Recent arguments at the Supreme Court revealed deep confusion about the nature of dignity. Arguing that “the marriage institution did not develop to deny dignity or to give second class status to anyone,” but rather “to serve purposes that, by their nature, arise from biology,” attorney James J. Bursch described the push to legalize same-sex marriage as the desire to “take an institution that was never intended to be dignity-bestowing, and make it dignity-bestowing.” Justice Kennedy responded with suitable confusion: “I don't understand this ‘not dignity-bestowing.’ I thought that was the whole purpose of marriage. It bestows dignity on both man and woman in a traditional marriage. It’s dignity-bestowing, and these parties say they want to have that, that same ennoblement.”
Neither Bursch nor Justice Kennedy are correct—not completely. Marriage is ennobling, but that is certainly not the “whole purpose of marriage.” Nor is the bestowal of dignity on marriage arbitrary, as if it ennobled an otherwise neutral institution. The bestowal of dignity involves a kind of desert.
Let’s begin with a distinction between three kinds of dignity. Intrinsic dignity designates one’s value as member of a kind—say, as a human being—whereas acquired dignity either designates the honor consequent on noble action or the attributed dignity human beings confer on each other through publicly recognized social status. Whereas Burch’s denial of marriage’s dignity ignores the intrinsic dignity of the complementary sexual relationship, which Christians understand to be a natural sign of Trinitarian love capable of being raised to the significance of a sacrament, Justice Kennedy seems unclear about the extent to which some specifically marital excellence, something honorable, needs to ground the attribution of dignity to a relationship of the sort the State bestows when it recognizes a relationship as a marriage.
Think of this as a problem of distributive justice. As Michael Sandel argues in his recent book on the topic, distributing goods and privileges fairly is not sufficient for justice. A teacher handing out grades using coin-tosses would be treating every student equally but no student justly. In addition to fairness, justice requires us to think both about the nature and purpose of the good being distributed and about the merits of those to whom we would distribute such goods. To use one of Aristotle’s examples, justice requires us to give the best flutes to the best flute players, since their skill or virtue makes them best able to use flutes to make beautiful music and so most deserving of the flutes. Virtue grounds desert. Similarly, rather than handing out marriages to everyone equally, the privilege of marriage should go to those able to fulfill the intrinsic ends of the activities traditional marriage protects: the procreation and education of children, protection from concupiscence, and mutual sanctification.
What virtues or excellences, then—what honorable qualities—make a couple fit for marriage so defined? Being of complementary sexes is what we might call the natural excellence of a marriageable couple. It’s a pre-requisite for having children, but it is by no means sufficient for raising those children or for fulfilling the moral and spiritual ends of marriage. In addition to promising to accept children willingly from God, the Christian tradition requires would-be spouses to make four more vows: monogamy (you can only have one spouse at a time), exclusivity (you may only have relations with your spouse), indissolubility (permanence), and charity—to love one’s spouse as an end in herself, and therefore for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, in good times and bad, and so on.
These vows, I’d argue, represent the virtues that capacitate one for marriage and ground both its just distribution and its ennobling character. Marriage vows make fulfilling the minimum requirements of a stable household a debt of justice to one’s family and set the bar of spousal behavior at benevolence rather than desire. Moreover, because having children often represents a choice to pursue the goods of family life over material and social goods, and because the vows represent a dual commitment not to commit injustice to the most vulnerable and innocent (one’s children) and to live one’s life actively dedicated to the good of others, society esteems those who make such commitments. Just as we give gold medals (attributed dignity) to athletes who have achieved the peak of athletic excellence (acquired dignity) by pursuing physical perfection at the cost of other goods and opportunities, so too does society recognize as noble the life of married couples who, at some cost, dedicate themselves to the pursuit of familial excellence latent in our nature as intrinsically relational beings.
Our present confusion about the dignity of marriage stems from the fact that our society has largely rejected the five honorific grounds of marital dignity. Contraception has blinded us to the link between marriage and family life, while the prevalence of divorce has lessened our respect for those who take marriage vows. Common sense recognizes that a non-binding and unenforceable vow is no vow at all. Finally, the widespread acceptance of premarital sex, cohabitation, and pornography have normalized using others as fungible sources of pleasure rather than respecting them as ends in themselves, as both monogamy and exclusivity require. As C. S. Lewis argued in The Four Loves, eros alone is not a sufficient ground for dignity: It may predict a couple’s willingness to dedicate themselves nobly to the goods of family life, but it is just as often invoked as a perverse justification for violating our obligations to our children, friends, and spouses. Love alone does not dictate morality; it must conform to it, like every other affection.
The five honorific grounds of which fit us for marriage can be philosophically challenged, of course. Technophiles dispute the necessity of sex for procreation: Can’t we manufacture people in labs these days? Others, confused about essences and accidents, misconstrue the argument as entailing that infertile couples, the elderly, and adoptive parents have second-class marriages worthy of less dignity than those of their fertile peers. And what about homosexual couples willing to take traditional vows and adopt children?
As others have adequately answered the first of these objections on grounds of natural law, let me suggest a specifically Christian response to the final question. Insofar as God is a Trinity of persons, love requires difference: Love means gift and gift requires receptivity. This truth is embodied in our biology, our interpersonal relationships, and Christian eschatology. The complementarity of male and female bodies is a natural sign of—it means in a concrete and inarticulate way—the I-thou essence of love. Indeed, God loves creation and its infinite difference from Himself. The complementarity of divine love is written on our bones, the warp and woof of the cosmos.
The homosexual couple cannot mean this: Their union cannot mean the child as gift as even the infertile and adoptive heterosexual couple’s can, for homosexual union signifies the irrelevance of sexual difference to the meaning of the person. It must ultimately deny that creation is teleological, significant, and sacramental. It must ground human dignity in autonomy rather than being, and justice in fairness rather than desert, for the homosexual union cannot allow considerations of nature and telos to dictate the terms of morality. Perhaps this is why LGBT advocates have such a difficult time with the Christian claim that even if a gay person is a wonderful parent, or an adoptive gay couple are wonderful parents, their child is nevertheless deprived of the ontological gift of a sexually complementary parent. Every one of us has both a mother and father who uniquely contributes to our identity as persons, and who together constitute a naturally ecstatic sign of Trinitarian love. That is the ultimate ground of the intrinsic and non-fungible dignity of mothers and fathers which is excellently pursued in traditional marriage and whose ennobling character Christians recognize as a concrete vehicle of grace.
Joshua Schulz is assistant professor of philosophy at DeSales University.