There tends to be confusion in some responses to the recent decision to overturn Proposition 8 in California.

On the one hand, defenders of traditional marriage often point to natural law, or if not natural law, at least a common wisdom about the natural purposes of marriage—a disciplining constraint for our sexual impulses, procreation, and child-rearing.

Too often, however, we imagine that the Judeo-Christian ideal of life-long monogamy is part of this common wisdom. As Ross Douthat pointed out in his recent New York Time s column , it isn’t.

Lots of other cultures have different ways of coordinating the mating impulses of men and women.

We can see this difference in the Bible itself. The patriarchs in Genesis have many wives, and the laws concerning marriage given at Mount Sinai concern themselves with property, inheritance, and so forth. Marriage, it would seem, is a social reality with little connection to our ideals of deep, interior fidelity to a single person.

What is so striking about the Bible, however, is that it takes the natural form of marriage, which is largely a practical matter admitting of many different arrangements, and fuses it to the drama of salvation. God elects Israel, and in his covenant, God binds himself to his people forever. The singular, invincible ardor of divine solicitude for Israel then becomes the ideal for human love. Thus the Song of Songs.

The definitive statement of this supernaturalization—if you will forgive my theological barbarism—comes in Ephesians 5, where, after laying down principles for marital harmony, St. Paul returns to Genesis 2:24: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh,” St. Paul then links the primal union of man and woman to the saving union of God and humanity. “This mystery,” he continues, referring to the capacity of a man and woman, so different in so many ways, to unite themselves in matrimony, “is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:32).

While some gay activists clearly seek to destroy the Judeo-Christian meaning of marriage as a step toward the goal of demolishing all forms of traditional sexual morality, a not insignificant impetus behind the same-sex marriage movement is the desire gays and lesbians to participate in the profound mystery of God’s singular and deathless love, which is figured so powerfully in the traditional marriage vows.

The problem, however, is that, as St. Paul knew, God does not take human love and somehow use it to symbolize divine live. Instead, God takes the natural form of marriage, which is quite practical and this-worldly, and makes it supernatural. This happens because the natural form of marriage—including polygamy, including dynastic marriages, and so forth—has a unique latent potential.

First, the unlikely communion of the man and the woman becomes a figure of the infinitely more unlikely communion of God with humanity. Second, the natural fruitfulness of sexual intercourse—children and their future promise—is completed in the plenary fruitfulness of our rebirth in Christ.

As many have pointed out, over the last fifty years, the procreative dimension of human sexuality has dropped out of the popular view of the meaning and purpose of sex. In more subtle but equally important ways, decades of ideological assault on gender roles has hidden and diminished the differences between make and female. It’s not surprising, therefore, that with the push for same-sex marriage the male/female difference—so crucial to the way in which the Song of Songs points toward God’s love for us and our yearning love for God—is also dropping out. As the natural signs are obscured, the logic of Judeo-Christian marriage seems more and more not a logic at all, but only an arbitrary dictate of tradition.

It is a principle of Catholic sacramental theology that that the supernatural reality of the mysteries of the church requires the natural signs that are transformed by grace. We can’t use potatoes and water to celebrate the Eucharist.

The same holds for Judeo-Christian marriage and its supernatural vision of life-long monogamy, which is what gives marriage such a powerful symbolic meaning in our society. Without the natural signs—the difference between male and female and their procreative potential—the supernatural sign has no firm basis.

Culture is complicated. It does not obey theological principles or dance to the tune of canon law. But the logic of the Christian tradition (and the Jewish tradition, which does not differ significantly on this point) has given and continues to give coherence to most of our cultural convictions. Therefore, as the natural signs of marriage fall by the wayside—first with procreation largely side-lined and gender roles subverted, and now with gender reciprocity explicitly set aside—the institution of marriage will take on new symbolic meaning.

Perhaps we’ll go back to a more realistic, more calculating, more purely natural view of marriage as an alliance of resources. That’s my prediction. But whatever our direction as a culture, marriage will continue to lose its power to symbolize an impetuous, jealous, eternal love.

Articles by R. R. Reno

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