The Institution of Marriage, Same-Sex Unions, and Procreation

John H blogged on the connection between marriage and procreation and the infertility objection earlier today on Curlew River. While frequently employed as a facile and dismissive rejoinder to any argument that would identify procreation as a primary purpose of the institution of marriage, the fatuousness of the infertility objection can readily be exposed by closer inspection. Within this post, I will add a few more thoughts of my own on the particular character of the connection between marriage and procreation.

Institutions

Arguably the most significant conceptual obstacle within the current marriage debates is that of an institution. In informal dialogue with proponents of same-sex marriage over the last couple of years, it has been their failure to grasp what an institution implies, and to reflect upon the purposes of the institution of marriage that has most struck me. Although I am not usually wont to quote from such a source, the Wikipedia definition of an institution is quite helpful for our present discussion:

An institution is any structure or mechanism of social order and cooperation governing the behavior of a set of individuals within a given human community. Institutions are identified with a social purpose and permanence, transcending individual human lives and intention by enforcing rules that govern cooperative human behaviour.

One of the most consequential details of this definition is the distinction that it draws between the social purpose of an institution and the intentions of individual human lives. The purposes with which people enter into an institution should not be confused with the primary ends of the institution itself. Although institutions may be responsive and accommodating to the particular interests of those participating in them, and may even exist in large measure to serve such interests, their social purpose exceeds these interests and can never be reduced to them.

The distinction between individual interests and the social purpose of institutions should be readily apparent to most. It is the difference between the purpose of the university and the intentions of the individual undergraduate. It is the difference between the purpose of the army and the purposes of the individual who volunteers for the forces.

The social purposes of these institutions take precedence over the private intentions of individuals. In order to be accepted within the army or university, you need to meet their requirements and submit to their norms and formative training. Were the army or the university to reorganize themselves around the most common individual ends of those entering into them and to prioritize these over any ends transcending them, they would in all likelihood become considerably less effective as unified, purposeful, and effective social institutions. In many cases, institutions ordered purely around the interests of the individuals within them could prove injurious to the wider society.

De-institutionalization

When commentators remark upon the ‘de-institutionalization’ of marriage over the last few decades, it is to this sort of reorganization that they are referring: marriage ceases to serve a social purpose that transcends the couple, and reorients itself to be almost entirely ordered around their intentions. The abandonment of an institutional conception of marriage is perhaps the most noteworthy background for the same-sex marriage debate. It is this de-institutionalization that explains the focus upon and the persuasive power of the language of rights and equality in the present debate.

It is this de-institutionalization that explains why people who are fiercely opposed to the imposition of cultural norms upon people’s sex lives can nonetheless strongly support the introduction of same-sex marriage. While an institution of marriage ‘governs the behaviour’ of society, traditionally disapproving of or not encouraging non-marital sexual relations, expecting monogamy, sexual exclusivity, and lifelong commitment of married partners, and stigmatizing adultery and fornication, de-institutionalized marriage is just the public imprimatur and validation of a private lifestyle choice, whose norms can be adopted or abandoned at will, and which have little bearing on society more broadly.

This de-institutionalized conception of marriage underlies the habitual language of ‘extending’ marriage or ‘including’ same-sex couples. For a de-institutionalized form of marriage, such an exclusion is fairly arbitrary, as same-sex couples enter into their partnerships for much the same reasons and ends as most opposite sex couples do. However, if marriage is an institution with a social purpose, the inclusion of same-sex couples must be measured against the social ends that marriage serves, and their inclusion must be determined according to their capacity to conform to the shape that marriage takes in order to achieve these.

It also underlies the common claim that two persons of the same-sex getting married cannot harm your marriage. While it may not harm your marriage, it harms the institution of marriage, which, in the long term, harms everyone.

Marriage as an Institution

In order to understand how marriage has functioned in most past societies, it is necessary to understand it institutionally. As an institution, marriage has taken the form that it has in order to serve various social purposes. While for many in contemporary Western society they may eclipse all else, historically, securing the happiness, companionship, and the public celebration of the union of the married couple have been quite far down the list of priorities for the institution.

Like any institution, marriage has had a measure of indifference to the private ends of those entering into it. The coincidence of institutional and private ends is quite unnecessary, provided that the institutional form and purpose is maintained. The individual goals and motives of your doctor are of secondary importance, provided that he is serving the ends of the health service. Where its social purpose is generally served, an institution has little reason to pry into the intentions of those entering into and functioning within it.

A marked difference between the ends to which the institution of marriage is ordered and the reasons for which individuals enter into the state of matrimony is exactly what one should expect from such an institution. The fact that most people may not get married primarily in order to provide a committed and secure context for the conceiving and raising of children does not mean that this is not the primary end of the institution. Nor does the fact that the conception and raising of children is a primary end of the institution mean that this must be a primary goal for every married couple.

Marriage and Procreative Sex

As an institution, the relationship between marriage and procreation is fairly strong. It is rather unlikely that we would have an institution of marriage, were it not for the fact that men and women can have procreative sexual relations. As Bertrand Russell observed, ‘it is through children alone that sexual relations become of importance to society, and worthy to be taken cognizance of by a legal institution.’

In debates about same-sex marriage, the emphasis upon procreation and a particular form of sex on the part of those opposed to the innovation is not infrequently identified as proof of an unhealthy preoccupation: surely marriage cannot be reduced to penile-vaginal intercourse and procreation! While sex is only one dimension of marriage among many for the couple, as regards the public institution of marriage, it is arguably the dimension that is of primary interest: marriage is about a socially approved, regulated, and protected sexual relationship between a man and a woman.

The public institution of marriage does not focus on the intimacy associated with the sexual act, but on its objective form, often in explicit and cringe-inducing detail. While marriage has many levels of personal significance for the couple and their friends and family, levels of significance that go far beyond sex, as a public institution, marriage is constructed primarily around a form of sexual relation that can only exist between one man and one woman. Relationships between men and women are of interest to wider society because men and women can engage in a private sexual union with huge public consequences. For this reason, society has established an institution around this particular sexual act, guarding, regulating, encouraging, and celebrating it.

It is here that the most fundamental contrast between same-sex relationships and male-female relationships emerges. While male-female sexual relationships are of great concern to the wider society on account of their potential consequences, wider society arguably has no vested interest whatsoever in same-sex relationships. This is hardly a partisan observation: many of the very same people who argue for same-sex marriage will vociferously maintain that wider society has no business or interest in what takes place in the bedroom. This is particularly true in the case of same-sex relationships. Gay or lesbian sex has only really been of interest to wider society on account of public health concerns associated with it, or because such sex has been perceived to threaten the unique value and significance of sex that occurs between men and women. The notion of forming an institution around anal or oral sex really is as bizarre and pointless as it sounds, which is why same-sex marriage advocates have redrawn the picture of marriage in a manner that puts sex (along with children) firmly in the background.

Naturally, the position that I am articulating here entails a firm rejection of the fashionable assumption that all sex is equal and univocal (sex is sex is sex…), deriving its meaning and value purely from private intentionalities. Rather, coitus between a man and a woman has a unique and superior objective value and significance, irrespective of the level of the feelings and intentions vested in it by the participants. Society is justified in treating such sexual relationships between men and women differently, as they possess a weight and importance that no other form of sexual relationship could possess.

This position is unabashedly and unapologetically heteronormative. Sexual relations between a man and a woman possess an importance for human existence that is quite lacking in a same-sex relationship, no matter how loving or committed. Sexual relations between a man and a woman achieve what is arguably the primary natural purpose of our sexually dimorphous bodies, express the most fundamental anthropological and cultural difference in union (and these two purposes are achieved even in the case of infertile relationships), and are the bond from which practically every human being who has ever lived has been conceived. While sexual relations with another human being of the same sex may be the occasion of profound self-realization, bonding, personalization, and embodiment, they cannot open onto the same transcendent horizons of human nature. More importantly, for our purposes, they do not represent the interpersonal source of a wider society of shared flesh and blood, with the intrinsic potential to create something that can exceed the partners.

Marriage and the Interests of Children

Procreation and child-rearing are primary purposes of the institution of marriage, not through maximizing the number of children conceived, but in serving the social purpose of ensuring that society reproduces itself in a manner that provides a secure, loving, committed, and natural context for the conception and raising of children, protecting the interests of both children and society at large in the process. Marriage endeavours to encourage and create a loving, secure, and committed environment for every child born into the world. The form that marriage takes is designed to uphold and encourage a norm and ideal that is most beneficial to children.

The form of the institution of marriage protects the unity of biological (genetic and gestational), social, and legal parenthood. It protects the interests of both men and women in the raising of the next generation. It protects the norm and ideal of children being raised by their biological mother and father. It protects the norm and ideal of children only having two parents, and not additional step-parents, surrogate or egg donor mothers, and sperm donor fathers, for instance. It protects the norm and ideal of a unifying and loving bond between a child’s progenitors, a bond within which they have a secure foundation for their identity. It protects children from having a divided patrimony. It protects bonds of blood that connect siblings to their progenitors, siblings, and extended families, giving them identity and kinship.

Marriage protects the humanizing norm and ideal of children finding their origins in an aneconomic, pre-technological, pre-political loving exchange of pledged bodies in a lifelong exclusive union. Marriage takes the form that it does because the union of a man and a woman is the source from which all human society must ultimately spring (bringing together the two halves of the human race in a unitive and generative union marriage is the protological form and icon of society as a whole), and is a more fundamental human reality than the market, politics, the law, technology, or medicine. It thus protects the truth that we transcend all of these other manifestations of human choice, providence, right, control, intervention, payment, or measurement, finding our deepest origins and deriving our truest identity from an economy of joyful gift and gratuity.

I have argued in the past that the changing definition of marriage brings with it a new understanding of the place, meaning, and value of children within our society. It downplays the importance of the rights of children formerly vested in the institution of marriage, arguing that biological parenthood, the presence of both a mother and a father, and simple origins can be treated with increasing indifference. Children, we are frequently reminded, are resilient, flexible, and adaptable. With this change comes growing tolerance and demand for the use of reproductive technologies to circumvent natural forms of procreation, and the expectation that adoption should proceed without regard to the norm and ideal represented in marriage (that every child should have a mother and a father of their own, who are bound together in a lifelong and exclusive union).

We should also be careful not to think purely in terms of the individual child. Changes in this area affect our understanding and perception of children more generally. Even though the child in a particular context might do well, a greater willingness to use reproductive technologies and to support unconventional child-rearing situations has consequences that extend beyond individual children to affect our perception and treatment of children and the unborn more generally. A particular example of this is the increasing dominance of the concept of the child as ‘choice’, and the framing of matters in terms of reproductive ‘rights’, privileging the rights of the adult on the presumption that children are resilient and adaptable. Marriage has traditionally been seen to be naturally ordered towards the conceiving and raising of children. At the base of marriage was the concept of openness to the gift of children, not entitlement as a right, or pure subjection to our decision as a choice. While the new phenomenology of the child can be great for the ‘chosen’ and ‘wanted’ children, it decreases our capacity to be open to ‘unwanted’ children, to those children (such as those born with severe disabilities) who do not conform to our ‘choice’. When our claims, our rights, and our entitlement takes priority in such a manner, we lose sight of the natural giftedness of the relationship between parent and child and the receptive openness and hospitality that the parent must maintain towards their child’s existence, however gifted or limited they might be, whatever characteristics they might possess, whatever they end up doing with their lives.

Marriage and the Infertile

The relationship between marriage and the infertile is clearer to understand when we appreciate our earlier distinctions between institutions and the private ends and behaviours of persons within them. Marriage does not exist to maximize procreation, but to encourage the occurrence of procreation and child-rearing within a secure, loving, and committed context, within which the interests of children are upheld. It is established around a form of sexual union apt for procreation, a sexual relationship to which it gives peculiar significance, and a form of relationship that most serves the interests of children.

Marriage integrates various ends, both public and private, into a single institutional form. These ends include, but are not limited to, the fulfilment of our desire for human companionship, sexual intimacy and relations, kinship, and offspring, the securing of the wellbeing of children and the protection and encouragement of their lifelong relationships with their natural parents, the bringing together of the sexes in society, the passing on of a legacy and family line, the creation of extended family bonds, the protection of blood relationships, and the formation of alliances and connections between families.

While infertile relationships may not fulfil all of these ends, they strengthen the institution by their commitment to it as the fundamental societal form within which we integrate these ends. An infertile couple’s marriage is no less a marriage on account of the fact that it produces no children. If infertile couples were to pursue sexual relations and companionship outside of marriage, it would encourage the dis-integration of the ends of marriage. By entering into marriage they are affirming that these things need to be held together within a single form (much as single people who abstain from sexual relations outside of marriage honour the union and its integrity). They are also declaring that the form of relationship that brings together the two sexes as one, and is the natural context for the conception, bearing, and raising of children should be accorded particular honour, which involves submission to the societal norms that surround it.

The crucial difference between these and same-sex relationships is found in the fact that same-sex relationships cannot integrate the various goods and ends of marriage into a single form. At best they are relationships in which ends detached from the integrating form represented by marriage are pursued in a less integrated manner. The problematic character of same-sex relationships in much Christian and other religious and philosophical thought arises from the belief that they may not merely represent un-integrated ends, but may be expressions of the disintegration of ends (much as adultery or other non-marital forms of sexual relations).

Recognizing same-sex relationships as marital entails a reorganization of the form of marriage itself and the necessary loss of its social purpose. Infertile relationships, by contrast, maintain and even strengthen the social purpose and form of the institution, despite the fact that they may not fulfil certain of the primary purposes of the institution themselves.

Homosexual Couples and Children

At this point, I should address the objection of those who argue that the fact that many same-sex couples are raising children should entail recognition for their unions. As I have already maintained, homosexual unions, in contrast to genuine marriages, have no intrinsic connection whatsoever to the bearing or the raising of children, nor are they ordered in terms of the goods of these ends. The sexual relation between a homosexual couple is categorically different from the organic bodily union that can exist between a man and a woman. A homosexual union is completely irrelevant to the bearing and raising of children. Homosexual unions bear no relation whatsoever to the marital act by which children are conceived. The parties in such a union are not the two natural parents of any children that they raise, and there is always the intervention or involvement of some third party. A homosexual union also radically departs from the natural mother and father form of parenthood.

There is no more reason to recognize such a union on account of the fact that the couple may happen to be raising a child between them than there would be to recognize a union between any other two persons who happened to raise a child between them apart from a sexual relationship. Their sexuality and their sexual partnership really is an irrelevancy as far as the ends of child-bearing and rearing go. In contrast, there are extremely good reasons why society should take cognizance of committed sexual partnerships between men and women, because these are the sorts of relationships that are conducive to, congruent, and consistent with the natural ends of both child-bearing and rearing (connecting children to their natural parents, giving them both a mother and a father, representing the two halves of humanity and society in their upbringing, etc.).

When it comes to the adoption of children, we are seeking to restore a broken situation to something that is as close as possible to the ideal. In certain cases the best available option for a child may be a single person, an unmarried couple or group of persons, or a same-sex couple. However, all else being equal, there should be an overwhelming preference for a situation where the child will have both a mother and a father. No adult has the ‘right’ to adopt a child. It must always be the needs of the child that take precedence: adults merely assume a set of duties.

Conclusion

This post has defended a position of opposition to same-sex marriage. At the heart of this case is a challenge to the assumption embedded in the language of ‘equality’ that so animates the same-sex marriage case. My claim is that, whereas in such cases as interracial marriage, restrictions could be shown to be arbitrary, discriminating between couples on the basis of differences that were indifferent to the ends of the institution itself, in the case of same-sex marriage, the differences are not indifferent. In the case of same-sex marriage, the differences strike at the heart of the ends of the institution. ‘Equality’ is only meaningful when people are in fact equal according to a clear set of criteria. Measured according the social purposes of the institution of marriage and the form that marriage takes in order to achieve these purposes, same-sex marriage is clearly not equal. In contrast, an infertile marriage between a man and a woman is in keeping with the form of marriage and also advances its purpose, not just by serving some of the ends of marriage directly, but also by encouraging its integration of ends more generally.

In treating same-sex unions, I believe that our discussion needs to be driven, not by a demand for equal treatment of forms of relationship that are quite different, but by the expectation of equitable treatment for all members of and partnerships within society, treating them impartially and fairly according to their particular merits and needs.

If a case is to be made for institutional recognition of same-sex unions, I believe that it should be clear that the institutional recognition that they should receive should be something distinct from marriage. This recognition should be contingent upon such unions adopting an institutional form – being subject to social norms and serving a social purpose that transcends the ends of those within them. The value, status, and degree of public recognition that society should accord to these unions should depend upon the measure to which society’s larger ends are served by their existence. Such institutional status should most definitely not be expected as a matter of entitlement, principally for the purposes of personal affirmation.

Should no social purposes compelling enough to provide a rationale for the existence of such relationships in a regulated and publicly encouraged institutional form be found, society can nonetheless make equitable legal provision for those who wish to enter into a secure and committed relationship with a person of the same sex, without thereby according such relationships the peculiar social approbation of institutional status, treating them as private relationships, not subject to higher institutional norms.

