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.

10 thoughts on “What remains of marriage?”

    • About the Family
      Dear Bridgit,

      I felt that way too at first.

      I wonder though if the “family’s” function nowadays is to either 1) raise children and/or 2) demonstrate a commitment to each partner in an honest fashion especially when it comes to intimacy or something like that. That way we may still see value of family, right?



  1. What perhaps irritates me the

    What perhaps irritates me the most about this decision (which started out in my own state) is the response of many other (so-called) conservatives in print and on radio. Many have hailed it as a victory for personal freedom against government intrusion while at the same time saying that they do not or probably do not approve of the homosexual practise themselves.

    This is the kind of moral cop-out that drives me up the wall, the same kind the so-called Catholics like Ted Kennedy and Martin Sheen use to justify their support of abortion ‘rights’. They say, “I don’t approve of it myself but I support others’ right to do it”. If you believe something is wrong, you have a moral DUTY to oppose it, otherwise you are betraying your own principles. It would be the same as saying (and is with abortion) that you don’t approve of murder, but if someone else wants to kill a person, it is none of your business to interfere.

    “Tolerance is the virtue of people who do not believe in anything.” -G.K. Chesterton

  2. This is not an argument

    This is not an argument for divorce but a question that needs an answer.

    Marriage is not easy, and perhaps young people are getting this message. The home is perhaps the most influential messenger though and is certainly the first messenger. The former home and the pervasive modern media follow the children out of the home and into their 20’s and 30’s.

    Children and unmarried adults learn from their parents and other sources. They learn that often couples soon realize they did not marry the person they thought they were marrying. In addition, one spouse can be extremely selfish and the other spouse must endure, resent, and remain filled with anger. Moreover, often one spouse changes while the other does not.

    So children have their eye open today perhaps more than they ever did before. So when marriage gets hard, the couples know that often it ain’t gonna get easier. It is not surprising therefore many couples seek divorce.

    Absurd that many parents spend huge sums of money on wedding celebrations.

  3. Part of the problem is

    Part of the problem is that like children, a spouse is now thought of as a commodity chosen in the marketplace to meet the lifestyle desires of the consumer at the time of the consumer’s choosing. If it turns out that you bought something you don’t like, even if you can’t get a refund you can junk it and buy something else.

    Perhaps we should go back to arranged marriages? (I think I am kidding, but I am not entirely sure). I suppose one of the glories of marriage is that one wants it and chooses it (though one may not be choosing the wanting); but no other family relations are chosen yet they nevertheless give rise to lifelong obligation, loyalty through sickness and health, etc. Liberalism doesn’t accept the unchosen as authoritative, but any permanent lifelong connection between people is going to entail more that is unchosen than that is explicitly chosen. So if explicit consent is the standard marriage and family disappear.

  4. Arranged marriages certainly have their

    Arranged marriages certainly have their advantages. There’s a Swiss proverb to the effect that marriage is a covered dish, so why not let someone who isn’t blinded by sexual attraction do the choosing? Or at least have a system — like the system every other society that has ever existed has had — that gives parents and others more involvement than the current absolutely individualistic arrangement.

    By the way, it’s not true that if things get bad they don’t get better. Marriages go through ups and downs, and sometimes life does beat a little sense into people’s heads. I’ve seen statistics on what happens to “very unhappy” marriages and often enough 10 years later they’re “happy” or “very happy.”

  5. A substantial percentage of “happy”

    A substantial percentage of “happy” marriages does not remedy a substantial percentage of unhappy marriages. This is evident without resorting to questionable surveys by experts. The explanation for the substantial number of unhappy marriages remains hidden. If the experts with the surveys had the answer, the problem would be solved.

    Perhaps this is a punishment or a test for our times. Maybe the problem lies in the rigid structure that we impose on marriage. Celibate separation might be part of the answer. Separation leaves open the possbility of reunion.

    Whatever the solution, young people are going to continue to avoid marriage and to break their vows as long as there remains no solution to the substantial unhappiness in many marriages.

  6. Happiness isn’t a feature of

    Happiness isn’t a feature of marriage, it is a result of living a good life. Money can’t buy it, etc.

    In any case I thought statistics show that married people are happier and live longer than singles. (Don’t have citations handy but I do not believe that this is controversial any more than the fact that children with both a mother and a father in the home do much better than others).

    The misery is coming from somewhere to be sure, but it isn’t coming from traditional marriage.

  7. There is certainly no way

    There is certainly no way to do away with all acute unhappiness. Avoiding family connections won’t do it any more than any other course of conduct.

    My basic point was that unhappiness is not a fixed attribute of a marriage but an aspect of how the parties are acting, and that most marriages do in fact have major ups and downs. I agree that there are cases in which separation is the right answer, and would agree that such cases are likely to be more common in the age of the imperial ego than at other times. Still, it seems to me that cases in which unhappiness is truly locked in place are probably a lot less common than divorces, and that it’s a mistake to let life be dominated by the fear that something of the sort will happen.

  8. I live in an area

    I live in an area that traditionally is very Bible Beltish, and a lot of folks still think of it that way. However, CHRISTIANS have been getting into multiple divorce and remarriage ever since the Divorce Revolution. Because the Old Regular and Primitive Baptists accept wifebeating, but condemn (‘churches’ or banishes) a woman if she picks up a cast iron skillet and defends herself, there’s a lot of women in their 40’s and under who reject Christianity. So, good “Christian” kids fornicate (“True Love Waits”…until I’m a senior in high school, drunk on prom night, etc., but it’s OK, ’cause mom took me to get a Pill prescription) and breed outside of wedlock, marry, divorce, remarry, if they bother with marriage at all. Such kids self identifying as Christian aren’t stating beliefs, just where they eat their fried chicken on Sunday.

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