Sunday, October 23, 2005

Marriage vs. “Close Relations” Matters to the Church

Today, contemporary family law theorists are bent on hammering this new theory into law, usually using the avenue of constitutional law. What is striking is the breathless speed of these developments in the absence of any real scholarly or public debate. A particular school of thought openly aimed at re-conceptualizing marriage first took root in the academy in the 1980s. By the late 1990s it had come to dominate fashionable academic theorizing on sexual intimacy. That school of thought is successfully urging family law scholars to think in radically new ways about family law. Much of the new thinking centers on ways to transform family law from its historic role as the protector of marriage into something very close to its antagonist.

- Dan Cere, The Future of Family Law

Dan Cere, in his review of the current trends in family law, notes that in the past generation the legal discussion has changed from the traditional concern with marriage, to a wholesale substitution of the concept of “close relations.” Marriage is treated as a subset of close relations, at best. This change reflects the political movement to normalize both cohabitation and same-sex unions. Indeed, the “close relations” movement may go beyond putting other pairings on a par with marriage. The longer-term effect may be to treat marriage just as a private lifestyle choice of some individuals, rather than the basic unit of society’s foundational building block. Nor need the revolution stop there: any sort of “close relation,” involving any number, age, and configuration of people, might come to be treated as just as good as any other, as long as it is important to the participants.

The church, though, has a different standard. In the Biblical understanding, marriage is not simply the close relation of two individuals, but makes them “one flesh.” A married couple is not literally one person. But neither are they simply two separate individuals who have made a voluntary and temporary tie.

In the debate about same-sex unions that I discussed before, Maggie Gallagher pointed out that many of the tangles that Protestants get into over this issue happen because Protestants are prone to a more individualistic analysis of everything. Catholics, on the other hand, are more prone to talk about marriage as making the couple “one flesh” in the first place. Both branches of the church have a stake in how secular family law develops.

The law now treats marriage as a unique status. There is nothing else like it, not even the parent-child bond. Our law coincides with the church’s understanding because they both share an underlying – and very high – view of marriage. This is important to say – the law treats marriage as a unique, and uniquely important, relationship for good secular reasons. It is not simply a holdover from a previously religious era.

This is why we need a status of the “good enough” relationship, which is still not the same as the social ideal. Marriage is not just a close relationship like others. But saying that marriage is unique does not mean that all other close relationships are bad.


Marty said...

Very intersting, this "good enough" family. It's "better than nothing" of course (which is why most states let gay couples adopt), but far from the ideal.

The only question is, why should the State recognize, and thereby encourage future generations to only aspire to something that is "barely good enough"?

If it's only just "good enough" then it shouldn't be recognized or rewarded, nor should it be penalized. It should be tolerantly ignored -- and we should encourage our children to do better. Anything short of starvation is "good enough" during a famine. As Christians and as Americans, we have so much more to offer than that.

Gruntled said...

Well, tolerance is a virtue in a free society. This is why we need two categories -- the good, and the good enough -- to distinguish the form we want to promote from the kinds we still accept.

SPorcupine said...

Marty, I think you've taken two steps too far.

First, why is the whole discussion about the government? If I'm planning a party, I'm happy to invite two sisters who share a home or two college students who are romantically linked. If one of them became ill, I'd check with the other about how I could be helpful. That's a kind of recognition and a kind of reward.

Second, where did the "barely" come from? I can wish the marriages of those two sisters had been as happy as mine, and still be very glad they take care of one another. It's a good thing, worthy of honor and appreciation. Ruth and Naomi were a family worthy of deep honor, even when their husbands were all gone and Boaz hadn't yet shown he was ready to make things better still.

Gruntled said...

Agreed. As I argued in "Where the Action is in Family Policy," the government has a very limited role in the life of families. The family life we promote by our direct, person-to-person relations is really the most important thing that we can do.

Marty said...

Sorry, i'm just wondering about where and how we draw our lines. I mean, in the eyes of the law, some pretty crappy marriages are "good enough" -- and they are perfectly equal to those that are "great!" There's only one line, legally, and it is summed up by the phrase "good enough -- or better".

Then there are those relationships that are clearly not up to snuff, and legally they can be characterized as "not good enough -- or not even close!" This is another legal line.

So i guess my question is, are there two separate lines, with a gray area in between -- tolerated, but neither sanctioned nor stigmatized by the law (my original comment)? Or is there only one line -- and you are either under it or over it?

The "good enough" rules for marriage are already pathetically low:

1. partners must be of age (varys by state)
2. partners must be unmarried (unanimous by fed)
3. partners must not be too closely related by blood (varys by state)
4. partners must be opposite sexes (varys by one state)

"good enough" is easily acheivable by anyone, regardless of sexual orientation. I'm interested in raising the requirements myself, not lowering them still further. Settling for "good enough" does nothing whatsoever to further the "Ideal".

Gruntled said...

The reason I think we need both a "good" and a "good enough" category -- and to maintain the distinction between them -- is that single parent families are not as good for kids as having both their parents. If we say they are just as good, we do children an injustice, and encourage more parents to go it alone than otherwise would. On the other hand, if (as is politically inconceivable and would be a very bad idea) we were somehow to say that single-parent families are not good enough, we would do a grave injustice to single parents and their kids. SO, good enough to be tolerated, but not really good.

Anonymous said...

There are three types of positive relationship statuses -- in our customs, traditions, and laws.

The tolerated. This pretty much aligns with Marty's tolerated and benignly ignored idea. For example, polyamorous arrangements. Or friendships that feel like familial relationships.

The protected. This probably aligns with Gruntled's good enough idea. For instance, the child-parent relationship of unmarried moms and dads. The protection is usually accorded due to vulnerabilities.

The preferred. In the context of this discussion, that's marriage, which is not merely tolerated, not merely protected, but approved and encouraged as a good in itself.

The negative statuses are prohibited, penalized, or burdened with additional requirements, such as heavy monitoring.

There are grey areas between each pair of statuses. For example, some friendships are tolerated whether or not socially approved; however, when vulnerabilities rise to a certain level (variablely established in different jurisdicitons) there is a crossover toward protection or prohibition. Likewise, unwed cohabitation tends to be in a grey area between protected and preferred. That last example demonstrates the variability as some places use statutes to abolish common-law marriage while other places explicitly treat unwed cohabitation as marriage -- even for the purposes of policing polygamy.

Gruntled said...

I think cohabitation is tolerated because many people, mostly women, think that it is a step on the way to marriage, rather than an alternative to marriage. As more recent research that that is not really the case, it is shifting to the tolerated but discouraged category -- though it is shifting slowly.