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Faithful Citizenship Fridays: Same-Sex Marriage: More Complicated Than You Think? A Week-Long Symposium

President Obama’s recent interview, in which he comes out in favor of same-sex marriage (SSM), provides the occasion for much reflection by Catholic moral theologians. This post will inaugurate a week-long series of posts by our bloggers, treating the issue from many angles. The issue deserves careful thought – if anything should be clear, it is that this issue is a complicated one. I often say it is the single most difficult issue to teach, because of both the many levels of argument involved and the emotional responses it receives.

These complexities were evident to me as I graded my student finals in my marriage class. The students had read Fr. Ed Vacek’s article on the “two meanings of marriage,” and one of their essay questions was to identify which mindset was theirs. In the article, Fr. Vacek contrasts the “essentialist mindset,” which believes in clear categories and an ordered universe, with the “postmodern mindset,” which is more tentative and is willing to tolerate some “fuzzy logic.” My question was not aimed at eliciting student views of SSM, but because this is one of Fr. Vacek’s prime examples, many students used it as their example, too.

Their responses were quite striking in illuminating the complexity of the issue. Some foes of SSM (and some students) identify the issue as an example of rampant relativism. But students who favored SSM did not use relativistic arguments at all. Almost to a person, they made principled moral arguments – in particular, they argued that legalizing SSM was a matter of showing respect and equality for all persons and that SSM was a good because the relationships could embody genuine love and care. Even more strikingly, both principles were ones students believed they learned from Christianity itself – indeed, many class periods displayed how marriage theology developed based on these principles. One student wrote, “The Church is supposed to represent love, and so should love everyone God has made.” So it seems to me a grave mistake to accuse the pro-SSM position of relativism – this grossly misunderstands what is going on. In effect, this creates a caricature of SSM supporters, and such caricatures cannot promote understanding or even effective proclamation.

However, the caricature problem goes both ways. At one point in one section of the class, SSM came up (we were reading Familiaris Consortio 19 on natural complementarity) and I tried to elicit sober dialogue, and several students stated that they really thought SSM was not right. These were not ultra-conservatives who simply wanted to impose the magisterium. But they commented about how difficult it was to state their position, since they feared others would regard them as bigots and quasi-racists. And so the bishops are sometimes portrayed – which is also a caricature. The hierarchy’s position here is no more based on prejudice and discrimination than their opponents’ position is based on a careless relativism. Above all, this discrimination-versus-relativism meme should be rejected if the issue is to be engaged well.

But one of the difficulties in eliciting genuine dialogue is that the students who oppose SSM often have difficulty articulating their “side.” In my exam responses, in contrast to the clear moral statements about respect and love from pro-SSM students, the students who sided more with the essentialist mindset tended toward mere assertion, saying things like, “God has established it and we can’t change it” or simply stating that marriage “can only be done” between a man and a woman. The inarticulacy on the part of SSM opponents makes it easy to caricature this position.

So, how might this other position be more lucidly explained? Often, SSM opponents fall back on “social disorder” arguments – that somehow SSM, particularly in the raising of children, will be a terrible thing for society, which is why we should not give legal endorsement to it. Quite frankly, these arguments tend to be easily dismissed. They are not convincing. Not only are they consequentialist, but also they are constantly in danger of being proven wrong. Moreover, the social disorder arguments conjure up memories of bigoted fears about “race mixing” and the like, which make caricaturing the anti-SSM position easier.

Catholic opposition to SSM, it seems to me, cannot be based on arguments about social order. It is ultimately an argument about natural order. The argument is ultimately a metaphysical one, which rests on the irreducibility of the male/female distinction. It is fundamentally different from, say, the interracial arguments, because race is a constructed, non-ontological category – but maleness and femaleness are not. The problem with SSM is, so the magisterial position goes, not different in kind from the problems with our environmental-destructive society: in both cases, we ignore the existence of an intrinsic order or “grammar of creation.” We pretend there is no limit to what we can do, if it seems to “benefit” us.

