What is Marriage?

I’ve just got round to reading the much talked about “What is Marriage?” by Girgis, George and Anderson. In it they put forward a non-religious argument for marriage being only between a man and a woman, and I must say, I think they do a tremendous job. OF great note is that this piece was published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, one of the leading US journals dealing with issies of legislation.

Here are some extracts.

Consider two competing views:
Conjugal View: Marriage is the union of a man and a woman who make a permanent and exclusive commitment to each other of the type that is naturally (inherently) fulfilled by bearing and rearing children together. The spouses seal (consummate) and renew their union by conjugal acts—acts that constitute the behavioral part of the process of reproduction, thus uniting them as a reproductive unit. Marriage is valuable in itself, but its inherent orientation to the bearing and rearing of children contributes to its distinctive structure, including norms of monogamy and fidelity. This link to the welfare of children also helps explain why marriage is important to the common good and why the state should recognize and regulate it.

Revisionist View: Marriage is the union of two people (whether of the same sex or of opposite sexes) who commit to romantically loving and caring for each other and to sharing the burdens and benefits of domestic life. It is essentially a union of hearts and minds, enhanced by whatever forms of sexual intimacy both partners find agreeable. The state should recognize and regulate marriage because it has an interest in stable romantic partnerships and in the concrete needs of spouses and any children they may choose to rear.

Marriage is distinguished from every other form of friendship inasmuch as it is comprehensive. It involves a sharing of lives and resources, and a union of minds and wills—hence, among other things, the requirement of consent for forming a marriage. But on the conjugal view, it also includes organic bodily union. This is because the body is a real part of the person, not just his costume, vehicle, or property. Human beings are not properly understood as nonbodily persons—minds, ghosts, consciousnesses—that inhabit and use nonpersonal bodies. After all, if someone ruins your car, he vandalizes your property, but if he amputates your leg, he injures you. Because the body is an inherent part of the human person, there is a difference in kind between vandalism and violation; between destruction of property and mutilation of bodies. Likewise, because our bodies are truly aspects of us as persons, any union of two people that did not involve organic bodily union would not be comprehensive—it would leave out an important part of each person’s being. Because persons are body‐mind composites, a bodily union extends the relationship of two friends along an entirely new dimension of their being as persons. If two people want to unite in the comprehensive way proper to marriage, they must (among other things) unite organically—that is, in the bodily dimension of their being.

By extension, bodily union involves mutual coordination toward a bodily good—which is realized only through coitus. And this union occurs even when conception, the bodily good toward which sexual intercourse as a biological function is oriented, does not occur. In other words, organic bodily unity is achieved when a man and woman coordinate to perform an act of the kind that causes conception. This act is traditionally called the act of generation or the generative act; if (and only if) it is a free and loving expression of the spouses’ permanent and exclusive commitment, then it is also a marital act.
Because interpersonal unions are valuable in themselves, and not merely as means to other ends, a husband and wife’s loving bodily union in coitus and the special kind of relationship to which it is integral are valuable whether or not conception results and even when conception is not sought. But two men or two women cannot achieve organic bodily union since there is no bodily good or function toward which their bodies can coordinate, reproduction being the only candidate.16 This is a clear sense in which their union cannot be marital, if marital means comprehensive and comprehensive means, among other things, bodily.

Because bodies are integral parts of the personal reality of human beings, only coitus can truly unite persons organically and, thus, maritally. Hence, although the state can grant members of any household certain legal incidents, and should not prevent any from making certain private legal arrangements, it cannot give same‐sex unions what is truly distinctive of marriage—i.e., it cannot make them actually comprehensive, oriented by nature to children, or bound by the moral norms specific to marriage. At most the state can call such unions marital, but this would not— because, in moral truth, it cannot—make them so; and it would, to society’s detriment, obscure people’s understanding about what truly marital unions do involve. In this sense, it is not the state that keeps marriage from certain people, but their circumstances that unfortunately keep certain people from marriage (or at least make marrying much harder). This is so, not only for those with exclusively homosexual attractions, but also for people who cannot marry because of, for example, prior and pressing family obligations incompatible with marriage’s comprehensiveness and orientation to children, inability to find a mate, or any other cause.

Those who face such difficulties should in no way be marginalized or otherwise mistreated, and they deserve our support in the face of what are often considerable burdens. But none of this establishes the first mistaken assumption, that fulfillment is impossible without regular outlets for sexual release—an idea that devalues many people’s way of life. What we wish for people unable to marry because of a lack of any attraction to a member of the opposite sex is the same as what we wish for people who can not marry for any other reason: rich and fulfilling lives. In the splendor of human variety, these can take infinitely many forms. In any of them, energy that would otherwise go into marriage is channeled toward ennobling endeavors: deeper devotion to family or nation, service, adventure, art, or a thousand other things.

But most relevantly, this energy could be harnessed for deep friendship. Belief in the second hidden assumption, that meaningful intimacy is not possible without sex, may impoverish the friendships in which single people could find fulfillment— by making emotional, psychological, and dispositional intimacy seem inappropriate in nonsexual friendships. We must not conflate depth of friendship with the presence of sex. Doing so may stymie the connection between friends who feel that they must distance themselves from the possibility or appearance of a sexual relationship where none is wanted. By encouraging the myth that there can be no intimacy without romance, we deny people the wonder of knowing another as what Aristotle so aptly called a second self.

The third assumption is baffling (but not rare) to find in this context. Even granting the second point, legal recognition has nothing to do with whether homosexual acts should be banned or whether anyone should be prevented from living with anyone else. This debate is not about anyone’s private behavior. Instead, public recognition of certain relationships and the social effects of such recognition are at stake. Some have described the push for gay marriage as an effort to legalize or even to decriminalize such unions. But you can only decriminalize or legalize what has been banned, and these unions are not banned. (By contrast, bigamy really is banned; it is a crime.) Rather, same‐sex unions are simply not recognized as marriages or granted the benefits that we predicate on marriage. Indeed, recognizing same‐sex unions would limit freedom in an important sense: it would require everyone else to treat such unions as if they were marriages, which citizens and private institutions are free to do or not under traditional marriage laws. The fourth assumption draws an arbitrary distinction between homosexual and other sexual desires that do not call for the state’s specific attention and sanction. It often leads people to suppose that traditional morality unfairly singles out people who experience same‐sex attractions. Far from it. In everyone, traditional morality sees foremost a person of dignity whose welfare makes demands on every other being that can hear and answer them. In everyone, it sees some desires that cannot be integrated with the comprehensive union of marriage. In everyone, it sees the radical freedom to make choices that transcend those inclinations, heredity, and hormones; enabling men and women to become authors of their own character.

The whole thing is being made freely available and you can download a copy here. I would welcome a conversation on its merits (or otherwise) but can I please ask of you that if you want to comment on the quotes above that you first read the whole piece as the response to your comment may already be in the piece.

59 Comments on “What is Marriage?

  1. I wonder how you would use these two contrasting views when discussing marriage with an older couple. When marrying people who are well past child bearing it seems to me that the Conjugal View cannot fully apply.

    For example I was recently discussing the liturgy for a widow and widower, both well in the 70's who were getting married. It was delightful to hear how they had discovered love for each other and wanted a married life together. Given the health circumstances I would not have been making large bets on consummation.

    Or a recent couple whose marriage was brought forward and held in hospital. The wife died the next day.

    It seems to me that we lose something of what marriage is about for heterosexual couples if you make it all about sex and kids.

    Is there a danger of restricting our understanding of marriage for heterosexual couples in order to exclude homosexual couples?

      • From p266

        "To form a real marriage, a couple needs to establish and live out the kind of union that would be completed by, and be apt for, procreation and child‐rearing."

        I do not see how this is a helpful portrayal of marriage in the situations I mentioned.

        I find the analogy of a childless married couple being like a baseball team that loses all the time is very unhelpful.

        There are married couples who choose not to have their own children for a whole variety of reasons. Some of the marriages like this that I have seen have been incredible witnesses to selfless loving and serving others. To liken them to a baseball team that loses is flawed.

        So because this paper takes us back to a time when a marriage was just about having kids I do not find it helpful for many married couples

        • Let's look at the full argument, not just one sentence

          Any act of organic bodily union can seal a marriage, whether or not it causes conception. The nature of the spouses’ action now cannot depend on what happens hours later independently of their control—whether a sperm cell in fact penetrates an ovum. And because the union in question is an organic bodily union, it cannot depend for its reality on psychological factors.

          It does not matter, then, if spouses do not intend to have children or believe that they cannot. Whatever their thoughts or goals, whether a couple achieves bodily union depends on facts about what is happening between their bodies.

          It is clear that the bodies of an infertile couple can unite organically through coitus. Consider digestion, the individual body’s process of nourishment. Different parts of that process— salivation, chewing, swallowing, stomach action, intestinal absorption of nutrients—are each in their own way oriented to the broader goal of nourishing the organism. But our salivation, chewing, swallowing, and stomach action remain oriented to that goal (and remain digestive acts) even if on some occasion our intestines do not or cannot finally absorb nutrients, and even if we know so before we eat.

          Give me an example of a marriage that cannot perform coitus?

            • Neither of those two examples are incapable of coitus. The couple where one of the spouses dies would very likely be seeking to perform coitus if the spouse survived. As for the older couple, I know plenty of couples older then that who have a good sex life!

              The point of the paper is not to argue that all couples must perform coitus to validate a marriage, rather that the union of the two as a combination that could perform coitus is the key factor. Coitus points to family life and continuing generations and same-sex couples cannot do that pointing.

              From pages 268 and 269,

              More generally, even an obviously infertile couple—no less than childless newlyweds or parents of grown children—can live out the features and norms of real marriage and thereby contribute to a healthy marriage culture. They can set a good example for others and help to teach the next generation what marriage is and is not. And as we have argued and will argue, everyone benefits from a healthy marriage culture.

              What is more, any marriage law at all communicates some message about what marriage is as a moral reality. The state has an obligation to get that message right, for the sake of people who might enter the institution, for their children, and for the community as a whole. To recognize only fertile marriages is to suggest that marriage is merely a means to procreation and childrearing— and not what it truly is, namely, a good in itself. It may also violate the principle of equality to which revisionists appeal, because infertile and fertile couples alike can form unions of the same basic kind: real marriages. In the absence of strong reasons for it, this kind of differential treatment would be unfair.

              Finally, although a legal scheme that honored the conjugal conception of marriage, as our law has long done, would not restrict the incidents of marriage to spouses who happen to have children, its success would tend to limit children to families led by legally married spouses. After all, the more effectively the law teaches the truth about marriage, the more likely people are to enter into marriage and abide by its norms. And the more people form marriages and respect marital norms, the more likely it is that children will be reared by their wedded biological parents.

              Death and tragedy make the gap impossible to close completely, but a healthier marriage culture would make it shrink. Thus, enshrining the moral truth of marriage in law is crucial for securing the great social benefits served by real marriage.

              • Neither of those two examples are incapable of coitus. The couple where one of the spouses dies would very likely be seeking to perform coitus if the spouse survived. As for the older couple, I know plenty of couples older then that who have a good sex life!

                I don't want to be too pedantic but I really think in both examples the couple were getting married in the full knowledge that there would not be sex in that marriage.

                I have no problem with these marriages being valid. I have no problem with you (rightly) saying they are edge cases, unusual cases.

                My problem is that the book focuses us so strongly on coitus and on children as the definition of marriage that in the text you have just quoted it has to jump backwards through hoops to suggest that those couples who are infertile are still proper marriages. To make the further steps backwards to recognise that a marriage between a couple that they know cannot (or at least almost certainly cannot) share in coitus is a step too far and so it does not do it.

                That text leaves me with the belief that the marriage of my friends was invalid. They brought forward their marriage several months when one of them became terminally ill. They married in hospital and she died 15 hours later.

                If you take the view that marriage is made real by coitus and children then this marriage was not real, that would be a huge pastoral concern for me as I am 100% certain this wedding was right, beautiful, healing and a witness to the love of God. If you shift the definitions to make this marriage real then I do not know on what grounds you can exclude a same sex marriage.

                • You utterly misunderstand what the paper is saying. The paper is *not* saying that all marriages must involve coitus and the procreation of children in order to be valid. Rather, what it is saying is that marriages must, in their biological construction (one man and one woman) point towards coitus and procreation in order to be a valid marriage. Both of the cases you illustrate clearly do that. Specifically, in the case of your friends, if the intent was to have coitus were it possible, then the marriage is clearly valid (in the same way that a couple separated by war are still validly married even if that war means they do not engage in coitus for years).

                  Let me ask you a different question to highlight this issue. Do you believe that procreating and rearing children is a "good" of marriage? If yes, how can you ever support the notion of same-sex marriage since such a couple cannot ever perform coitus and procreate. If no (implying as does the second model in the original quote I made in the post, that procreation and raising children i simply unconnected to marriage) why do we set such store (in the Church of England) on praying for this very thing?

                  Certainly it (coitus and procreation) cannot be a "good" for some marriages and not for others, for that would create two separate forms of marriage.

                  Which is it?

                  • Peter,

                    Rather, what it is saying is that marriages must, in their biological construction (one man and one woman) point towards coitus and procreation in order to be a valid marriage.

                    But I don't understand how saying this cannot leave people feeling their marriage is in some way second best or incomplete if they marry with the full knowledge that neither coitus nor procreation is possible for them.

                    I have a problem with that because I believe that while 'procreating and rearing children is a “good” of marriage?' it is not the only "good" of a marriage. Not only is it no the only "good" but focusing only on this "good" and not on others (mutual support, companionship, loving commitment etc) leads to marginalisation of some (as above) but also does little to help people stay married when their children have grown up and left home (as in one sense the "good" is now over).

