Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Back in high school, I played a sport that most people have encountered, if at all, only in the Olympics. It is an athletic game both exhilarating and exhausting, and while I would probably drown if I tried to play it again now, still I count my adolescent water polo career among my life’s greatest blessings. The lessons I learned in the pool might turn out to be particularly relevant today, and in a surprising fashion. For understanding water polo can, I contend, help us to understand a far more important human institution: marriage.

Proponents of redefining marriage utilize the language of allowance, asking whether or not the government should let same-sex couples marry, but in fact the real point of contention involves not allowance but possibility. Contra its framing in the public square, the core of the disagreement is whether the government is capable of making such couples married at all.

To know who qualifies for admission into this institution, we must first understand what the institution is. In What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, Sherif Girgis, Robert P. George, and Ryan T. Anderson argue that “marriage is, of its essence, a comprehensive union: a union of will (by consent) and body (by sexual union); inherently ordered to procreation and thus the broad sharing of family life; and calling for permanent and exclusive commitment.”

Today many believe that marriage is merely an intense emotional union between consenting adults who commit to care for one another for as long as the union remains. Your spouse is simply your “Number One Person,” as one advocate for this revisionist view of marriage would have it. Such an understanding is parasitic upon the good of marriage, and thus its advocates—albeit not with much consistency—do still recommend adherence to various features of marriage, including shared family lives, permanence, and exclusivity. Nevertheless, the underlying reasons grounding these marital norms have been stripped away. Not only is this remnant not marriage—it is also unintelligible, politically irrelevant, and arbitrary.

By way of illustration, let me return to the natatorium. Water polo is a sport in which seven players swim around in a deep pool, cooperating in an effort to beat the opposing team while abiding by the rules of the game. A water polo team, then, is simply a group of people who play this sport with one another, who band together to win water polo games against other teams. Thus playing water polo is the characteristic activity of a water polo team, meaning not only that it reveals or witnesses to what this team is, but also that it actually makes this team what it is. It is in virtue of their playing water polo that a group of people is a water polo team at all.

Given that, it is obviously insufficient for forming a water polo team that a group of seven people just swim laps around the pool during what would otherwise be a water polo game. To qualify as this particular type of association, the seven must actually do the thing that makes them this type of association. To be a water polo team, the group must play water polo. This also means that, were the seven for some reason incapable of doing the activity characteristic of such team-ship, they could not be a water polo team. Seven people who cannot swim cannot form a team.

What does any of this have to do with marriage? As with water polo, to get at what marriage is, we should ask what the characteristic activity of marriage is. As nearly every society in history has recognized, marriage’s characteristic action is sexual intercourse. Thus coitus is classically termed the “marital act,” and it has traditionally been said to “consummate” the marriage, in a way that no other act—sexual or otherwise —can.

Why is this so? As Girgis, George, and Anderson explain, if marriage is to be rightly understood as a comprehensive union of persons, then the act that makes marriage marriage must unite the couple in all of their basic dimensions. In other words, the couple must “coordinate towards one end that encompasses them both.” And because we humans are embodied beings, that comprehensive union must include a bodily union, a bodily cooperation towards a common bodily end.

Now for human beings, each individual is sufficient unto himself for the achievement of the vast majority of his bodily ends. Respiration requires the coordination of my lungs and my heart, of course; digestion, my stomach and intestines, and so on. There is only one biological end that no human being can hope to achieve on his own: procreation. For that, two people are needed, one man and one woman. Sex alone seals the marital bond, because sex alone has the potential to unite people with regard to both body and mind, both behavior and intention. As the Scriptures would have it, “the two become one flesh.”

Does this view mean infertile couples can’t marry? Let us return once more to the pool. Suppose you have a water polo team that is so bad that they know they will lose their next game, or even that they will lose all of their games. Are they, for that reason, any less a water polo team?

Of course not—they are as much a team as the gold-medalists are. It is not winning games that effectuates the formation of the team, but rather striving to win games. Victory is indeed the end at which the activity of playing water polo aims, and without such an end, the game becomes senseless. But a team is no less a team for failing to achieve that end. While the game is meaningful only insofar as it is oriented to its end, still it is also good in itself. (Thus when a team focuses exclusively on winning, their fixation on the end tends to spoil the teammates’ experience, by detracting from their camaraderie and their love of the game for its own sake.) So what matters for their being a team is participation in the activity oriented to the end, whether or not the end is ultimately realized in practice, and whether or not they even anticipate its realization.

