The Nature of Marriage Is in Nature
Aunt Emily was enjoying her first transatlantic flight until the captain announced that due to the loss of one of the plane’s four engines, arrival time in New York would be delayed by half an hour. After hearing that the successive losses of two more engines increased the delay by additional half-hour increments, an exasperated Emily turned to her partner and said, “If we lose another engine there’s no telling how long we’ll be up here?”
Sometimes, by extending a principle too far, we get the very opposite of what we might expect. Is this what is happening in America today? Engine #1: Let us do away with protection for the unborn. Engine #2: Let us remove society’s disapproval of a woman’s choice to bear a child out of wedlock. Engine #3: Let us reject all traditional norms concerning sexual activity. Engine #4: Let us reject the Defense of Marriage Act. Will we then witness the end of discrimination that ushers in an era of equality, or will we witness irresolvable divisions and the collapse of society?
In his dissent from the United States v. Windsor decision, which jettisoned Engine #4 by invalidating the Defense of Marriage Act, Justice Alito stated that “Our Nation is engaged in a heated debate about same-sex marriage. That debate is, at bottom, about the nature of the institution of marriage.” Does marriage have a basis in nature or is it merely “consent-based”? Alito acknowledges the Constitution’s “silence” on the issue and states his opposition to “arrogating to ourselves [the Supreme Court justices] the power to decide a question that philosophers, historians, social scientists, and theologians are better qualified to explore.”
Yet, without an anchor in nature, and in the absence of the consent of the American people, Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, stated that any opposition to rejecting DOMA was “beyond the pale of reasoned argumentation.” Moreover, he charged supporters of DOMA with having the purpose to “disparage,” “injure,” “demean,” and “humiliate” those who would be partners in a same-sex marriage. In response to Kennedy’s accusations, Justice Scalia found such venomous language uncalled for since supporters of DOMA “did no more than codify an aspect of marriage that had been unquestioned in our society for most of its existence—indeed, had been unquestioned in virtually all societies for virtually all of human history.” In its “high-handed” statement, the Court judged all supporters of DOMA as, in Scalia’s words, “hostis humani generis” (enemies of the human race). “By formally declaring anyone opposed to same-sex marriage an enemy of human decency,” Scalia went on to say, “the majority arms well every challenger to a state law restricting marriage to its traditional definition.”
In the absence of a ground in nature, anything goes. If marriage is merely consent-based, why not allow marriage between parents and their children, brothers and sisters? Society can hardly ignore nature and expect to remain unified. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book Ethics, decried the loss of a sense of the natural among Protestants. “It was a disastrous mistake,” he asserted, for it left Protestant thought “more or less deprived of the means of orientation in dealing with the practical questions of natural life.” Bonhoeffer acknowledged that the “natural” was “entirely abandoned to Catholic ethics.”
Without nature to serve as an objective guide, the will is given free reign and creates problems that cannot be solved rationally. Special treatment is given certain groups, while opponents are vilified. This is why Justice Scalia stated that the Court’s line of thinking “demeans this institution” [the Supreme Court]. As a result of giving the will supremacy over nature, a deep division is produced. Now, as the Supreme Court tells us, anyone supporting traditional marriage is an enemy of society. This is surely an unnatural division, an indication that the Court’s decision was unnatural in itself.
Marriage has its roots in nature. This was, for most of history, axiomatic. Blessed John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” was a timely and needed presentation of the significance of the body: the complementary bodily difference between man and woman, the natural, procreative relationship between parents and children, and the continuity of the generations. These factors have their roots in nature and distinguish natural and traditional marriage from its non-natural alternatives.
The United States v. Windsor decision does not resolve an important issue; it perpetuates a fight, another clash that takes its place within the context of the culture of death. One cannot remain airborne when all the engines have conked out. Can society prosper when the unborn are abandoned? When sexual norms are flouted for both single people and spouses? When supporters of traditional marriage are regarded as enemies of society? America needs a sturdier philosophy than Aunt Emily’s. It must get its head out of the clouds and re-establish contact with nature. It must give priority to reality over ideology.
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Donald DeMarco is a Senior Fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut, and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review.