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What remains of marriage?

People argue about whether Lawrence v. Texas will lead to “gay marriage.” How much does it matter if the existing legal treatment of marriage is accepted?

Traditionally, marriage drew its importance as a civil institution from the circumstance that it was the setting for legitimate sexual relations. Marriage therefore had to do with children—sex naturally leads to them—and was essentially permanent, since children need a stable environment in which to grow up. Another attribute of marriage was the obligation of support between spouses, a result of the permanence of marriage and the sexual division of labor within it.

None of those things apply any more. The Supreme Court says that sexual relations among unmarried people that have nothing to do with having children are fully legitimate and must be respected. The Court also says that it’s a choice for sex to lead to children, and the choice has no fundamental connection to marriage (the Court has essentially abolished illegitimacy as a permissible legal category). In the meantime, the states have made marriage terminable at the will of a single party and established “palimony” for unmarried partners. And the sexual division of labor is now against public policy.

As a legal matter, then, marriage now has no special connection with sex, children, permanence, sex roles or mutual support. What we’re left with is the name, which may not matter much, together with entitlement to various social, employment and insurance benefits that are steadily being extended to homosexual and unmarried couples as well—at times with the approval of those who speak for the Church.

As they say, it’s later than you think. It should be clear to all that the defense of marriage makes no sense apart from a much broader counterrattack having to do with sex in general, and beyond that to comprehensive questions of social organization. Thirty-five years after, it has become clear that Paul VI was right to recognize artificial contraception as something worth staking everything on. If sex is definitively separated from reproduction, the family falls because it no longer has an essential connection to any particular function, and if the family falls a humane civilization becomes impossible. The rock that all eminent thinkers stumbled over, Humanae Vitae, has turned out to be the keystone of the edifice. I would never have expected it.