                    For the sake of all married couples marriage has to be about much more than sex and kids. Given that I have few issues with marriage being for for same sex couples. This allows me to focus on fidelity within marriage and chastity outside marriage (using fidelity and chastity in a wide sense ie not just about coitus). I feel this is more helpful and important.

                    I recognise that I am far from mainstream at the moment in these views. Hence, I am in favour of absolutely no forcing all people to accept them.

                    • I have a problem with that because I believe that while ‘procreating and rearing children is a “good” of marriage?’ it is not the only “good” of a marriage. Not only is it not the only “good” but focusing only on this “good” and not on others (mutual support, companionship, loving commitment etc) leads to marginalisation of some (as above) but also does little to help people stay married when their children have grown up and left home (as in one sense the “good” is now over).

                      No one is arguing that marriage is just about coitus and procreation. It is about all the things you mention, but the crucial word is all. The defence of marriage above understands it to be all these things, but because it is all these things same-sex unions can never be called marriage for in their very constitution they can never fulfil one of those goods, namely coitus, procreation and the rearing of children.

                      That doesn't mean that married couples that cannot perform coitus are somehow inferior. Far from it.

                      And you haven't engaged with the issue as to what the place of child rearing is. If you want to argue that child procreation and rearing is *not* an essential good of marriage, then you need to tear out those bits of the marriage service that refer to it, both the introduction and the prayers. You cannot pray for one thing (procreation and rearing of children) in one couple's marriage and not in another without de facto creating two differing forms of marriage, an idea which fundamentally undermines the notion of "marriage equality".

                      Put simply, if you allow same-sex couples to marry you have to remove any reference from marriage to the procreation of children, otherwise you are being inconsistent in your application of the term "marriage" to same-sex and other-sex couples.

                • DaveW

                  Well said, as a former palliative care social worker I have arranged several such marriages – which according to this reactionary drivel weren't marriages. On the surface the above seems oh so logical, so sweet and such commonsense, yet panders to so much that many can pat themselves on the back and say 'oh what a good boy/girl am I?'

                  I have also worked with disabled people who have married and not been either to have children or consummate their marriage – so are these people not married? A colleague of mine once helped a Bengali, Muslim woman find a husband who only wanted a companion, because she had been born without a vagina. She was ‘married’, but not according to the above.

                  It all becomes rather ludicrous does it not, this taxonomy of conjugality? And what is the real purpose? Just to say that poufs should know their place. A lot of effort for an ignoble purpose, me thinks.



                  • Well said, as a former palliative care social worker I have arranged several such marriages – which according to this reactionary drivel weren’t marriages.

                    Bzzzzztttttt. Thank you for playing.

                    A – This "reactionary drivel" actually recognises such marriages as valid.

                    B – It is not "drivel". Really it's not. It's a well put together coherent argument that you (and Dave) have singularly failed to comprehend given that you are both arguing against something that the piece does not actually say.

                    From pages 267 and 268,

                    Of course, a true friendship of two men or two women is also valuable in itself. But lacking the capacity for organic bodily union, it cannot be valuable specifically as a marriage: it cannot be the comprehensive union on which aptness for procreation and distinctively marital norms depend. That is why only a man and a woman can form a marriage—a union whose norms and obligations are decisively shaped by its essential dynamism toward children. For that dynamism comes not from the actual or expected presence of children, which some same‐sex partners and even cohabiting brothers could have, and some opposite‐sex couples lack, but from the way that marriage is sealed or consummated: in coitus, which is organic bodily union.

                    It is the norms and obligations of the institution of marriage which define it, not the particular limitations of a particular couple. Child rearing is an essential dynamism of marriage and coitus is the instument of child procreation. Coitus therefore forms the union and any marriage which would engage in coitus were it able is by definition, a marriage.

                    • Thanks for this Peter.

                      To be honest I didn't read it all that closely, first time around, as it is not something that particularly interests me. I have been in a committed same-sex, monogamous relationship (they are quite common among same-sex couples, despite the anti-gay propaganda from some of our Christian brethren, to the contrary). I have never been interested in ‘gay-marriage’ as I can’t see the point – they don’t seem to work out that well for many heterosexuals, without wishing them on same-sex couples! No doubt we shall, at some point in the future, have a civil partnership, just to ensure my pension rights pass to my partner and vice versa. But then economic union over and above love, has been a major basis of marriage since the days of Genesis and before!

                      The arguments presented above seem fairly plausible, though the focus on physical union for procreation, is despite, what you say, difficult to maintain, when discussing marriages that do not result in children. Although the authors state that marriage can take place even if children do not result, the whole argument concerned with denying same-sex couples marriage keeps returning to the issue of bodily incompatibility. i.e. it keeps returning to the issue of the physical, even if the physical does not take place (as in the case of death bed marriages). This presents a weakness in the argument because it suggests physically union does not have to take place, merely the potential has to be there, for the marriage to be seen as a marriage. If this is the case, then why all the fuss?

                      The other issue is that of sex – most of us agree that sex is not necessarily about procreation and that people have sex for pleasure and as a symbol of their relationship with one another. Same-sex couples CAN and DO have sex for these latter two reasons . To overcome this, without appealing to religion, the authors appear to have relied on an essentialist argument that presumes there is a fixed and immutable order of relationships, independent of space and time. From the point of view of a Western worldview, the authors’ idea of marriage hold true, but this is not the case throughout the world – or the Old Testament. Marriage can mean many things to different cultures and at different times in history (and there are examples of same-sex couples being seen as a ‘special’ bond in other societies – e.g. in some pre-colonial native American Indian cultures). There is then the biological argument – animals, in the main, pair up for procreation. Yes, I can agree with this argument for heterosexual marriage being seen as distinct. But we like to think that we are not the same as animals and that we have a higher level of consciousness and it is this belief which also adds to our beliefs about marriage. If marriage were just a case of fulfilling the animal need for procreation we would not need all the associated social, moral, economic and religious trappings that go with it. We believe marriage is something else and that is the bonds of love and responsibility two people have concerning each other’s welfare. If we agree that the sex issue is not necessary for marriage, as you have state in your reply to my comment, then we’re left with the mental/emotional part of marriage. It would appear this can be fulfilled by a same-sex couple.

                      I do not expect you to agree with this train of thought. But please don’t bother replying as the flaw in the above seems obvious to me, though it is probably not welcomed by yourself when despite a ‘non-religious’ basis for marriage being advocated, it is clear that religious needs are nevertheless the main motivation for the attractiveness of this line of thinking.



                  • I am reading the paper as Peter requested before I comment on its arguments but I just want to add a swift comment to your post Alathia.

                    I remember a case some years ago where a fuss was made – I presume in the Daily Mail – when a Catholic priest had actually refused to marry a couple because the husband-to-be was a quadriplegic and the priest presumed that he would not be able to consummate the marriage. The priest was quite unsentimental about it – no vaginal sex (with ejaculation) no sacrament of Holy Matrimony, hence no marriage in his church. Such a hardline approach actually makes a more rational fit with Robert P. George's Natural Law argument than I suspect he would actually be comfortable with! So don't worry all you infertile couples and post-monopausal oldies. I don't think he is coming after your marriage licences.

  2. Oh hooray!  At last, a book which puts forward a non-religious argument for marriage!  Thank you for reviewing this, Peter, and I hope that it is not only people of faith who will read it.  We live in a Godless society, and most people sadly don't give a toss about what the Bible says about marriage.  Other approaches are badly needed.

    The phrase 'the … mistaken assumption, that fulfillment is impossible without regular outlets for sexual release' just jumped out at me.  Chastity seems like such an old-fashioned concept, but society really needs to turn itself around on its sexual behaviour (or more accurately misbehaviour) if we are to survive.  I hope there is some expansion on this. 

  3. Hello Peter and all,

    like Tom I need to read this paper through again – I've only looked over it once so far I admit. So just a quibble or two at the moment…

    – why is it good that this essay's arguments are non-religious? It seems odd for Christians to be putting this forward as an advantage in a way – is it just uncharitable to think it smacks a bit of cynicism (as if to say, 'well, theological arguments won't be admitted in public discourse, so we need to come up with something that will') and / or lack on confidence in our faith?

    – on the other hand… are some of the arguments entirely non-religious? I saw reference to Aquinas in at least one footnote to the essay, and indeed some of its argument does seem to echo official Catholic teaching on 'homosexual acts' (that they "lack an essential and indispensable finality"), given that one of the authors' elements of a real marriage is the possibility of procreation. (This point is meant as an observation, not to imply any conspiracy theory about the essay's origins, btw).

    – the conception / infertility thing… "…bodily union involves mutual coordination toward a bodily good — which is realized only through coitus. And this union occurs even when conception, the bodily good toward which sexual intercourse as a biological function is oriented, does not occur. In other words, organic bodily unity is achieved when a man and woman coordinate to perform an act of the kind that causes conception". But if this union occurs even without conception, doesn't that somewhat break the link between marriage and children? Maybe I'm just not reading it well, but don't the authors seem to want to both have this link and yet break it? The authors say they're aware that the fact that infertile marriages are allowed, is a potential weakness in their argument, but I'm not sure they've made it watertight. And can there be 'organic bodily unity' in some of the examples DaveW gave, where the spouses may be known to be incapable of it…? Peter, you said that "if the intent was to have coitus were it possible, then the marriage is clearly valid " – but if intent is all, what then of (non-)consummation? It's a change in definition to make it about 'intent', surely?

    "Do you believe that procreating and rearing children is a “good” of marriage? If yes, how can you ever support the notion of same-sex marriage since such a couple cannot ever perform coitus and procreate".

    – but you could say yes to both on the grounds that we don't demand / expect procreating and rearing children of a marriage to make it valid, couldn't you? And on the grounds that it isn't the only good of marriage ("for a remedy against sin… and to avoid fornication")?

    "If no (implying as does the second model in the original quote I made in the post, that procreation and raising children i simply unconnected to marriage) why do we set such store (in the Church of England) on praying for this very thing?"

    – but saying no doesn't flatly imply that there's no connection – that doesn't follow. Without doubt the C of E (and many others obviously) see children as a gift and blessing – but that doesn't mean that marriages without children aren't blessed in any way.

    "Certainly it (coitus and procreation) cannot be a “good” for some marriages and not for others, for that would create two separate forms of marriage."

    – but coitus and procreation plainly cannot be a 'good' for some (I mean mixed-sex) marriages (the infertile / some disabled people / the aged), yet that doesn't create a separate form of marriage, does it? They are just as validly married even if coitus and procreation aren't possible, intended or not… Seems to me one key to this is the question whether same-sex unions can be seen as analogous to such marriages, or not – clearly the present authors say not.

    OK, must be feeling argumentative this evening :) and maybe I've just scrabbled about for counter-arguments…

    in friendship, Blair

    • But if this union occurs even without conception, doesn’t that somewhat break the link between marriage and children? Maybe I’m just not reading it well, but don’t the authors seem to want to both have this link and yet break it?

      You're not reading it well. The authors argue that an individual marriage does not have to complete all the goods of a marriage in order to be a valid marriage (i.e. does not need to conceive a child). Rather, it needs to attempt to complete the goods in order to be valid. Coitus is the indicator of procreation, so it is necessary not for a marriage to end in procreation but rather for it to intend to undertake coitus. Coitus points to procreation, even if it does not in individual cases procreate.

      Your criticism (like DaveW's above) is to take individual cases and argue that since they do not equate to the perfect model of marriage (coitus, conception, children) they are not valid marriages under this understanding. That is *not* engaging with the essay which is in a sense platonic in its understanding of the "perfect" marroage. The essayists argue that is what is essential for marriage is the presence of male and female who, were they to engage in "perfect" coitus, would produce a child. The fact that a particular couple cannnot engage in coitus (i.e. where one spouse is about to die) is irrelevant, unless the couple would never intend to have coitus if the spouse was not ill. The same with the very elderly couple – if they are simply not able to have coitus, it is the intent to perform coitus were it possible that is the key factor. Compare this to a same-sex couple who can never perform coitus, even if they intend to.

      In the light of this your criticism of the children question I posit to DaveW are redundant. We are not talking about specific individual cases which are broken from the perfect model. Rather, we are exploring the fundamental nature of marriage and the procreation and raising of children within it. The question still stands – regardless of the inability of individual couples to conceive, is the procreation of children a good of marriage? If yes, then same-sex couples by that very definition cannot be married, for they can *never* create that specific good. If no, then we need to tear out a portion of the Marriage Service. We cannot however have a position where the procreation of children is a good in some marriages and not intended as a good in others – that is two separate contradictory understandings of "marriage".

      This is fundamentally the distinction between the two models outlined right at the start of the paper – is marriage a union of two people geared specifically towards procreation and the rearing of children (amongst other things) or is it *only* to do with the two people who get married and has *no* connection to any offspring of that union?

      As for Aquinas being quoted, his natural law arguments are used by a number of non-Christian philosophers working in the same area. I don't actually know the faith position of the authors of this essay – perhaps someone can help?

      • Hello Peter,

        a handful of comments in response.

        – in your second paragraph above, there seems to be a distinction between being inherently unable to 'perform coitus' (eg a same-sex couple), and being 'accidentally' unable to (eg other-sex couple because of age or in capacity). There also seems to be an assumption that this distinction has a moral weight, so that the former can't be validly seen as a marriage while the latter can. If that's a fair summary, how would you argue a case for that distinction having moral bearing? It seems to me that you (like the authors of the article) assume this rather than arguing for it.

        – I think you're offering false alternatives in the 3rd paragraph (and to DaveW earlier) – as has been said it is possible to say that procreation is a good of marriage, and yet not require it of every marriage to be valid. So it's not a question of needing to tear up bits of the marriage service, surely – am guessing you don't if you officiate at a marriage of a couple long past childbearing. And in such a case procreation cannot be "intended as a good" – so arguably there already is a "position where the procreation of children is a good in some marriages and not intended as a good in others".

        – on the article itself: I think you quoted a telling passage yourself, Peter – the one from pp267-8. "That is why only a man and a woman can form a marriage — a union whose norms and obligations are decisively shaped by its essential dynamism toward children. For that dynamism comes not from the actual or expected presence of children, which some same‐sex partners and even cohabiting brothers could have, and some opposite‐sex couples lack, but from the way that marriage is sealed or consummated: in coitus". For all the piece's good arguments this looks to me like one of the weakest – it looks a lot like eating your cake and having it, to argue that an "essential dynamism toward children" comes "not from the actual or expected presence of children"! The "essential dynamism" the authors speak of comes from penile-vaginal sex – and if that is one of their essential features of a real marriage, it's hard to avoid the suspicion that the terms of the argument are set up to exclude same-sex marriage by definition…

        in friendship, Blair

        • I think the distinction between inherently unable and accidently unable to perform coitus is a good one. Thanks for the language!

          Let me have another go at explaining the stance around coitus and procreation. The argument is that the procreation and rearing of children is one of the goods of marriage. Certainly this is identified in Christian marriage ceremonies and has formed part of the Western understanding of marriage for centuries. Given this, it follows that coitus is necessary for that good to be achieved (not withstanding messing around with gametes in test-tubes, but that's not really what most people can do). Since same-sex couples can *never* perform coitus, they can never achieve this good of marriage, so they cannot be "married". This is different from couples who are "accidently" unable to perform coitus but whose basic biology points towards coitus.

          So the piece assumes the current understanding that procreation and rearing of children *is* an accepted good of marriage and shows how same-sex couples can never achieve that good. I guess to argue against that you would need to show that procreating and rearing children is *not* understood as a good of marriage.

          • You're welcome – can't remember where I got it from though; it's not mine!

            But at the risk of being tedious I think I do have some understanding of the authors' argument about coitus etc. It seems to me possible to say that procreation is indeed a good of marriage, but in a qualified sense – it strikes me that's implicit in recognising infertile marriages. Also, it looks to me like the authors are saying it's not just that procreating and rearing children are a good of marriage, but that there has to be the "basic biology" there as well… as i said, the terms of the argument seem designed to exclude same-sex marriage. On p268 the authors write, "even an obviously infertile couple — no less than childless newlyweds or parents of grown children — can live out the features and norms of real marriage and thereby contribute to a healthy marriage culture". But they don't say why a same-sex couple could not also live this out – doubtless the response would be that they cannot biologically point toward procreation, but in some senses neither can the (straight) examples they list… except, of course, just by being male and female – but as I said before the authors simply assume, rather than arguing for, why this carries moral weight.

            in friendship, Blair

            • I don't think it's a deliberate device (the procreation argument) to exclude same-sex couples, rather it's incidental. And having such a stance doesn't mean that you're opposed to all same-sex unions being recognised, just that you reject the concept that they are "marriage".

              I guess one could come to the view that if marriage explicitly had procreation and rearing of children as a good, that stills permits space for civil unions / partnerships of same-sex (AND other sex?) couples. Legal protections, guarantees and benefits for same-sex couples should be provided, but with the proviso that it is *not* marriage.

              • Thanks Peter – interesting, as the thought in your second paragraph crossed my mind but then flitted out of it so i didn't put it to you. Not sure where else to take this tonight, partly as not sure how strongly to argue the 'marriage' case – Doug Chaplin's post I linked to earlier, says "There are a great many people, by no means all of a particular faith, who hold that a relationship between a man and a woman is different from one between two men or two women. For those people, marriage is the appropriate covenant for a relationship between a man and woman, but the relationship between same-sex partners is different enough to need a different covenant or agreement". I'm not sure where I stand in relation to this.

                in friendship, Blair

    • Blair: you say 'why is it good that this essay’s arguments are non-religious? It seems odd for Christians to be putting this forward as an advantage in a way – is it just uncharitable to think it smacks a bit of cynicism (as if to say, ‘well, theological arguments won’t be admitted in public discourse, so we need to come up with something that will’) and / or lack on confidence in our faith?'

      Where to start? I do think sometimes that many Christians live in a cosy bubble thinking that if they live their own lives according to Christian teaching all will be well.

      All is NOT well. We do not live in a cosy bubble. We are part of society, and what is more we are part of a society which is increasingly hostile to Christianity.

      I think you will agree that hitting people on their heads with a Bible is not the best way to evangelise. Perhaps I spend too much time on blogs, but it seems to me that anyone who proffers a Christian comment in many places is regarded as a bit of a loony, guided by a 'sky fairy' or an ancient and irrelevant book, and therefore unworthy of being heard, let alone having any influence in public policy. Indeed, in certain quarters we are barely fit to live (Pink News!) or we will have our comments deleted and be banned (Guardian and Independent blogs). I personally do not lack confidence in my faith, I just lack confidence in other people's attitude to it!

      I have mentioned oft before that I spent most of my working life in the City of London, where quite a different god is worshipped, and have a fair idea of how the secular mind works. They are simply not going to believe what the Bible says, and think we are absolute fools if we do. They need proof.

      This book may go some way towards that, but I think more important will be the science. New reports are coming out all the time of the damage done to children by parental break-up. As marriage declines, so the rates of teenage pregnancy, STIs, drug and alcohol abuse and AIDS increase. New studies are showing harmful effects of abortion on women, links between the contraceptive pill and cancer, and promiscuity and cancer. Sadly the ills of homosexual practice have been swept under the carpet for now, but the truth has an uncomfortable way of finding its way out, and it will, given time, when people have stopped being scared of gay activism.

      Those who ignore scripture on morality and lifelong marriage are taking the slow and harm-filled route, but they will get it in the end, after much suffering has been caused, and perhaps realise that the Bible was right all along.

      • Hello Jill,

        surprisingly maybe, but I'm with you on some of that. I do indeed "agree that hitting people on their heads with a Bible is not the best way to evangelise" and am aware that we're not in some cosy bubble, but that there are hostile voices around. I'm frequently a coward myself in not using 'religious' arguments, because of the context I'm in. It's just that it seems to me I can't justify that, and so wonder what it means for religious groups to be trying to use non-religious arguments for their position… I note Howard's point about the US, below, but wonder if it looks like a bit of self-contradiction.

        in friendship, Blair

        • I don't see it quite like that, Blair. If someone had stood up a few decades ago and said, 'look, folks, it's your choice – you can either do as God says and get married before having any kind of sexual relationship, and stay married until you die – OR – you can do it the hard way, screw around with whoever you like whenever you like – we would have eventually reached the same conclusion after decades of ruined lives, unhappy people and unnecessary early deaths. Perhaps only then would the God-haters realise that His way really is the best.


  4. Actually I am not ready to comment on the paper yet but since you ask the question Peter, I can tell you that Robert P. George is Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton, a Catholic, very well known in certain religious circles in the States for his unique brand of Natural Law ethics, which, he claims, invokes “no authority beyond the authority of reason itself” .


    He has the ear of some people in very high positions, such as Justice Scolia of the Supreme Court who is also a Catholic. In addition to gay marriage he uses Natural Law arguments against abortion and embryonic stem-cell research. As you state Robert George’s appeal is that he doesn’t appeal to faith, scripture or Church doctrine to advance his arguments.

    But Blair is onto something when he noticed the reference to Thomas Aquinas. Of course Natural Law theory did not begin with Aquinas, he utilised Aristotelian ethics to make them the basis for Christian apologetics, but in origin it goes way back to the Sceptics. So, sorry to disappoint you and Jill, Robert George's argument has Catholicism stamped all over it. In a similar way Intelligent Design is supposed to be scientific and not a religious argument, btut as the US Supreme Court realised, it has Creationism stamped all over it.

    LIke you I had not heard of this guy until about a year ago when I heard about him and his new Natural Law arguments on a podcast that I listen to, Reasonable Doubts from Grand Rapids, Michigan.


    I have no information on the other authors but I guess it is mainly George's work (they are listed in reverse alphabetic order).

  5. Folks, I have followed the comments and have wider concerns.

    The reason for not appealing to religious authority is because many Americans have already disallowed any religious arguments in the public square.

    The critical issue is the (I think concerted) attempt to achieve the equation civil partnership = marriage.

    If the campaigners for this equation (I am tempted to call them heterophobes) achieve this aim, will Christians have to invent a new word for marriage as a comprehensive union oriented towards child-bearing?

    I wonder if the judge gave leave to the Chymorvah couple to appeal because of the imprecision of the law about what exactly marriage IS?

    Will achieving the equation above make the task of e.g. Iain Duncan-Smith harder as he tries to re-establish some sort of social support for the institution of marriage as a societal good?

    • I do get rather exasperated at the assumption that people committing homosexual acts at some stage in their lives automatically makes them gay. Even if they start off gay and go on to get married, as many do, it always seems to be assumed that they are really gay people denying their true sexuality. And what makes it okay for a man to dump his wife and two children to realise his true potential as a gay man? Would you feel the same if he dumped them for another woman?

      • Well, I’m with you there 100%, Jill. Assumptions are dangerous things, especially in this area. Equally exasperating is the assumption, which I have occasionally come across in literature advocating the ex-gay philosophy, that if people have succeeded in committing heterosexual acts at some stage in their lives, that automatically means that they are “really” straight.

        One naturally expects that people’s sexual behaviour will be in line with their sexual orientation, and I don’t doubt that that is generally the case, but it is not inevitably so. People may act in contradiction to their orientation for a number of reasons. Obvious examples are: (1) what has sometimes been referred to as “situational homosexuality”, where heterosexual people in closed single-sex institutions (e.g. prisons) commit homosexual acts though sheer sexual frustration, no other sexual outlet being available; and (2) homosexual people who commit heterosexual acts through a desire to fit in, or in the vain hope that committing these acts will change their orientation, or even through sexual frustration because they live in small, remote communities and just can’t find other identifiably homosexual people. The behaviour alone is not always a reliable indication of the person’s sexuality; the motives underlying the behaviour and the meaning attached to it are equally important.

        As for a gay man dumping his wife and children, I think that we should be cautious about assuming, unless we know all the circumstances – which we rarely do – that it is simply a matter of dumping. It may well be the case, and not infrequently is, that the decision is a mutual one, freeing the genuinely heterosexual spouse to seek a real heterosexual relationship instead of a sham one. The break-up of a marriage can never, of course, be regarded as anything but a cause for sadness, but it is sometimes the least worst option. (How has that ungrammatical phrase gained such currency? But I digress.) Even truly heterosexual people can and do contract disastrous marriages, as we all know. I hope and pray, however, that as homosexuality becomes increasingly accepted in our society, ever fewer homosexual people will feel pressured into adopting a heterosexual lifestyle, thus greatly reducing the tragic heartbreak and recriminations attendant on the foundering of such ill-advised marriages.

        I strongly suspect that those who, for example, would commend a gay man for marrying a woman in obedience to a heterosexual norm or to a biblical view of sexuality are happy just so long as it’s SOMEONE ELSE’S daughter, sister, niece or friend that he’s being obedient with, and that you’d be hard put to it to find anyone who would be so happy about him being obedient with THEIRS. I think that the same is also true with regard to ex-gays. Certainly, if one of my nieces informed me that she intended to marry an ex-gay man, I would feel some concern about the future happiness of both parties, and my concern would not be allayed by the assurance that he had undergone reparative therapy and had managed to “achieve satisfactory heterosexual functioning”.

  6. Peter, what you have written and reported on is interesting, but meaningless in an Anglican context. Anglicanism already permits the dissolution of marriage, which renders your vision of marriage null and void from the start: so much for "permanent," "exclusive," and "comprehensive."

    Our Lord prohibits divorce expressly, yet Anglicanism permits it, just as expressly. Does Anglicanism also not turn a blind eye to other sexual sins, such as abortion, contraception, petting, passionate kissing, morose delectation, consenting to a wet dream, masturbation, and the like? Do you honestly care a fig about any of these? Have you not–just now–chuckled?

    There is no further moral case to be made by an Anglican for prohibiting a civil re-definition of marriage. You shot yourselves in the foot years ago.

    Add to this the centuries of violence wrought against the Scripture by the same Anglican heresy in the matter of Petrine supremacy, the ordination of women, the number of sacraments, etc. etc., and the case for your moral vacuity becomes supremely insuperable.

    Add further: civil gay marriage removes the opprobrium of hatred, violence, abuse, harassment, teasing, bullying, and its attendant evils of self-destructive behavior, self-loathing, promiscuity, furtive back-alley sex, alcohol and drug abuse, etc. (the gay community is now about where the straight community has been lazing for three generations). There is further tonnage of topsoil on the grave of your sexual hypocrisy.

    I recommend you do the following, if you are serious about confronting gay feelings and love in our society:

    1. Apologize for your complicity in past murder and abuse of gay persons;

    2. Utterly prohibit all of the sexual sins enumerated above, and rigorously exclude all transgressors from the clergy, from the laity, from employment, from house and home, from self-respect, and from life itself;

    3. Permanently and definitively defrock all so-called, pretended "female clergy"–this is a fraud and an abomination;

    4. Reunite with the Holy Father; affirm every point of Catholic doctrine;

    5. THEN talk to the handful of genetically-different people, in whose number you yourself are, and convince us to kill ourselves along with you.

    Liars like you made an independent bishop out of me. I wanted to be a parish priest. Thanks for nothing, brother.

    • Our Lord prohibits divorce expressly

      See, I think you're on to a loser there right at the start. Jesus clearly permits divorce in the case of adultery.

      THEN talk to the handful of genetically-different people, in whose number you yourself are, and convince us to kill ourselves along with you.

      Really? Which genes would those be? We're dying to know…

  7. I think it is significant that no-one has really been able to lay a finger on George et al. in terms of rational refutation, without rejecting many or all of their premises – which, as the authors make clear, also undercuts the rational case for gay marriage (cf. the polyamory problem – if confining marriage to one man and one woman is irrational and prejudiced, then why is confining marriage to two people not irrational and prejudiced?)

    It is instructive too that many critics, e.g. Alathia (I don't mean to single her out, but she is a good example of what I am trying to describe – and she did start it by referring to something that by her own admission she hadn't even read very carefully as "reactionary drivel") have essentially declined to engage and fallen back on the conventional utilitarian and/or sentimental justifications for SSM; "this works for me", "this feels good to me", "this makes people happy".

    • Hi w c,

      bit frustrated reading your comment – i don't think it's accurate to say that either DaveW or I rejected any of the authors' premises. For my part, it's rather that I think there are some flaws in their arguments and the way they apply them, hence the comments above. I'm wondering whether same-sex relationships could in fact be recognised as marriages on the authors' terms – but may be wrong and I'm aware others (eg Peter) disagree. I don't think i simply fell "back on the conventional utilitarian and/or sentimental justifications for SSM" – but show me if i did. If you actually want to engage, please do…

      in friendship, Blair

  8. I suppose this is as good a place to start commenting on George et al. is where +Edmund ended "THEN talk to the handful of genetically-different people". The binary model of sex that we find in their foundational argument rests on the observable fact, that the world is apparently divided into males and females throughout the animal kingdom. Genesis notes as much. But when +Edmund mentions genetically-different people what does he mean? People who are not physically or psychologically bracketed into one or other of the genders? But intersexuality is not a negligible minority. John Hare in an article 'Neither male nor female'*: the case for intersexuality' points out that this condition affects up to 2% of the population. Before becoming an Anglican priest Hare was a consultant physician specialising in intersexuality. In extreme cases where an individual exhibits signs of both genders, a penis and a vagina, Catholic ethics has traditionally said that such a person may choose which gender to identify with and then stick with it. So an intersex person may marry and it would seem, even achieve one-flesh marital status in George's model. But what of the case of transsexuals? Years ago when the post-operative transsexual model April Ashley tried to get married Lord Justice Ormerod (who was a medical doctor before he was a judge) ruled that "an orifice is not always a vagina". Things have changed now and transsexuals in many countries including the UK can marry from their acquired sex. In the States** it is more complex and I would be interested to see if transsexuals there could fit into George's one flesh model. The Catholic Church would not admit transsexuals to Holy Matrimony so I am sure that a surgically constructed penis or vagina would not suffice for George either. After he has got rid of gay marriages, are transsexuals next? I am not sure what the Church of England does about transsexuals. Peter, can you say, please?

    I agree if, tout court, George is right, that marriage is essentially defined by the coital act – penis into vagina – then there is no argument, same-sex people cannot be married. But it would appear to endanger the marriages of infertile couples – the people who for one reason or another cannot physically combine into one flesh. He foresees the objection from the outset and tries to head it off at the pass by defining vaginal marriage an intrinsic good, one which is typified by the generational act and which can be 'pointed to' if not actually physically achieved by everyone who has the right combination of organs. He supports this with the elaborate metaphor of the baseball game. Sometimes you can play the game but fail to score – (shoot blanks, fail to get it up, fail to conceive) – but that doesn't mean you are not a player. All you have to do is to have genital sex (penis > vagina) or do your best to. So, as I said before, if you are post-menopausal or have lost your penis in an accident, George is not coming for your marriage licence.

    Despite George's attempt to head off the question of infertile married couples, not everyone is as prepared to concede the sophistry of the argument which they find bizarre. Does the sports analogy work for you? Kenji Yoshino in the Slate Magazine review "The best argument against gay marriage, and why it fails" says this will be cold comfort to many infertile opposite-sex couples to hear that while their marriage is still “real,” it is a “losing” marriage as opposed to a “winning” one. Ideally, most of them view their marriages as something more than honourable defeats and would despise the contention that they had not fulfilled the central purpose of the institution. Moreover, the article says nothing of straight people who choose not to procreate. It is unclear why they would have “true marriages,” as they are not even trying to win." He says further "From the point of view of straight couples, however, the salient aspect of the contention that two biological parents are best for a child lies in how it demeans anyone who has chosen to adopt or to use reproductive technologies (such as an egg or sperm donor) to create a family. In the view of George and his co-authors, such couples apparently are not really parents: “Children … can have only two parents — a biological mother and father.” Peter has said to DaveW that to find this an objection is to misunderstand the argument but I don't think so. I think it is a real fumble and like all analogies the baseball game can be pressed to an absurd length. Kenji Yoshino responded:"The flaw is that the principle of "common procreation," as this idea is known, is overinclusive. It demeans the marriages of many opposite-sex couples who do not give birth to biological children, including infertile couples, couples who have chosen not to have children, couples who have adopted, and couples who have used reproductive technologies to create their families…..I stand by my view that the common procreation argument, as elaborated by George and his co-authors, "denigrates" parents who have adopted children. As I observed in my critique, the original article states: 'Children, likewise, have only two parents—a biological mother and father.' The direct implication of this statement is that an adoptive parent is not the parent of his or her child, as he or she is neither the biological father nor the biological mother of that child."

    George has responded and the whole exchange can be read at http://www.slate.com/id/2278794/

    Where this gets tricky is that people can have the right kind of sex without getting married. Are they one flesh when they have heterosex? Clearly not because there is none of the surrounding commitment. But there might be. Long-term partners often eschew the formal status of marriage but are 'married' in every other way. The Catholic Church frowns on this but would it count for George? He says he is making a case from pure reason without religion or scriptural support so he has got to get the state to take an interest in suppressing all other forms of marriage. If this is something that the American state may finally enact into federal law it might have implications for civil liberties. Further down the line what would happen to children born outside the covenant of marriage? He says he doesn't want to stop oral or 'sodomitical' sex, but if children are born out of wedlock would there be more than fiscal disincentives, right back to the old impediments for illegitimacy? The guys at Reasonable Doubts podcast say women are not safe from this man.

