Great new book by Prof George et al: "What is Marriage?"

Here is an important defense of natural marriage, published this month, by Prof Robbie George and others.

Excerpts from a review in Mercatornet:

The authors start by contrasting, with precision, the “conjugal” and the “revisionist” views of marriage. The conjugal view presupposes an exclusive union between a man and a woman that is bodily and mental and distinguishes itself by its comprehensiveness, while, revisionists claim that marriage is just two (no more, for the moment) people committing to romantically love and care for each other for as long as they see fit.

Girgis and his co-authors steer clear of discussing the moral implications of homosexuality itself to avoid giving critics a pretext for accusing them of denigrating same-sex-attracted people, or making assumptions about their feelings and motives. Instead they argue that the revisionist view (which informs both homosexual and some heterosexual relationships alike) lacks sexual complementarity and comprehensiveness and is therefore vulnerable to internal contradictions and ambiguities.

“[Revisionists] will not see [marriage] as essentially comprehensive, or thus (among other things) as ordered to procreation and family life—but as essentially an emotional union. For reasons to be explained, they will therefore tend not to understand or respect the objective norms of permanence or sexual exclusivity that shape it. Nor, in the end, will they see why the terms of marriage should not depend altogether on the will of the parties, be they two or ten in number, as the terms of friendships and contracts do.”

What is original in their argument is their explanation of why conjugal sex is a worthy human ideal. Arguably, homosexual relationships have many of the same contours that heterosexual relationships do. The authors agree but emphasise that it’s the differences that matter. Sex between a man and a woman differs fundamentally to sex between members of the same sex.

The authors contend that

“[i]n coitus, and there alone, a man and a woman’s bodies participate by virtue of their sexual complementarity in a coordination that has the biological purpose of reproduction—a function that neither can perform alone. Their coordinated action is, biologically, the first step (the behavioral part) of the reproductive process. By engaging in it, they are united, and do not merely touch, much as one’s heart, lungs, and other organs are united: by coordinating toward a biological good of the whole that they form together.”

With this as an anchor, they tackle other common arguments which are used to subvert conventional marriage. They contend, for example, that understanding marriage as a merely emotional union threatens marital norms such as permanence and exclusivity:

“But why should these be limited to two people? Indeed, how could they be, if we form emotional connections with various loved ones- parents, siblings, close friends – and by various activities? Romantic emotional unions do have a different quality from others and are clearly important for marriage, but emotional hues are hardly enough to mark the difference in kind between marriage and ordinary forms of friendship.”

To the common objection that, if marriage is about making babies, then infertile heterosexual marriages are not true marriages, the authors respond that conjugal acts have a meaning in themselves, not just because they produce babies.

“Here the whole is the couple; the single biological good, their reproduction. But bodily coordination is possible even when its end is not realized; so for a couple, bodily union occurs in coitus even when conception does not. It is the coordination toward a single end that makes the union; achieving the end would deepen the union but is not necessary for it.”

They illustrate this thought in typical American fashion by way of a baseball analogy:

“Infertile couples and winless baseball teams both meet the basic requirements for participating in the practice (conjugal union; practicing and playing the game) and retain their basic orientation to the fulfilment of that practice (bearing and rearing children; winning games), even if that fulfilment is never reached.”

The authors comment on the fallacious argument that equates traditional marriage laws to laws banning interracial marriage, and point out that the current debate is not about who gets to marry but what marriage is really about.

“First, opponents of interracial marriage did not deny that marriage (understood as a union consummated by conjugal acts) was possible between blacks and whites any more than segregationists argued that some feature of the whites-only water fountains made it impossible for blacks to drink from them… By contrast, the current debate is precisely over whether the kind of union with marriage’s essential features can exist between two men or two women.”

Supporters of traditional marriage tend to be flummoxed by the challenge, “How would same-sex marriage affect you and your marriage?” But Girgis and his co-authors show that same-sex marriage would have very real effects. First of all, real marriage would be obscured by altering its civil definition:

“People forming what the state called ‘marriage’ would increasingly be forming bonds that merely resembled the real thing in certain ways, as a contractual relationship might resemble a friendship. The revisionist view would distort their priorities, actions, and motivations, to the harm of true marriage.”

Religious freedom will be at risk. The authors point to the alarming state of religious freedom in places where a same-sex marriage culture takes precedence and provide a number of worrying examples. They point to Massachusetts where Catholic Charities was forced to give up its adoption services rather than place children with same-sex couples, and to Damian Goddard, a Canadian sportscaster who was fired from his job for supporting conjugal marriage on Twitter. They provide many other examples.

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