Sunday, November 10, 2013

Marriage as Status

When marriage is viewed as a sacrament, the one who affirms gay marriage is simply wrong. But this is because the sacrament is clearly (or to some, narrowly) defined. There are those who do not recognize the sacred, however, and there are those who see no value the vocabulary of sacrament. That's fair, and it's also the world/culture we happen to live in. It requires those of us to who see it as both religious and social to further reflect on what we mean by marriage in the social sphere.

Marriage as a legal concept is a status, and since many have condemned and pushed aside any religion—perhaps justly or unjustly—their main thrust in the arguments surrounding this situation is equal status among heterosexuals. It's not so much that I feel homo- and heterosexuals do not have equal status in the United States insofar as I think good strides have been made to reaffirm that homosexuals (all persons for that matter) are, in fact, human beings and treating them with dignity and respect is a right. Those who don't, for “religious reasons,” do so at the peril of their souls— those who bully, mistreat, attack others, and marginalize people do violence to their brothers and sisters. They deface the very image of God. But there is also a difference, let's be clear, between arguing for marriage and against gay marriage as opposed to doing violence to someone (spiritual, psychological, physical, or otherwise).

Marriage as a foundation for a natural, nuclear family is something based on natural potential. Marriage is a status only insofar as it affirms this natural union—both social and sexual. Hence saying “marriage is between a man and a woman” describes a relationship, but that it is also a relationship for a purpose. The status that attends this relationship also indicates publicly what the couple is supposed to be in private.

Marriage, however, is being redefined as a “relationship between persons.” Is it two? Is it more? The language is by design ambiguous or, at the very least, one cannot truly defend any sort of clarity. One may say “a consensual relationship between persons” implies adults, but does it? Does the moment of consent imply a lifetime, or is the duration of consent the contract itself?—once I no longer consent to being in a relationship is the marriage hereby dissolved? Law is silent on this issue and divorce solves this dilemma, clearly.

Nevertheless, “a relationship between persons” is descriptive of an event. The potentiality of marriage in this instance (i.e., that plateau one could reach) points to a social status. Legal aspects come into play (e.g., finances, visiting privileges, etc.) but the prospect of family makes this even more difficult.

Many homosexuals no doubt desire the stability of what marriage offers for their lives and for the sake of raising their own family. A woman or man's desire for progeny likely exists in some equal fashion for homosexuals as it does heterosexuals despite the easily recognized fact that a child requires a sperm and ovum. In these relationships adoption or some form of in vitro fertilization is necessary—already it adds third parties to the process of having a family in the first place. One can perhaps only guess the difficult legal battles that might lie ahead. Regardless of this aspect marriage opens up a whole new set of questions regarding family, custody, and child-rearing.

People are generally swayed by the very emotionally-convincing speeches given by children or young-adults who speak before politicians or debates extolling the good life they have with two mothers or fathers. This is, for them, some proof that there is simply no difference between one's situation growing up. In the case of homosexual families it seems as if lesbians have an easier route—they can be inseminated and develop the child in their own womb. For men, however, neither of them can easily be involved in the process.

Yet it is also odd for me to hear the common reply that whether from gay or straight households the child can grow up healthy. I certainly suppose that the child can grow up healthy, but we simultaneously hear (especially on the radio here in Chicago) of the importance of the father's positive role in a child's life. The government website on the well-being of children likewise indicates this fact (Child Welfare). So we hear both that “it doesn't matter” and that “it matters.”

I suspect that many will begin arguing that these facts are, in the end, simply an assumption about what perspective we want children to grow up with (that is, with their natural mother and father).

Those of us who believe in God often get run out of the argument for allegedly forcing God into this argument, but I think we have real points in the argument of gay marriage on legal grounds (what will it look like when expanded upon?) and family grounds (children growing up with parents).

Objectors may bring into light the fact that there are deceased parents, deadbeat fathers, drunk mothers, etc. as an indication that heterosexual marriage isn't all beautiful and perfect—a valid point. But in this argument it ceases to be valid when it takes the weak example of marriage and compares it to a normal or strong example of gay marriage. It becomes a false comparison and simply refuses to acknowledge that there is a way marriage and family should be. If there were 20 toys, but 19 were broken, would we reassess how the toy actually functions because the data tells us that 19 are simply broken after all. Rather, wouldn't we judge the 19 by the 1 that actually did work as it was intended? So too with marriage in arguments like this—we cannot judge what is less than right and proper as normative.

There are many other situations that I would like to treat but require greater space: impotent couples, couples that do not want children, couples that do not value marriage (though they are married), among others. Many advocates of gay marriage that I've come across are only concerned with the legitimacy of their own definition and that their views on marriage are protected and sanctioned by the law. Many others, however, realize that many different ideas of marriage cannot simply be reduced to every last person thinking marriage is something different. Everyone would do well to distinguish particular expressions of marriage (which are as numerous as people, e.g., Hindi, Muslim, Christian, secular, etc.) and the purpose of marriage (something that is far more unified among a great number of peoples).

Is marriage something that demands equal status? In the case of gay marriage and marriage I answer no. This comes with the caveat, however, that civil marriage as it stands has no standard by which it says this or that person should get married. In the legal world marriage is simply the desire of two individuals and they are then bound legally to one another. There is very little “quality control” (so to speak) nor is there counseling that goes into determining whether or not a couple are prepared emotionally and relationally for marriage. This is a weakness of our system.

The benefit of the religious conception of marriage, alongside its insistence on it being sacred and for the family, is that there is certain counseling and guidance along the way that helps couples understand the conflicts that arise from living together and raising a family. It is a system with weaknesses, to be sure, but one that often produces more stable marriages. That it urges self-sacrifice that mirrors Christ on the cross while also emphasizing that their union mirrors the love of the Trinity is itself something of great importance.

Marriage, when used as a status, often leads people to say that their love is now validated, but marriage viewed in this way seems less about the triumph of love and more about the triumph of how one wants the world to view them. The desire of many is to be treated equally under the law but this desire extends beyond equal treatment. The argument is that “My view of marriage is equally as valid as yours and thus it deserves to be protected by law” but this argument only has legs when marriage is reduced to a piece of paper. Marriage reduced to a status produces this argument. One ought to look, rather, at what he means by marriage and not what he wants to get out of it. In this manner I feel more fruitful dialog can begin.

Similarly, I personally would care less about my view or “opinion” on marriage because I don't raise my opinion to the level of belief on matters social and sacramental (should you see it that way). I trust rather in what I've been given by my Tradition on the one hand while also applying what I've been given with reason and experience. Does everyone's opinion carry the force of “belief”? I don't think so—but such is the way many people see it.