 

UPDATE: I have produced further questions and answers here, in a page that should always be easily accessible from my front page (under ‘Larger Projects’).

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57 Responses to The Institution of Marriage, Same-Sex Unions, and Procreation

  1. Heather Webber says:

    Don’t we as Christians just follow what the Bible says? We don’t have to get into fundamental arguments of the Institution?

    • Thanks for the comment, Heather. Yes, as Christians we have a duty to follow what the Bible says. I believe that the Bible clearly teaches that marriage is something that takes place between one man and one woman (polygamy isn’t an exception to this pattern: polygamy is one man entering into many marriages, not having a single marriage with many women).

      However, as we share a society with many people who do not accept the authority of the Scriptures, we need to articulate our convictions in a manner that invites and enables rational consensus-forming discourse, appealing to beliefs and truths that we hold in common with non-Christian members of society. It is only through such discourse that we can move beyond the mud-slinging of the current ‘debate’ and start to engage in the sort of challenging dialogue that we need.

      The key issue in the current debates concerns the state’s institutional recognition of committed same-sex unions as marriages. The institutional dimensions of marriage are not the only dimensions of the union, but they are the dimensions with which the state is particularly concerned. Given this fact, I believe that a focus upon institutionality is appropriate and merited in this context. Were the context of discussion that of Church blessing of same-sex unions, or a church’s claim that such unions constitute marriages, different categories and terms would come into play (‘blessing’, ‘sacrament’, ‘symbol’, etc.), questions of Christian sexual morality would be central, and different texts would be focused upon (the Scriptures, of course, but also the Church’s traditional teaching on the subject and historical practice).

      • Toonful says:

        You have done a wonderful job of making clear why marriage is what it is – the activists though have an agenda to destroy the nuclear family – so that the state calls all the shots – they know what you say is true – but it does not fit with their concept of government as an institution.

      • Toonful says:

        I have posted your blogs on my Facebook page – for others that agree to have a lucid argument.

  2. Heather Webber says:

    Yes I see what you mean. Still the real problem in this country is that people ‘pussyfoot’ around the fact as to what is actually written in the Bible. – ‘It is written’ – There is no room for debate or negotiation. Especially to the intellectual who just likes a good argument! But in saying that I can see by your article that the ‘institution’ has been eroded. It is far more far reaching than the erosion in our countryside and needs to be addressed.

    • Heather:

      How does one come about trusting the Bible unless it validates itself against existential realities to some level of confidence? If I do not require evidence to believe; than why not choose the Koran or the Sanskrit scriptures or the homosexual ‘bibles’ that are now coming out?

      God enjoins to seek (various places in Proverbs), to pray (James 1) and even promises (Psalm 19) wisdom, to understand the rationale for his adages, assertions of truth etc.

      How can you be useful in this world without substantiating your belief? Even the practicable application of your faith is supposed to ultimately produce outcomes that serve as part witness of the superiority of the counsel that you are following.

      “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you.” (1 Peter 3:15)

  3. There are a number of good arguments here, but I’m not convinced about the main point. Although we should obviously be considering the children’s needs first here, I’m still not sure why this would necessarily exclude homosexual parents. You stated that while there are a number of possible home environments for children to be adopted into, heterosexual couples should be given precedence over others (such as single parents and homosexual couples). For a start, I’m not sure if that’s how the adoption system works (prospective parents are evaluated on their own rights, rather than in relation to others), but to make that kind of statement you would need to provide evidence that homosexual adoptions are harming children in some way (and more than traditional environments, which have plenty of their own problems despite being more ‘natural’). It does seem that two parents are better than one on the whole, but is there any evidence that they need to be different sexes? As to the sexual relationship being irrelevant to the family unit, this may be true in the biological sense but in a very real sense the (sexual and non-sexual) intimacy shared between two partners is part of the process of building a secure and loving environment to raise children.

    With regard to the institution of marriage, it seems the institutional element has value to protect the interests of society at large, the family, the couple and any children coming from this relationship. The benefits of marriage to society would seem to include creating a stable child rearing environment, ensuring financial security for those who cannot support themselves (such as the elderly, disabled, children etc.), creating a more stable society in general and so on. It isn’t immediately clear what any of these things have a lot to do with the gender of those in the marriage. For families, providing progeny and joining families together would be some of the more traditional benefits. In China, the lack of consideration for children who are not blood related would suggest that this is not really the universal good that it might seem. I would see the principle that the needs of society trump those of the individual in an institution such as marriage as being the cause of a huge amount of suffering, especially to women. The fact that it is changing carries plenty of problems, but on the whole could be seen as a positive development.

    One of the areas that I’m really not sure about is the idea that gay marriage undermines the institution of marriage or contributes to its ‘de-institutionalization’. If anything, it is evidence of the opposite, that these gay couples are not seeking merely to pursue casual relationships, but instead wish to take part in the social responsibilities and involvement that marriage offers. This includes caring for children and for their partners in the case of their own death or incapacity. There isn’t a whole lot of pressure on gay couples to get married, if anything they are considering this move more carefully than straight couples and are more likely to be serious about staying together.

    Finally, I think it is quite right for homosexuals to see this as a rights issue. It has a lot to do with acceptance as part of society, where their contribution to society is recognised and encouraged. For many homosexuals that I have spoken with, they are looking for many of the things that married couples would seek – community, social involvement, recognition of their part in society etc. For them to be given some second tier relationship status would undermine this without good reason, in my opinion.

    I am aware that a lot of this seems overly critical, and unfortunately due to time difference we may not get to discuss it much. However, it would be good to hear your opinions on a few of these issues. It’s great to see you back online again after the break over Lent!

    • Thanks for the comment, Jonathan. Always good to see you around these parts! You raise some important questions. Don’t worry about being critical at all. Critical engagement on all sides is exactly what the current debate needs: it represents a huge improvement upon mere bald assertions, speaking past each other, or name-calling.

      In response to the points that you raise, there is a need to make some important distinctions here. Adoption does not represent a normal situation, but is an exception, being a response to a situation where something has gone wrong. As you observe, such exceptional cases need to be assessed on their individual merits. At the outset we should be wary of reordering and redefining the institution of marriage, which is about establishing a norm and ideal, in order to conform it to such exceptions.

      Indeed, much of the social purpose of marriage is to keep such things as the need for adoption and the practice of abortion to a minimum. While couples should be encouraged to adopt needy children, the entire process of biological parents giving up their children for adoption and another family adopting them is not a normal practice and is something that we should seek to keep to a minimum.

      I do not believe that gay couples make bad parents. Indeed, there is no reason to deny that in some cases they may even outperform most married couples in securing positive outcomes for their children. Judging and comparing each individual case on its own merits is not the way that an institution works, however. Institutions establish and maintain norms and forms of practice that serve a social purpose and aim at a culture-wide effect. An institution does not deal with practices in an atomistic and detached manner, but is designed to establish the normal parameters of a larger relational and social ecology.

      At the heart of my argument is an insistence that we need to think about the same-sex marriage question institutionally. The question that same-sex marriage advocates need to address is that of the culture-wide effect of changing the parameters of marriage in the manner that same-sex marriage would require.

      Such changes will always be most noticeable in the marginal cases. While most, thinking from the perspective of their own marriage, will believe that, for instance, a slight relaxation of divorce laws will have hardly any impact on society, such small changes can have a huge impact in behaviour among the marginal cases, as many such changes over the last few decades have demonstrated. While marriage continues in many quarters, it is nearing extinction in some other communities, especially among the poor. In such a context, marriage ceases to function as a strong set of cultural norms for all persons and becomes more of a private lifestyle choice for the few.

      The real question here, then, is not whether gay couples can raise children as well as male-female couples, but whether the institution of marriage would be as strong or stronger or as effective or better at serving its social purpose were marriage to treat the roles of motherhood and fatherhood, the complete coincidence of biological (genetic and gestational), social, and legal parenthood, and the conception of children in the context of a pre-technological, pre-political, aneconomic loving exchange of pledged bodies as matters of relative indifference to its form. Conversely, the attempt to stay as close to this norm as possible, even in the case of adoption, should not be interpreted as a denigration of same-sex couples’ parenting abilities, but as a commitment to a norm that serves the best interests of children more generally.

      Procreative intercourse is the means by which virtually all persons are conceived into the world, and the sexual union between husbands and wives is the source of our most powerful social bonds, bonds such as the one that you and I share. This fact alone provides a strong prima facie case for treating sexual partnerships between men and women differently from those that exist between persons of the same sex. Marriage upholds the parameters of the site where children are welcomed into the world. It seeks to ensure that their entrance into the world occurs in the context of a loving and committed relationship, which is intrinsically open to their existence, where their relationship with both of their birth parents is maintained and no complicating third parties are involved, where provision is made for their future, and where the relationship that represents their origins is held together. This is why the gender of those in a marriage matters.

      The fact that there is a deep and natural bond that exists between children and their biological parents, and children abandoned by their biological parents are far less likely to find an unconditional welcome elsewhere, is perhaps one of the chief reasons why society has an interest in encouraging procreation to occur in a context where these bonds are honoured and strengthened, and where biological parenthood is held together with social and legal parenthood. A social institution that provides for the formation of these bonds in a responsible and committed environment ensures that most children will be provided for within the realm of primary moral duty and concern (the duty and concern that we bear to our immediate relatives), rather than having to throw themselves upon the broader charity of society, where, without an immediately responsible party, it is far less likely that the duties towards them will be assumed. The idea that we should or could have equal concern and responsibility for all parties in society, independent of their proximity of relationship to us, or the immediacy, specificity, clarity, and weight of the moral duties that we bear towards them is unrealistic and unworkable. Rather than trying to replace the sense of duty inherent in our biological bonds with some universal, unsituated moral duty to children in general, related to us or not, the interests of children are best served as we seek to create a situation where as few as possible fall outside of the ambit of a firmly defined moral duty assumed in sexual union, and institutionally articulated in marriage. This does not mean that we should not also strengthen our more universal sense of moral responsibility, but it is on the immediate moral duty and its inherent strength that our accent should fall when seeking to improve the lot of children.

      While I have seen a number of people praising same-sex marriages on account of the fact that practically every child within them, save for those brought in from previous relationships, is ‘chosen’, such people fail to appreciate the point of marriage: the institution of marriage exists to secure a welcome for the unchosen, for the marginal cases. By changing the character of marriage in a manner that no longer orders it around procreation and welcoming children into the world, and adopting an approach to children based upon welcoming them on our terms, according to our choice, and in fulfilment of our procreative and adoption rights, we end up having many more abortions, a lot more need for adoption and fostering, many more broken homes, and children raised in unstable situations.

      This, in passing, is one of the greatest problems with reproductive technology. While those born through such technology may turn out well and be raised by loving parents, the use of such technology, leaving to one side the problematic moral character of many of the methods employed, changes our perspective on children in general, moving away from a position of unconditional welcome to one more characterized by choice. The true cost of such a change is not principally seen in the case of those children that are ‘chosen’, but in our treatment of the many children who are ‘unchosen’.

      While many kids would still be raised well were such norms abandoned, and many gay parents will prove to be very effective, attentive, and loving parents, refocusing the institution of marriage upon a generic sexual partnership between any two persons of either sex is a rejection of the child-oriented form of the union. With this reorientation comes a greater demand for relaxation of the child-oriented norms and expectations that surround marriage. Any stigma upon or discouragement of non-marital sex, the expectation that couples should pursue marriage, the norms of sexual exclusivity and monogamy, and the difficulty associated with divorce all start to rankle when marriage is redefined in such a way.