It is the same in marriage. The marital union is not dependent upon the realization of the end of procreation. A childless couple, whether on their honeymoon or twenty years later, is still a married couple. But the union is dependent upon the enactment of the activity whose natural end is procreation, that act which would be naturally fulfilled by the conception of a child.

Given what a water polo team is, other properties typically attach to it, to assist it in its mission as a team. Let us take a high school squad as a case in point. For one thing, in all probability it will be officially recognized as a team by its school, and understandably so, since the school has an interest in who the team is that represents it in these games and tournaments. Additionally, players on the team must commit to play for the entire season, forsaking their right to walk away partway through. This also makes good sense, since the team has an interest in ensuring continuity throughout the season for the sake of improving its performance and thriving in its games. Also, teammates agree, explicitly or implicitly, to play only for their own team and never for any of their competitors, the reason for which should be fairly obvious.

All of these properties make sense in light of what a water polo team is. But when that central reason for the team’s existence—playing water polo—is removed, when the activity that makes it what it is falls out, then those properties become ungrounded and arbitrary. A group of classmates who meet after school to drink coffee together, for example, ought not expect official school recognition for their caffeinated cohort, nor should they have to commit to continued attendance or exclusive fidelity with their coffee buddies.

The marriage analogue should be apparent. When the intrinsic orientation to procreation is removed, when marriage ceases to be understood as essentially the relationship of potential parents, none of the other properties characteristic of marriage make any sense anymore. If the union were merely about emotional intimacy and caring for each other, why should the state have any interest in recognizing it, any more than it does in regulating our other friendships? Why should bonds of permanence and exclusivity attach to it?

One final objection to consider, often offered in favor of the revisionist view, is what the What Is Marriage? authors term “constructivism.” The argument goes that, because marriage is an institution that exists only because of the decisions of human beings, we can therefore redefine it as we see fit, and for the ends we deem desirable. Even if it is true that the logic of marriage is undercut by deleting procreation from the picture, the constructivist might say, still nothing is stopping us from cutting it out, for the institution and its logic are merely malleable human constructs.

Now, constructivism regarding water polo would be quite correct. For all its virtues, water polo is merely a game, and its rules could indeed be redefined at will. And so they have been; the sport has changed considerably over the few centuries since its invention. Everything about water polo is obviously mere convention. But contra the constructivist objection, it is not so with marriage.

Whereas water polo is a historical accident that merely helps encourage the well-being of its participants, marriage is a basic aspect of human flourishing as such. As the What Is Marriage? coauthors say, unlike purely conventional institutions, marriage is “valuable for people in itself, without our deciding to make it so, and in a way that other goods cannot substitute for.” Thus while it is true that marriage is a human institution that would not exist but for the choices of human beings, still it does not follow that marriage is endlessly malleable. Although it may vary in its accidental qualities across times, cultures, and even particular couples, still there are also essential features of marriage, which cannot be changed without destroying this indispensible human good altogether.

Remember, friendship would not exist except for human actions either, and it of course also varies from one place to another in its inessential features. Still, no one could deny that friendship is a basic element of human well-being, and that it has an unalterable core that cannot be abolished by any legislative sanction. By way of illustration, imagine that the government promulgated a new law saying that, from this day forward in these United States, friendship would be not the relationship of mutual good will and affection it has been up until the present, but would be instead a utilitarian relationship of mutual use. To be a friend to someone is to take advantage of him for your own selfish gains, or so this law would have you believe. But supposing that such a law were passed, would friendship itself actually be altered in this fundamental way?

Of course not; the government would only have sown immense confusion about this foundational human institution. As J. Budziszewski would say, the state can no more redefine marriage or friendship than it can turn dogs into cats by judicial fiat. For there are some realities that the polis has not the power to tamper with, and the identity of fundamental goods like friendship and marriage are certainly among them.

Michael W. Hannon is a first year law student at NYU and a graduate of Columbia, where he triple-majored in Philosophy, Religion, and Medieval and Renaissance Studies. He is a contributing editor at Ethika Politika .


The Abolition of Man-and-Woman: On Marriage, Grammar, and Legal Strategy ,” Michael W. Hannon, Public Discourse

What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense , Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook , subscribe to First Things via RSS , and follow First Things on Twitter .

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles