You keep using that word… I do not think it means what you think it means.

Okay, that’s a heckuva long title for a blog post, but it also happens to be almost perfect for the subject of this particular entry at The American Catholic.

On Tuesday, the voters of the state of Maine — surprisingly — rejected same sex marriage (SSM) and reaffirmed that marriage in Maine is between a man and a woman. Naturally, SSM supporters were shocked and outraged (the Catholic Church appears to be the early target), while supporters of traditional marriage were overjoyed with the results; Maine, after all, isn’t exactly in the Bible Belt.

Wendy Wright, President of Concerned Women for America (CWA), was typical of the latter: “Every time Americans vote on marriage, traditional marriage wins.” And she’s right: when it comes to ballot initiatives, SSM is 0-31.

But here’s the thing: both sides keep using the word marriage, but I don’t think that it means what they think it means…

I subscribe to the magazine Touchstone — “A Journal of Mere Christianity” — and last winter I read one of the most penetrating, clarifying articles on the state of marriage in American society I’ve come across. Entitled “Phony Matrimony,” I’ve seen similar points made elsewhere, but the insight with which the author of the piece — Christopher Oleson — made his points struck me in a way other similar analysis have not.

Like many others Oleson notes that what passes for marriage in the minds of most Americans is something very different from the conception held just a few generations ago. Like others, Oleson notes that at the heart of the traditional (true) conception of marriage is pro-creation: at a fundamental level, marriage is oriented and structured towards childbearing, even if pro-creation never in fact occurs. And it is because of this intrinsic purpose that marriage is utterly indissoluble. Again, this itself is nothing new: the Catholic Church, for instance, has long taught that the purpose of marital love is for the union of the spouses and the pro-creation of children, and it is from both that the indissolubility of marriage flows.

What struck me about Oleson’s analysis isn’t so much his view of the nature of authentic marriage — again, he largely echoes what others have said — but rather his diagnosis of the conception of marriage which is most commonly held today in our country. Oleson argues that what passes for marriage in this country is more aptly described as “contractually formalized couplehood”. He writes, “We have maintained the term ‘marriage’ as an esteemed and protected word, but what that word once signified has lost its public existence within our culture.” And he proceeds to systematically make his case, first laying out the nature of authentic marriage, then turning to this contractual couplehood which so many of us mistakenly understand as marriage. Noting that the latter is considerably different from the former, Oleson writes,

Whether you’re chatting with Bobos at the nearest Starbucks, listening to conservative talk-show hosts, or attending a wedding at a local Evangelical church, there is a discernable near-unanimity regarding marriage that underlies the public disputes over who can enter into it.

What are these core assumptions that are commonly embraced by mainstream American society, both conservative and liberal? The most commonly recognized ingredients of a marriage are a man and a woman who are in love with each other and want to be with each other for the rest of their lives. They seek a public recognition of that love and commitment. There need be no doubt that most of the time there is complete sincerity on both sides about wanting to make a life-long run of it “till death do us part.”

He then proceeds to point to two other cultural assumptions which place contemporary marriage radically at odds with the more authentic version thereof:

The first is that children are commonly thought to be an attractive but supplementary add-on to a marital relationship. In other words, the intention to have children is not seen as of the essence of what it means for two people to be getting married. Children are considered accidental and posterior to the union.

“Yes, of course we eventually want children. But we’ll decide about all that later.” Or “Having children at some time is attractive to us, but we haven’t made any final decisions about it.” Or simply, “We’re not sure whether or not we want children.” None of these sentiments raises so much as an eyebrow in our society because marriage and the intention to have children are taken to be quite distinct decisions in our cultural outlook.

He then turns to the second constitutive element of traditional marriage, and its status in contemporary conceptions of marriage:

The second cultural assumption has to do with the intentionality with which a couple enters the marital union. Assuredly, they want to be together for life, but if you press deeply enough, you will discover that almost everyone still allows for the (remote and undesired) possibility that, should things not work out, another marriage to a different spouse is still theoretically possible. In other words, there are certain conditions attached to the union. Should the unthinkable happen and one or both of the spouses become miserable with little prospect of amelioration, divorce and re-marriage would be acceptable.

Even if one does not envision this happening to himself, still it is generally taken as a given that others should be able to find a new spouse who, this time, will make them happy. In other words, American society does not regard marriage as an indissoluble relationship. It is a revocable contract and ultimately may be dissolved and then entered into with a new party.