Our society is not particularly suited in its politics to handle metaphysical arguments well. Perhaps this is part of its genius – say, in granting religious freedom! But our society is generally unwilling to acknowledge any kind of ordered limits, any kind of “grammar of creation,” especially in its economic life and its use of resources. One might be surprised by this link of economics, environment, and sexuality. Yet if we want an example of the “fuzzy logic,” we should look at our economic life! If the Church really wanted to explain its position on SSM clearly, it would have to begin to live by the full connectedness of Benedict XVI’s teaching about the grammar of creation – this is real “love in truth,” most especially in economics, where the lack of love and truth creates “disorder” that is grave and constantly damaging to others.

As it is, SSM is rarely put in such a larger context – we end up in a distorting, single-issue debate. Perhaps there is a way, yet unseen, to acknowledge and honor the genuine and deep moral arguments on both sides of this issue… instead of descending into caricatures and attacks. At least I am sure that will be our aim in this symposium here at CMT.



  1. David,

    I guess it’s not clear to me that your students weren’t relativists who favored SSM. You say, “Almost to a person, they made principled moral arguments – in particular, they argued that legalizing SSM was a matter of showing respect and equality for all persons and that SSM was a good because the relationships could embody genuine love and care.” But isn’t relativism simply the position that all human pursuits (and therefore loves) are equal? So that the respect we owe to persons who want to marry their same sex is based on a relativistic claim about love. In this sense, the inability to rank love or to identify well ordered (in accordance with nature) and disordered (not in accordance with nature) love is itself relativism. In other words, the language they use seems to express principled moral claims, but once you scratch their surface, you get to relativism pretty quickly.

    Relatedly, I do think you’re right to underscore the importance of nature to this argument. But, as you no doubt know, teaching about nature is very hard, and not just because of our own political situation. Just look at the trouble Socrates had in the Republic, or compare the deep difference in the meaning of nature from Aristotle to Augustine, or from Aquinas to Bacon, or from Locke to Rousseau. And we’re unlikely to get much help from modern quantitative science. I’d be interested to hear your strategies for introducing such a hard topic.

  2. Hi–
    Thanks for the points. You are right that these claims may not contain as much substance as, say, traditional claims. But I don’t think they mean to say that all human pursuits are equal. They mean to privilege certain pursuits and critique others – they praise pursuits of mutual, faithful care and criticize marriage practices in which there is a lack of respect (e.g. domestic abuse is an obvious example). So they do have a language about ordering loves – albeit a language that is in conflict with the traditional ordering on this point (but not others). Hence, the reason why the argument quickly moves to questions about “nature.”

    Nice to point out that Socrates had these problems, too! I would say the key issue is typically understanding claims about nature as teleological ones – but in this case, I would think the appeals need to be more aesthetic or experiential. That is, what are people’s experiences of living in a world marked by the sexual difference? What do these differences “mean”? Would there be some absences of meaning or significance in a “unisex” world? These are at least interesting and important (and complicated) questions to pose.

  3. Hi,

    The argument by the students in favor of SSM appeals to the principle that a marriage embodies love and care, same-sex couples are capable of that mutual love and care, and therefore are entitled to be married just as much as anyone else.

    To this, I ask: why are we asking a (secular) State to underwrite or sanction a relationship primarily based on “love”?

    That sounds fuzzy, vague, and certainly not the province of the State. If marriage is primarily defined as a relationship embodying a certain kind of mutual love and care, what possible interest does the State have in regulating this? I really don’t want the State judging and regulating _love_.

    My gut feeling here is that what is really desired is societal approval of love that historically has been stigmatized; civil unions are ultimately unacceptable to those pro-SSM because they still “don’t quite” put a CU on the same moral plane as marriage, which is recognized as something “sacred.” (that’s just my gut)

    Now, I agree with the difficulty of arguing that kids will be hurt. However, I still think marriage is primarily about social order (because we’re social creatures).

