What is Marriage? Let’s Think a Little Harder.


(El Greco’s “Holy Family with Saint Anne.” Image via Wikipedia)

“The basis of married love is the attachment of hearts.” –St. Augustine

“The marriage bond does not necessarily imply carnal union.” –Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen

“What do those guys know?” -Robert George (Okay, I’m paraphrasing)

Robert George is back, with his friends Ryan Anderson and Sherif Girgis. Apparently Girgis and Anderson debated “Marriage, Catholicism, and Public Policy” with law professor Charles Reid last month at Notre Dame. Reid wrote up the debate over at the Huffington Post, and now George, Anderson and Girgis are taking issue with Reid’s characterization of their argument. They write:

Reid says that we think a man and woman’s sexual intercourse “is enough to create a permanent union.” We have never said or written any such thing, for the simple reason that we consider it obviously false. To suggest otherwise, Reid cites a passage in our book in which we point out that the kind of bodily union that exists within a person is possible between two people, but only in coitus. What makes a person’s heart, lungs, and other parts “one flesh” is that they are actively coordinated toward a single bodily end (life) of the whole (the person himself). Likewise, we argued, in coitus a man and a woman participate in a bodily coordination with a single bodily end (reproduction) that pertains to the whole (the couple).

Nowhere in the passage (or even on the page) cited by Reid do we address the marital norm of permanence.

Reid was wrong to suggest in his first paragraph that George, Anderson, and Girgis claimed that “sex makes a marriage,” and the trio has every right to object “pace Reid, we don’t think sex itself creates ex nihilo a permanent bond. Nor do we think sexual complementarity is what motivates a man and a woman to pledge permanence.” [Note: And I have a right to make fun of them for using two Latin terms in one sentence. Real cool, guys.]

But by zooming in on that error, George, Anderson and Girgis miss Reid’s better point, a trenchant attack on what the three do say. And what George, Anderson, and Girgis do say is that marriage requires male-female sex. That’s their whole basis for excluding gay couples from the institution.

They write, “What makes a marriage—what marriage is—is not just love or sex but comprehensive union.” And in their long article “What is marriage?” they explain that “any union of two people that did not involve organic bodily union would not be comprehensive.” And organic bodily union, they make clear, means penis-in-vagina sex. Marriage isn’t just love or sex, but it requires sex.

No penis-in-vagina sex, no marriage. Reid is absolutely right to say that, in the trio’s view, “Nothing else can substitute for this constitutive element. Nothing else can take its place.”

Now, there are lots of problems with this line of thinking, including the way it leads to a depiction of infertile couples as “losing teams” and the debatable insistence that physical union can only be found through penis-in-vagina sex. But those problems have been dealt with elsewhere.

No, what’s really astonishing to me is that this group of Catholics made this argument at a Catholic university during a debate on Catholicism and public policy and then defended it in writing at the start of Advent season.

Reid gets the irony. He writes, “In that paradigm of marriage for Catholics, the union of Mary and Joseph, it could only have been love that held the Holy Family together, not sex, since Catholics believe that Mary was ‘ever virgin.’”

But it’s not just Mary and Joseph; Catholic teaching is very respectful of a tradition known as the Josephite marriage, which is a legitimate marriage, based on spiritual union, in which the spouses don’t have sex. In Fulton Sheen’s words, “among some Jews and among some great Christian Saints, the vow of virginity was sometimes taken along with espousals. Marriage then became the frame into which the picture of virginity was placed. Marriage was like a sea on which the bark of carnal union never sailed, but one from which one fished the sustenance for life.”

So if we’re putting Reid’s view (“love makes a marriage”) up against George’s (“marriage requires penis-in-vagina sex”) then the weight of Catholic thinking ought to come down on Reid’s side.

And, yeah, yeah, it’s ridiculous to just say “love makes a marriage” and leave it at that. As George, Girgis and Anderson point out, that’s not what Reid means. But in the Christian view, love is an essential characteristic, a constitutive element, of marriage. Penis-in-vagina sex is not.

3 thoughts on “What is Marriage? Let’s Think a Little Harder.

  1. Pingback: Letters to the Catholic Right Asks “What is Marriage? “ | Queer Church News

  2. Pingback: Letters To The Catholic Right Asks "What Is Marriage? " | Queering The Church

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