It is true that in almost all circles of American society, there is still a strong sense of the propriety and desirability of lifelong marriage. But the actual belief and frequent practice of mainstream American culture, conservative and liberal alike, is that a “do over” is always possible. Pick a conservative Evangelical church at random out of the phone book. Go visit it, observe its practices, and you will see that it re-marries members of its flock, sometimes repeatedly, albeit recognizing the painful “failure” that resulted in the divorce of the previous and supposedly “Christian” marriage. I’m not saying that this is unfailingly the case. It is only overwhelmingly the case.

And so on, leading to the inexorable conclusion: “When a modern American couple, oblivious as they are to the procreative and indissoluble nature of the marital covenant, goes to the altar or courthouse and commits to living together for life, they are not actually getting married in the original sense of that word. They are entering into a contractually formalized ‘couplehood.’”

To be honest, I can understand the frustration of supporters of SSM, and Oleson puts it almost perfectly: “What is the rational difference, after all, between a heterosexual couple who marry with no intention of having children, engage solely in non-procreative sexual activity, and regard their union as dissolvable, on the one hand, and a same-sex couple who marry with no intention of having children, engage solely in non-procreative sexual activity and regard their union as dissolvable?” There is none. If marriage consists of very strong feelings for another, together with some sort of non-procreative sexual relationship and a commitment to stay together, then there is no rational case to be made in opposition to SSM. The obvious problem is that this is exactly what many Americans — most of whom are Christians — believe marriage is!

So as long as contraception and divorce & remarriage are seen as neutral or even good in the context of the American view of marriage, I have little optimism for the survival of authentic marriage in our country; for that matter, one might rightly question whether it’s even alive today, whatever the voters of Maine, California, and 29 other states have said.

Mary conceived without sin, pray for us!

19 Responses to You keep using that word… I do not think it means what you think it means.

  • j. christian says:

    Oleson makes a lot of sense, and my own feelings of despair over the current same-sex marriage debate (despite its repeated losses at the ballot box) have a lot to do with the uncomfortable notion that we’re fighting over the hollow shell of something. If we’re fighting for what everyone else calls “marriage” but is actually the personalist-emotivist vestige of that institution, then we’re doomed to lose the debate. That ship sailed long ago, and it had contraception, divorce, and the sexual revolution stoking its boilers!

    Oleson misses a few points, however, that can be employed in a rational argument for traditional marriage. In addition to the indissoluble and procreative nature of marriage, there are other social/cultural reasons for giving heterosexual marriage preferential treatment. I quite liked the analysis by Canadian professors Katherine Young and Paul Nathanson (neither Christian, one gay) seen here:

    http://catholiceducation.org/articles/sexuality/ho0064.html

    Based on their cross-cultural/historical analysis of marriage, they conclude that the culture surrounding marriage must accomplish several things:
    (1) the bonding between men and women to ensure cooperation for the common good
    (2) the procreative aspect (plus child-rearing at least until adulthood)
    (3) bonding between men and children
    (4) a healthy form of masculine identity apart from “provider” and “protector” which have been joined gradually by women
    (5) the transformation of adolescents into sexually responsible adults.

    One of the most important things a culture can do is socialize its males; marriage (traditionally understood, with all the duties it entails) is one of the best ways to do that. If the culture fails to support heterosexual marriage by taking away the unique, ritualistic way that it encourages men to “settle down” and “grow up”, we’re in for a lot more trouble than we realize. Yet again we see that marriage has a public/social character that is poorly understood by most Americans today.

  • RTJL says:

    I have long recognized that the word marriage as it is now being debated does not mean what it has traditionally meant. It certainly does not mean what the Catholic Church means when it says the word marriage. I have somethimes wondered if the suggestions to use the word marriage for heterosexual unions and the phrase “civil union” for homosexual unions might be better replaced among Catholics by a suggestion to abandon the word marriage altogether. It has already been hijacked by the broader culture and there really isn’t much we can do about that. Let the broader culture have the word marriage and let that word refer to heterosexual “marriages” and homosexual civil unions. We on the other hand would use the prhase “sacramental unions” and its meaning would be restricted only to what has traditionally been meant by marriage. I know this isn’t the best option – but in the end it might be the most we can salvage from the wreckage that seems to be coming upon us.

  • cminor says:

    It seems to me, however, that the grassroots resistance towards same-sex marriage might stem from the recognition of what marriage really ought to be. Though the failure rate is so high for the real, most people still cling to and hope for the the ideal. That’s not a bad thing, when one considers the alternative is a mercenary cynicism.

