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"The Knot That Can't Be Tied": Secular, Natural and Sacramental Marriage


Man's sexual energies are of extraordinary power and complexity. Is this energy something we can use however we wish, or is there some objective standard to which this energy should be conformed?

The Western tradition, like many other traditions, has consistently held that there is such an objective standard, and it is the reality called "marriage." Today, however, many think that marriage can be whatever they want it to be. Instead of seeing marriage as an objective reality to which we align ourselves, it is seen as something that must conform to our notions and desires. Let's call this perspective on marriage "secular marriage."

Here's an example of the "secular marriage" mindset. Jessie Bernard, in The Future of Marriage, describes marriage as follows:

"Both of us commit ourselves to: 1) continue to grow, each in his or her unique way; 2) retain future choices about our relationship, recognizing that the risks of growth include the risks of growing apart; 3) give room for the process of growing; 4) provide a climate that stimulates and invites growing; 5) take risks; 6) respect differences of belief or viewpoint . . ."1 According to this scheme, marriage is what one wishes it to be. All the criteria Bernard lists are subjective, and there is no hint that, by marrying, the spouses are entering into a permanent reality. It's exactly this type of subjective misunderstanding of marriage that sets the stage for recent political and legislative efforts to legitimize homosexual relationships under the guise of marriage."

How can we effectively respond to those who promote the notion of "secular marriage," and how can we demonstrate that marriage is an objective reality? One method is to rely on the evidence we see in God's divine revelation. As important as such a method is, however, because of the separation of church and state we cannot base civil laws on any particular religion's understanding of God's revelation.

There are many people these days who deny that there are any objective truths at all, whether knowable by reason or revelation, so using religious explanations alone isn't always sufficient to make your case.

The purpose of this article is to lay out a five-step argument about the nature of marriage, with the specific aim of showing why homosexuality (and homosexual "marriage") is incompatible with that objective reality.


The first step is a preliminary one, not dealing with the characteristics of marriage per se. It is the starting point of any kind of moral discourse, be it in the realm of social ethics, bioethics, or sexual ethics. Pope John Paul II has drawn attention to this starting point by virtue of his own philosophical/theological method that focuses on "personalism."

This first step can be called the "personalist principle" and can be stated simply: Each individual human person is a person of inviolable dignity. Put in more technical and philosophical terminology: A person should always be treated as an end, rather than a means. In other words, no one should be "used" or turned into a mere object for someone else's utilitarian purposes.

The typical way to establish this principle is by appealing to divine revelation, three truths in particular: a) The Bible says each of us is made in God's image and likeness; b) The Judeo-Christian tradition teaches that we are each individually called to participate in the divine life and we are each called by God to an eternal home and reward; and c) According to Christianity, Christ's salvific work is for each one of us individually, allowing us to participate in the divine life and be safe and happy for eternity in heaven.

Imagine the response you'd get, however, if you used such an argument to defend, for example, the dignity of the unborn child about to be aborted or the handicapped or elderly about to be euthanized. A typical response from an opponent would be that your arguments are "based on your religion." Your position would be dismissed as being incompatible with our political order, and you'd be branded as someone trying to "force your religion on others." The defender of abortion will retort bluntly, "If you don't believe abortion is right, don't have one."

In the same vein, those who agitate in favor of legalizing homosexual "marriages" often dismiss their critics by saying, "If you don't believe in homosexual marriage, don't marry a homosexual."

As you can see, these are lame arguments they don't prove a thing but they do often buffalo Catholics. That's why, in conversations with those who favor or promote homosexual marriages, it's very important to establish the truth about human dignity on the basis of reason alone, rather than by appealing to divine revelation. You can do this by appealing to the "natural moral law," a law that's inscribed in our very being, and one people can easily recognize as true, regardless of their religious views.

So, how do we build a "natural law" argument for the dignity of the human person, upon which we'll build an argument for the objective nature of marriage?

Imagine someone arguing that human dignity is not absolute, but merely relative. There are two replies to such relativism, one theoretical and the other practical. First, a relativist actually makes an absolute claim in stating that "everything is relative." The next time someone tells you that everything is relative, just ask, "Do you insist on that absolutely?"

Second, not only do relativists theoretically contradict themselves with their own first premise, they contradict themselves in practice. As Peter Kreeft notes, "The relativist lets the cat out of the bag when you practice what he preaches, when you act toward him as if his own philosophy of relativism were true. He may preach relativism, but he expects you to practice absolutism."2 Kreeft gives the example of telling his relativist students that all women in the class will flunk. Given their relativist premises, the students have no argument to make against so blatantly unfair a practice. Who are they, after all, to impose their beliefs on him?

Now apply this reasoning to the dignity of all human life. Many today wish to apply relativism to the value of human life, arguing that personhood is not absolutely, but only relatively, applicable to all human beings. But the lines drawn in such application, based on convenience, are completely arbitrary. If someone tells you that life is complex and demands such arbitrariness, you could ask him, "So does that mean that you wouldn't mind if a thief, faced with the 'complexity' of his own existence, decides to draw some arbitrary lines and steal your wallet?"

