Redefining Marriage, Part 4: What IS Marriage?

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Why does marriage exist?

What is marriage? Why is it recognized by the state at all? Why, as I asked in Part 1, does the state have a bureaucratic apparatus for certifying (and decertifying) sexual partnerships involving two and only two non-related adult partners? Why should the state have such a bureaucracy? Why is it any of the state’s business? Why is it that in the whole history of state bureaucracies up to 2001 those partnerships were always between a man and a woman? Why is it that in every society, culture and civilization known to history and anthropology, we find this universal institution of an enduring union of a man and a woman as the socially privileged place for sexual relations?

Skeptics and polemicists hype the differences in how marriage is seen from culture to culture. Divorce, polygamy, concubinage, kept women, prostitution and other practices in many forms have been known throughout history. Contracting a marriage has meant many different things in different times and places. Within marriage, men and women have been subject to vastly different sets of social expectations. Sex before or outside of marriage has been subject to varying levels of tolerance or acceptance. Homosexual acts also have been the subject of varying moral attitudes, often disparaging but not necessarily always. Men (and sometimes women) wealthy and powerful enough to buck social expectations or to create their own social climate have always done so, and will do.

And yet whatever cultural vagaries or ambiguities have existed, whatever wiggle room has been permitted, tolerated or carved out, there remains a clearly recognizable institution, found everywhere that human beings are found, in which a man and a woman are socially recognized to have formed an enduring union, a union that is the socially sanctioned context for sexual relations between a man and a woman, from which it is generally expected that children may arise. 

Activists have labored mightily to avoid this conclusion. Historical and anthropological records have been scoured with vigilance for any possible departure from the pattern. Numerous proposed precedents for same-sex have been compiled: accounts of this or that Roman emperor “marrying” a male slave; reports of curious customs in this or that African culture. Nearly all these supposed precedents collapse on second glance, and none of them provide a true precedent for gender-blind marriage, or pose a serious challenge to the universality of marriage as the enduring union of a man and a woman.

Catholics believe that Christ changed marriage, that for baptized Christians marriage is a sacrament, the sacrament of matrimony. Marriage itself, however, is a natural institution that still exists for all men of any religion or of none. A marriage between a man and a woman who are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or atheist is not a sacrament, but it is still a true marriage before God. It can be dissolved by divorce; a finding of nullity would not be needed to contract a new marriage in the Church, but the union itself is real and lawful as long as it exists.

What is the nature of this union? Why does it exist in all cultures, even those with scarcely any glimmer of the knowledge of the true God? As Christians, we may say that the understanding of marriage, like the rest of the moral law, is written on our hearts via the natural law. Those of a non-religious bent might point to factors in biological and social evolution—reasons why marriage “works,” why it is so beneficial to society that any society foolish enough to dispense with it would quickly be disadvantaged and fall apart, or be eclipsed by other societies practicing marriage.

These explanations need not be contradictory. The natural law is accessible to reason, even without special revelation, precisely because it is rational, which means that it “works,” it is beneficial. Not to follow the natural law is not merely to be a bad person—it is to be a foolish person doing injury to oneself. Even from a naturalistic or Darwinian perspective, we can see how murder and theft harm communities, and why proscriptions against such actions benefit society. (This doesn’t automatically provide the moral impetus to obey such proscriptions, but we can certainly see why societies would want them.) A society without such proscriptions would be on a path to destruction.

Putting aside special revelation and considering the matter from a natural perspective, can we describe how marriage benefits societies—why societies need the enduring union of a man and a woman as the privileged place for sexual relations? A key piece of the puzzle was touched on in Part 3: children need fathers. In Part 5 we’ll explore how this relates to the role of marriage as a social institution.

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