  • I’d love to think that you are right, cminor, but I tend to think that the resistance is from a (correct) recognition of what marriage ought *not* be, rather than what it *ought* to be… I guess it’s good that they have that, but it’s still pretty paltry.

  • Gabriel Austin says:

    Stephen Leacock summed up the matter concisely: what was once a sacrament has become a contract.

    Which incidentally reduces all children to bastards, having no claim on the progenitors.

  • brettsalkeld says:

    I think it is true that we are not in a fight to avoid the redefinition of marriage, but that we are in a fight about whether or not to include homosexual couples in an already redefined marriage. As you point out, that is a battle that can’t be won. I do not see how one can support artificial contraception and reject same-sex marriage without at least some hint of bigotry.

    One interesting question follows: will this logic have any purchase on the large number of Christians (Catholic and Protestant) that oppose same-sex marriage but have been using contraception for at least two generations?

  • RR: “at a fundamental level, marriage is oriented and structured towards childbearing, even if pro-creation never in fact occurs” (emphasis added).

    The same thing applies to a couple that marries beyond the age of fertility… while they will never bear children, their relationship remains fundamentally ordered towards them.

  • Can you spell that out further for me? How is a marriage where procreation is a biological impossibility, fundamentally ordered towards childbearing? And where does that leave people like Caster Semenya who have genetic or hormonal abnormalities which make their gender ambiguous?

  • Because the factors which render the act of sexual love sterile are “outside” of the action itself, as well as outside the intentions of the couple (i.e. all things being equal, they wish they *could* bear children).

    I don’t see that the infinitesimal number of people with indeterminate sexuality have any bearing on this debate.

    What’s your larger objection, RR?

  • Gabriel Austin says:

    I think there is some misunderstanding about the question of procreation in a marriage. The text is in Genesis: “Increase and multiply”. As the footnote in my [old] Bible comments “This is not a precept. God addressed the same words to the birds and animals who cannot receive a precept. It is a blessing”.

    Further, we use the word “procreation”. In a sense husband and wife are responsible for the body of the child [confirmed by DNA]. But it is God who creates the soul.

    For the matter of couples beyond child bearing age, consider Abraham and Sarah.

    The point is not to interfere with the conjugal act.

    Contraception [most of which methods are abortifacient] is properly defined as mutual masturbation. It is degrading to both parties, but particularly to offensive to the woman.

  • jesurgislac says:

    It is ironic that the net result is that couples who do not, and never will have children, can get married – but couples who do have children, or who want to have children, will be denied marriage.

    Very directly, the argument that same-sex couples can’t get married because marriage is all about having children, means that hundreds of thousands of children across the US are being denied married parents by people who claim that marriage ought to be all about protecting children.

    Hm.

  • Jesurgislac says:

    Jesurgislac, if marriage means an institution which is intrinsically about sexual love leading to childbirth & childrearing, and which is intrinsically indissoluble, are you interested in said institution?

    When I meet the right woman. ;-)

    Same-sex couples are as likely to have that kind of marriage as mixed-sex couples.

    It would be possible to deny marriage to any couple who physically/biologically couldn’t have children together – but that would mean no woman past the menopause could be allowed to marry, no man with a vasectomy, no woman with a tubal ligation.

    It’s a question of whether you really believe married parents are beneficial to children. If so, there’s no excuse for denying the children of same-sex couples married parents – but that’s what opponents of same-sex marriage do – usually justifying it by claiming that as they believe the children of same-sex couples are already in sub-standard families, those children should be further discriminated against by being denied the benefits of married parents.

  • Barbara says:

    Jesurgislac:
    Maggie Gallagher, National Organization for Marriage has done a great job of outlining the custody issues if same-same unions take place. Also, tax disadvantages of marriage now. Interesting to note her stats on how few same-sex attracted pairs actually “marry.” In other words, she completely blows you ideas about how beneficial same-sex unions are just because they call them selves married.
    You might want to consider the marriage question from the civil rights perspective. In this country our rights are alienable because we are endowed with them by a Creator. Highly doubtful the Judaeo-Christian Creator our Founding Fathers had in mind is okay with a contractual arrangment between two adults of the same gender as marriage. Marriage between a man and a woman is first and foremost a covenantual relationship -the first unit of civilization. Family, cland, tribe, nation – follw OT history and you’ll see what I mean.

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