No one in his right mind stands for the relativistic view of human dignity when it comes to his or her own human dignity. Each of us even the hardened secularist who preaches relativism instinctively recognizes that our dignity as persons implies certain moral absolutes of behavior.

Now that you have established the fundamental principle of the objective dignity of each human person, you can build additional arguments about the nature of marriage. We have done this with simple rational argumentation that cuts across divergent religious beliefs.


If it is true that each individual person has inviolable dignity, then it only stands to reason that the act through which such human beings are brought about ought to be treated in a particular way, in a way commensurate with that dignity. Simply put, if a couple wishes to engage in the conjugal act, they must be aware of the enormous potential of such an act. It will affect them in a particular way, and one of the central reasons why it will affect them so powerfully is that it has procreative possibilities, it is the kind of act that brings about new life. Given this, the couple ought to treat the conjugal act in a way that measures up to this awesome potentiality.

What specifically does this entail? First and foremost, a willingness to treat the potential new life as a welcome guest. It may well be that this new guest will not arrive at all, but he might arrive. The couple ought not bet that he will not arrive and treat the conjugal act frivolously. Such would be an irrational bet, like investing one's entire monthly salary in the lottery: One should only gamble if that which he might lose is of contingent, rather than absolute, value.

As an aside, it is noteworthy that this irrational gamble "drives" legalized abortion. According to the Supreme Court, abortion must be made available to a generation that has grown up with the assumption that it is perfectly moral to separate sex from babies. Hence, to be pro-life is to simultaneously make a particular claim about the nature of the conjugal act, and hence to be against contraception.3

It is clear that the use of artificial contraception makes it impossible to treat the potential child as a welcome guest. True enough, a contracepting couple may well claim that they are open to new life should it "sneak in." But note that, first, the vast majority are not open in this way legal abortion lurks right around the corner. And second, even if they say that they are still open to the new life, they are engaging in an act that is incompatible with that supposed openness. The conjugal act has been turned into a different kind of act, an act that is rendered incapable of new life, and even an act incapable of fully uniting the two people involved because they are now withholding a substantial part of who they are.

It is at this point that the homosexual act can be assessed. Based on the personalist principle, we have said that the generative faculties carry an enormous potentiality. As with contraception, a homosexual act renders the potentiality null and void. Hence, the full meaning of the generative faculties or in more technical language, the proper "ends" or the telos of those faculties is severely diluted. An act is being performed which is "against nature" in the sense that the generative faculties naturally have such potentiality that is depleted by homosexual and contraceptive acts.

The result is that the couple give but a portion of themselves to each other they are incapable of giving that fullness of the self that includes the capacity to procreate. The generative faculties must be used in such a way that the unitive and procreative dimensions are inextricably united, yielding a truly conjugal act. As Humanae Vitae teaches:

"There is an unbreakable connection between the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning, and both are inherent in the conjugal act. And if both essential meanings are preserved, that of union and procreation, the conjugal act fully maintains its capacity for true mutual love and its ordination to the highest mission of parenthood, to which man is called" (art. 12).

The text then notes that this teaching "is in accord with human reason." In other words, apart from the truth revealed to us in the Catholic Faith, such truths of the natural law are capable of being grasped by anyone willing to make careful use of reason.


So far, we have shown the inviolable dignity of the person, and the way in which that dignity informs the meaning of the conjugal act. Now we can take an additional step: It only stands to reason that those engaging in the conjugal act must provide a context within which the potential child can be nurtured, and this context above all else entails a permanent commitment between those using their generative faculties in the conjugal act. Without this permanence, the dignity of the child is violated.

The child, first of all, is given a tremendous security by the permanent commitment of his parents. He knows that they will always be there, giving unconditional love, unless death causes the absence of one or both parents. Second, he learns a great deal from seeing this permanent commitment at work day in and day out. He learns the value of commitment.

One of the reasons so very many homosexual relationships do not have the character of permanence is because this particular reason or end for permanence is missing. True enough, permanence is a value in and of itself, irrespective of whether a child is present or not. But such inherent value of permanence is infused with deeper meaning when the child is present or potentially present: "Part of why we as a couple have a permanent commitment is precisely so that we can provide the best context for the nurturing of a new life."

Couples who struggle with infertility are poignantly aware of how intrinsic this procreative dimension is for their own commitment. And couples whose marriages tragically have failed often remain together precisely because of this dimension.


In the previous step, we noted that because the child has inherent dignity, only a permanent union of father and mother is commensurate with that dignity. The dignity of every person simultaneously indicates that, distinct from the interest of the child, only a permanent as well as exclusive union befits or is commensurate with the dignity of each spouse. A permanent and exclusive union states boldly that the other is not an object that can be replaced or substituted, but a person of inviolable worth. When a couple makes the commitment of marriage, they say to one another, "You are irreplaceable to me" and "Only to you will I give my whole self."

