Linguistic battles are difficult when the words are obviously different (gender vs. sex, pro-life vs. anti-abortion, etc.). They are much harder when the word stays the same, but the meaning changes. The same-sex marriage movement reveals that “marriage” has already undergone a meaning shift. Recognizing—and addressing—the character of that shift has to be a major part of how we defend marriage today.
“Marriage” in its Judeo-Christian context means the self-gift of a man and a woman to each other, so that God might bring each to Himself through the other. A man and a woman who get married vow that they will embrace the natural consequences of their life together as a gift from God, be they joyous or tragic: abundant children or the pain of sterility, lobster dinners or store-brand fish sticks, death in sleep at 90 or cancer at 30. It’s what Catholics call a vocation, a specific path to holiness that structures an entire life and everything in it.
But as any pastor who prepares couples for marriage can tell you, that vision of marriage is about as far from most couples’ minds as Mars is from Venus. If marriage is a gift of self, we now make sure to leave the tags on and keep the receipt.
What we expect from a marriage has changed: no-fault divorce helped change when we imagine a marriage ends, contraception helped change how we imagine a marriage should give life, and pornography helped change what we imagine should be done to and by whom in a marriage. In all three instances, what was part of an entire pattern of life that included but surpassed my momentary tastes has been broken apart into small fragments that I can change to suit my whims.
Once marriage was a vocation; now it is a lifestyle. As such, it is little more than a legal sanctioning of two people’s sexual complementarity, usually involving an emotional bond, a general notion of physical exclusivity, financial intermingling, and the option of children. When any of these separable components interferes with the root purpose—personal satisfaction—then it has to go. And then worse problems intervene: career conflicts, squabbles about money, sexual apathy or disloyalty, or just the general feeling that the inevitable tensions and sacrifices of marital union aren’t worth it. So, divorce. Now the two people are free to live their lives independently again.
Enter same-sex marriage. If marriage is just a lifestyle option, same-sex marriage advocates are right to say that the option should be open to all on the same terms. If two people can satisfy each other sexually and emotionally, the argument goes, they can get married. After all, sexual intimacy and the emotional bond it can create often lead to monetary mingling and the wistful desire for permanence and maybe even children. If men and women can fall into marriage along that path, why not men and men or women and women?
Sex columnist Dan Savage argues that the way to save marriage as an institution is to focus even more intently on personal satisfaction, which he naturally imagines in the Maxim mode. He urges Americans to drop the baggage about male and female and consider what’s really important to a marriage: sexual satisfaction. Because good sex is the one non-negotiable of the marriage lifestyle according to Savage, anything that makes sex better for one member of the marriage makes the marriage better, whether it’s the occasional fling, whips, or a cake in the face. A marriage that fetish-plays together (or separately), stays together.
Of course this is hardly the vision of marriage predominant in America today. Thankfully many men and women, atheists and believers alike, desire a more virtuous practice of marriage. But we often lack confidence in our own aspirations. Even well-intentioned Christians hedge their bets with pre-nuptial agreements, “trial marriages,” or cohabitation, with one eye on the ever-present escape hatch of divorce. That is why Judeo-Christian defenders of marriage are so often met with frothing rage or blank stares. When we invoke the sacramental bond of marriage, we are literally speaking a different language than most of our contemporaries.
Social conservatives risk giving up the game by attacking the excesses of Savage Love and same-sex marriage with utilitarian, sociological arguments about the benefits of mixed-sex, two-parent homes. Books like The Case for Marriage: Why Married People are Happier, Healthier, and Better off Financially serve a purpose—showing that the redefinition of marriage fails on its own terms—but they cannot address the orientation to personal satisfaction that has crept into our understanding of marriage in general. Speaking of marriage as the best lifestyle among many lifestyles might help change social policy, but it won’t change the convictions that underlie our marital misunderstandings.
The opposition to same-sex marriage must be part of a larger movement addressing the root causes that led Americans to quietly redefine marriage as a lifestyle choice long before homosexual marriage was on the table. Even passing a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman will have little effect unless it is accompanied by a renewed awakening of the intrinsically unitive and fruitful vocation of marriage.
Those who oppose same-sex marriage directly are doing laudable work. But the men and women who work to restore sanity to divorce laws, change the ubiquitous contraceptive mentality, and abolish pornography are also battling for marriage, and their work may prove decisive. And perhaps most decisive is the quiet witness of men and women living their marriages to the full.
Marriage is not just a word, endlessly redefined by slipping social values and ideology. Marriage is not a lifestyle, blithely focused on my organs and whims. Marriage is a mode of being. Only as such can it be saved.
Gabriel Torretta, OP is a summer fellow at First Things and is studying for the priesthood in the Dominican Order.
Mark Oppenheimer, Married, With Infidelities
Matthew Schmitz, A New Movement for Marriage
Matthew J. Franck , Religion, Reason, and Same-Sex Marriage
Robert P. George, What Marriage Is—And What It Isn’t
Gary A. Anderson, A Marriage in Full
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