The Theological Meaning of Marriage: Why One Man, One Woman?

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Author: 
Fr. Francis Michael Walsh, Professor of Moral Theology, Redemptoris Mater Seminary, Yona, Guam USA

 

When St. John tells us that God is Love (1Jn 4:8), he does not mean that love is something that God does whenever he has the chance. He means that love is something that describes the very life of God. It is what he is. This, in turn, means that God is relationship. His inner life revolves about a lover (the Father) who gives himself to his beloved (the Son) in a receiving way and a beloved (the Son) who receives in a giving way. The product of this love is Love Itself (the Holy Spirit) who is the bond of love uniting the Father and the Son from all eternity.

 

    Creation is structured to reflect this Trinitarian community of love. God made the universe in order to share his inner life with those who would freely enter into a relationship of love with the Father who knows himself so profoundly that this knowledge is a person who is the reflection of his Father.

 

The Catholic Church elaborates her understanding of herself in terms that are borrowed from the experience of marriage. According to this way of thinking, she is the Bride of Christ who has espoused her on the nuptial bed of the cross. From his pierced side, blood and water flowed out, the symbols of the two sacraments of initiation, baptism and the Eucharist, the wedding feast of the Lamb. As his bride, she becomes the mother of those who by faith have received the Spirit of her risen spouse. Marriage supplies the key for us to understand the plan that God has for us, the plan for our happiness.

 

Everyone wants to be happy. The Church’s understanding of the moral life is the secret of how to be happy. This way to happiness is not arbitrary; it flows rather from the enlightenment she has received from God’s revelation. This revelation culminates in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the way to happiness. He tells us that happiness comes from giving, not from receiving. If we want to be happy, we cannot avoid the cross. We have to pick it up every day and follow him.

 

The roadmap to happiness is inscribed in our bodies. To understand this roadmap, we need to understand our relationship with our body. Our body is not something that is distinct from our person. We are not persons who are trapped in our body, as Plato thought. Those who think of themselves as distinct from their bodies, as Plato did, object to the idea that their bodies have anything to say about what will make them happy. In fact, at times, this type of dualistic thinking leads them to believe that gender is not original with the person. “I,” they say, “am a person who just happens to be in a male body. You, on the other hand, are equally a person who just happens to be in a female body.” There are some who experience sexual attractions that are not in harmony with the bodies in which they are “entrapped.” In order to resolve these disharmonies, they claim the right to choose their gender, one that would be more in harmony with their perceived “sexual orientation.” Thus they want to make “sexual orientation” the basis for determining one’s gender – not the body.

 

This type of thinking is radically flawed, and leads to disastrous consequences. The truth is that we are our bodies. There is no real distinction between me and my body. Our gender is not a choice that is ours to make. It has already been made for us. Disregarding the givenness of our gender leads to believing that our sexual identity is not determined by the structures of our bodies. Sexual identity then is defined by our “orientation” toward the preferred object of sexual gratification. Sex is then a matter of sexual gratification. Happiness is then rooted in pleasure. Happiness is then a matter of getting pleasure and not giving love. Love is then reduced to a process of maximalizing pleasure.

 

Moreover, in order to maximize pleasure, we have to accept the modern contraceptive mentality whose first principle is that human sexuality is not intrinsically linked to the passing on of the gift of life to a new generation. You have to believe that it is possible and licit to break the link that sexuality has with generativity in order to be free to pursue other goods. Once we believe that “getting” rather than “giving” is at the heart of the sexual experience, marriage is reduced to the institutionalized form of satisfying the orientation of our sexual desires. The understanding of marriage as a biological union of two persons who put their mutual and exclusive love at the service of procreation disappears. Moreover, the reflection of the Trinity in marriage disappears completely since with God the pleasure of loving is in the giving of love, not in the seeking to get something.

 

Once marriage is divested of its character as the institutionalized for giving love in the service of life, the notion of “heterosexual marriage” appears since most people are orientated to satisfy sexual desires with the opposite sex. The appearance of “heterosexual marriage” opens the door to the concept of “homosexual marriage.” Moreover, since you had the opportunity to have a “heterosexual marriage” in accord with your “heterosexual orientation,” it is understandable that you would be concerned about removing the “injustice” of the societal refusal to recognize a “homosexual marriage” for your son with his “homosexual orientation.” After all, who wants to be thought of as discriminating against the civil rights of others?

 

The teachings of the Catholic Church completely contradict this attempt to redefine marriage. They do so by holding that sexual identity is directly linked to the human body. Our sexuality is not a question of the “orientation” of our sexual appetites. The virtue of chastity comes to rectify the sexual appetites of everyone however we may find the orientation of these appetites. This rectification comes about by conforming the appetites to the truth of one’s sexuality as revealed by the body. The truth that the body reveals is that our sexuality conforms to God’s plans for our happiness if it is an expression of self-donation in the service of life. The institutionalized form of this donation is marriage. Thus, marriage comes only in one form: the marriage of two persons who are a biological couple (one male and the other female – not two heterosexuals), capable of those acts that initiate the process of giving birth to children. These are the only acts that the Church could consider to be the kind of marital acts that are capable of consummating a marriage. Because only a man and a woman are capable of these kinds of acts, only a man and a woman are capable of marriage. Under no circumstances can sodomy and contracepted sex be marital acts. The fact that society only recognizes the institutionalization of the sexual unions of biological couples is in no way unjust to those who choose not to be a biological couple.

