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Why Love Prevails: What Is Marriage?

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Does love make a marriage? Or does sex? And if sex makes a marriage, then what kind of sex? These were central themes of a debate I participated in at the University of Notre Dame on Nov. 9th, where I discussed these questions with two proponents of a highly traditional understanding of the marriage relationship, Ryan Anderson and Sherif Girgis.

Anderson and Girgis are among the co-authors (with Robert P. George) of the new book, "What Is Marriage? Man and Woman, A Defense." To summarize their argument: Marriage can only be brought about by engaging in a particular type of sex act, heterosexual coitus. Nothing else can substitute for this constitutive element. Nothing else can take its place.

Marriage, on their account, is a "comprehensive relationship." Indeed, it is the primordial comprehensive relationship. What makes it so? To Anderson and Girgis, the case for marriage begins with the human body. The body is made for unity with another human being. And that unity is uniquely achieved through heterosexual coitus.

Marriage, they maintain, is a kind of friendship, but it is also more than friendship. For friendship is a mere "union of hearts and minds," while marriage is a unity of "mind and body" (p. 33). And this unity of mind and body is achieved, can only be achieved, through heterosexual coital coupling. Such coupling, they continue, confers something more than intimacy, something more than emotional closeness, because it is ordained to bring into being the next generation. And for that reason, marriage is also permanent and exclusive.

Other forms of friendship, other forms of sexual coupling (in our debate they dwelt especially on anal intercourse), by the logic of their argument, are incomplete and should not qualify as marital acts (p. 30). This, Anderson and Girgis insist, is why the State must continue to retain traditional marriage and why it must reject all other forms of union as unworthy of a similar level of legal protection. Emotion, for Anderson and Girgis, is an inadequate foundation for marriage, affection a weak and unsteady cornerstone. Only the singular unity of heterosexual coitus can ever truly create a marriage.

How do we unpack these contentions? We should begin with the idea of permanence because this is where their argument first begins to crumble. Marriage is permanent, Anderson and Girgis assert, because two bodies come together and perform acts that may lead to procreation. As they put it: "In coitus, and there alone, a man and a woman's bodies participate by virtue of their sexual complementarity in a coordination that has the biological purpose of reproduction" (p. 26). Even where reproduction does not occur, the "coordination toward a single end" is present, and that coordination is enough to create a permanent union.

This is an erroneous understanding of the nature of intimate human relationships. Heterosexual coitus simply does not incline itself, without more, to the formation of permanent relationships. Every day, people engage in the most transitory of heterosexual couplings. There is no intention in these fleeting acts of casual sex to create something permanent. The intention is nothing more than momentary pleasure. Permanence is the object that is most devoutly to be feared.

Anderson and Girgis must therefore explain why and how such sexual unions achieve permanence since the people who are having sex do not automatically equate the sex act with permanent commitment. They try to rescue their case by introducing the idea of the marital vow (p. 34). The couple swear a solemn promise before God and the State that they will remain together forever regardless of life's vicissitudes. And then society simultaneously assists them in the fulfillment of that promise and holds them to it, by making exit from marriage deliberately difficult.

But Anderson and Girgis never inquire into why people make marriage vows in the first place. What causes someone to want to spend forever with another person? To ask this question requires us to leave the question of bodily design aside and focus more deeply on what really leads people to make permanent commitments. After all, do people really to one another: "Well, my bodily design matches yours, so let's stay together forever?" Really?!

In truth, bodily design has little to do with marriage, understood as a permanent and enduring relationship. It is, in fact, the very emotion, the human affection, the capacity for friendship, which Anderson and Girgis try to dismiss as insufficient, that makes a marriage. After all, sex without love is transient pleasure.

The human heart's longing for permanence is not magically conjured into being by the injection of semen into vagina, but arises instead from the deepest wellsprings of human emotion. It is love which seeks to bring the next generation into being, which clothes and cares for children, which sees them safely into adulthood. And it is love which explains why childless couples remain together, not, as Anderson and Girgis contend, some sort of "team" solidarity with those couples capable of child-bearing (p. 30). In that paradigm of marriage for Catholics, the union of Mary and Joseph, it could only have been love that held the Holy Family together, not sex, since Catholics believe that Mary was "ever virgin."

And if marriage arises from love, then who is capable of love? That is the question posed by advocates of same-sex marriage. And there we must consult the latest empirical studies, which demonstrate that same-sex couples have at least as good a chance to form loving, enduring relationships as heterosexual couples.

Sexual orientation, it is now well-established, is part of naturally-occurring human variability. While scientists have not identified precise physiological or psychological reasons why some people are gay and others are not, it is clear that sexual orientation is not a choice. And it is equally clear that sexual orientation is not something like alcoholism, or a susceptibility to addictive behaviors. People who are attracted to members of the same sex are as capable as heterosexuals of building emotionally healthy, permanent, intimate relationships with the ones they love.

Indeed, in those parts of Europe that have a long history of same-sex marriage, the divorce rates for same-sex couples are sometimes significantly lower than for heterosexual partners. Thus in Denmark, where same-sex marriage has been allowed since 1989, "the divorce rate among Danish homosexuals is only 17 percent, compared to 46 percent for heterosexuals."

And if we consider the procreative dimension of marriage, it seems that same-sex couples are faring well by the usual measures of success. Let us consider an important report which appeared in the Spring, 2013 issue of the journal, "Pediatrics," the "Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics." Writing on behalf of the Academy, the study called for "support for marriage equality" and the repeal of laws restrictive of the rights of gay couples. The report concluded that many factors might impair the healthy development of children, "but the sexual orientation of their parents is not among them."

In the end, it is love that makes a marriage, not body parts. It is love that keeps couples together, that sustains them through hardships and heartaches. It is love which motivates them to provide well for the next generation. And it is a love that is not limited to heterosexuals, but that belongs to all human beings capable of warm and tender and feeling for others.