      It should not come as a surprise that, on all of these counts, gay ‘marriages’ in societies that permit them tend to exhibit markedly different forms of behaviour from their male-female counterparts. Only a relatively small percentage of gay couples actually marry, they tend to get married much later than male-female couples (although there may be various reasons for this), non-marital sexual relations and partnerships generally carry hardly any social stigma in gay communities, the practice of sexual exclusivity is dramatically lower, the practice of ‘open marriage’ or non-monogamy is extremely high, and the unions tend to result in divorce considerably more frequently, which is extremely surprising when one considers that the majority of the homosexual population do not seem to have same-sex marriages, and these marriages tend to occur later in life. While these forms of behaviour, which result from forming marriage around the desires of the partners may not be so much of an issue in the context of childless unions, their potential consequences for the norms of marriage more generally are extremely concerning. They make marriage far less accommodating and secure a place for children to be born into. While a number of gay couples may want children, gay marriage is primarily focused upon the needs and desires of adults. This is a problem.

      The benefits of having a parent of both sexes may not easily measurable, and relate to more than the individual child. One benefit is that it represents resistance to the idea of reproductive autonomy, presenting the process of procreation as something that necessitates the lifelong cooperation of a male and a female partner, upholding the centrality of the relationship between the sexes for the health of society, and ensuring the stake of both sexes in society’s future. It discourages the normalization of the use of reproductive technology, surrogate parents, and donor parents, practices that render the identity and existence of children far more vulnerable to our will and choice. We honour the role of both fathers and mothers, and most importantly encourage biological fathers and mothers to assume their roles, when we refuse to encourage situations where one of these parties is absent. It is a way that society maintains the norm of the sexes being intimately and deeply involved with each other in the shared project of child-bearing and rearing that is at the heart of society and being profoundly vulnerable to each other within it.

      While sexual intimacy may provide for a secure and loving environment in some contexts, I do not believe that sexual intimacy is necessarily more effective at securing such an environment than other forms of intimacy. Actually, and perhaps more importantly, I am not sure that ‘intimacy’ really is the crucial factor that we are looking for: far more important than intimacy is the profound personal commitment of each party to the other. Intimacy doesn’t ensure such a commitment, and many such committed and loving relationships may not actually be all that intimate. For instance, while our family relationships may in many respects be very close and committed, ‘intimacy’ doesn’t really capture the source of their strength.

      Given the shape of current society, we tend to privilege sexual intimacy over all other forms of intimacy, and place a huge weight of expectations as regards intimacy upon the institution of marriage. This emphasis upon intimacy can, paradoxically, decrease the strength of the union, which was formerly founded more upon mutual commitment. So, no, while healthy, I do not believe that the presence of sexual intimacy really is such a crucial factor. Profoundly close relationships can also take completely non-sexual forms, and many such relationships can be more committed and loving than most marital relationships. Siblings, cohabiting friends, comrades or boon companions have in many cultures formed relationships whose strength and intimacy eclipse most marriages, and such relationships continue to exist within our society. Why sexual intimacy should be privileged over these other sorts of intimacy and strong relationships, even despite its frequently volatile character in comparison to these other bonds and the pressures that can accompany it, is not entirely clear to me.

      I agree with you that same-sex couples seek the social involvement, inclusion, and status that marriage represents. However, this is not at all inconsistent with the points that I have made about de-institutionalization. De-institutionalization is about the attenuation or abandonment of the primary social purposes of an institution in order to reorganize it around the various private ends and intentions of its participants or members. There is nothing about such a reorganization that prohibits a sense of togetherness or a sense of participating in something greater than yourself. As I have observed, the private ends that same-sex couples have for wanting committed unions are much the same as those that most male-female couples have. By calling both of the resulting unions ‘marriages’ they would experience a sense of togetherness, on account of the acknowledged congruency of their private ends, and a sense of participation in a shared cultural form. However, this cultural form would still be de-institutionalized, as it would no longer be directed towards the social purpose of ensuring a loving and committed setting for procreation and child-rearing, but would find its identity primarily in the lowest common denominator of the private intention of close and committed sexual partnership.

      As for gay couples facing little pressure to get married, this is hardly an argument in favour of same-sex marriage. Marriage has historically tended to function as a social norm for all persons within a society, its norms shaping the behaviour of married and unmarried. Marriage needs to function as a social norm because sexual partnerships between men and women have the natural tendency to be procreative, and there is a social imperative to seek to ensure that such procreative relationships are, when at all possible, undertaken responsibly, with responsibility being taken for the children that can be conceived and a minimization of parents aborting, neglecting, or giving up children for adoption. Within gay communities, by contrast, marriage functions as society’s imprimatur upon a personal lifestyle choice, with little sense of any social imperative and the need to hold together sex, procreation, and a lifelong, monogamous, and sexual exclusive committed form of relationship. This different conception of marriage is troubling and far from an argument in same-sex marriage’s favour. Also, while you suggest that they are more likely to be serious about staying together, as I have already observed, many statistics suggest that, in a number of key contexts where same-sex marriage has existed for some time (as opposed to places where it has just been introduced), despite marrying at a much lower rate, at a later age, and after having been together for longer, considerably more same-sex relationships end in divorce (see this study on Sweden, for instance).