    In any event the genital sex has to take place in a life-long monogamous opposite-sex coupling. But why monogamous? (One of the slippery-slope arguments used against sum is that it will lead to legalised polyamorous bonds.) But monogamy hasn't always or everywhere been the case. The world's religions did not and do not universally insist on it. In fact Buddhism has no teaching on marriage. It sees it purely a local civil matter that monks keep away from. So in parts of the Buddhist world you might find sororal polygyny and fraternal polyandry – one woman marries all the brothers. How could this work with the one-flesh model which looks so narrowly Judaeo-Christian in the world-wide context? In his own land of America he has Mormons who want to revert to Old-Testament-style polygamy. George is at pains to rule that out because the monogamous opposite-pair mating for life, his one-flesh argument, trumps all other models. Shakespeare referred to coitus as making the beast with two backs, an even less pretty image than the one-flesh biblical image.

    But none of this acknowledges that reproduction is not simply a collaboration of the two sexes as a reproductive entity. At the genetic level it is a battle for one sex's gametes over the other. Why is it that the vagina is acid, except to destroy the sperm that can't get through fast enough? Why does human copulation take much longer with much more thrusting in humans than in any of our ape cousins (average 440 seconds compared with the next lengthy, the gorilla's at 60 seconds) ? The design of the head of the human penis, the glans, has a unique shape, a plunger, to suck out the sperm of previous men's ejaculates and deposit the victorious male's sperm. The spurts of the ejaculate have a different chemical constitution, with the first spurts containing toxins to other sperm. As Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá say in Sex at Dawn:

    "The scandalous implications of sperm competition run smack into the long-held view of sacrosanct female sexuality. It's a vision Darwin cultivated in public consciousness, featuring coy females who surrender only to a carefully chosen mate who has proven himself worthy-and even then, she's only doing it for England."

    There is mounting evidence of the womb after multiple births becoming inimical to Y-chromosome babies, so successive XY embryos are more likely to be naturally aborted, or turn out homosexual, surely in the sex wars the ultimate revenge on XY gametes.

    In support of the pair-bond argument at the heart of George's paper lies the supposed universality of human marriage and the subsequent good, the human nuclear family. According to George this is at its highest when biologically related children result from the pairing. So adopted children or surrogacy and so on can never have the same iconic value? From Malinowski, through Darwin to Desmond Morris, Jane Goodall and Michael Ghiglieri , evolutionary biologists have been saying things like "Marriage is the ultimate human contract" and "Marriage is the normally permanent mating between a man and a woman" and even "The institution of marriage is older than states, churches and laws". However the evidence across the species, even where we thought some really bonded for life, like swans and finches (whose females have recently been shown to 'cheat' on their spouses) through to humans, shows just the contrary. The human species is not as naturally monogamous as the divorce statistics among America's evangelicals show. It is coyly called serial monogamy but the raw actuality is that it is serial polygamy if the former partners are still living.

    Thanks Blair for the reference to Doug Chaplin which I found delightful. I also went on to read the Mark Vernon link and was fascinated by what he said about Plato's Symposium. "Aristophanes describes three kinds of aboriginal whole – the hermaphrodite male/female and two kinds of homosexual whole that after divine surgery were split into two men and two women respectively. Hence he has a mythical aetiology for homosexuality as well as heterosexuality". Vernon asks what this contributes to the current debate and concludes that whilst all humans seek to reunited with their other half they seek it differently. It is worth looking at Vernon's argument because it provides an interesting alternative to George's one-flesh model.

    For a useful summary of the way George's argument is received by fellow Catholic thinkers, some of whom deem the whole conjecture 'mystical', it is worth looking at the NY Times article I posted earlier


    * in Duncan Dormor and Jeremy Morris ed. An Acceptable Sacrifice? Homosexuality & the Church pp. 98-111.

    **According to Wikipedia the legal sex of a transsexual (as well as a transsexed or intersex) individual in the United States does not have one answer but 56 answers – one for each state, the District of Columbia, and the five inhabited territories (American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Marianas Islands, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands).

    • Tom,

      I agree that this approach (as do many others) fails to respond to intersex. The existence of a significant number of people for whom the traditional understanding of two genders does not fit, blows much of this thinking out or the water. It also contributes to a greater understanding of the way people with any of the wide variety of intersex conditions have been treated and are still treated.

      For me the key features of marriage should include:

      – lifelong

      – monogamous

      – mutual love, companionship & support

      I think child rearing is also hugely significant, but I don't like the way this book does not recognise both adoption and fostering as best within a marriage.

  9. If people are amenable, tomorrow I will begin a new thread to explore one of the two key issues that have come up in the comments above. I want to have some separate space for us to discuss the place (if any) of children in our understanding of marriage and then also how intersex fits into the George et al paper.

    Any preferences which to do first?

  10. Well, Peter, I've got a copy of the Hare article handy but I don't know if it is out there in an easily accessible form if anyone else wants to consult it. BTW, What is the Cof E's ruling on transsexual marriages?

  11. Despite all this it seems to me that the real point of marriage which goes right back to the book of Genesis is companionship – that a man may not be alone. So the heart of marriage is the 'mutual help, society and comfort that the one ought to have of the other' and becoming 'one flesh'. This latter need not be interpreted in modern society as necessarily anything to do with 'procreative coitus' but absolutely to do with nurturative sex (which can just as easily be same-sex).

    Really seems to me that so much of the above is unduly literalistic – as much so as reading Genesis and arguing that we should continue to believe in six-day creationism. Time to move on!

      • If we are being 'unduly literalistic' Genesis 1:28 doesn't mention even marriage……

        The problem is in taking something which may well be usual or normal for most in most circumstances and then using it a stick to beat those to whom it cannot apply. How about a little graciousness? Same-sex couples can fulfil as many of the 'reasons for marriage' as some heterosexual couples for whom sex is also nurturative and unitary and feeds their 'mutual help society and comfort'. I simply don't understand the attitude that wants to judge relationships by some sort of extended checklist. Even for fertile heterosexuals the main reason for getting married is not to have children – and many do not want to have them.

        You might insist that marriage is strictly only for men and women in order to defend a traditional definition of it. I'm not so threatened. Traditional marriage is unaffected by the gracious extension of the definition to include other sorts of similar relationships.

  12. Peter wrote: "I think you’re on to a loser there right at the start. Jesus clearly permits divorce in the case of adultery."

    Surprised at your certainty. Mark records Jesus as prohibiting divorce. Matthew, and later Paul, allowed certain exceptions. Most scholars seem to think the harder words of Jesus most likely to be most original and authentic BUT who really knows what He actually said?

  13. Let us just for a moment do a thought experiment – these scientists are very clever these days – how long before they will find a way (if they haven't) to create children from two women. The possibility of ("natural") children now exists and so the argument comes down to one of the bits and pieces used to effect the pregnancy – so he is saying that only heterosexual sex or the possibility of it defines a marriage. And without the link to children where does that come from?

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