Where Logic Meets Love

What Is Marriage For, Really?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

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What Is Marriage For, Really? | Faith Permeating Life
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Statement on Same-Sex Marriage (which is 15 years old but appears to be the one they're still operating under) lists two purposes for marriage:
  • "the mutual love and support of the spouses"
  • and "the procreation and education of children."
These are really awesome things, truly... but they make a pretty weak argument for why we have marriage in the first place. All of these things can and do happen both within marriages and in non-married relationships. Saying that these things are the "purposes of marriage" -- i.e., the reasons for marriage -- makes it sound like we need marriage in order to have these things. And that's just not true.

I'm going to set aside the mutual love, mutual support, and educating children parts of this for the moment because you can't make arguments against gay marriage using these "purposes" (since gay couples can do them too), which is why Catholic leaders have homed in on the procreation part in order to argue against gay marriage.

On the USCCB's FAQ page about Marriage and Same-Sex Unions [updated link], they make this argument for why marriage is unique and thus should only be between a man and a woman:
"There is a fundamental difference between marriage, which has the potential to bring forth children, and other relationships. The fact that marriage between a man and a woman will usually result in children remains a powerful human reality, even if circumstances do not prmit [sic] every marriage to result in children. This makes marriage between a man and a woman a unique institution."
The first sentence essentially says, "Married couples are the only relationships that can create children." Which is, um, completely false. Do I need to TiVo Teen Mom for you?

Then they go on to say that marriage is this totally special and unique union because it will usually produce children.

Ummm... I think you're mixing up marriage and male-female intercourse.

Seriously, this argument is so convoluted I can barely untangle the logic. I think they're attempting to say something like, "Because only married straight people can make babies, only straight people should get married."

We've already established that babies can be made outside of marriage, so this provides a pretty shaky foundation for the whole "the purpose of marriage is procreation" argument.

I know what you may be thinking: "But you shouldn't be having babies outside of marriage!"

This, my friend, is an entirely different Catholic argument, about how a purpose of marriage is for telling you when it's OK to start having sex. Which I've discussed elsewhere. (Also here.)

(And if you really, really want to argue that sex should be saved for marriage, then let's both fight for legalizing gay marriage -- otherwise gay people have nothing to wait for. And if you want to argue that gay people shouldn't be having sex at all because it says not to in the Bible, then I will patiently point you this resource guide.)

Way back when, when the whole idea of having some kind of official joining-of-two-people came about, it was not because people thought that there was no other way to have children. I mean, think about that for a second. You really think people said to themselves, "We want to have sex, so we'd better have some kind of formal ceremony or else we'll never produce children"?

I don't want to bore you with a history lesson (again, I will point to the many wonderful books out there, of which two of my favorites are Marriage, A History and Committed), but essentially marriage, at its most basic, is a way of organizing society, and in a cruder sense, of organizing children. Back when all property was passed down through eldest sons, it was vitally important to know which sons were whose and which were "legitimate" versus "illegitimate." Go read the book of Genesis if you want to get a sense for this. Rabbit pointed out on this post that this is a big reason Catholicism no longer has married clergy: Property would leave the church's possession and be passed down to these men's sons if they weren't forbidden to marry.

Nowadays we don't have as pressing of concerns about paternity and legitimacy and inheritance because these things aren't written into law, at least in the United States. And so, understandably, we see fewer couples feeling a need to get married. Because (need I say it again?) marriage and procreation are not one and the same.

Marriage can be a great way for spouses to find mutual love and support, and to create and educate children, but it's not the only way, and opening marriage up to gay couples won't change that.


What do you think? What did I miss? Respectful disagreements always welcome.

(In case you didn't catch it, this issue is near-and-dear to me not only because of my many gay friends, but also because I am a married person who doesn't plan on procreating but rather adopting.)


Reminder: If you're guest posting for me, I'd like your post tonight if possible. If you can't get it done by tonight, don't stress--I set a pretty early deadline relative to when I'm leaving for vacation. If you didn't volunteer originally but would like to jump in now, go ahead! I can always fit in a few more.

(UPDATE: Here's my actual answer to the question, "Why get married?")


  1. Interesting. And here you've said what marriage isn't for - any thoughts on what it is for?

  2. @Just me
    Ha, good catch! This was getting too long for me to go into that. After all, if marriage is unnecessary for all the things mentioned, then why are gay people so eager to get married? Or maybe more to the point, why did I get married? This will be my next post ;) though you can probably get a sense of the answer by reading some of my other posts on marriage!

  3. ..This is kind of hard to answer. After thinking of each answer I noticed that my answers are not REAL reasons. I have grown up with amazing role models that taught me to get married. I just remember always believing in falling in love and marriage because that is how I was brought up. But again..falling in love and marriage do not have to be connected.

    so I think it just depends on your own views and finding someone who shares your views. I believe two people can be very happy together and never get married. But those two people need to be on the exact same page. A person who wants to get married will never last long with a person who has totally opposite views.

  4. @melissa
    Even if your reasons aren't reasons everyone should get married, they're still "real" reasons if they're your reasons. It's totally legitimate to want to model your relationship after couples who you saw having strong, healthy relationships, and if those included marriage, it makes sense that you would want the same. I know that definitely played a role in my wanting to get married.

    I completely agree that a couple needs to be on the same page. Now that marriage isn't an expected milestone in every relationship, it's just like any other aspect of life a couple needs to talk about, like where they dream of living, how many kids they want to have, etc. Assuming your partner is on the same page is never a good way to go!

  5. Love this post! There are a lot of objectively-observed benefits of marriage (married people are more financially stable, happier and healthier overall, live longer, etc), none of which lead me to believe that only opposite-sex couples should be the only ones to enjoy those benefits.

  6. @Macha
    Exactly! There is no reason to exclude same-sex couples from the benefits of marriage. Saying "marriage is for procreation" as a means for excluding them from the benefits of marriage is completely illogical and simply discriminatory.

  7. Ah crap, I know I volunteered to guest post for you, but then never followed through. I can still do one, if you'd like! Maybe for another time?

  8. @Rabbit
    Could you get it to me by the end of the week? There's still some time before I leave for vacation, and yours isn't the only one I'm waiting on :)

  9. LOL I will try to have it to you by Friday morning. If I don't, it's not because I don't care :)

  10. From my own perspective (here me out before jumping to conclusions!)...I believe marriage should be reserved for a man and a woman. I believe this because marriage, at it's core, is a religious union that has always been between man, woman and God. HOWEVER, because I do believe in religious freedom and therefor the ability to exercise the freedom to choose and act according to free will, I believe government should have NO involvement in marriages. In an ideal world, all couples, straight and gay, would have "civil unions." Then couples could seek the traditional "marriage" from churches that agree with their standards of life. That's just my two cents.

  11. @Hannah
    I actually agree with you about keeping church marriage and government marriage separate. If we had one word (e.g., civil unions) for the same rights conferred by the government on any couple, then religious organizations would clearly have no ground to stand on in trying to prevent what is a completely government-run institution. Because the terminology is muddled currently, it allows religious leaders to get mixed up in government by confusing the government-bestowed marriage with the religiously bestowed marriage.

  12. I think the struggle is that if "gay marriage" is legalized, private religious organizations will be forced to marry gay couples. Which honestly, is infringing upon religious rights. I think the VERY happy medium and solution would be to simply have "civil unions," followed by religious "marriages." How do other countries do it? I wonder why this particular scenario hasn't been discussed seriously politically? Or am I just out of the loop?

  13. @Hannah
    private religious organizations will be forced to marry gay couples.
    They won't. They won't. Argh. I hate this argument.

    When Mike and I got married, we had to go through pre-cana, which involved some really in-depth discussions with our priest about our relationship and also taking a compatibility-type test to ensure that we had discussed all the major issues (money, family, etc.) that we should before getting married. It also included some "red flag" questions, like if we were planning on raising our kids Catholic, which you have to promise to do during the Catholic wedding Mass. There are many stories out there of priests refusing to marry couples because they were living together or whatever. There is no legal obligation on any religious person to marry a couple just because they want a religious ceremony. Having a religious ceremony is not a legal right. Being able to have a government-recognized marriage, assuming you meet the requirements (like you aren't already married to someone else), yes. But the government can't require a church to bestow a religious sacrament on someone.

  14. I understand your explanation, and I say this without meaning to be contentious...but do you think it'd be different if churches were refusing gay couples? It seems like there would be arguments and lawsuits about discrimination, etc.

  15. @Hannah
    It's certainly possible, and I don't want to say I can predict the future that it would never happen. But 1) if I were a gay couple, I don't think I would fight to get married within a religion that didn't accept my relationship, if there are other avenues for getting married, unless I were really intent on trying to make change within that religion, and 2) it seems to me that historically the government has steered clear of trying to tell religions what they can and can't do so long as they're talking about religion-specific issues (as opposed to, like, campaign funding, which is a government issue). So it's certainly possible that there could be lawsuits in the future, but I think saying outright that "religious organizations will be forced to marry gay couples" is really a stretch.

  16. It was definitely a generalization on my part.

  17. Thank you thank you thank you for this post! It's so refreshing to hear this. I've written about why I am for gay marriage a few times on my blog and I like your arguments a lot.

    It bothers me when people act as if male-female marriage was invented by the Church. Studying anthropology, I can just say that's not the case. There are many different types of marriages societies across the world recognize. So saying that m-f marriage is the only natural choice doesn't make sense to me. Also, I believe strongly in the separation of Church and State. The state has already recognized people's right to have non-church weddings. You can get married at a courthouse. You can leave God out of your marriage. So why would we say that we can only have "biblical" marriages.

    Hannah - Churches do have the right to discriminate. The easiest example I can think of is communion. Catholics don't give communion to non-Catholics, which you could say is discrimination on the basis of religion. But it's allowed. Anti-discrimination laws are only for the government and establishments that open themselves up to the public (like how restaurants can't refuse to serve black people). But those rules don't apply to religious organizations. That's why you see people always arguing all sorts of things under the basis of "religious freedom." So, no, churches would not be required to marry same sex couples. I know NY's recent law included a clause that specifically said churches do not have to perform same sex marriages. A law that required churches or other religious organizations to act a certain way would never fly in any sort of legislature - liberal or conservative.

  18. @Jackie
    I've always said that you know your side is losing when you have to start making things up to support your cause. Drilling this same message about how marriage has been this Biblical thing between one man and one woman since Adam and Eve is just... ugh. Not true, for one, and such a broken record at this point. It makes the Church look terrible.

    It is refreshing for me to find other Catholics who are pro-gay marriage! Sometimes I feel like I'm a lone voice in the wilderness or something :)


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