    Let me offer an analytic-style argument:

    I say we allow SSM: let people who love each other declare it publicly! Also, I think a bill, the Potential Procreation Act, should be proposed that
    –contains protections and support for men and women who wish to co-habitate, and allows them to enter into a legally-binding relationship we will call “Narriage.”
    –contains provisions regarding their responsibility for children that are produced by the two of them in their Narriage.
    –supports children of Narried couples primarily by making it extraordinarily difficult for Narried couples to abandon children they have produced.
    –contains strong sanctions against them producing children with anyone to whom they are not Narried (this is called Badultery)
    –does the above in such a way that those who procreate outside of Narriage find themselves at some distinct disadvantages; if these disadvantages are great enough, then non-Narried procreators may even view this as a sanction against non-Narried procreation (other corollary bills could be introduced to sanction procreation outside of Narriage, but care must be taken due to the danger of unfairly burdening women due to the difficulty of establishing paternity)

    I think we can argue in a secular state that the State has compelling interest, if not in regulating procreation, at least in holding people responsible for their offspring and in providing some kind of stability for those offspring. THAT is an area the State has legitimate interest in.

    Note that Narriage does not talk about adoption or fitness to raise children or love. As an institution, Narriage merely helps the State by assigning responsibility for children, and hopefully by making it undesirable to have children outside of Narriage. Whether people in Narriage love each other is irrelevant. If someone insists on only entering Narriage with someone he loves, that’s his business, not mine.

    I’m skeptical about the “metaphysical” argument because it doesn’t prove enough. If there really is a complementarity of male and female, we won’t need human laws to make it manifest–it will just happen. In fact, it does: plenty of men and women are together in some sort of exclusive relationship whether or not they are married–it’s brute fact. If this complementarity exists, I see no compelling reason to enshrine it in law. I _do_ see a reason to set up institutions so that society doesn’t have thousands of abandoned kids to deal with when that complementarity makes itself felt in the especially compelling ways it does.

    When it comes to children, current SSM debates focus on the supposed right of a couple to have children (by adoption or insemination); Narriage however focuses on the interest of the state in not having lots of unattended children running around and rights of the child.

    I don’t suppose Narriage would be extended to same-sex couples for the simple reason that it is only extended to “potential procreators”. Even if it was extended to same-sex couples, I’m most concerned that it functions well in those cases where couples become “actual procreators.”

    I suppose some would want to get Narried for all sorts reasons besides that they might have children; maybe some of the legal advantages turn out to be good for lots of people. I don’t think this will hurt Narriage as long as all of the original provisions and enforcement still apply.

    (or, arguing marriage will be “hurt” by SSM is not persuasive considering the mockery heterosexuals have already made of it).

    BTW, when you get Narried, you need to bring

    something old, something new,
    something borrowed and something Grue.

  4. Hi Steve– Your point about “social approval” is a fair one. Andrew Cherlin argues that, despite the “mess” that is contemporary marriage, most Americans still want to get married, but as what he calls a “capstone” – that is, a socially-sanctioned display of success/arrival at a milestone. But, as you also mention in terms of a relationship of private affection, it’s unclear why the state needs to approve and regulate a “capstone” – except insofar as it involves potential financial considerations (e.g. as the state regulates car-buying or home-buying).

    Your alternative scenario – much like the case Paul Griffiths sketched out in Commonweal some years back, of “civil unions for all” – is right in that the state’s clear interest is in maintaining responsibility for children. But the public discourse (it seems to me) has actually moved further away from such a possibility. It’s pretty clear to me that, given American law, any “separate but equal” arrangement is going to be unconstitutional and unpalatable to many, but the idea of “abolishing marriage” (in terms of the state) also seems unattractive. Ironically, SSM unites the opposing forces – both are passionately “pro-marriage,” and so (at this point) both would equally shy away from any kind of “Narriage” solution. What we’ll almost inevitably end up with is a patchwork of conflicting state laws, which is obviously not viable (given mobility), and some kind of Supreme Court ruling. I can’t really see any other legal endgame. At the end of the day, if marriage is a legal institution, there HAS to be a shared definition of SOME sort. We don’t need to legally define “friendship”, because the state is not involved in licensing it or dealing with it.

