How Marriage Has Been Redefined


Who is to blame?

Don’t blame the gays.

Same-sex marriage was not foisted on New Yorkers by less than 5 percent of the population. I mean, you can blame them a little. But same-sex marriage isn’t the real problem—it’s only a symptom of the problem.

Don’t blame the Evil Party or the Stupid Party. They were instruments of evil, not the root cause. I’m not saying don’t hold responsible the politicians who pushed through same-sex marriage in New York, or that their offense is not very great. (This particular legislative push was a Democratic governor’s personal cause, and according to an intriguing, depressing post mortem in the New York Times, he mobilized an extremely effective campaign with the aid of top Republican donors and the passive cooperation of lackluster Republican leadership.) But it’s only because the meaning of marriage is already so eroded that this was able to happen—and it wasn’t politicians or gays who brought us to this point.

Don’t blame the bishops or the priests. I’m not saying that our shepherds don’t bear a fearful burden of responsibility, or that they have in general discharged it effectively. I’m not saying it doesn’t matter that most priests have fallen silent—or worse, dispensed with or openly rejected Church teaching—on subjects that should be shouted from the rooftops. Nor am I saying that bishops haven’t dropped the ball on Church discipline—say, on Canon 915, a canon that too many bishops seem unwilling to implement under any circumstances. These things matter a lot.

But our shepherds have been swayed (wrongly, certainly) by pressure coming above all from the laity. By and large, we are the problem—we, and the rest of the culture. A problem our shepherds are charged with taking by the horns, which by and large isn’t happening, but still, the marriage crisis isn’t something that’s been foisted upon us by external forces. It’s something that, by and large, we ourselves—Catholics as well as Protestants—have accepted, tolerated and embraced.

Recently in an online forum a same-sex marriage advocate wrote to me, “I’ve never once had any conservative be able to tell me how the legalization of gay marriage affects, in any measurable way, their relationship with their spouse.”

My response was: “I’ve never once had any same-sex marriage advocate be able to offer a coherent account of what marriage is and is not, and why it is the state should have a bureaucratic apparatus for certifying (and decertifying) sexual partnerships involving two and only two non-related adults in any gender combination.”

The problem is, it isn’t just same-sex marriage advocates who are unable to explain what marriage is. It’s practically everyone. Marriage has been redefined for decades in our society, and it isn’t homosexuals or politicians who have done it. It’s our culture as a whole. And that’s why we are where we are.

The Root of the Problem

How has marriage been redefined?

It’s not something that started a few years ago with juridical edicts (and now, sadly, legislative maneuverings) mandating same-sex marriage. That’s merely the latest permutation in an ongoing dismantling of marriage in a culture increasingly defined by serial monogamy, cohabitation, children born and raised out of wedlock, artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization, divorce-ready prenuptial agreements, pornography, abortion and contraception.

Of all these, the root of the problem, more than anything else, is contraception.

A contraceptive culture is a divorce culture, a cohabitation culture, a pornography culture. Same-sex marriage is inevitable in a contraceptive culture, because a contraceptive culture can have no coherent understanding of what marriage is, or even what sex is.

That’s why I said that the problem is something that “by and large, we ourselves—Catholics as well as Protestants—have accepted, tolerated and embraced.” Here, at the very root of the problem, we Catholics are as culpable as anyone else, if not more so. Contraceptive use among Catholic couples appears to be comparable to that of the population at large.

The notion that contraception pollutes a marriage in a manner comparable to adultery, something commonly understood by Catholics and non-Catholics 75 years ago, is incomprehensible to most Americans today, Catholic as well as non-Catholic. Yet once we accept the divorce of the unitive and the procreative aspects of the nuptial embrace, the other battles are lost.

Contraception destroys the integrity of the nuptial embrace, destroys the meaning of sex and therefore of marriage. People have enormous difficulty wrapping their heads around this point because it’s so foreign to the dominant worldview today: The true union of husband and wife always has a procreative meaning—even during infertile periods, or in the case of a sterile couple. That’s because the spouses always share and join their reproductive powers at that moment, whatever they may be, holding nothing back.

Contraceptive sex is neither truly unitive nor procreative, because the unitive aspect is inseparable from the sharing of one’s reproductive powers at that moment. Contraception shatters the procreative meaning of the nuptial embrace, and therefore shatters the unitive aspect as well, whether it is by physical separation of the spouses (in the case of a condom) or a hormonal or chemical suppression of one’s reproductive powers.

The contraceptive mentality has become so entrenched that for most people sex and babies are essentially unrelated topics, and many adults become bewildered at the suggestion that one has anything to do with the other. Reinforcing this separation, of course, are artificial conception techniques, which perpetuate a view of children as products. In principle, we should be able to order them up when we want them, and reject them when we don’t.

Once sex is divorced from procreation, it becomes much harder to see why sexual union implies a binding commitment. If sex means a potential pregnancy, obviously sex is a momentous act potentially ushering in long-term joint responsibilities binding the parties to one another for the sake of their potential offspring. But if sex is divorced from procreation, then there is no obvious need for a binding commitment. It can become a trial transaction. It can be merely recreational. Giving and sharing recedes, and taking pleasure and fulfillment comes to the fore.

