The Other Gay Marriage Debate

(photo: Shutterstock image)

There are some interesting discussions going on over at the religion site Patheos, where the Catholic and Evangelical portals are hosting a symposium called For Life and Family: Faith and the Future of Social Conservatism. Tim Muldoon has a particularly interesting piece, where he suggests that Christians should fight for traditional marriage primarily by evaluating our own approach to the institution:

Instead of arguing about law, we should be modeling the kind of love that the author of the letter to the Ephesians describes as most closely modeling the love of Christ for the church. And instead of targeting gays, we must turn the focus on ourselves and ask why our impoverished understanding of marriage has led to widespread non-marital sex, divorce, cohabitation, adultery, and general misery.

I’m not quite as ready as Mr. Muldoon to abandon the legal fight (Jennifer Roback Morse makes some compelling arguments about its importance in the comments below the article), however, I think he’s spot-on with his suggestion that we need to take a hard look at what’s going on with heterosexual marriage in our culture. Outside of practicing Catholic circles there is a dangerous vagueness, even among social conservatives, about what the purpose of marriage is. Yes, it’s supposed to be between a man and a woman ... but why? What’s the goal? It is in the vacuum created by the lack of an answer to that question that the pro-gay-marriage movement thrives.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the demand for gay marriage has followed closely on the heels of our culture’s widespread acceptance of contraception, and the radical re-thinking of the purpose of marriage and human sexuality that came with it. I bet the average same-sex-attracted person living in 1711 wouldn’t have even understood the terms of our modern gay marriage debate: He would have strongly associated marriage with having babies, raising kids, supporting a family, and all the struggle and self-sacrifice that went with it. The idea of two guys living together wouldn’t even seem to be in the same universe of activities.

These days, marriage is widely seen as a path to personal self-fulfillment through a long-term commitment to monogamy, and nothing more. Children are completely tangential to the equation, viewed as lifestyle options under the self-fulfillment umbrella rather than a natural result of the bond between a man and a woman. Self-giving is openly shunned; in fact, in almost every wedding I’ve attended in recent years, the man and woman specifically vow not to have self-sacrifice be part of the equation (often invoking Kahlil Gibran’s famous thoughts on the subject). In this environment, where “marriage” increasingly means nothing more than “lifelong roommates” in the culture at large, it’s not surprising that same-sex couples have begun to ask why they can’t have that as well.

There is far too much silence among social conservatives about this side of the marriage debate. While many of our Christian brothers and sisters may reject this eroded view of marriage in their personal lives, in most cases there is nothing in their religious doctrines that is specifically against it. They may privately feel uneasy when they see men and women taking the sacred institution so lightly, but they have a limited lexicon for articulating the problems. This is where we Catholics, who have the benefit of the Church’s body of wisdom on the meaning of marriage and sexuality, need to start speaking up. We need to start engaging in dialogue with our fellow defenders of “traditional marriage” on what that term even means. Because if social conservatives truly embraced the millenia-old understanding of marriage, as an institution founded on self-sacrifice and inherently ordered toward the bringing forth of new life, my guess is that the demand for gay “marriage” would subside.