Monday, March 27, 2006

Marriage as a Unitive Act of Complementary Persons

We come now to the essay in The Meaning of Marriage of Robert George, co-editor of the book and one of the heavy hitters of Catholic natural law thinking today.

His argument is that men and women are complementary.
Marriage is a unitive act – an act that unites these two complementary persons, making two people into one flesh.
Marriage is a human good even if children do not result, but the act of marriage aims at procreation.
SO acts which unite people who are not complementary types and which could not be procreative are not marriages, whatever else they might be.

George, and Catholic natural law thinkers in general, would make an argument like this even if alternative theories of marriage were not on the table. Since, however, arguments for homosexual marriage are at issue now, he has to argue for an understanding of marriage that includes sterile men and women, but excludes same-sex couples.

The key claim for including sterile couples is that the marital act is "reproductive in type," even though "some other conditions in the agents may prevent procreation from occurring."

The key claim for excluding same-sex couples is that men and women are complementary types of persons, in a way that two men or two women are not.

I strongly believe that men and women as types of persons are designed to be complementary (those of delicate Darwinian sensibilities may substitute "have evolved" for "are designed").

I very much like the formulation that marriage makes two persons one flesh, and that the law does not make people married, but can only recognize one-flesh unions which have been made by other hands.

I do think that the aim, point, intent, designed purpose, and telos of marriage is children. Couples who cannot have children, but are open to them, are really married.

The place at which my Calvinist understanding balks is at the phrase "acts which are reproductive in type." This seems to me to be, to use an old Prot insult, Jesuitical casuistry – a too-neat distinction designed to get to a pre-ordained conclusion.

BUT I don't know what the right alternative is.

I have not written much about same-sex marriage, the issue of the day, because I am stuck on this point.

I would welcome your edifying responses.


Michael Kruse said...

I am not sure I fully understand your issue with "acts which are reproductive in type." Forgive me if I am missing your point.

I think the issue is that "the marital act" is different in kind from a homosexual act. The homosexual act has only the potential for mutual sexual stimulation and possibly emotional bonding. The marital act has these but also the potential for creating something that is of both partners but not fully from either. The marital act is unity that is (for lack of a better word) "pregnant" with the possibility of new creation from union. It requires a man and a woman.

It seems to me there is a distinct difference between having "defective plumbing" and the inherent absence of "plumbing" from the relationship. Is the issue that because a sterile couple can not have children they would be of the same type as a same-sex couple who inherently can't produce children?

Anonymous said...

In the Aristotelian language in which these ideas originated, sterile men and women are like houses which, because of some accident (hurricane, tornado, etc.) do not have roofs. Thus, these houses cannot completely fulfull their end/purpose/telos, although, if repaired (and this goes for sterile men and women in some cases) they could do so.

Conversely, individuals involved in homosexual acts are like people who use books as doorstops. Books can be used as doorstops (and sex can be engaged in purely for pleasure). However, using books as doorstops and engaging in sex merely for pleasure are manifestations of an ignorance (willful?) of the intrinsic end/telos/purpose of the thing or activity in question.

Gruntled said...

You two are an excellent pair to bring out the issue. I am inclined to a teleological view of sex. The marital act is designed for making children, even if any particular instance of it does not or cannot. The missing link is that the Reformed tradition does not take a sacramental view of marriage, as the Catholic tradition does. Calvin separated church recognition of marriage from state recognition of marriage, which opens the door for the state to take a different, much broader view of civil marriage -- beyond tradition, beyond where the church can go, beyond a teleological view of the marital act.

Anonymous said...

I think the issue of same-sex marriages is primarily a financial/economical one; the reason I'm against banning is not because I desire these relationships to be fully accepted, but rather because I prefer the government to do as little interference in day to day living as possible. As you mentioned, the law can only recognize a one flesh union, but I think "legal" and "emotional" (social? *shrugs*) marriage are different things. One is a simple finanicial obligation for people who are bonded, the other is the one flesh thing you refer to. Somewhat like the Islam issue you referred to, a certain bit of doctrine or ideology must be withdrawn to get along in the world; even if such a relationship would be un-looked-for from some point of views, the possibility and freedom of it -probably- should be preserved.

This probably isn't in-depth enough to help, but it's just one view that might help, or could be addressed for a further understanding of the issue.

-Brandon Stephenson

Anonymous said...

"I do think that the aim, point, intent, designed purpose, and telos of marriage is children."

I think that that sentence would make far more sense if you substituted the word "sex" in place of the word "marriage".

That might then allow you to say that marriage is designed for the succesful rearing of children.

I think my real argument, though, is this: more or less America has defined success and your level of commitment to family in terms of basically sticking around and earning enough money to buy them everything they need and want. So, America, why not just accept that marriage is really about economics with the chance of love, children, emotional bonding. I am sure it is no small coincidence that now that women can make it on their own in the marketplace and support themselves and even a family on their own salary, we see that divorce is a pretty hot ticket item at the local county courthouse.