Sunday, August 06, 2006

Marriage and the common good

Ryan T. Anderson at First Things brought to my attention a newly published booklet entitled Marriage and the public good: Ten principles, referred to as simply "The Princeton Principles." It is the fruit of scholarly meetings in Princeton, NJ, begun in 2004 by professors of various discplines and institutions. It is a complete and concise document in defense of traditional marriage against current trends toward a culture of divorce, illegitimacy, cohabitation, and same-sex marriage. Traditional marriage contributes to the true common good in society.

You must go read this! It gives voice to those who wish to clearly defend marriage in the public square. Some nuggets:

Principles 9 and 10 (section II) -

9. The laws that govern marriage matter significantly.

Law and culture exhibit a dynamic relationship: changes in one ultimately yield changes in the other, and together law and culture structure the choices that individuals see as available, acceptable, and choiceworthy. Given the clear benefits of marriage, we believe that the state should not remain politically neutral, either in procedure or outcome, between marriage and various alternative family structures. Some have sought to redefine civil marriage as a private contract between two individuals regardless of sex, others as a binding union of any number of individuals, and still others as any kind of contractual arrangement for any length of time that is agreeable to any number of consenting adult parties. But in doing so a state would necessarily undermine the social norm which encourages marriage as historically understood - i.e., the sexually faithful union, intended for life, between one man and one woman, open to the begetting and rearing of children. The public goods uniquely provided by marriage are recognizable by reasonable persons, regardless of religious or secular worldview, and thus provide compelling reasons for reinforcing the existing marriage norm in law and public policy.

10. "Civil marriage" and "religious marriage" cannot be rigidly or completely divorced from one another.

Americans have always recognized the right of any person, religious or non-religious, to marry. While the ceremonial form of religious and secular marriages often differs, the meaning of such marriages within the social order has always been similar, which is why the state honors those marriages duly performed by religious authorities. Moreover, current social science evidence on religion and marital success affirms the wisdom of the American tradition, which has always recognized and acknowledged the positive role that religion plays in creating and sustaining marriage as a social institution.4 The majority of Americans marry in religious institutions, and for many of these people a religious dimension suffuses the whole of family life and solemnizes the marriage vow. It is thus important to recognize the crucial role played by religious institutions in lending critical support for a sustainable marriage culture, on which the whole society depends. And it is important to preserve some shared idea of what marriage is that transcends the differences between religious and secular marriages and between marriages within our nation's many diverse religious traditions.

The intrinsic goods of marriage (section IV) -

Marriage offers men and women as spouses a good they can have in no other way: a mutual and complete giving of the self. This act of reciprocal self-giving is made solemn in a covenant of fidelity-a vow to stand by one another as husband and wife amid life's joys and sorrows, and to raise the children that may come as the fruit of this personal, sexual, and familial union. Marriage binds two individuals together for life, and binds them jointly to the next generation that will follow in their footsteps. Marriage elevates, orders, and at times constrains our natural desires to the higher moral end of fidelity and care.

The marriage vow by its nature includes permanence and exclusivity: a couple would lose the very good of the union they seek if they saw their marriage as temporary, or as open to similar sharing with others. What exactly would a temporary promise to love mean? Would it not reduce one's spouse to a source of pleasure for oneself, to be desired and kept only so long as one's own desires are fulfilled? By weakening the permanence of marriage, the contemporary culture of divorce undermines the act of self-giving that is the foundation of marriage. The marriage vow, seen as binding, is meant to secure some measure of certainty in the face of life's many unknowns-the certainty that this unknown future will be faced together until death separates. At the same time, marriage looks beyond the married couple themselves to their potential offspring, who secure the future from this generation to the next.

Marriage is thus by its nature sexual. It gives a unique unitive and procreative meaning to the sexual drive, distinguishing marriage from other close bonds. The emotional, spiritual, and psychological closeness of a married couple is realized in the unique biological unity that occurs between a man and a woman united as husband and wife in sexual intercourse. In marital sexual union, the love of husband and wife is given concrete embodiment. Our bodies are not mere instruments. Our sexual selves are not mere genitalia. Male and female are made to relate to and complete one another, to find unity in complementarity and complementarity in sexual difference. The same sexual act that unites the spouses is also the act that creates new life. Sharing of lives is, in sex, also a potential sharing of life. In procreation, marital love finds its highest realization and expression. In the family, children find the safety, security, and support they need to reach their full potential, grounded in a public, prior commitment of mother and father to become one family together.