Above all, marriage itself need no longer mean openness to life. Couples can marry solely for companionship and mutual fulfillment with no intention of sharing their reproductive potential with one another. But then it’s no longer obvious that marriage need be a binding commitment. If mutual fulfillment was the only goal, then there is no obvious reason to stay in the marriage if and when it should cease to be mutually fulfilling—or rather, as soon as either partner stops finding itself-fulfilling.

Once this mindset takes hold, it becomes increasingly plausible to leave a marriage even when there are children. An essentially social understanding of sex and marriage has been replaced by an essentially individualistic, self-centered understanding, and to the individualistic mindset is no longer obvious to why one should have to sacrifice one’s pursuit of self-fulfillment and happiness just because there are children involved.

And of course in a culture shaped by such individualism, the number of unhappy marriages—of unfulfilled partners who never sought to give themselves as they ought, and now find themselves without the self-fulfillment they sought—can only increase. A culture that increasingly doesn’t understand what marriage is cannot fail to produce more and more unsuccessful marriages.

Over time, the old idea that marriages fail through the fault of one or both partners appears cruel; it is enough to cite “irreconcilable differences.” No-fault divorce becomes thinkable, then becomes the norm, with either party empowered to sue the other for divorce on demand, leaving no recourse to the other. With this new autonomy comes a further weakening of the marital commitment, a further erosion of the marital ideal.

Yet marriage is still seen as a path to self-fulfillment, and so you get serial monogamy (or serial polygamy, whichever way you want to look at it). The dissolution of marriage is no longer seen as something radically contrary to marriage, but a fairly common phase in one’s marital life. Far from the dissolution of marriage being unthinkable, it is the commitment of marriage that is hard to fathom. An exit plan becomes as sensible for a marriage as for a war, and so we get divorce-ready prenuptial agreements.

The possibility of children is increasingly seen as a potential threat to one’s autonomy and pursuit of self-fulfillment. Contraception is a necessary first line of defense, but when prophylaxis fails, there must be a cure. Abortion is that cure. Self-gratification becomes paramount, and the other person becomes a useful means to an end, an object to be enjoyed. Objections to pornography no longer make sense in such a milieu.

It needs to be said: Within marriage, the acceptance of unnatural acts as a means of self-gratification further undermines the teleology of sex and marriage. In an unfashionable euphemism, men with same-sex attraction, men who engage in homosexual acts, have historically been called “sodomites”—a term that has sometimes been opposed on the accurate grounds that the specific acts so designated occur among heterosexual couples as well. Such acts are as unnatural between a husband and wife as between two men. There is no sharing of reproductive powers, no union in one flesh, through such acts.

Finally, the divorce rate slows and sinks, in large part because marriage itself has become increasingly dispensable and couples merely cohabit, circumventing the need for divorce. In such a culture, more and more children will be raised in single-parent households.


Same-sex advocates sometimes accuse marriage defenders of Chicken Little alarmism. Is the sky really falling? they ask rhetorically. Same-sex “marriage” has been legally recognized in the Netherlands since 2001, and a handful of other countries have followed suit. In the United States, a handful of states, most recently New York, have recognized same-sex “marriage,” either by judicial fiat or through legislative means. Have these changes oppressed heterosexual couples or families in any way, or had other harmful consequences?

To this challenge there are several points that must be made, not all of which I can discuss in this post. The first point is that after only ten years at most, direct evidence on the social consequences or fallout of same-sex “marriage” is still very much in the early stages. We have yet to see how marriage and the family will fare in the long term as generations are raised in societies with officially gender-blind marriage laws.

Second, we are already seeing same-sex “marriage” laws used as a stick to beat those with traditional marriage views:

Thus, we now live in a world where the state attempts to force Catholic charities to place children in same-sex families, college students are punished for speaking against same-sex parenting, graduate students are thrown out of college forrefusing to morally affirm homosexual sextax exemptions are denied when churches don’t make their property available for gay weddings, and social work licenses threatened merely because a school counselor supported a state marriage amendment.

Such pressure is certain to increase over time. Same-sex “marriage” laws will also continue to reshape public education. In the name of combating discrimination, every effort will be made not only to normalize homosexuality but also to marginalize and ostracize those with traditional marriage beliefs.

There is a much larger issue, though—an issue that goes far beyond the same-sex marriage debate, which I’ve been arguing is only a consequence of a larger cultural erosion of marriage. Divorce and remarriage, cohabitation, illegitimacy, abortion, pornography and contraception remain the larger threats—threats not only to the marriage ideal, but to the health of society, in very practical ways.

Is the sky falling in connection with the decline in marriage and family? In some real and measurable ways, yes. True, many people will quarrel over the real moral character of many of the social ills I mentioned in my last post, from serial polygamy to cohabitation. However, one unavoidable and growing consequence of all these issues must be reckoned on by society as a whole: the decline of fatherhood.

The United States is swiftly becoming a society without fathers. From the 1960s, when my parents married, to the 1990s, when I married, the percentage of children living apart from their biological fathers more than doubled. If current trends continue, by the end of this century as many as half of all American children could be growing up without a present father.

The absence of a father in a household is not merely a matter of conservative moral handwringing. The social consequences are undisputed, measurable and devastating. Poverty and welfare dependency, childhood sickness and mortality, poor school performance and dropout rates, substance abuse, crime and imprisonment all dramatically increase where a father is not present.

Where fathers are absent, young men are more likely to be violent, to lack empathy, to mistreat women. Young women are more prone to eating disorders and other psychological problems, to unhealthy relationships with men. Both are more likely to become parents out of wedlock, and to perpetuate the cycle of fatherlessness.

Same-sex marriage advocates may bristle at this: What has this to do with them and their issue? Nothing, at least directly. That’s actually my point.

I’ve been saying all along that the ongoing decline of marriage is much larger than the same-sex issue and that heterosexual behavior, not homosexual behavior, is the real problem. At the same time, the social ills related to bad heterosexual behavior are, precisely, marriage problems: problems for which marriage has always been mankind’s solution and salvation. The fact that same-sex “marriage” is even thinkable, that it is increasingly defined to be a “right,” is both a symptom of our culture’s worsening marriage problem and an obstacle toward recovering a healthy marriage culture.

What is Marriage?

Why does marriage exist?

What is marriage? Why is it recognized by the state at all? Why, as I asked in Part 1, does the state have a bureaucratic apparatus for certifying (and decertifying) sexual partnerships involving two and only two non-related adult partners? Why should the state have such a bureaucracy? Why is it any of the state’s business? Why is it that in the whole history of state bureaucracies up to 2001 those partnerships were always between a man and a woman? Why is it that in every society, culture and civilization known to history and anthropology, we find this universal institution of an enduring union of a man and a woman as the socially privileged place for sexual relations?

Skeptics and polemicists hype the differences in how marriage is seen from culture to culture. Divorce, polygamy, concubinage, kept women, prostitution and other practices in many forms have been known throughout history. Contracting a marriage has meant many different things in different times and places. Within marriage, men and women have been subject to vastly different sets of social expectations. Sex before or outside of marriage has been subject to varying levels of tolerance or acceptance. Homosexual acts also have been the subject of varying moral attitudes, often disparaging but not necessarily always. Men (and sometimes women) wealthy and powerful enough to buck social expectations or to create their own social climate have always done so, and will do.

And yet whatever cultural vagaries or ambiguities have existed, whatever wiggle room has been permitted, tolerated or carved out, there remains a clearly recognizable institution, found everywhere that human beings are found, in which a man and a woman are socially recognized to have formed an enduring union, a union that is the socially sanctioned context for sexual relations between a man and a woman, from which it is generally expected that children may arise.

Activists have labored mightily to avoid this conclusion. Historical and anthropological records have been scoured with vigilance for any possible departure from the pattern. Numerous proposed precedents for same-sex have been compiled: accounts of this or that Roman emperor “marrying” a male slave; reports of curious customs in this or that African culture. Nearly all these supposed precedents collapse on second glance, and none of them provide a true precedent for gender-blind marriage, or pose a serious challenge to the universality of marriage as the enduring union of a man and a woman.

Catholics believe that Christ changed marriage, that for baptized Christians marriage is a sacrament, the sacrament of matrimony. Marriage itself, however, is a natural institution that still exists for all men of any religion or of none. A marriage between a man and a woman who are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or atheist is not a sacrament, but it is still a true marriage before God. It can be dissolved by divorce; a finding of nullity would not be needed to contract a new marriage in the Church, but the union itself is real and lawful as long as it exists.

What is the nature of this union? Why does it exist in all cultures, even those with scarcely any glimmer of the knowledge of the true God? As Christians, we may say that the understanding of marriage, like the rest of the moral law, is written on our hearts via the natural law. Those of a non-religious bent might point to factors in biological and social evolution—reasons why marriage “works,” why it is so beneficial to society that any society foolish enough to dispense with it would quickly be disadvantaged and fall apart, or be eclipsed by other societies practicing marriage.

These explanations need not be contradictory. The natural law is accessible to reason, even without special revelation, precisely because it is rational, which means that it “works,” it is beneficial. Not to follow the natural law is not merely to be a bad person—it is to be a foolish person doing injury to oneself. Even from a naturalistic or Darwinian perspective, we can see how murder and theft harm communities, and why proscriptions against such actions benefit society. (This doesn’t automatically provide the moral impetus to obey such proscriptions, but we can certainly see why societies would want them.) A society without such proscriptions would be on a path to destruction.

Putting aside special revelation and considering the matter from a natural perspective, can we describe how marriage benefits societies—why societies need the enduring union of a man and a woman as the privileged place for sexual relations? A key piece of the puzzle was touched on in Part 3: children need fathers. In part 5 we’ll explore how this relates to the role of marriage as a social institution.

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