned, and diminished what it really is (or at least should be) and because we have simultaneously endangered our social stability and the future of our civilization. It is sadly laughable that we have mandatory waiting periods to purchase firearms, but marriage can procured with no waiting period at all. Failed marriages are at least as harmful to society as the misuse of firearms.
Something like a waiting period for marriage would have both an instructional and a practical effect. It would communicate the gravity of the commitment being entered into, and it would help ensure that both parties have sufficient time to discern if they feel they can make a lifelong commitment to each other. When we were a wiser society, we even took it further to include external validation by publishing the "banns" of marriage to help ensure that there are not known reasons that a couple should not be married.
Debunking a Malicious Myth
We need a renaissance of understanding the beauty and value of commitment. Too often our popular culture portrays it as something stagnant, dull, boring, and constrictive, in short, something to be avoided at all costs. Yet it is strange that despite this popular mythos, we humans still gravitate toward it. The stories of our day are often a clash of the supposedly free individuals (those who are avoiding marital commitment) with those who are entering into it.
The popular feeling and advice is to "enjoy your freedom while you have it" and, on a more vulgar note, to engage in debauchery and promiscuity while you can. Yet oddly enough there seems to still be a latent and innate, although rationally inconsistent, recognition of the value of marriage. These love stories that culminate in marriage still show that marriage is something to be desired over and above the alternative supposed complete freedom of the individual.
But this greater good of marriage--the good that drives the lovers in these love stories to marry despite the much-vaunted loss of freedom--remains unarticulated and, for that reason, looms smaller in the popular imagination. Why should a love story culminate in marriage? Surely it is not strictly literary convention.
No, I think that what I said before about the real good of marriage is intuitively recognized, even by those who cannot or refuse to articulate it. In this sense, not much need be said to convince others of its value. We intuitively understand the value of a lifelong commitment and the family that is built upon it, despite popular culture's ravings that it is not to be desired. What we need, rather, is to be reminded of it, to have it be articulated more often, as I have tried to do in this essay.
And the interesting thing is that there truly is no conflict between freedom, rightly understood, and lifelong commitment. Indeed, there is a greater freedom that comes from such commitment than is known without it. If one is inclined to marry, one is in constant servitude to the drive to marry--to seek out a mate--until the mate is found and marriage is consummated. It dominates the mind and heart. This, too, is known intuitively and experientially and is also manifest in our popular culture's obsession with dating and love stories that culminate in marriage. The mere fact that we can be infatuated speaks to it, and there is a word in our language--enthralled--that directly speaks to the servitude that we experience in seeking and finding a mate.
It is not in dating and being free to date that we are free, nor is it in being enslaved to our passions and the pursuit of sexual pleasure. Here again our popular myths debunk themselves. How much time, effort, and cost do we see being expended in such pursuits in our popular culture? Is it not well-known that having a girlfriend, mistress, or, for that matter, prostitute is more costly than having a wife?
It turns out that our intuition is right in the case of marriage. It is better to marry than to burn with passion that can only be satisfied at great personal cost (and even danger). It is better to have a partner in life than to be in the constant pursuit of that partner or in the pursuit of one of many goods that such a partner can provide. Sex is just one of the many goods of marriage, and it turns out that when there is a more or less basic assurance that you can have it, you find there are many other worthwhile pursuits to expend your efforts on.
Marriage is the stem from which the flower of life blossoms; it is the beginning of freedom. Once one is no longer consumed with the dating game, with the seeking of a partner, with the pursuit of sex, the mind and body are freed to engage in other pursuits. The supposed freedom to pursue vague varieties of a single pleasure, which only shows one's slavery to that one pleasure, is exchanged for the real freedom to pursue all the real, many, and varied goods that this life offers. And what's more, if one is careful about the choice of one's lifelong partner, you get to explore and enjoy those many wonders with someone you treasure for the rest of your life.