This deeper understanding of marriage is not narrowly religious. It is the articulation of certain universal truths about human experience, an account of the potential elevation of human nature in marriage that all human beings can rationally grasp. Many secular-minded couples desire these extraordinary things from marriage: a permanent and exclusive bond of love that unites men and women to each other and to their children.

The main point to take away is that civil marriage is an institution based upon human nature, not sectarian religious grounds. As such, it is justly privileged and encouraged by the state.

4 comments:

Matt said...

At first glance, the Princeton Principles looks like an excellent resource, indeed something everyone should read.

I have two major points, neither of which, I think, criticizes the PP:

1) You hear quite a lot these days from the political provocateurs about same-sex marriage, and very little about domestic partnership. Does not the one undermine marriage just as much as the other? In fact, I would argue that domestic partnership is more damaging to traditional marriage than is same-sex marriage, because at least the latter are expressing a desire for commitment, while the former are explicitly demanding benefits with no commitment attached.

Why is there so little outcry against domestic partnership? And until there is, why should I take seriously the outcry against same-sex marriage?

2) "Creating a marriage culture is not the job for government." Amen! I think Christians are trying to do through force of law what they have failed to do socially as the salt and light of the Gospel. I think it's putting the cart before the horse, and I think Jesus never operated that way.

Am I saying Christian should stay out of politics? No. We should make our ideas known, and cast our votes when appropriate. But the hysteria, the hardball politics, and the scorched-earth tactics are, to my mind, distinctly anti-Christian.

None of this reflects on you personally, Dan, but I think it is very applicable to the way the issue is framed by conservative political organizers, many of whom are explicitly Christian.

Dan said...

Comment on 1):
After doing a bit of searching, I'd have to agree that domestic partnerships can also be damaging to a culture of marriage. However, in the minimal form in some states they resemble reciprocal beneficiaries that provide basic property and medical rights to couples (we discussed this a while ago here). So the damage can be less severe in some cases. But as of 2005 in CA, those rights were extended to be nearly equivalent to marriage, and this is definitely a problem. Any legal definition of a relationship that is marriage in all but name only works to undermine marriage.

Certainly Christians should work/lobby/vote against such partnership laws. But seeing a need do more to avoid "A" doesn't negate the need to avoid "B".

Comment on 2):
I agree with you. Many social issues that are subject to polical debate would be solved by greater conversion of hearts. And I also agree that political agendas push what topics are hot at any given moment.

But I do think we need to fight publicly against damaging ideas that are voiced publicly. To requote Principle 9, "Law and culture exhibit a dynamic relationship: changes in one ultimately yield changes in the other, and together law and culture structure the choices that individuals see as available, acceptable, and choiceworthy." We need to change hearts AND laws. I think that many people naturally react negatively against radical gay-rights initiatives, but are without rational arguments and led to believe they are just homophobic bigots. I see the Princeton Prinicples as a timely resource for those who can't articulate what they already know.

Matt said...

I'm glad to see that you do support benefits for same-sex partnerships that correspond to those available to heterosexual domestic partnerships. It seems to me that there are no significant differences between any relationships that aren't traditional marriage, so I don't think same-sex relationships should be discriminated against in that way.

But seeing a need do more to avoid "A" doesn't negate the need to avoid "B".

The issue is that Religious Right politicians harp constantly on the same-sex issue, ostensibly with the purpose of "protecting marriage," while almost completely ignoring this other issue that is just as damaging to marriage. I think it points out that their purposes are not what they claim them to be, and one should be wary about following them.

It is a fine goal to change both hearts and laws. But I think the former needs to take precedence over the latter. If we change laws but not hearts, then nothing of lasting good has really been done. If we change hearts but not laws, then I think our Lord would consider us successful.

Remember that the Church has long thrived (and, it may be argued, has been at its healthiest) in times and places in which the temporal powers have explicitly opposed the Gospel.

Matt Kuzma said...

I'd like to point out that, as long as we're talking about what is most damaging to the institution of marriage, the top of that list is clearly divorce. Anyone who is serious about defending marriage would go after divorce first and foremost. And yet, the only thing being done 'in defense of marriage' is fighting the application of equal rights to homosexuals.


I also think it's worth mentioning that I don't see any argument about the intrinsic good of marriage that doesn't apply equally to marriage between same-sex couples, except for the rather spurious arguments about sex for procreation. Any argument about forming a family can be equally applied to homosexual marriage in cases of adoption and the like, so aside from the "their kind of sex can't make babies and that's scary to me" argument, I don't see anything that would put people who advocate for marriage in a position of opposing homosexual marriage.