 

Once we accept that the openness to being a father and a mother to the next generation gives marriage its first definition, the notion of “heterosexual” and “homosexual” marriage makes no sense. The truth is that the notions of “heterosexual marriage” and its cognates (e.g. married heterosexual couples) are cultural constructs meant to allow the concept of “homosexual marriage” to appear. In this view, sexuality comes in different flavors: heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality. The truth is that marriage only comes in one form. Everything else is distortion of marriage.

 

The false idea that there are different, equally valid, expressions of sexuality is often promoted in order to depict the non-recognition of same-sex unions as unfair. After all, should not all be treated in the same way? Why should “heterosexuals” be granted preference over everybody else? These questions makes it clear that the terms “heterosexual” and “homosexual” are rhetorical devices meant to win an argument that the culture forces opposed to marriage have used with great effectiveness so far. The truth is that the terms “heterosexual” and “homosexual” apply only to behaviors; they are not descriptions of persons.

 

The Church teaches that sexual attractions towards persons of the same sex are intrinsically disordered because they orientate those who experience them toward a relationship where the possibility of experiencing erotic love in the service of life together with the good of the other is non-existent. In these relationships, there is no common good to be sought around which a personal relationship can be built and to which both parties may submit themselves together with their private good. The only focus available for the relationship is the seeking of the good of pleasure, and pleasure is always a private good. It cannot be transcended so as to become a basis for the building of a communion of persons. For those who engage in homosexual behavior, the making of pleasure the focus of sex is as equally disintegrating as it is for married persons who contracept. Human flourishing cannot take place when the gratification of sexual desire is the integrating principle of one’s life. This truth applies to all human beings, regardless of the orientation of their sexual drives. The perception that there is a basic injustice done (either on the part of God or of the Church) to those who are unmarried as opposed to those who are married is false. All are required to be chaste in order that their appetites and be integrated into what is compatible with the good of others. Marriage is not an escape from the need to integrate the desire for sexual gratification into the order of the love of persons. Marriage makes such integration all the more necessary.

 

In the present struggle to preserve the culture of Guam against the legalization of same-sex unions, the claim is made that the separation of church and state means that the state should be neutral regarding moral issues. One advocate of bill 185 said that he just wanted to escape the “clutches” of the Catholic Church. Does he have a point? In opposing bill 185, is the Catholic Church overstepping its bounds by forcing its religious doctrines down other people’s throats? Is the proper stance of the state to be neutral when it comes to controversial moral issues?

 

To answer these questions, a clear distinction needs to be made between religion and ethics. They are not the same. The state ought to be neutral when it comes to religious questions, but it cannot be neutral when it comes to ethical issues. The reason for the later is simple. The state has to promote the common good. Promoting the common good is an ethical issue. Therefore, the state cannot be neutral when it comes to an ethical issue that touches the common good of society.

 

The well-being of families goes to the heart of the common good. Without healthy families, there is no future for a society. Healthy marriages are the source and protection of healthy families. Therefore, the state is obligated to defend and promote the stability of marriage. It cannot be neutral in the face of attacks on marriage not just because it ought not to be neutral, but because neutrality itself is impossible for a simple reason. Law is a teacher. Either it will teach that marriage is already determined to be the union of a biological couple (i.e., a man and a woman) who unite themselves for life so that their love can be the reason that others (i.e., their children) come to have life, or that marriage is the union of any two persons irrespective of their ability to put their love at the service of life (e.g., persons of the same sex). Either the legislature of Guam will opt for the former understanding of marriage as already defined by our biology and defeat bill 185, or it will adopt bill 185 and redefine marriage as a malleable institution that can be for whatever purpose the two domesticating parties choose to put it. But whatever stance the senators adopt they will not be neutral. They cannot be neutral. They have the moral responsibility to defend and promote the common good. Neutrality is not an option when it comes to defending the common good. Where they choose to stand has to be determined by the truth of what is for the common good.

 

In bill 185, with its implicit redefinition of marriage, the legislature of Guam is faced with choosing between two competing views of the common good. Marriage structures civil society. For this reason, since we all belong to civil society, the definition of marriage is not a private matter that can be left to everyone to decide for himself. Everyone has a right to marry, but no one has the right to change the definition of marriage in the pursuit of (their own) private good. That some people (for whatever reason) are not inclined or desirous of being a part of a biological couple who undertake to beget and raise the next generation of taxpayers does not mean that the civil laws that define marriage as existing only between a man and a woman are unjust. Just the contrary. Equating marriage with same-sex unions in a way that bill 185 seeks to do will create in the minds of the young the impression that marriage (and the sexuality that it institutionalizes) is not per se orientated to the procreation of new little taxpayers. (And what could be more for the common good than to have new little taxpayers to close the budget gaps for years to come?) For this reason, bill 185 goes against the common good by siding with the view that sodomy is a marital act. Its passage would be an injustice, especially to the young and those ill-equipped to think through these issues on their own. The societies in which we live and their laws have more impact on our thinking than we often realize.

 

Faced with embodying the truth of sexuality in civil law, no one can be morally neutral, not even the state. But this partiality toward the common good does not mean that religious doctrine is being legislated down anybody’s throat. Religion and ethics are not the same; otherwise, those who advocate bill 185 would be attempting to force their religious beliefs down everybody else’s throats.