The Meaning of Marriage
A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH
The Meaning of Marriage
Interview With Princeton's Robert George
PRINCETON, New Jersey, 20 MARCH 2006 (ZENIT)
Debates about the institution of marriage are often characterized as clashes between religious adherents and secularists, which imply the debate is one between faith and reason.
However, a new collection of essays from across the academic disciplines argues that marriage need not be defended solely through appeals to religious authority or tradition.
Robert P. George is co-editor with Jean Bethke Elshtain of "The Meaning of Marriage: Family, State, Market and Morals" (Spence). He is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University and serves on President George Bush's Council on Bioethics.
George shared with ZENIT some of the arguments presented in the book as to why marriage is an "intrinsic good." Part 2 of this interview will appear Tuesday.
Q: What compelled you to compile this book of essays on the meaning of marriage? What is so special about this collection?
George: These essays are important because they demonstrate that marriage isn't a sectarian issue or even a narrowly religious one.
Quite the contrary, the essays demonstrate the public importance of marriage and our ability as rational people to grasp the meaning, value and significance of marriage even when we do not invoke or appeal to special revelation or religious tradition.
Last December, Jean Bethke Elshtain and I hosted a three-day conference, sponsored by the Witherspoon Institute, that brought together leading scholars from across the academic disciplines — history, ethics, economics, law and public policy, philosophy, sociology, psychiatry, political science — to discuss marriage.
Scholars presented papers on their academic discipline's contribution to our understanding of marriage, and each of the disciplines offered profound insights into the importance of marriage both for individuals and for the nation.
The papers did not invoke revelation, religious authority or sectarian reasoning. This was the best of what's been termed "public reason" at work.
And the conclusions from everyone at the conference were that: a) marriage matters; b) marriage is in crisis; and c) we could be facing the virtual abolition of marriage if we go down the road of same-sex "marriage."
Professor Elshtain of the University of Chicago and I decided to compile these essays into a book because the information and arguments we were fortunate enough to have heard at the conference need to be disseminated throughout our nation. Every American who cares about civil society, child well-being and the condition of marriage in our culture needs to know about the scholarly findings reported in this collection.
Right now there is a public debate going on about marriage, but all too often it has devolved into shouting matches about same-sex "marriage" alone.
Our project tried to avoid this pitfall, and to examine the entire range of social problems at stake in the discussion of marriage: fatherlessness, cohabitation, divorce, out of wedlock childbearing, etc.
While I cannot mention every chapter in the book, there are three essays written from a social science perspective that I will mention.
Don Browning of the University of Chicago and Elizabeth Marquardt — author of "World's Apart" — have a fascinating essay, "What About the Children? Liberal Cautions on Same-Sex Marriage."
Maggie Gallagher, the president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, has an insightful essay entitled, "(How) Does Marriage Protect Child Well-Being?"
W. Bradford Wilcox, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, concludes the book with a reflection on marriage's impact on the least well off in society, in his essay, "Suffer the Little Children: Marriage, the Poor and the Commonweal."
Other essays include an argument on how the acceptance of same-sex "marriage" would erase the grounds of principle for rejecting polygamy and polyamory, that is, multiple partner sexual unions; an illuminating discussion of how "no-fault divorce" — unilateral divorce — has weakened marriage as an institution, and how the lessons learned from our mistake in embracing "no-fault" divorce might make us cautious as we contemplate even more radical changes; and arguments about the importance of marriage for the legal, political and economic welfare of our society.
When a generation ago people began to discuss "no-fault" divorce, few even considered whether allowing Adam to more easily divorce Eve would have anything other than positive effects on marriage and society as a whole.
In hindsight we can see how the introduction of "no-fault" divorce altered — for the worse — people's understanding of the meaning of marriage, with profoundly damaging social consequences.
That experience should make us very skeptical of claims that we can recognize the relationship of Adam and Steve as a "marriage" without further eroding a sound public understanding of what marriage means and what it truly is.
