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Marriage 101

Mary Joseph

What is so special about marriage between a man and a woman that same-sex couples are not allowed to share in it?

Marriage is one of the most hotly-debated issues of our time. Many people instinctively understand that marriage is a faithful, loving and life-giving union between a man and a woman. But they are unsure how to reconcile this truth with the growing push for same-sex marriage. In the following dialogue, I will look at some common arguments in favor of homosexual marriage.

What is marriage?

Marriage is a natural institution where a man and a woman give themselves to each other exclusively for life in a sexual relationship that is open to procreation. It is publicly recognized, honored and supported because of its unique capacity to generate new human life and to meet children’s deepest needs for the love and attachment of both their father and their mother. Marriage is different and distinguished from other sexual or caring relationships because of its permanence, its natural orientation to life, and the way it brings together and expresses the fullness of humanity in male and female.

Why does marriage have to be about the ability to have children? Older couples and infertile couples have always been allowed to marry.

When a married couple cannot have children, for reasons of age or infertility, they are still truly married because their lovemaking is designed to give life, even if it cannot give life at a particular point in time, or ever. Their sexual union is procreative by its nature, because husband and wife unite in an act that is naturally meant for the creation of a new human being. This is why sex deserves to be treated with a special reverence.

But surely marriage is more about two people in love than what kind of sex they have. Why is procreative sex special?

Sexual intercourse that is open to life is essential for marriage because marriage is not just a caring relationship between two people, but a union of love and life. In marriage a man and a woman pledge to love each other for life and to lovingly welcome and raise any children of their union.

Sadly, through the normalization of casual sex, contraception, homosexual acts, condoms, abortion and IVF, our culture has denigrated and obscured the life-giving aspect of marriage and sexual intercourse. In spite of this, people still, deep down, know that the sexual act is about life – that it bonds a man and a woman together in a profound way because of the baby they may conceive.

People still sense the grandeur of the sexual act, its implicit promise of life-long love and commitment – “I will be here for you for always” – and this is why there is so much pain and heartache when sexual relationships break down or when a marriage is violated by adultery.

Isn’t the right to marry a basic human right?

“The right to marry and found a family” is written in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). But international human rights law has always understood and affirmed the enduring truth that marriage is a life-giving union of a man and a woman. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which monitors international human rights treaties, has stated that the right to marry “implies, in principle, the possibility to procreate”. The right to marry and found a family is a basic human right, but this right has an objective meaning and content – forming an open-to-life union with a person of the opposite sex.

But what about human dignity? Homosexual people can never feel that they are fully accepted and worthy of love if they are not allowed to marry their same-sex partner.

To love someone sexually means being able to accept them completely, including their fertility. Sexual acts that are closed to life, like anal sex, oral sex and contracepted heterosexual intercourse, may seem loving. But they cannot be truly loving because they reject the deepest part of the person’s sexuality – their capacity to give life, to be a father or a mother.

No one can deny that many homosexual persons sincerely care about their same-sex partners. But, as hard and painful as it is for those who suffer from same-sex attraction, real love demands chastity – the integration of sexual desires into unselfish love for the other person. This means abstaining from sex that is not marital and open to life.

Unfulfilled sexual desires can be a painful cross to carry. But a chaste life brings us true inner peace and joy, because we are living in harmony with the way our bodies have been designed and we are treating the person we love as a gift – loving him or her for their own sake, and not for the sexual pleasure they can give us.

Aren’t you condemning homosexuals to a life of loneliness and misery?

The human drive for sexual intimacy is strong, but we have an even deeper need to be loved for who we truly are. Part of what drives homosexual activity – and heterosexual activity outside of marriage – is that people are lonely and hungry for real love and deep friendships with their family and friends.

However, no one – whatever their sexual orientation – should be made to feel unloved, or be deprived of real friendship and support. Sadly, the world is constantly telling us that sexual intimacy is the only kind of intimacy worth having – that you must be in a sexual relationship to be happy or you will be doomed to a miserable life with nobody to love you. The real life experience of unmarried people around the world can testify that this is simply false! Millions of unmarried people around the world live happy, fulfilling lives – loving others and being deeply loved in return – without having sex. Our need for love is much, much greater than our need for sex.

Why will allowing homosexual marriage weaken the institution of marriage as a whole? Two men getting married won’t threaten me or my marriage.

Changing the definition of marriage to remove the elements of male and female will profoundly change us as a culture. “Expanding" the meaning of marriage to include same-sex couples ignores what is unique and beautiful about the gift of a woman and the gift of a man. Men and women are created with a purpose and a specific and loving design, and we are called to strive towards fulfilling this as much as we can, despite our physical, emotional and spiritual brokenness.

Allowing two men or two women to “marry” would involve a fundamental change in our understanding of marriage, from a life-giving and sexually complementary union to a personal, romantic relationship where there is no true communion or connection to procreation.

It will entrench, in a public way, the separation of sex from babies and marriage from children. It will move marriage from a child-centred institution to an adult-centred one. It will trivialise the meaning and dignity of motherhood and fatherhood and declare that having both a father and a mother is an unnecessary duplication.

Men and women will always aspire to marry because this desire is deep within the human person. But it will deeply affect young people to grow up in a culture which says that marriage is no longer about giving yourself unconditionally to another and having children together. The cultural confusion about the true meaning of marriage will make it ever harder for them to attain what they long for.

In fact, society has no power to change what marriage is. Even if the law change the definition, it cannot alter the reality. A union between a man and a man or woman and a woman cannot be a marriage. It would be like saying that combining broccoli and roast potatoes produces ice-cream!

But marriage has not always been defined as the union of one man and one woman. How do you explain polygamy?

At different times and in different cultures, the practice of polygamy (one man having several wives) has been allowed, but not all of the individuals involved became spouses of each other. A man always married a woman. A man might have several wives, but his wives would not be married to each other. The two people getting married would always be a man and a woman – always forming a union that was open to life. At no point have two men or two women ever been able to marry each other.

Christianity did not create our notion of marriage. It clarified what nearly all major cultures have taught. With the coming of Christianity, the law’s understanding of marriage as a lifelong union of love between one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others, has grown and deepened.

Mary Joseph is a project officer at the Life, Marriage and Family Centre of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney.

Copyright © Mary Joseph. Used with permission. Published by You may download and print extracts from this article for your own personal and non-commercial use only.




Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved