The debate the Catholic Church in particular and our society in general should be having concerning whether two persons in love with one another and who possess a homosexual orientation should marry was, for a brief, shining moment had in the pages of America Magazine eight years ago. (I reject the phrase “homosexual person” or “gay person” in favor of my admittedly inelegant description because those two phrases serve as a shorthand that imply that one’s sexual orientation defines primarily or completely who a person with that orientation is; a risible contention which metes an injustice on people, an injustice few seem to notice.)
Monsignor Robert Sokolowski, a professor of philosophy at the Catholic University of America well known for his work in phenomenology, launched the debate in the June 7, 2004 issue of America with the blunt title, “The Threat of Same Sex Marriage”. Stephen Pope, a professor of theology at Boston College and a leading Catholic ethicist known and respected by many who read and contribute to this blog, published a direct rebuttal to Sokolowski in the December 6, 2004 issue with the question “Same Sex Marriage: Threat or Aspiration?” Unfortunately, their exchange did not signal the advent of a full-fledged debate on the topic. However, both Sokolowski and Pope did meet the essential prerequisite needed for any authentic debate: they agreed on what people ought to disagree on and how to go about airing their views. Their exchange remains markedly superior to what passes for debate in the current controversy which often employs the tactic of how many blows one can land on one’s opponent to cow them into conceding the point, or intimidate them into silence. The controversy on same-sex marriage is yet another symptom of how we as a culture are paying a price for not studying rhetoric and mastering the art of debate, among other qualities which constitute a civil society.
I hope that this post will serve, in part, as an invitation for readers to revisit the arguments made by Sokolowski and Pope and discuss the merits and problems of each viewpoint. I think the value of their exchange centers on how they bring up an important question not being entertained by the debate on same-sex marriage. The current debate, such as it is, centers on rights language based on legal positivism. These two scholars properly locate the debate as a question of how an understanding of human nature is the deciding factor as to who can marry.
Sokolowski’s central contention, using Aristotelian-Thomistic categories, is that procreation is “the first and essential defining character of marriage, and sex…is the power to procreate.” The nature and power of this procreative relationship requires its practice within a context of mutual benevolence: a bond of friendship and love between a man and a woman. To put it another way, only this relationship can procreate, and only the covenantal promise of a sacramental marriage bond can best guarantee that the couple and the children born to that couple can flourish in an environment of friendship and love. Allowing same-sex marriage splits off the unitive aspect of marriage from procreation. This, Sokolowski argues, removes the end from marriage and allows marriage to be defined solely by human purpose, in other words whatever one has in mind when they act. The immediate consequence of this is marriage can be defined by whatever purpose any human person chooses to use it for. The long-term consequence is that people could use marriage to give legal sanction, perhaps even a sacramental blessing, to most any domestic arrangement. Sokolowski asks rhetorically, “why not permit polygamy and polyandry?”
It is easy to take offense with Sokolowski’s argument. Popular, less sophisticated arguments which resemble Sokolowski’s say that if same-sex marriage is allowed, anything goes. We are on a slippery slope to allow everything from plural marriages to domestic arrangements too disgusting to mention here. The most nefariously false and slanderous versions of these arguments accuse most advocates of same-sex marriage as advocates for behaviors and domestic arrangements most persons on all sides of this debate would find morally repugnant and would want to keep prohibited.
Pope himself argues that Sokolowski makes a “slippery slope” argument. I disagree. Sokolowski is too good a philosopher to employ a logical fallacy. His is an “open door” argument. Once the door is open to same-sex marriage, there is no way any person can close the door to others who want to legally and/or sacramentally confirm their own idea of domestic family life through marriage. If you approach Sokolowski, introduce yourself as an advocate of same-sex marriage and proceed to insist that you only want the benefits of marriage once reserved for couples of heterosexual orientation to be extended to couples of homosexual orientation and no one else, he’d likely take you at your word. He then would proceed to state that you’re missing the point. Persons wanting other marriage arrangements you’d find morally offensive and wrong in every way, they would argue that they ought to receive the benefits of marriage and you’d have nothing with which to stop them. Sokolowski is not arguing for an inevitable slide into recognizing more types of marriage. He is arguing that marriage would be always left open to be redefined if enough people organize, argue, and will it by passing another law and persuading society to accept it.
Pope’s rebuttal is that marriage has a proper end (more than one in his argument) and it is not limited to just physical procreation. He argues that love should be seen not as a purpose essential for marriage to achieve its proper end of procreation as Sokolowski argues, but as an end in itself that is equal to, if not more important, than procreation. Pope thinks Sokolowski’s argument is reductionist, insisting that “marriage has its own integrity, which does not require validation by procreation.” Marriage is justified by an exclusive, monogamous bond of interpersonal love formed between two adult persons, with the psychological and social goods that enable human flourishing. These goods are distinct from, though not unrelated to, procreation. Children, too, benefit from their parents’ bond of love that forms marriage. Pope argues that “the vast majority of human reproductive energy is expended not in “physical procreation”…but in providing children with the proper emotional, moral, social, and spiritual upbringing.”
If marriage is to be understood as an exclusive, monogamous bond of interpersonal love formed between two adult persons, Pope proceeds to argue that the “open door” Sokolowski fears same-sex marriage could cause would not happen. Employing personalist ideas of marriage by John Paul II, Pope thinks “the monogamous and exclusive nature of this love is said to be a reflection of its depth and profundity; it is not the kind of love that a person can share with more than one beloved. Considerations of interpersonal love as well as of justice (and particularly equality) militate against polygamy or other forms of multiple partner marriage.” In other words, plural marriages deny a married person what he or she is due: the full love and attention of one’s spouse. Other, immoral relationships would not pass Pope’s standard that only two adult persons are capable of forming the marriage bond he describes.
If we had a debate on same-sex marriage which treated the core issues with the care and thoroughness Sokolowski and Pope employed in their debate, we’d have a greater chance of achieving a lasting solution to this issue because we’d base our understanding of marriage on an authentic understanding of human nature in the context of the marriage bond. Certainly, that solution would be superior to what the browbeating and “counting-coup” which makes up today’s debate on single-sex marriage will produce: a social and legal compromise which will be no resolution at all. The debate on same-sex marriage likely will end in a social truce enshrined in a legal compromise which will hold until the next outbreak, touched off by a disgruntled party still sore over not scoring enough points to win the last round.