Q: Turning from the book as a whole to your particular contribution, a chapter on practical philosophy and marriage: What do you mean in your essay when you say that marriage is an "intrinsic good"?
George: I mean that marriage is properly understood as more than a means to ends that are extrinsic to it.
The value of marriage is not merely instrumental. Marriage is a basic human good — an irreducible aspect of the well-being and fulfillment of a man and woman who unite themselves to each other as spouses.
When one understands marriage properly as the permanent and exclusive union of sexually complementary spouses whose comprehensive, loving and faithful sharing of life is founded upon their "one-flesh" bodily unity, one sees that marriage provides a reason for action whose intelligibility as a reason does not depend on further goals or objectives to which it is a mere means.
In uniting a man and a woman at every level of their being — the biological, the emotional, the dispositional, the rational, the spiritual — marriage is intelligibly choiceworthy as an end in itself.
Just as the most fundamental point of non-marital friendship is friendship itself, and not other ends to which friendships may be useful as means, the most fundamental point of marriage is marriage itself.
Q: You note that much of the confusion about sex and marriage in our culture finds its roots in the thought of 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume. How is this so?
George: I don't want to place too much of the blame on poor old David Hume.
As I point out in my chapter of "The Meaning of Marriage," Hume himself held rather conservative views about marriage, recognizing it as a profoundly important social institution, one which needs and deserves support and protection by the formal institutions of society and by the customs and mores of the people.
The problem is not in what Hume taught about marriage; it is in what Hume taught about practical reason and moral truth.
As I've observed, a sound understanding of marriage recognizes it as an intrinsic good, or what, following Germain Grisez, I have called a basic human good — something persons have reason to choose precisely because they grasp its worth as an irreducible aspect of human well-being and fulfillment.
But Hume teaches that there are no basic human goods, no more-than-merely-instrumental reasons for choice and action. Rather, Hume supposes, all of our ends are given by subrational motivating factors, such as feeling, desire, emotion — what Hume called "the passions."
Reason, then, is reduced to a purely instrumental role in the domain of deliberation, choice and action. Reason cannot identify what is intelligibly desirable and thus choiceworthy; its role, on the Humean account of the matter, is merely to identify efficient means by which we can achieve whatever ends we happen to desire.
As Hume summed up his position, "reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and may pretend to no other office than to serve and obey them."
To the extent that Hume's teaching has been accepted, whether formally or merely implicitly, by contemporary men and women, it has led them to adopt a form of subjectivism — sometimes called "moral non-cognitivism" — that undermines a sound understanding of marriage and other basic human goods.
This is particularly damaging in the case of marriage, because marriage is the kind of good that can be participated in fully only by those who, however informally, understand it properly. Its capacity to enrich our lives as spouses — and, where the marriage is blessed with children, as parents — is significantly dependent on our understanding it and grasping its more-than-merely-instrumental value. ZE06032021
Interview With Princeton's Robert George
PRINCETON, New Jersey, 21 MARCH 2006 (ZENIT)
Proponents of same-sex "marriage" often claim that allowing same-sex couples to marry cannot possibly harm anyone else's marriage, as the relationship is distinctly private.
This argument prompted scholars from across the disciplines to gather together to offer distinctly "public reasons" for the preservation of the institution of marriage as a male-female union.
Their results have been gathered into a new book, "The Meaning of Marriage: Family, State, Market and Morals" (Spence), co-edited by Robert P. George and Jean Bethke Elshtain.
George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University and serves on President George Bush's Council on Bioethics.
The scholar shared with ZENIT why the ability to choose and meaningfully participate in marriage is dependent upon legal and cultural institutions that support that choice.
Part 1 of this interview appeared Monday.
Q: You describe the good of marriage as a "one-flesh communion of persons." Is that a distinctly religious concept?
