Redefining Marriage, Part 2: The Root of the Problem

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How has marriage been redefined?

It’s not something that started a few years ago with juridical edicts (and now, sadly, legislative maneuverings) mandating same-sex marriage. That’s merely the latest permutation in an ongoing dismantling of marriage in a culture increasingly defined by serial monogamy, cohabitation, children born and raised out of wedlock, artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization, divorce-ready prenuptial agreements, pornography, abortion and contraception.

Of all these, the root of the problem, more than anything else, is contraception.

A contraceptive culture is a divorce culture, a cohabitation culture, a pornography culture. Same-sex marriage is inevitable in a contraceptive culture, because a contraceptive culture can have no coherent understanding of what marriage is, or even what sex is.

That’s why I said that the problem is something that “by and large, we ourselves—Catholics as well as Protestants—have accepted, tolerated and embraced.” Here, at the very root of the problem, we Catholics are as culpable as anyone else, if not more so. Contraceptive use among Catholic couples appears to be comparable to that of the population at large.

The notion that contraception pollutes a marriage in a manner comparable to adultery, something commonly understood by Catholics and non-Catholics 75 years ago, is incomprehensible to most Americans today, Catholic as well as non-Catholic. Yet once we accept the divorce of the unitive and the procreative aspects of the nuptial embrace, the other battles are lost.

Contraception destroys the integrity of the nuptial embrace, destroys the meaning of sex and therefore of marriage. People have enormous difficulty wrapping their heads around this point because it’s so foreign to the dominant worldview today: The true union of husband and wife always has a procreative meaning—even during infertile periods, or in the case of a sterile couple. That’s because the spouses always share and join their reproductive powers at that moment, whatever they may be, holding nothing back.

Contraceptive sex is neither truly unitive nor procreative, because the unitive aspect is inseparable from the sharing of one’s reproductive powers at that moment. Contraception shatters the procreative meaning of the nuptial embrace, and therefore shatters the unitive aspect as well, whether it is by physical separation of the spouses (in the case of a condom) or a hormonal or chemical suppression of one’s reproductive powers.

The contraceptive mentality has become so entrenched that for most people sex and babies are essentially unrelated topics, and many adults become bewildered at the suggestion that one has anything to do with the other. Reinforcing this separation, of course, are artificial conception techniques, which perpetuate a view of children as products. In principle, we should be able to order them up when we want them, and reject them when we don’t.

Once sex is divorced from procreation, it becomes much harder to see why sexual union implies a binding commitment. If sex means a potential pregnancy, obviously sex is a momentous act potentially ushering in long-term joint responsibilities binding the parties to one another for the sake of their potential offspring. But if sex is divorced from procreation, then there is no obvious need for a binding commitment. It can become a trial transaction. It can be merely recreational. Giving and sharing recedes, and taking pleasure and fulfillment comes to the fore.

Above all, marriage itself need no longer mean openness to life. Couples can marry solely for companionship and mutual fulfillment with no intention of sharing their reproductive potential with one another. But then it’s no longer obvious that marriage need be a binding commitment. If mutual fulfillment was the only goal, then there is no obvious reason to stay in the marriage if and when it should cease to be mutually fulfilling—or rather, as soon as either partner stops finding it self-fulfilling.

Once this mindset takes hold, it becomes increasingly plausible to leave a marriage even when there are children. An essentially social understanding of sex and marriage has been replaced by an essentially individualistic, self-centered understanding, and to the individualistic mindset is no longer obvious to why one should have to sacrifice one’s pursuit of self-fulfillment and happiness just because there are children involved. 

And of course in a culture shaped by such individualism, the number of unhappy marriages—of unfulfilled partners who never sought to give themselves as they ought, and now find themselves without the self-fulfillment they sought—can only increase. A culture that increasingly doesn’t understand what marriage is cannot fail to produce more and more unsuccessful marriages.

Over time, the old idea that marriages fail through the fault of one or both partners appears cruel; it is enough to cite “irreconcilable differences.” No-fault divorce becomes thinkable, then becomes the norm, with either party empowered to sue the other for divorce on demand, leaving no recourse to the other. With this new autonomy comes a further weakening of the marital commitment, a further erosion of the marital ideal.

Yet marriage is still seen as a path to self-fulfillment, and so you get serial monogamy (or serial polygamy, whichever way you want to look at it). The dissolution of marriage is no longer seen as something radically contrary to marriage, but a fairly common phase in one’s marital life. Far from the dissolution of marriage being unthinkable, it is the commitment of marriage that is hard to fathom. An exit plan becomes as sensible for a marriage as for a war, and so we get divorce-ready prenuptial agreements.

The possibility of children is increasingly seen as a potential threat to one’s autonomy and pursuit of self-fulfillment. Contraception is a necessary first line of defense, but when prophylaxis fails, there must be a cure. Abortion is that cure. Self-gratification becomes paramount, and the other person becomes a useful means to an end, an object to be enjoyed. Objections to pornography no longer make sense in such a milieu.

It needs to be said: Within marriage, the acceptance of unnatural acts as a means of self-gratification further undermines the teleology of sex and marriage. In an unfashionable euphemism, men with same-sex attraction, men who engage in homosexual acts, have historically been called “sodomites”—a term that has sometimes been opposed on the accurate grounds that the specific acts so designated occur among heterosexual couples as well. Such acts are as unnatural between a husband and wife as between two men. There is no sharing of reproductive powers, no union in one flesh, through such acts.

Finally, the divorce rate slows and sinks, in large part because marriage itself has become increasingly dispensable and couples merely cohabit, circumventing the need for divorce. In such a culture, more and more children will be raised in single-parent households.

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