  5. David,

    In articulating my own positions on SSM, I regularly encounter statements from both sides of the issue to the effect that “everybody knows” – whether it’s “everybody knows that homosexuals who get married always treat it as an open marriage” to “everybody knows that those who oppose SSM are just homophobes” and so on.

    There was a recent article in First Things called “Same Sex Science” by Staton Jones illustrating how little we know (and how much we believe we know) about homosexuality in general on either side of the issue –

    And it seems to me that the question of SSM is bound up tightly with the question of the nature of homosexuality in general – how one approaches SSM is likely to flow from how one views homosexuality, whether it is separable from homosexual acts, whether it can be “treated”, whether it is genetically programmed or culturally influenced, etc.

    The trouble those opposed to SSM experience is that the arguments they make are either grounded in Faith, or in natural law, both of which are dismissed by those who argue that consent between two adults is the ultimate norm.

  6. David, with all due respect, every relationship has the potential to reflect Love and care. This does not change the fact that Christ, The Word of God, The Truth of Love, defines Love, and thus we can know that any act, including sexual act, that demeans the inherent nature of the human person, who from The Beginning, has been created equal in Dignity, while being complementary as male and female,is not an act of Love. Love requires respect for the inherent Dignity of the human person created in The Image of God.

  7. Hi Nancy– Thanks for commenting. I should clarify a few things:
    1. I was not myself staking out a position in my post – instead, I was trying to explain the position taking by a certain number of my students, which I simply wanted to say is not “relativism.” The fact that it involves actual moral commitment does not make it a correct moral commitment. I just think it is mischaracterized if it is said to be relativism.
    2. Your comment, I think, involves exactly the kind of pure assertions I am concerned about. The terms “inherent nature,” “dignity,” and “image of God” are all used – as is “complementarity” – but simply asserting this is not sufficient. There are numerous, quite esteemed Christian thinkers who have explained that a Christ-centered definition of love has room for same-sex relationships. I am here neither endorsing nor refuting such a view. The best one can conclude from Christ’s teachings on sexual acts is that he is pretty seriously against adultery and divorce… but he is also against many other things (e.g. in the Sermon on the Mount) that are now “interpreted” in a particular way. In the post, I simply want to say that the Magisterium’s position requires explanation, not simply assertion – and that many of my students who agree with the Magisterium’s position (as you do), tend to proceed by assertion.

  8. I have written a few comments elsewhere about the “complementarity of the sexes” and so I was interested to read Familiaris Consortio 19 referenced above. I have to say that I am still a big mystified by assertions that same-sex marriage is to be resisted. If by “the complementarity of the sexes” is meant that it takes a man and a woman to procreate, I have no quarrel with that (although I don’t see it as an impediment to same-sex marriage). But it seems as if it is always invoked to imply something much broader—something along the lines that was believed long, long ago and is still markedly present in the 100-year-old article Woman in the 1912 Catholic Encyclopedia. A sample:

    If these two reciprocal spheres of activity are taken in the narrowest sense they exclude each other, as the actual task assigned by nature to woman cannot be performed by man, while the reverse is also true. At the same time there is the mixed domain of the earning of a livelihood in which both sexes work, although in so doing neither can deny his or her characteristic qualities. Here, however, nature forbids competition in the same field, as woman is more engrossed by her peculiar natural duties than man is by his. We may justly speak of “dualism in woman’s life”. But, the perpetuation and development in civilization of mankind always come first as natural duties. Consequently, according to physical law woman should be spared all industrial burdens which impair her most important duty in life. It remains to be seen how the dictates of nature have been carried out in human history.