George: No. The intrinsic value of marriage, understood as a comprehensive, multilevel sharing of life founded upon the bodily communion of sexually complementary spouses and naturally ordered to procreation and the upbringing of children, can be grasped, and has been grasped, by people of different faiths and by those of no particular faith.
The teachings of most, if not all, religions extend to marriage in one way or another, but the good of marriage can be known, and is known, by reason, even when unaided by revelation.
Even when it comes to providing a critical reflective account of marriage, John Finnis has made the point that the greatest philosophers of ancient Greece and jurists of pre-Christian Rome were able to articulate the foundations of a sound understanding of this great human good.
Of course, the language of "one-flesh union" derives from the Hebrew Bible and is powerfully reaffirmed by Jesus in the Gospels. For Jews and Christians, revelation reinforces and illuminates a great truth of natural law.
Q: Section 1652 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "By its very nature, the institution of marriage and married love is ordered toward the procreation and education of the offspring and it is in them that it finds its crowning glory." The Catechism thus appears to describe marriage in purely instrumental terms. Can you clarify how your position is consistent?
George: Sure. I have already remarked that married love and the institution of marriage are naturally ordered toward procreation and the upbringing of children.
But this is not to say that children are extrinsic ends to which marital union, in its sexual dimension or otherwise, is a mere means. "Ordered toward" does not mean "is merely a means to."
Perhaps the best evidence that the Church recognizes the intrinsic value of marriage and does not treat it merely as a means to procreation is her clear and unwavering teaching that people can have reason to marry, and may legitimately marry, and can be fully and truly married, even when the infertility of one or both spouses renders procreation impossible for them.
Marriages of infertile spouses are true marriages. They are not pseudo-marriages. They are not second-class marriages.
Because human beings are constituted as they are, thus constituting the human good as it is, it is intrinsically fulfilling for men and women to unite in a form of communion apt for — "ordered toward" — procreation and the upbringing of children even where, in their particular case, they will not be able to conceive or rear children.
Spouses truly become "one flesh" in their marital intercourse even when temporary or permanent infertility means that conception will not take place. It is worth noting that for Jews and Christians marriages are consummated by completed sexual intercourse, not by achieving the conception of a child.
However, nothing in the affirmation of this great truth contradicts the equally great truth that children conceived as the fruit of marital communion are indeed the "crowning glory" of marital love.
Children are not operational objectives of the sexual union of spouses or of the institution of marriage; rather, they, are gifts supervening on marital love to be welcomed and cherished as perfective participants in the community — the family — established by their parents' marital communion.
Q: Does the Church's recognition of the validity of infertile marriages contradict its teaching that marriage is necessarily the union of a man and a woman, rather than a union of any two persons, including persons of the same sex?
George: No. The key thing to see is that the Church, consistently with what we know by the light of natural reason, understands marriage as fundamentally and irreducibly a sexual relationship.
Any two — or more — people can live together, caring for each other and sharing each other's lives in many dimensions. But for a marriage to be brought into existence and be completed, a comprehensive, multilevel sharing of life must be founded on the bodily — biological — union of spouses.
A man and woman pledged to permanent fidelity to each other must become "one flesh" by virtue of the consummation of their union by intercourse in which they fulfill the behavioral conditions of procreation — whether or not the non-behavioral conditions necessary for conception to take place happen to exist.
In the absence of true biological union, persons cannot be sharing each other's lives in the uniquely marital way; their sharing of life cannot be a comprehensive sharing, one in which their communion at other levels is founded on their bodily communion.
It is by performing marital acts — acts that are procreative in type, whether or not they are reproductive in effect; and even if, due to disease, defect or a woman's age they cannot result in procreation — that a man and woman pledged in permanent fidelity to each other consummate and renew their marriage as a one-flesh union.
This is why marriages cannot be between more than two persons, however fond they are of each other and however committed to the group each may sincerely be; and it is why marriages cannot be between persons of the same sex.
