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One man, one woman

By Pete Vere
web posted August 18, 2003

In his ESR editorial last week, James Antle called for a broad discussion concerning recent attempts to redefine marriage. "That's why this discussion must be about more than politics," he writes. "We are not just thinking of ourselves – we are thinking about how future generations will be raised and shaping the institutions that will mold them."

Antle raises an excellent point. This debate is not merely over individual rights and freedoms, but about the well-being of children as well. As a canon lawyer working full-time within a Catholic marriage tribunal, I see almost daily how marriage impacts both future generations and society at large. Where marriage is weakened, children are the first and most visible casualties.

Most major world religions approach marriage as public institution. Given its social ramifications, marriage cannot be dismissed as a mere private contract between consenting individuals. In short, this minimalist position fails to take into account the social dimension of marriage. This is not to say that marriage serves the state; rather, society as a whole has a strong interest in the success of marriage. Therefore, the state has a duty to promote and support the highest ideal of marriage.

From the Catholic perspective, the Code of Canon Law defines marriage as follows: "The marriage covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of their whole life, and which of its own very nature is ordered to the well-being of the spouses and to the procreation and upbringing of children, has, between the baptised, been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament." (Canon 1055 §1)

If one removes the reference to baptism and the sacrament, the natural definition of marriage remains. As far as nature goes, society has always understood marriage as the union between a man and a woman to the exclusion of all other relationships. "So God created man in His own image," the Hebrew scriptures state, "in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them." (Genesis 1:27) This belief is fundamental to the Judeo-Christian understanding of marriage. Derived from the Natural Law and received from our Jewish brethren, the Catholic Church is merely one of many religious bodies that believes no political, religious or social organization possesses the authority to legitimately change this commonly accepted definition of marriage.

This includes political forces within the Canadian judiciary as well as revisionist theological movements within the Anglican communion. In recent months, the aforementioned have sought to redefine marriage as some form of special relationship between two persons. Quite often, the proponents of same-sex marriage argue their position on the basis of justice and inclusiveness toward those of an alternate sexual orientation. Nevertheless, marriage is not merely about the individual.

On the other side of the socio-political divide, Catholics (joined by their evangelical Protestant and Orthodox Jewish brethren, as well as most other conservative religionists) now find themselves standing as a sign of contradiction to the popular culture. For popularity does not always denote correctness. As John Paul II clearly summarizes in Familiaris Consortio, "conjugal communion sinks its roots in the natural complementarity that exists between man and woman, and is nurtured through the personal willingness of the spouses to share their entire life-project..."

In other words, there exists within our human nature a natural complementarity between the male and the female. We see this complementarity in the procreation of the human race - the most fundamental and necessary component of society's existence. This is the rationale behind the Catholic Church's teaching that marriage is ordered toward the good of children. For as we read in Familiaris Consortio, "the fundamental task of the family is to serve life, to actualize in history the original blessing of the Creator-that of transmitting by procreation the divine image from person to person."

Yet the good of children does not end with procreation; children must also be educated. Traditionally, the Catholic understanding of this parental obligations to educate one's children is much more broad than mere academic schooling. Education within this context encapsulates the total upbringing of the child. And as numerous sociological and psychological studies confirm, the traditional family structure provides the most stable and nurturing environment for the social, psychological, spiritual, and emotional needs of children. From my tribunal experience, I have come to recognize that there is no authentic substitute for a stable two parent family of complimentary gender. This is the perspective of all the great monotheistic religions upon which our Western culture is based – not for God's sake, but for own.

As previously mentioned, marriage is no mere private contract between individuals. It concerns the good of the individual, the good of the family and for the good of society as a whole. While the marital contract is entered into as an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman, marriage nevertheless possesses a social dimension into which children are born, nurtured and educated. Subsequently, marriage is unequal to other to other contracts between humans; by its very nature, its effects are not merely restricted to those who contract the marriage. Rather, marriage both profoundly and directly impacts upon the lives of others, namely, the children born into the relationship. For this reason, a society can never exclusively define marriage in terms of individual rights without placing its stability at great risk. Unlike other relationships that merely concern private individuals, marriage cannot be left to succeed or fail upon the merits of the individuals who contract it.

In Familiaris Consortio, John Paul II draws this connection between the conjugal communion of a man and woman and the stability of the family. "Conjugal communion constitutes the foundation on which is built the broader communion of the family, of parents and children, of brothers and sisters with each other, of relatives and other members of the household," he states. "This communion is rooted in the natural bonds of flesh and blood, and grows to its specifically human perfection with the establishment and maturing of the still deeper and richer bonds of the spirit: the love that animates the interpersonal relationships of the different members of the family constitutes the interior strength that shapes and animates the family communion and community." In other words, marriage exists to serve the traditional family structure. It exists to initiate and educate children in the deepest interpersonal relationships. This is the reason why marriage has survived throughout the centuries, while others have not; this exclusive union between a man and a woman reflects a natural order around which society preserves, propagates and nurtures itself.

Throughout history, where society has attempted to socially engineer some other form of relationship as equal to marriage, either anarchy or authoritarianism ensues. Such alternate unions do not fail because of their introduction into an intolerant or repressive society. Rather, as history repeatedly shows, societies that undermine the traditional marriage simply die out. Unable either to propagate or sustain themselves, their focus shifts from self-preservation and growth to selfish hedonistic pleasure. Thus the failure of sexually permissive societies is neither political, social, nor ideological.

Rather, the failure of sexually permissive civilizations lay in the refusal to accept the consequences of sexual promiscuity. A most fundamental and intrinsic part of our human nature, when expressed sexually, is to create, nurture and protect our young. This requires the stability of traditional marriage. A culture consumed by sexual hedonism will neither accept the procreative consequences of the conjugal act, nor provide the necessary stability to nurture its children. Thus a nation that asserts individual liberties over the stability of the traditional family will soon find its culture intrinsically disordered, as the culture of erotic hedonism is diametrically opposed to the culture of self-sacrifice for one's spouse and one's family.

And thus, in the cultural battle over marriage, religious and social conservatives must stand firm as signs of contradiction. "In the context of a culture which seriously distorts or entirely misinterprets the true meaning of human sexuality, because it separates from its essential reference to the person," we read in Familiaris Consortio, "the Church more urgently feels how irreplaceable is her mission of presenting sexuality as a value and task of the whole person, created male and female in the image of God."

In keeping with the Natural Law, marriage cannot simply be reduced to a mere sexual act in which both parties derive physical gratification. Rather, the conjugal act is a noble thing. It must be a mutual act of total self-giving, through which one spouse lovingly accepts the gift of the other. This also means that one accepts the natural consequences of the act. To manipulate or arbitrarily pull apart this conjugal relationship through unnatural unions will destabilize both the family in particular, and society as a whole.

Pete Vere, JCL is a canon lawyer and a Catholic social and religious commentator from Sudbury, Ontario. He now writes from Nokomis, Florida, where he and his family enjoy no state income tax along with life within walking distance of the Gulf of Mexico. His work has been published in numerous Canadian and American Catholic publications.

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