Editor’s Note: This is a reprint of a 2013 article anticipating the trend toward today’s Supreme Court decision. We present it for your consideration as discussion of this issue continues.
Again and again, gay marriage advocates come to the debate insisting that marriage is a fundamental civil right, which begs the question. This assumption would not be possible if certain logical fallacies did not already commonly exist.
First, there is the false notion that marriage is a right. Marriage is not a right — not for anyone — it is a license. The difference between freedom and license no longer being widely understood, an easy way to distinguish a right from a license is that in the case of a license, you typically have to obtain a license to have permission to perform the action. Driving requires a license. Starting a business requires a license. Being a barber requires a license. And of course, getting married requires a license.
Licenses may be denied on various grounds, at the discretion of the issuing body. Driver’s licenses may be refused if the driver has too many moving violations or a DUI, for example. Marriage licenses will not be issued in most states to people wanting to marry their first cousin. Closer lines of consanguinity are against the law everywhere. Bigamy is illegal. Polygamy is also illegal. (You won’t see anyone getting a marriage license that will allow them to marry their car, for that matter, though there are some who would wish it so.) There are plenty of circumstances in which the state legitimately denies the request of persons wishing to be married.
So if we accept that marriage is not a right, but a license, then there must be some reasoning behind why the state is involved in issuing licenses for marriage at all. In most cultures, marriage is something sacred, far above and beyond a civil contract. But if there is a government imperative to regulate marriage in any degree, then it must mean that marriage has some impact upon the society being governed.
Of course it does. Marriage is the most natural and stable context for the procreation and education of children (always what the Catholic Church has noted as the primary end of marriage) which, in turn, provides citizens for the nation. Families are the building blocks of civilization. It stands to reason that governments have an imperative to protect them, and even to promote them. This isn’t a position based on religion. Consider, for example, “The Secular Case Against Gay Marriage” written by Adam Kolasinski, a doctoral student in financial economics at MIT:
When a state recognizes a marriage, it bestows upon the couple certain benefits which are costly to both the state and other individuals. Collecting a deceased spouse’s social security, claiming an extra tax exemption for a spouse, and having the right to be covered under a spouse’s health insurance policy are just a few examples of the costly benefits associated with marriage. In a sense, a married couple receives a subsidy. Why? Because a marriage between two unrelated heterosexuals is likely to result in a family with children, and propagation of society is a compelling state interest. For this reason, states have, in varying degrees, restricted from marriage couples unlikely to produce children.
If the propagation of society is “a compelling state interest,” it stands to reason that the state would enact legislation to protect the institution which enables this action. Bigamy and polygamy are widely considered to be bad for the stability of a family unit, which explains why both of these situations are illegal under current marriage regulations. Bigamists and polygamists may believe they are being discriminated against, but I’m not certain that anyone is currently very interested in taking those arguments seriously. From what I’ve seen, most gay marriage advocates seem rather interested in distancing themselves from promoting these unpopular sexual ideologies, despite the fact that they are the logical consequence of promoting any sort of non-traditional marriage that involves consenting adults.
So would gay marriage be beneficial to society? Putting aside the biblical and magisterial proscriptions which I take as a given in a Catholic forum such as this, I don’t see how it would be. Even committed homosexual relationships — including marriages — are more likely to involve promiscuous behavior that is consented to by both partners. There is new evidence that children in gay households experience a negative impact on development. And of course the most obvious problem should be taken into account – by their very nature, homosexual relationships are infertile, meaning that there is no inherent capacity in these relationships toward the procreation and education of children. If the defining characteristic of marriage as a positive good to society is that it provides the best and most stable and natural context for bringing new citizens into the nation, gay marriage fundamentally fails to pass muster.
But this is where the argument for traditional marriage begins to break down. It’s been quite a long time since the defining characteristic of marriage, from a societal standpoint, had anything to do with children. With the advent of modern techniques for contraception in the 20th century, it has become increasingly easy (and common) for marriage and children to be mutually exclusive.
As Catholics, we must understand this: Sterile sex is unnatural sex. When unnatural sex has become commonplace, as it has in a contraceptive culture, it becomes intellectually impossible to make significant distinctions between homosexual sex and contraceptive heterosexual sex. By removing openness to procreation as the fundamental defining characteristic of legitimate marital sexual intimacy, we have embraced any and all sexual relations that express emotional love as the sort of relations which are proper to marriage.
In a 2008 article, Hoover Institution research fellow and author Mary Eberstadt made note of this blurring of the lines from the perspective of the Anglican Church:
By giving benediction in 1930 to its married heterosexual members purposely seeking sterile sex, the Anglican Church lost, bit by bit, any authority to tell her other members—married or unmarried, homosexual or heterosexual—not to do the same. To put the point another way, once heterosexuals start claiming the right to act as homosexuals, it would not be long before homosexuals start claiming the rights of heterosexuals.
Thus in a bizarre but real sense did Lambeth’s attempt to show compassion to married heterosexuals inadvertently give rise to the modern gay-rights movement—and consequently, to the issues that have divided their church ever since. It is hard to believe that anyone seeking a similar change in Catholic teaching on the subject would want the Catholic Church to follow suit into the moral and theological confusion at the center of today’s Anglican Church—yet such is the purposeful ignorance of so many who oppose Rome on birth control that they refuse to connect these cautionary historical dots.
We reap what we sow. The contraceptive approach to human sexuality has a domino effect, with more far-reaching implications than many who have championed it ever imagined. When sexual love is no longer inherently life-giving, it quickly becomes permissive, self-centered, hedonistic. This is true in all relationships, including heterosexual ones. God, in His wisdom, balanced the raw power and pleasure of human sexual intimacy against the responsibility of creating and caring for a new human life. It is, perhaps, the only thing that could keep such a primal appetite in check.
If we are unable to regain this understanding of human sexuality as a culture, this is an argument we will never win. Voluntarily sterile heterosexual marriages are simply not sufficiently different from inherently sterile homosexual ones to make a cogent argument that one is superior to the other. And if one kind of sterile marriage is acceptable to society, why shouldn’t all of them be?
Advocacy of contraception undermines the case for traditional marriage. Being open to life in the marital act, as Catholic spouses are obligated to be, is the only philosophy of sexual intimacy that holds moral weight in the debate over marriage. If we cannot define marriage by its openness to children, we cannot really define it at all. Without such a definition, there’s simply no chance we will prevail in preserving the integrity of this institution which can (and has) become whatever people want it to be.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have eight children.