Once we understand marriage as truly a one-flesh union, we see that sexual activity between or among members of polyamorous groups or between partners of the same sex, however much they may desire it or find it satisfying, is inherently non-marital.
Whatever one makes of claims that sexual play can enhance the emotional bonding of participants in polyamorous or same-sex relationships, plainly it cannot unite the sex partners maritally. Whatever its motive, objective or point, it cannot be biological, "one-flesh," unity — the very foundation and defining principle of marriage.
Please note, by the way, that the Church's teaching here reflects her understanding of the body as fully participating in the personal reality of the human being, and not as a mere subpersonal instrument for achieving ends or inducing satisfactions desired by the conscious and desiring aspect of the self — considered, as in dualistic theories, as the real person who inhabits and uses a body.
The biological union of spouses in procreative type acts can be true personal communion, precisely because we are our bodies — though, of course, we are not only our bodies — we are body-soul composites. We are not non-bodily persons — minds, souls, consciousnesses — residing in, or supervening on, and using non-personal bodies.
Q: If marriage is so self-evidently good, then why does the state need to intervene to preserve it? Couldn't it be preserved in churches and religious communities where it is celebrated and lived in the fullest sense?
George: This is a superficially appealing proposition.
Its appeal fades, however, the moment we consider both: a) the importance of marriages, and thus marriage considered as an institution, to the well-being of society and the state; and b) the vulnerability of marriage as an institution to social pathologies and to ideologies hostile to marriage that weaken the institution's immunities to these pathologies.
The most powerful and basic reason for the public's interest in marriage and its institutional health is its unique suitability for protecting children and rearing them to be upright people and responsible citizens.
As Brad Wilcox, Maggie Gallagher and other social scientists who have contributed to "The Meaning of Marriage" have shown, few things are as important to the public weal — and in our current circumstances almost nothing is more urgent — than creating and maintaining a set of social conditions in which children being raised by their moms and dads is the norm.
Certainly religious communities and other institutions of civil society have an indispensable role to play, but law has a role to play, too. The law is a teacher.
It will teach either that marriage is a reality in which people can choose to participate, but whose contours people cannot make and remake at will — e.g., a one-flesh communion of persons united in a form of life uniquely suitable to the generation, education and nurturing of children — or the law will teach that marriage is a mere convention, which is malleable in such a way that individuals, couples, or, indeed, groups, can choose to make of it whatever suits their desires, interests or subjective goals, etc.
The result, given the biases of human sexual psychology, will be the development of practices and ideologies that truly tend to undermine the sound understanding and practice of marriage, together with the development of pathologies that tend to reinforce the very practices and ideologies that cause them.
Oxford University philosopher Joseph Raz, himself a liberal who does not share my views regarding sexual morality, is rightly critical of forms of liberalism which suppose that law and government can and should be neutral with respect to competing conceptions of moral goodness.
In this regard, he has noted that: "Monogamy, assuming that it is the only valuable form of marriage, cannot be practiced by an individual. It requires a culture which recognizes it, and which supports it through the public's attitude and through its formal institutions."
Of course, Professor Raz does not suppose that, in a culture whose law and public policy do not support monogamy, a man who happens to believe in it somehow will be unable to restrict himself to having one wife or will be required or pressured into taking additional wives.
His point, rather, is that even if monogamy is a key element in a sound understanding of marriage, large numbers of people will fail to understand that or why that is the case — and therefore will fail to grasp the value of monogamy and the intelligible point of practicing it — unless they are assisted by a culture that supports, formally by law and policy, as well as by informal means, monogamous marriage.
What is true of monogamy is equally true of the other elements of a sound understanding of marriage.
In short, marriage is the kind of good that can be chosen and meaningfully participated in only by people who have a sound basic understanding of it and choose it with that understanding in mind; yet people's ability to understand it, and thus to choose it, depends crucially on institutions and cultural understandings that both transcend individual choice and are constituted by a vast number of individual choices. ZE06032121
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