TBLA(extra): gay marriage as a spandrel

bls commented: “people who don’t want children CAN marry, and the grammar is “marriage.” There is, literally, no difference whatever between the marriages of elderly couples and those who are planning families; they are exactly the same in law and in fact”. I want to engage with this a bit more formally, at the risk of completely compromising the order in which I wanted to address things (!)

I have long believed that the situation that we are in now is a result of changes in our society triggered by the advent of easily available and reliable contraception. The consequences of the development are complex and many-faceted, but one is the recognition and affirmation that there are at least two key facets to sexuality – one “for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity”, and one for the procreation of children (I’m ignoring, for now, the ‘remedy against fornication’ aspect which seems to me to be more puritan than Christian).

The legacy that we have, however, comes from a time when those two elements were understood to be united, and, moreover, combined with questions of inheritance and honour. So a marriage was often not simply about the union of two individuals (for whatever motive) as about the union or explicit political alliance of two families. The raising of children was (legally) kept within the bounds of marriage, with significant consequences for both the mothers and children of those born ‘out of wedlock’. In many cultures that remains the case of course.

Given this, the only way in which an affectionate union could be legally sanctioned was through marriage; and when such a union was so sanctioned, the approval carried a vast array of social weight. It seems to me that THIS is what the proponents of ‘equal marriage’ are seeking; in other words, it is all the weight of social approval embodied in the word ‘marriage’, as accumulated through history. It would represent, perhaps, a culmination of the ‘coming out’ process. In so far as this is what it means then I am wholly in favour of it.

However, this is where we get snagged upon semantics. For it seems to me that this aspect of marriage functions rather in the way that Stephen Jay Gould talked about ‘spandrels’. That is, the primary purpose of the social institution of marriage – and, I would argue, the reason why it has been regulated so closely – is the raising of children within a particular framework. That is the ‘core’ element of marriage, as understood. However, as the institution has developed, other elements have gone alongside it – elements that ‘came with the package’ where the union was reproductive, but which developed independent status as social goods in their own right. These ‘exaptations’ now need to be given their own autonomous social place.

So much of the opposition to gay marriage is rooted in an opposition to homosexuality as such. I am not part of that; in so far as the gay marriage agenda is about giving wholehearted social approval to gay relationships, that is (obviously) a good thing. Yet it seems to me that by insisting that non-reproductive unions ARE ‘marriage’ (which, as bls rightly points out, non-reproductive heterosexual unions have been so treated thus far) the difference between the two key facets – and, most especially, the fact that society has a significant greater interest in the raising of children than in the mutual society of a couple – is being eclipsed. That is the essence of my unease with what is happening. I think that a significant good – all the social apparatus around the raising of children – is at risk of being dismantled in favour of another good – the social approbation of gay relationships.

Where I disagree with bls is that I think that there is a major difference (in fact if not in law) between a couple that are procreative and a couple that are not. Indeed, to insist otherwise is to obliterate the pain of childless couples – for if there is no difference, why do they mourn? And I believe that the wider society (and God) takes a different view of the two forms of relationship. We have not yet worked out how to navigate this difference (doing so is the purpose of my TBLA sequence) and it may well be that, simply as a result of our biology, it makes no sense to separate the two. Or, it may be that we need to develop two new institutions to replace the old one of marriage – call the first ‘covenant relationship’ and the second ‘coparent relationship’ perhaps? I think that there is a difference between these two forms of relationship. Can both be adequately described as ‘marriage’? Possibly, but I just don’t think the case has properly been made yet.

Oh yes, and, for what it’s worth, I think that the CofE being prohibited from carrying out gay weddings is the worst of all possible worlds. Cameron is such a plonker.

11 thoughts on “TBLA(extra): gay marriage as a spandrel

  1. So how long is the state going to give those of us who can’t have children before they reduce the status of our marriages from real marriage to pseudo-marriage? Will every couple that has not managed to procreate by the time the wife hits the menopause be automatically divorced?

    People have always got married for the sex and/or companionship. The birth and then raising of children is as incidental as anything else as has been proved by the change in reproduction rates following the making available of more reliable contraceptive methods. You are being selective, Sam.

    • This struck a chord, writing as someone who hit menopause at 34 (though fortunately after I had children). Sam, for your definition of ‘real’ marriage I’m wondering whether you require the ability as well as the intention to have children? For example, would a couple who knew they couldn’t have biological children but planned to adopt be considered married? If so, by extension would a gay couple who planned to adopt also be married? My initial reaction when the government began their completely pointless consultation was to object to gay marriage (mainly because of the risk of a Christian priest being forced to do something against his conscience), but I’m not sure anymore. As a Catholic I believe marriage is a sacrament, and to exclude people from a sacrament because of something genetic just doesn’t feel like a very Christ-like thing to do. Hope some of this makes sense – I’m definitely not a theologian! Think I’ll just sit back and wait to be excommunicated….

  2. Sam, this is a really great post. (My argument about there being “no difference between….” was badly said; I was actually referring specifically to the legal contract, not the facts “on the ground” of the marriage itself. It’s clear there’s a large and extremely important difference when children are involved. This conversation is vexed quite often because of such semantics – because marriage is a crossover in so many ways.)

    I actually have a great deal of sympathy with what you’re arguing here. There’s absolutely no question that what you say is true; your PROC marriage is extremely important exactly because it’s procreative. I say, in fact: you guys win. Your marriages are should be (and, I think, are) given much more societal encouragement and support than the partnerships of childless couples – however important and life-giving they are to us. Kids are the trump card, because it’s exceedingly important to give them a nurturing environment in which to be “trained up.”