    Or my personal favorite sentence from the article: “The sexes can never be on an equality as regards studies pursued at a university.”

    Now that, in my opinion, is a true theory of the complementarity of the sexes. It is also nonsense.

    As I say, I have no quarrel with saying men and women are complementary when it comes to the biology of reproduction. But anything beyond that, it seems to me, is open to challenge. True complementarity, in my opinion, cannot be described by saying things, “Women tend to be more a, b, c, while men tend to be more x, y, z.” Women may tend to be more sensitive to nuances of interpersonal communications than men, but (if true) that does not mean there are not millions and millions of men who are more sensitive to the nuances of interpersonal communication than millions and millions of women. Nowadays, we recognize it is one of the characteristics of bigotry and prejudice to judge individuals by such characterizations of the groups they belong to.

    Familiaris Consortio says the following:

    This conjugal communion sinks its roots in the natural complementarity that exists between man and woman, and is nurtured through the personal willingness of the spouses to share their entire life-project, what they have and what they are: for this reason such communion is the fruit and the sign of a profoundly human need.

    It is perfectly obvious that the most deeply committed same-sex couple cannot engage in penile-vaginal intercourse (PVI). But I don’t see how that rules out a deeply meaningful commitment in any same-sex couple that may be far more complementary than the commitment of a man and women just because they are capable of PVI. The “women tend to be—men tend to be” kind of complementarity is just too weak, in my opinion, to justify excluding same-sex couples from marriage.

    Robert George’s paper What Is Marriage? as I understand it, makes the case for “conjugal marriage” in which it really is PVI that is an essential of marriage. As I have tried to make clear, that is not the argument I am criticizing. I am criticizing the idea that, aside from reproductive functions, a women needs a man or a man needs a woman to be “complete”—that, aside from the obvious biological differences, every woman has certain things a man lacks, and every man has things a woman lacks, and it is only by pairing a man with a woman that you have a couple each partner of which makes up for the deficiencies of the other.

  9. Coding error! The first blockquote above should end with the sentence: “It remains to be seen how the dictates of nature have been carried out in human history.” Apologies.

  10. David N., it were true that it remains to be seen how the dictates of nature have been carried out in human history, we would not refer to one another as husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters…

  11. Hi David,

    Fascinating point about the economics/environment/sexuality nexus. Have you seen Michael Nolan’s “Aquinas and the Act of Love.” New Blackfriars 77.902 (1996): 115-130? He argues for an environment/sexuality interpretation of Aquinas and others.

    The gist is that when modernity excised final causality from the order of nature it yielded a far more mechanistic conception of the world and things, and a whole “ecological sensitivity” to nature and the body was lost. The claim is that Aquinas and the medievals regarded nature and the body with an “ecological sensitivity” analogous to the way environmentalism views, say, whales and the rain forests. As we think the whale and forests shouldn’t be instrumentalized or genetically re-designed for our convenience, so the medeivals thought the body (our “ecological zone”, so to speak) shouldn’t be instrumentalized for pleasure, or operated contrary to its natural or “environmental design”.

    The relation is analogous rather than univocal, of course; and the predication of the analogy, even if accurate, does not of itself prove the normative claims underlying it. But it does help us grasp a concept (the ecological sensitivity behind the “contra naturam”) people seem to “just not see” anymore. Sed contra, the resurrected medieval might argue: “You see it in everything but yourselves”.

  12. The definition of complementary as God intended, is that a man and woman exist in relationship as husband and wife, creating a new family, and thus open to Life, as they enhance each other’s qualities, and make each other better persons through their mutual desire to make a “complete self-gift of oneself” (Theology of The Body) for the sake of the Family.

  13. That should read, in regards to Marriage, the definition of complementary as God intended…

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