First published at 365gay.com on February 26, 2010
Okay—so I promise that this is my last column for a while on the definition of marriage. Four out of five in a row is enough. http://www.365gay.com/archive/?id=15&logo=t
But I’ve learned a lot from writing these, especially because of comments from various marriage-equality opponents. Three points stick out.
First, the definitional argument is deeply important to them. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise anyone. But it does surprise me that even those who explicitly acknowledge that marriage is an evolving institution place great weight on what marriage has been, as if that would settle the question once and for all of what marriage can or should be. It doesn’t.
Second, marriage does not lend itself to a pithy definition. Whatever marriage is, its definition won’t be like, “A triangle is a three-sided plane figure.”
That’s because marriage is both evolving and multifaceted. Marriage is, among other things, a social institution, a personal commitment, a religious sacrament, and a legal status. It looks different from the spouses’ perspective than it does from the outside; it looks different respectively to anthropologists, philosophers, theologians, lawyers, and so on.
Each of these perspectives can tell us something about what marriage is; none of them is complete or final. Any definition they provide, however useful, will be partial.
Third, those who emphasize the definitional argument, when they’re not simply begging the question against marriage-equality advocates, often invoke a false dichotomy: Either marriage is a social institution for binding parents (and especially fathers) to their biological offspring, or else it is an adult expression of love—an expression that these opponents variously dismiss as selfish, empty, or “fluttery”.
Contrast this with the actual view of most marriage-equality advocates, which is that marriage is both of these things, and then some.
Yes, marriage is the cross-cultural institution that has provided for the needs of children. But how? What makes marriage so suited to this purpose?
I’ll hazard a guess: it does so because it is also an abiding commitment between the spouses. It binds them together “for keeps,” thus creating a stable environment for any children who arrive.
So the view that marriage consists in abiding love between adults is not merely COMPATIBLE with the view that marriage serves children’s welfare; the former actually helps explain the latter.
There’s nothing “fluttery” about this. The abiding love of marriage is not just a vague feeling or promise—it’s an ongoing activity. I’m reminded of the words of St. Augustine, “Dilige, et quod vis fac”: “Love, and do what you want.” Augustine knew that true love is challenging; it takes work.
After one of my recent columns, a prominent same-sex marriage opponent wrote:
“I invite you to look back at the entire world history of anthropological thought on the topic of what is marriage, and point out to me even ONE example of ONE scholar who has, based on ethnographic data, said, actually or in effect, since recorded history began, that marriage in human groups is properly defined as the promise of abiding love. If you can identify even one reputable scholar in the history of the world who has made such a statement or implied such a thing, I will grovel before you in abject intellectual humility and gladly buy you the lunch of your choice…”
Well, I couldn’t find an anthropologist who said that. Actually, I didn’t bother looking. Anthropologists define marriage by its cultural function, and “abiding love” isn’t really their angle. But I did find this:
“The inner and essential raison d’etre of marriage is not simply eventual transformation into a family but above all the creation of a lasting personal union between a man and a woman based on love.”
What radical, “fluttery” activist wrote these words?
Actually, it was Pope John Paul II.
Of course the late pope defines marriage as “between a man and a woman.” No shock there. But the interesting thing is that he writes that marriage is “above all…a lasting personal union…based on love.”
Perhaps he was distracted when he wrote this. Perhaps the Radical Gay Agenda had begun to infiltrate the Vatican.
Or perhaps the pope realized what most people know. Marriage is fundamentally a lasting personal union based on love—which is not to say that it is ONLY that.
As I said above—and it bears repeating—any neat definition of marriage will be partial and imperfect. There are counterexamples to this characterization, ways in which it is both too broad and too narrow.
But “marriage” is not definable in the way “triangle” or “bachelor” is.
And when marriage-equality opponents feel compelled to repudiate characterizations of marriage that The Gay Moralist, the previous pope, and most married couples all find obvious, you know they’re in trouble.