    I’m beginning to think, in fact, that this is why the word “marriage” is so loaded, and why non-bigoted people do not want it used for legal gay partnerships. For a long time I thought it was fine to have “separate but equal” legal partnerships for gay and straight couple. But that just doesn’t work, for a number of reasons. (It’s legally very unwieldy, for one! And gay partnerships DO include children, for another; as I’ve been pointing out lately, I know a gay couple who adopted four special-needs kids out of foster care. So I’d say it’s a bit of a senseless workaround, all the way around.)

    You’re also not taking into account the fact that there have always been infertile couples; today this is not really an issue any longer. They stayed married – and the church insisted upon it – whether or not they had kids. So something about “marriage” trumps the reproductive function, it would seem; it could be just a matter of the precedent, I guess, but I think it’s far more about stability.

    I don’t really see how making these exceptions changes anything about the value of PROC marriages. They are still top-of-the-line, just because of everything you’re saying here – and everybody knows it. This isn’t just a matter of “received wisdom” any longer; we now have data to show what the benefits of PROC marriage actually are, for parents as well as for children.

    What matters is the culture; if deadbeat dads (for instance) are deeply scorned for their irresponsibility – and they are – it will “encourage the others.” The culture is the important influence – human beings are totally social creatures – so take advantage of that fact. Actively work to discourage behaviors that interfere with the raising of children in an intact home – and actively work to encourage the ones that support it.

    I am sympathetic to what you’re arguing here, though. It does seem to me that marriage-with-children needs to be perhaps THE central focus of society – but I think people can get that to happen in new ways. I think we’ll HAVE to get that to happen in new ways, in fact; every cultural moment is different.

  3. The ‘remedy against fornication’ aspect of marriage was certainly not new to the Puritans. It was important to St Paul, 1 Corinthians 7:9, and surely that is enough to make it authentically Christian.

    Although there is debate about exactly what 6:9 in the same letter means, St Paul would surely also have disagreed with your claim that “wholehearted social approval to gay relationships … is (obviously) a good thing”, and his position on this is again an authentically Christian one. Indeed if this is so “obvious”, how come almost no one anywhere in the world saw it until within the last 50 years? I say this not to argue that this approval is a bad thing, but to insist on something I would expect from a priest if not from the government or the press: a recognition that the traditional Christian position on these matters is long-standing, deeply held, and worthy of being given proper respect, not rejected as “obviously” wrong.

    • C.S. Lewis, in a letter to Mary Neylan (I forget the date, don’t have the book with me) certainly appreciated the ‘remedy against fornication’ argument, which, he said, to a man is just common sense (and he was certainly not a Puritan). He also put in a spirited defence of the ‘three reasons for matrimony’ in the Prayer Book in their traditional order (children, remedy against fornication, companionship).

  4. Here’s something else to think about, Sam.

    The Christian Church has always had a place for non-reproductive individuals; in fact, it’s actually required that people in certain vocations be non-reproductive. Perhaps many gay people have, in the past, entered the convent or monastery – and this was a perfectly respectable option. It was a way for nonreproductive people to live with others, to contribute to their society, and to find protection and support.

    Christianity – or so I believe this example shows – found a way to permit all sorts and conditions of people a meaningful existence. It said that no human condition was useless or pointless – and that if you could not have children, you could still find a family-like environment in which to find support.

    But that option mostly isn’t there any longer – and Catholics now actively discourage gay people from entering the priesthood. So you see: there is no option at all anymore. Evangelicals argue that gay people should marry heterosexually (a disaster in the making, for everybody involved – and of course, they don’t themselves volunteer for that duty!); Catholics argue that gay people should simply be celibate – but offer no means of transforming that celibacy into anything useful. It’s a complete dead end – celibacy simply for itself – and transformed into nothing at all.

    So the church is screwing this whole thing up itself, really; is it at all surprising that nobody’s paying any attention anymore? Further, your MPs’ argument that a change in the definition of marriage is to “lose any social institution where sexual difference is explicitly acknowledged” is ridiculous! I mean, what you’re talking about here is what’s at the heart of this; “acknowledging sexual difference” makes it seem like that’s the actual thing at issue – and immediately makes women think of the 1920s, and that their “place” is in the kitchen.

    It’s really remarkable that everybody’s being so obtuse about this! Perhaps it’s because nobody’s really thought very deeply about any of this – because they have never had to.

    They’re not doing a very good job, I’m afraid….

  5. bls, what are you suggesting? That gays and lesbians have historically, or even today, been disproportionately highly represented among the clergy and nuns and friars/monks?

  6. Turnip Ghost is the moniker that the tedious Rhode Island troll, Brad Evans uses so that he can leave his inane comments on blogs that won’t allow anonymous posts.

  7. Thanks for all the comments, and apologies for the delay in responding. A few quick comments now – other thoughts will get incorporated into later posts.

    Peter – yes, contrasting ‘puritan’ and ‘Christian’ is rhetorical overkill, I won’t do it again, and you’re right that there is a long heritage of it in Christian teaching (I’ll probably do a whole post on what ‘fornication’ is…) But the ‘obviously’ I am minded to defend more strongly – the CofE accepts civil partnered clergy; as such, the viability of a gay relationship is, I would say, now an ‘obvious’ good – at least in theory. Yes, many object to it, but they object to the settled policy even as it stands.
    bls – the point about vocations for non-partnered is immensely important, and something I’ll be thinking about much more. What I am coming to is a sense that the key difference is the presence of children; that where children are present the wider society has a much greater stake; and that this is a difference that needs to be embodied in some sort of language; ‘marriage’ is the language that we’ve got – so using ‘marriage’ and ‘civil partnership’ to discriminate between the two would work, and would be the least problematic in terms of inherited culture – but I can see the desire for more on the part of those wanting “equal” marriage. More to come – but probably after Christmas now!

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