I would suggest that having and raising children, which is the natural result of the good of sex anyways, is a supreme good in marriage. The blossoming and shaping of other lives that are utterly dependent upon you, the joys of re-experiencing the many wonders of life through their eyes, and the shared joy and love that comes from them are not to be paralleled with any other worldly pleasure. Unlike many pleasures, the pleasure of love (and by this I mean charity, caring, and giving as well as affection) only grows when it is shared; the more children you have and the more love you give to them, the greater the joy of love becomes.
And while children are a great good and pleasure to be shared in marriage, they are just one of the many that come from the freedom and good of a lifelong commitment to another. When the fear, anxiety, and loneliness are removed thanks to an unbreakable commitment to each other, one has far more freedom and far more joy than can be had without it. Sure, we do sacrifice some liberties, but we do so for many more and for the greater peace, joy, and shared pleasure that comes with it.
This is the message that I think we need to remind each other of when faced with the false dualism of freedom versus marriage. This is the message that will help others to understand the supreme good of marriage--that which flows from a sure, certain, and unbreakable commitment, that which we intuitively know. With this understanding, the practical suggestions of helping each other to choose wisely when entering into this commitment and to help sustain each other in times of difficulty (rather than giving up and bowing out in divorce) do not seem so hard or imposing. We see that we are working towards not only the greater common good but also towards the couple's good, the children's good, and indeed the individual's good.
In short, we see that by taking such measures, we are showing our love for each other. We are showing that we actually care, that we are not just a bunch of individuals cut off from each other, that we are neighbors, not strangers. This is what a good and civilized society is all about, and it is clearly a far better society than the one we have been building by the unrestrained promotion of individual liberties.
Towards a Better Future
Those who understand what I'm saying here and are inclined to agree with it should take it upon themselves to spread the word. We're never hesitant to talk about the latest great movie we've watched, and we should be far less hesitant to speak well of marriage given that it is a far greater good. Given that we're a democratic society, it's just a matter of reminding enough people about the real good of marriage to get things changed for the positive, to start the long overdue repair work on marriage in our society.
And given the regularity that the topic of homosexual union is in the news these days, there are ample opportunities to talk about it. We need to redirect the question to its proper root. We need to help people to understand what marriage is really all about, and then it will become far easier for others to understand our opposition to elevating homosexual unions to the level of marriage and granting them the same governmental privileges. We need to show that it isn't about elitism; we're not hateful, selfish, or otherwise malicious. In fact, we're pursuing the same thing--equitable privileges under law, where equitable means that the privileges are equitable with the promised benefit to the common good.
Another common opportunity to talk about marriage is when someone is getting married. Inevitably, there are the comments like "run, don't walk," "enjoy your final days of freedom," and the like that echo what our popular culture thinks about marriage. Instead of perpetuating that myth, we should try to debunk the myth and share the good. Bachelor parties should be a celebration of the impending marriage, lauding the coming joys of marriage with the groom, not a chance to get one last debauch nor a dirge for the groom's supposedly lost freedom, and if we have any influence over them, we should push them in the direction of the good.
And of course, we need to be mindful of ourselves and our own marriages. If we need to re-examine our commitment to our spouse and perhaps renew it, it's not too late. If we got into marriage without due consideration, we should try at all costs to salvage it. We already made the vows, whether or not we really meant them at the time, so it is a matter of making the intent real now. It is not unheard of for long-married couples to renew their vows, and if that would be helpful, by all means we should do it. Whatever it takes to get ourselves right and our commitment real, we should do in order to experience the chief good of marriage for ourselves. Divorce is not an option except in extreme circumstances.
If we're engaged or thinking about it, we need to examine ourselves and do our best to discern if the beloved is someone we can commit to for life. If not, we have no business considering marriage. And those of us with influence in such situations should help the couples to understand and discern the same.
Given our culture, and human nature itself, it is inevitable that discussions of love and marriage will arise, and whatever those are, if it seems appropriate, we should make an effort to raise awareness of and appreciation for the real goods, joys, and nature of marriage. If we do what we can to shape the popular mythos around marriage, it will go far towards enabling us to create better societal structures, including laws, to improve and support marriage in our society, which will ultimately make a better society for us now, for our children, and for our children's children.
Given on the Feast of the Holy Family in the Year of Our Lord 2006