      I quite understand why homosexuals would regard this as a rights issue from their perspective. However, I do not believe that homosexual partnerships can contribute to society what committed male-female partnerships can, namely a context of love, commitment, security, and welcome at the place where children enter into the world, and a strengthening of the bonds and identities that are most integral to human society and personhood. The institution of marriage has always had a unique sexual relationship at its heart. The sexual relationship at the heart of gay partnerships just does not have anything remotely resembling the social significance of the marital union between a man and a women, notwithstanding the fact that, for the partners involved it is probably no less loving, committed, and psychically important. Until gay sex starts producing babies, I do not believe that homosexual partnerships merit equal recognition, and for the reasons outlined in this sprawling comment and the post above, I believe that conflating such unions with marriage jeopardizes the clarity of the social purposes of the latter.

      None of this is to deny that homosexual persons don’t need and have a natural right to community, social involvement, and recognition of their part in society. Speaking as a single person, we all deserve such things. I do not have to regard myself as a second class citizen because the relationships that are important to me do not have the institutional and societal recognition that society bestows upon marriage. This is because, while they may be no less important to me than the relationships enjoyed by those in marriage, they are less important for wider society. This should be a fairly basic distinction. What we do not deserve is social and institutional recognition of our relationships that do not powerfully serve social purposes as if they did. Marriage is not about personal affirmation, but about the achievement and protection of social goods and ends. This does not mean that we should not acknowledge the psychic and personal importance that relationships bear for those within them, celebrate with and reaffirm this importance to such persons, or provide individuals with means to pursue and protect such relationships. However, this is not and never was the primary purpose of the institution of marriage as it relates to the state (this is not to deny that immediate communities may have an interest in giving form to and celebrating such unions among their members: that is an issue that must be treated in its own place).

      Unfortunately, the next few days are going to be incredibly busy, so I will not have the time to respond again, which is why I tried to cover all of the points that you raise above in this one rather epic comment! :)

  4. Heather Webber says:

    You are missing the point —- ‘It is written’ A Man shall leave his father and mother and shall cleave to his wife and the two shall become one. (From the beginning) So you are stating a political agenda not a theological one. What the political landscape is doing is not our concern here. They must do as they must do. The state and the church should be separate, then Christianity can love instead of debate! We are called to love and do what the Bible says in following Jesus. I don’t see Him having any debates with people about politics in the Bible.

    • Thanks again for the comment, Heather. I disagree with you: the political landscape should be of significance to us as Christian citizens who seek the peace and well-being of our nation, the good of the poor, needy, and vulnerable, and the establishment of justice for the oppressed. While our social convictions in such areas may found their source primarily in our Christian faith, I believe that it is our duty to give voice to these convictions, addressing them forcefully to the political realm that we share with our fellow citizens, Christian and non-Christian, in a form of language accessible and applicable to all parties.

      I do not believe that it is our duty to advance a partisan agenda, but to seek the good of all persons, both Christian and non-Christian. I firmly believe that resistance to same-sex marriage is not about winning some partisan culture war, but must be about seeking a society in which all parties can flourish and know peace, even those who disagree with us. While I believe that same-sex marriage is deleterious and contrary to the good of society, most especially that of children, I am firmly in favour of multi-lateral conversations with members of all parties within society, including practising homosexuals and those of other or no faith, seeking to pursue a social order in which all are treated with equity.

      I also believe that the Church has the duty to speak out in a distinct voice that represents the gospel proclamation to such social issues, and faithfully to uphold the authority of God’s Word in the Scriptures in teaching and in practice. Our commitment to such a discourse need not negate our practice of the other form of political discourse.

  5. philjames says:

    Alastair, this was very helpful. Thank you.
    I’ve often thought that ‘marriage’ as traditionally understood is a lost cause- not because it is likely to be extended to same sex couples, but rather because everyone seems to agree about the validity of sexual identity (whether hetero, homo, or otherwise) and the idea that marriage is most fundamentally about sexual expression with the ‘one true love’ of the West’s Romantic Myth.
    That battle was lost decades ago, but few seem to know it. Most are arguing over orifices, not marriage.

    • Phil, I more or less agree with you. Same-sex marriage is the logical outworking of contemporary commitments concerning marriage, sex, and procreation more generally, commitments that were established long before same-sex marriage appeared on the horizon. The significance of same-sex marriage is that it is the de jure establishment of what is already the de facto cultural understanding of marriage. It is the institutionalizing of the revolution.

  6. philjames says:

    I agree.
    Without denying the possibility of a ‘thoughtful embrace’, I suspect that such a revolution is only possible because we have thoughtlessly embraced certain technologies. It reminds me of our attitudes towards the land and our food. For most of us in my part of the world, food comes from the local supermarket. We have been blinded to the most fundamental of realities, and are vulnerable and foolish because of it.
    Like those who think of farming, cooking, etc as personal hobbies, we’ve forgotten where the next generation really comes from.

    • I think that it is also fair to say that these changes in our understanding of marriage have arisen, in many cases, as the flipside of very positive changes. For instance, the modern stress upon marriage as a place of companionship, deep friendship, and intimacy is an extremely healthy thing, despite the many problems that surround it.

  7. philjames says:

    Yes, I can see that.
    Are you familiar with Love, Covenant and Meaning by Jonathon Mills? I greatly appreciated his argument, but also felt the force of Gilbert Meilaender’s criticism in First Things that it is a positive development that Eros can now play a larger role in most marriages. I think your distinction between the purpose of the institution and one’s reason for entering into it is helpful in resolving this for me.

    • No, I’m not familiar with it. I definitely agree that it is a positive development that eros can play a greater role in marriage (provided that it does not play the sort of unhealthy mediating role that I describe here).

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  9. Paul D Baxter says:

    Perhaps your biggest problem here is that “wont” means “in the habit of”, which appears to be the opposite of what you meant.

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  11. David says:

    Reblogged this on the PUBLIC HOUSE and commented:
    Some very interesting reflections on marriage from a young PhD student in England.