Divorce or adultery or serial polygamy then stand as statements that the partner isn't irreplaceable after all. And in so saying, the inviolable dignity of the other is violated.

Now it seems entirely true that this particular step of the argument can be accomplished by two committed homosexuals. Their arguments in favor of homosexual marriage are often based precisely on such points. But we must ask ourselves an important question. Why is it that in heterosexual marriage, violations of this fourth point are the exception rather than the rule, while in homosexual partnerships, violations of this fourth point are the rule rather than the exception?

The answer is that this fourth step is intricately bound up with the preceding three steps. True enough, some homosexual couples partake in a portion of the whole picture, but it is only a portion. And that is precisely why relatively few indeed so partake. The vast majority of homosexual liaisons are not marked by permanence.

This is not to say that heterosexual relationships are immune from such fragmentation. Indeed, in our day, numerous heterosexuals lead lives just as promiscuous as do many homosexuals. But a central reason for this is the severing of the procreative dimension from the conjugal act (step 2), allowing contraception and leading to abortion. The Natural Law argument presented here is just as critical of contraception as it is of homosexuality. In both cases, the conjugal act is turned into a different kind of act; the generative faculties are used in a way contrary to their natural inextricably connected ends of unity/procreativity.


In going through the previous four steps, we have commented on why homosexual activity is inimical to each point. The Natural Law argument for the objective nature of marriage concludes by looking at homosexuality directly, and drawing earlier comments together with the firm conclusion that marriage must be heterosexual in order for the dignity of the human person to remain fully in place.

A) Why not use the generative faculties in a different way that admittedly cannot bring forth a child? On a purely biological level, the human generative faculties are not built to handle homosexual types of acts, acts which cause serious disease, physical damage, or both.4 It is against the purely physical nature of the human person to engage in homosexual activities.

B) On the purely physical level, we find that the generative faculties are made to unite male and female, and that this union naturally carries with it a procreative capacity. This procreative capacity given the inviolable dignity of the person as developed in step 1 is not just an extrinsic "add-on" to human sexuality, but is integral to it. It is a potentiality that cannot be treated capriciously, precisely because it is a potentiality for a person, not a dispensable object. Hence, we showed in step 2 that the use of the generative faculties must be truly conjugal unitive and procreative and hence heterosexual.

C) Moving from the biological dimension, on an ontological level we find that in homosexual acts (as well as contraceptive acts), the generative faculties are being used in a way that denies their unitive power precisely because the procreative power is denied. You cannot give the whole self to the other a prerequisite for human dignity as show in steps 3 and 4 if you intentionally withhold your fertility.

This presupposes what we can term an integralist view of the person as opposed to a separatist view. The integralist view sees the person as a unity of body and spirit, whereas the separatist view sees the person as standing over and against the body, the body representing raw material that can be manipulated according to the dictates of merely individual decision. According to the separatist view, I can treat the body just as I see fit in accord with homosexual desire, in accord with adulterous or fornicative desires, and the list goes on.

But such a view, separating body and person, is taking nature herself and manipulating her. Nature dictates a harmony between body and person, and the natural law written on our hearts and accessible to reason depicts this harmony for us and shows us how to act accordingly.


The above five steps represent one way in which a natural law argument, using reason rather than revelation, can be made in regard to homosexuality. The argument is an example of a Natural Law argument; it is not the only way such an argument could be constructed. The reader may well see places in the argument that could be assisted by one or another addition or deletion. Of most importance is that all the points be made in a logically discursive way.

One hallmark of the Catholic tradition is that it prizes such arguments that take place on the level of reason alone. The reason the Church can hold such methodology in high esteem lies in her famous principle, enunciated best by St. Thomas Aquinas, that grace does not cancel out nature, but presupposes and perfects it. Applied here, this means that the argument based in human nature as derived by reason alone is fully affirmed by the Church.

She then perfects the argument by adding the data of revelation, which both reaffirms the natural argument and adds additional data to the argument. That additional data, derived from the twin sources of revelation (Tradition and Scripture), is impressive and enriching and fills in for Christians the full rationale for the teaching against homosexual acts. But even without that data, a good argument can be made based on the Natural Law. It is that law to which we must turn in our efforts to bring the truth about man to the critical ethical questions of our day.



  1. As quoted in William E. May, Sex, Marriage and Chastity (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1991), 34-35.

  2. Making Choices (Ann Arbor: Servant Press, 1990), 37.

  3. See William E. May, Marriage: the Rock on Which the Family is Built (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995) p.7

  4. See "Medical Consequences of What Homosexuals Do," Family Research Institute, Inc., P.O. Box 2091, Washington, D.C. 20013.


Mark Lowery ""The Knot That Can't Be Tied": Secular, Natural and Sacramental Marriage." Envoy (Nov-Dec, 1996)

Reprinted courtesy of Envoy Magazine.


Mark Lowery is Associate professor in the Department of Theology, University of Dallas, Irving, TX 75062. He is also a husband and the father of six children.

Copyright 1996 Envoy



Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved