Shifting the Marriage Conversation

Getting the Marriage Conversation Right – A Guide for Effective Dialogue

  • William May
  • Emmaus Road Publishing, 2012; 82 pages, $5.95

When the socialist government of France began to move ahead with plans to redefine marriage to include same-sex couples, some observers were surprised at the very significant public opposition that resulted. On January 13, 2013 many hundreds of thousands of people—perhaps a million—gathered in Paris to oppose publicly the government’s socialengineering agenda.

Close observers might have noted that the demonstrations avoided some of the “gay rights” framing so commonly imposed on the debate over the meaning of marriage, not least because some of the prominent voices in favor of retaining the understanding of marriage as the union of husband and wife were associated with the gay-rights cause. These latter, like others of their fellow citizens, recognize that a social institution uniting mothers and fathers in children’s interest benefits all members of society. The French demonstrations had a relentless focus on children and their opportunity to be raised by both a father and mother.

This focus on children’s wellbeing runs contrary to the way advocates of redefining marriage would like the discussion to proceed. In a recent interview a reporter asked my response to homosexuals who felt they were hurt by current laws retaining the understanding of marriage as the union of a husband and wife. I sensed some incredulity in reaction to my answer that regardless of the types of relationship an individual desires, that person would benefit from living in a society that recognizes and promotes the unique and uniquely valuable bond of a man and a woman oriented towards social goods—the most important of which is children’s opportunity to be reared by a mother and father.

Those advocating same-sex “marriage,” by contrast, would frame the issue by first reducing marriage to a private relationship oriented towards personal satisfaction to which the government should give recognition as a way of signaling its approval of the personal choices of the parties. Starting from this premise, they cannot see why, other than atavistic hatred, any of their fellow citizens would want to deny this recognition and its corresponding endowment of dignity to a group of individuals capable of entering into close personal relationships.

William B. May, president of an organization called Catholics for the Common Good, has recognized this problem with the way much of the marriage debate has progressed. In response, he has published a very helpful little book that suggests a shift in the way we talk about what is at stake when marriage is redefined. The book arises from the experience of the organization in responding to claims for redefining marriage during the campaign for Proposition 8 in California.

The book’s suggestions for approaching the “marriage conversation” are helpful because they step away from identity politics and redirect the conversational focus to social interests, the paramount being children’s needs.
For instance, May proposes this description of marriage:

In marriage, a man and woman freely choose to make themselves irreplaceable to each other. Until that point, everyone is replaceable. It is through their marriage that they become irreplaceable to each other. This free choice for irreplaceability and a commitment to the common good of the unit is precisely what prepared them to receive the fruit of their union, a new person, as a gift of equal value and dignity to each of them.

As May explains, in marriage we “have a public institution that specifically unites children with their moms and dads” and which “promotes they be raised by their moms and dads together.” Advocates of redefinition would rather discuss “parenting children who have lost or been separated from their moms or dads or both.” They believe it benefits their cause to talk about family processes rather than family structure. Along this line, courts have invoked (not particularly rigorous) evidence that “sexual orientation” or “sex” is irrelevant to whether one can be a good parent. They argue that if homosexual couples can do well with children, redefining marriage to include these couples will not interfere with the marriage institution’s promotion of children’s interests.

This argument, the book makes clear, is a distraction. The question of how our society will define marriage is not dependent on the outcome of a contest in parenting skills. One can easily affirm that men, women, people who experience same-sex attraction, people who do not, etc., have the capacity to do the things we think good parents should do, but that fact is irrelevant to the question this book identifies as at the heart of the current debate: Will we retain a public institution that simultaneously encourages (1) parental responsibility and (2) mothers and fathers for children?

May counsels a relentless focus on family structure. Public recognition of marriage promotes an optimal family structure for children’s interests. The alternative to retaining the social understanding of marriage as the union of a husband and wife, a mother and father, is to endorse the proposition that motherlessness or fatherlessness is, in every way, equivalent for children and society to the mother-father norm. May notes that redefining marriage to include same-sex couples “eliminates all authority for promoting the unique value of men and women marrying before having children.”

In fact, “redefining marriage would make it legally discriminatory for public and private institutions to promote the unique value of children being united with their moms and dads, since it would violate the principle of equality of relationships and equality in parenting.” This is true because “in order to accommodate same-sex couples, marriage must actually be redefined in the law as merely the public recognition of a committed relationship and marriage between a man and a woman, the only institution that unites children with their mothers and fathers, must be eliminated.”

If, as experience, common sense, and empirical data make clear, children’s flourishing is promoted by being reared by a mother and father, then publicly repudiating this notion will have consequences. In this way, the battle over marriage’s definition could result in salting the soil out of which the elements of individual fulfillment, personal identity, belonging, security, and the like ostensibly valued by redefinition advocates must grow.

The book’s proposed way of talking about marriage provides a good answer to the question of how even those who have no desire to marry a person of the opposite-sex would still benefit from a culture that affirmed the uniqueness of the opposite-sex marital bond. Over time and across cultures, the procedures, practices, and incidents of marriage have varied. Nevertheless, its primary form and legal meaning have remained remarkably constant. The core understanding of marriage has been oriented towards the crucial social interest in encouraging the potentially procreative relationships of men and women to take place within marriage so children will have the fullest opportunity to be known, loved, and reared by the mothers and fathers who created them.

As this book makes clear, changing the meaning of a word does not necessarily change reality, but it can efface a reality: in this case, the reality of sex difference and its implications, particularly for children. The debate is not semantic only; it is an effort to fend off a serious attempt to obscure or deny the full reality of sex difference and children’s deep needs.

One implication of reframing the marriage conversation as William May suggests is that we will have, at some point, to face the reality that we need to make hard, grown-up decisions that may appear, in the short term, to cause distress. These decisions of character cannot be avoided without abdicating moral responsibility. It will not do to deny children’s rightful claims on our commitment to policies that support their ability to know and be raised by a married mother and father just so that we can be on the “right side of history” or avoid personal discomfort. This “easy way” is not available to the truly responsible society.

We may have forgotten how to articulate a robust vision of marriage, or we may merely lack the confidence, but our failure to do so will have consequences.

In a recent post, columnist Peter Hitchens referenced “the Church of England’s response to calls for easier divorce” in a related debate in the 1940s over redefining marriage as a commitment of convenience. The church asked: “Whoever succeeded in raising the moral tone of any society without causing the frustration of some natural desires, and the hardship of having to forego them?” Just so.

Do we have the fortitude to make a similar response to a new call for redefinition and accept the demanding discipline it will take to sustain a culture that places the proper value on marriage as the site for encouraging adults to act in children’s interests? I believe Mr. May is encouraging us to do so in his book and we ought, for the sake of “ourselves and our posterity,” to do just that.

William C. Duncan is director of the Marriage Law Foundation.