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  15. Rubati says:

    Reblogged this on The Rationality of Faith and commented:
    ‘ Arguably the most significant conceptual obstacle within the current marriage debates is that of an institution. In informal dialogue with proponents of same-sex marriage over the last couple of years, it has been their failure to grasp what an institution implies, and to reflect upon the purposes of the institution of marriage that has most struck me. Although I am not usually wont to quote from such a source, the Wikipedia definition of an institution is quite helpful for our present discussion:

    “An institution is any structure or mechanism of social order and cooperation governing the behavior of a set of individuals within a given human community. Institutions are identified with a social purpose and permanence, transcending individual human lives and intention by enforcing rules that govern cooperative human behaviour.”

    One of the most consequential details of this definition is the distinction that it draws between the social purpose of an institution and the intentions of individual human lives. The purposes with which people enter into an institution should not be confused with the primary ends of the institution itself. Although institutions may be responsive and accommodating to the particular interests of those participating in them, and may even exist in large measure to serve such interests, their social purpose exceeds these interests and can never be reduced to them.The distinction between individual interests and the social purpose of institutions should be readily apparent to most. It is the difference between the purpose of the university and the intentions of the individual undergraduate. It is the difference between the purpose of the army and the purposes of the individual who volunteers for the forces.

    The social purposes of these institutions take precedence over the private intentions of individuals. In order to be accepted within the army or university, you need to meet their requirements and submit to their norms and formative training. Were the army or the university to reorganize themselves around the most common individual ends of those entering into them and to prioritize these over any ends transcending them, they would in all likelihood become considerably less effective as unified, purposeful, and effective social institutions. In many cases, institutions ordered purely around the interests of the individuals within them could prove injurious to the wider society.’

  16. clarkd52 says:

    “Marriage does not exist to maximize procreation, but to encourage the occurrence of procreation and child-rearing within a secure, loving, and committed context, within which the interests of children are upheld.” I think this is the best line of the whole thing. I had trouble following some of the longer arguments. Just wondering if this has been rewritten a tad more cogently. Sorry I didn’t attend Oxford or Cambridge. ;-) More like Grain Silo Tech Farmer’s College…

    • Sorry about that! :)

      Yes, the prose is probably unnecessarily complex – a common flaw in my writing. Unfortunately, there is no other version. Perhaps I will write one at some point. :)

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  18. Rather well said. Thank you!

  19. I think many people have a problem with same-sex marriage because homosexuals are really hijacking an institution that was not designed for them and with them in mind. I am quite sure the opposition would be a lot less if they started their own institution (call it gayrige instead of marriage for example; and I mean no disrespect here) and gave it their own name. They could get equal rights in terms of taxes etc., but it would NOT be called marriage. This way – you actually have to change the definition of marriage in dictionaries etc…and that is just not right! Get your own institution with equal/comparable benefits, and everybody (or at least most people) should be happy!?

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  21. Carol says:

    Very helpful. Thank you for taking the time to write and share.

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  23. Bronwyn Lea says:

    Thank you for a very helpful and insightful article.

    I would like to encourage you to write a less academic version of this paper for easier and wider distribution, as clarkd52 suggested. Your ideas are clear and have much to add to the present debate.

    Christopher Ash’s book “Marriage – Sex in the Service of God” was a seminal read for me on the topic of marriage and I was glad to read the WHOLE thing – but I was also delighted when his shorter version “Married for God” came out, which I could recommend to friends and students who were helped by his ideas but not up for a hefty theological tome. Similarly, NT Wright has his “For Everyone” commentaries (written as Tom Wright).

    I found your article every bit as insightful and paradigm shifting as reading Ash’s book, and just like his book – I think it deserves a wider audience in a more accessible form. Good luck!

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  25. Andrew says:

    Long but worth the read, feel I will need to reread it a couple of times to really grasp it fully.

    One question I have reflecting on the de-institutationalising aspect you talk about; I wonder how much of this is derived from the homosexual lobby’s, in essence, trashing of marriage as an institution?

    • Thanks, Andrew. I think that the movement towards de-institutionalization was well under way before same-sex marriage was even a speck on the horizon. Same-sex marriage accelerates this development, but I don’t believe that it is the primary source of it.

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  27. Iain Benson says:

    Both the article and many of the responses fail to pick up on an ambiguity in your use of the term “institution.” Marriage was not, until quite recently, considered a “state” or “institutional” category. It was associational – - the association being the religions. The state took it on for practical reasons in terms of registration and so forth. One of the subsidiary but essential questions of the current debate relates to the respect for associational differences. Can and do religions have their own view of marriage? The answer in a proper understanding of constitutional legal principles (paying attention to the constitutional freedoms of religion, association and equality) is “yes” but, increasingly, those activists who push the “one size fits all” view of culture, say “no” – - everyone has to agree with ONE view of marriage and it is theirs. But diversity requires a place for difference and the practical place for diversity is assocations and the most important of these, historically, are religious associations.

    Iain T. Benson,
    Professor of Law

  28. JON says:

    It was in the interest of religions to have their adherents procreate as much as possible. But is that what is needed in the world today, it is the fundamentalists of most of the major relgions who have very large families . I should hope we switch gears for the ecological problems of continuing populaton growth will bring about forced abortions, forced sterilization and limits on the amount of children allowed as we have already seen in China. The article talks about the institutions without
    even talking about why religions, nations and ethnic groups tried to out procreate each other for domination. It is time to change in a sensible way rather than a draconian laws that may be neccessary if we continue as we are!

    • The relationship between marriage and procreation is not so much about maximizing procreation as it is about ensuring that as many of our children as possible are born into a stable and loving home.

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  37. Mark says:

    Thank you for writing the most cogently argued defence of marriage that I have ever read. I only regret that I read it so late and that the arguments within it were not heeded more closely by the decision-makers. I don’t know how we can ever go back now but I hope that, somehow, what you have written here will be useful in helping us find a way back to what marriage should be.

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