Getting to the heart of the matter on marriage

This is worth a read, the latest in a series of worthwhile articles at the ABC 'religion and ethics' site, by Andrew Errington of Sydney.


What I want to do here, therefore, is to attempt to recover and draw out the deep underlying issue at the heart of opposition to same-sex marriage - an issue that is not always clearly understood even by the conservative opponents of same-sex marriage, but which an older generation would have understood easily. I hope to show that opposition to same-sex marriage is not simply irrational conservative prejudice. Hopefully this will aid mutual understanding, and may perhaps also reveal some potential common ground when it comes to the deep issues of recognition at stake for gay and lesbian people.


And this points us to the heart of the issue. The central underlying conviction of the older view can be summed up as this: male-female marriage is a natural good that ought, therefore, to be respected. In other words, marriage cannot be reduced to a social convention. It is more like a feature of the natural world, an element of human ecology, than it is like a technological invention, something we make by our will. It is not a product of human culture that we may freely modify, but rather a structure inherent to the world we inhabit, a basic given feature of human life, which is to be received and welcomed with gratitude and respect.

Of course, decades of assault on almost every aspect of the older view have made this idea more difficult to understand. Children are now regarded as an optional choice, equally available for married and unmarried couples. Sexual exclusivity may be seen as noble, but we have well and truly abandoned the idea that sexual expression is particularly for marriage. And although the vision of lifelong companionship remains as the heart of what still attracts people to marriage, we have largely ceased to understand the idea of sanctions or impediments for those wishing to renege on their commitments. As a result, for many, marriage only seems to be a "traditional" cultural artefact. To think it goes deeper than that would imply that the world has a kind of inbuilt moral "weave" to it that includes marriage - an ethical ordering that offends prevailing desires and assumptions.

Yet it should be remembered that the older view is not without empirical support or intuitive credibility. There is wide and ancient cultural testimony to marriage as a basic fact of human life. Moreover, for many people, it is eminently reasonable to believe that, asJennifer Roback Morse puts it, "the concepts of 'Mother' and 'Father' are natural, pre-political concepts," and to conclude on that basis that male-female marriage is also something natural, and so not simply a convention to be wilfully manipulated. Although the success of same-sex marriage would further marginalise the principle that biological parenthood is optimal, it remains an idea with obvious commonsense appeal...

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