27 thoughts on “Defining Marriage: Irresistible Force Meets Immovable Object?

  1. Well written, Tom. You touched on a few of the different thoughts that I’ve had on the issue and have given me something to think about in the meantime.

    Question – If the effect of birth control has been to decouple marriage from procreation, does that mean that birth control itself is to blame? To save marriage, should we ban contraception? This would seem like the natural consequence of your argument.

    It is not good to practice or propose any view of marriage that would undermine these goods, just because they are real goods.

    So as long as we don’t practice or propose a view of marriage that would keep a man and a woman from having sex (“comprehensive union”) or having children or raising those children, or for that marriage to be beneficial to society, then everything is okay, correct?

    Well, I’m still failing to see how letting two guys get married would keep a man and a woman from having sex, children, or raising said children. I know a number of couples who wouldn’t let anyone or anything stop them from doing these things, so perhaps I’m missing some aspect of what you’re saying.

  2. Me calling my little hatchback a “train” has very little effect on anyone else, up until the point I take it seriously and try to roll along the mainline during peak hour.

  3. When you contrast “inward” love with “outward” love, you are using the term “outward love” as a euphemism for having children, correct?

    It’s odd… the more I read this the more I’m seeing twists of words. You don’t use the word love when describing “revisionist” marriage, for instance. Are you implying that those who marry without intending to have children do not or cannot truly love each other? There are many couples who engage in outward displays of what can surely be termed “effusive” love (charity or volunteer work, for instance) that don’t have children.

    To tackle the final euphemism…

    that marriage is a distinctive human good; that it is good that it always involves the comprehensive, effusive union of a man and a woman.

    In other words, that it involves a man and a woman who can at least in theory have sex with each other and produce a child. Of course, this definition doesn’t define an intent on having children, so even hetero couples who don’t intend on having children (but who can in theory) are permitted… and therein enters the “revisionist” definition of marriage. The difference between now and then is that now its medically possible to not have kids if you don’t want them.

    Oh well, perhaps I’m missing some subtle part of your argument. I mean, surely you can’t be saying that contraception is responsible for the demise of traditional marriage and that those who marry with no intention of having children can’t/don’t truly love each other!

  4. Tom,

    Do you know of any book or article, written from a Christian perspective to an audience with same-sex attraction specifically, that involves the Christian frankly laying out the reasons they oppose gay marriage and spell out their problems with same-sex behavior?

    If you do, I’d like to read it. If you don’t, don’t you think that would be – especially after all this time – a pretty glaring omission?

  5. …and then I started thinking to myself. Contraception itself can’t be bad – it just is what it is. Then I started thinking about some of the statements that you’ve made, and realized –

    If this “revisionist” view of marriage began in the 70’s, and came from how sex and childbearing were no longer interlinked, then what changed in the 70’s? The answer, of course, is the birth control pill. Until then, only men have really had the choice to determine whether they wanted to conceive or not – they could choose to use a condom. It was only until the late 60’s and 70’s that women got the ability to choose as well.

    Therefore, what you are saying is that the decline of marriage is the direct of result of the first really effective contraception for women – the direct result of women for the first time being able to choose whether they wanted to conceive or not.

    You are blaming the demise and decline of traditional marriage on women using birth control.

    I can’t believe that it took me this long to realize this. My God (so to speak), this is insane! No wonder no one else is commenting… I’d distance myself from this, too…

  6. I notice that Sault’s comment focuses on “women”, not “people” or “couples” or even “families”. It doesn’t quite prove the very point Tom’s making, but it does highlight the core of the problem.

  7. Well, for the moment at I’m at a loss for words. Seriously? You are saying that contraception, specifically the birth control pill, has damaged marriage? You’ll have to forgive me, your love of euphemism makes it difficult for me to translate what you mean into plain language.

    I’m not talking about same-sex marriage here, I’m only trying to understand what you’re talking about with this talk of a “revisionist” viewpoint of marriage (including trying to figure out what the non-Christianese term for that would be), and how exactly you’ve felt that birth control has changed what it means to be heterosexually married.

    @ Andrew

    Feel free to explain what you mean. I’m talking about a specific point that Tom has made – it has wider implications though, of course. If a woman has no choice in whether she can conceive or not it makes the creation of a healthy family more difficult (aka “family planning”).

  8. When you’re done being at a loss for words, maybe you would explain to us the reason for your incredulity.

    Oh, and by the way, if you want to find some active discussion, click on the First Thoughts link at the end of the OP.

  9. It is difficult for me to understand how giving a woman the ability to choose whether she wants to conceive or not is a bad thing. Men have had the choice to wear a condom or not for decades before women got the choice to take the pill or not, but from what I understand you to say the decline of marriage only happened when women got to choose.

    Why is a woman’s ability to choose a bad thing?

  10. Look at the context, Sault. Please. And also consider that not every good thing is a pure good.

    Taken in the abstract, I’m sure you would agree that while choice is a good, not all choices are good.

    But this is not about choice, per se, for that’s only one of many factors involved in a very multi-dimensional system of interacting influences, effects, decisions, and outcomes. It’s also about the de-coupling of sex and childbirth, which led pretty much directly to the de-coupling of sex and marriage, and then to the de-coupling of marriage and child-raising, and from there to all kinds of longer-term effects.

    I think you can see past the single dimensionality of “it’s good for women to be able to choose,” and recognize that there’s more going on there than just one thing.

  11. I will say, Tom, I’m very glad to read what you’re writing here. The decoupling of sex and marriage, the decoupling of sex and childbirth, etc, played a tremendous role in landing us where we are now, and where we’re going to be.

    And, Sault, clearly when Tom talks about the decoupling of sex with marriage, childbirth, etc, he’s not singling out women. It’s not as if it’s okay if men decouple these things.

  12. Until then, only men have really had the choice to determine whether they wanted to conceive or not – they could choose to use a condom. It was only until the late 60′s and 70′s that women got the ability to choose as well.

    The only way I can find for this statement to make sense is if sex (and conception) is not a mutually consensual activity with mutually consensual goal. And I have heard several commentators – many of them women – make exactly this point: that the “sexual liberation” of women brought about by the pill was actually that they were expected to be available for sex. There was a desire for the triad of marriage, sex and children to be separated, but it was the pill that made it both generally possible and a woman’s responsibility.

    The very fact we think about “men’s contraception” or “women’s contraception” highlights the issue. The locus of contraception should be the couple, not one member or the other, and the form it takes an implementation detail.

    Similarly, abortion, etc is not a “woman’s issue” or a “man’s issue” but a “couple’s issue” – it is this very individualisation of the whole sexual environment that is a major destructive force in our society.

    But the results are concealed. Why? Because they are generational. Issues don’t manifest fully until we see the effect on children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, which means the frame of reference can be as long as the lifetime of the observers. It’s harder to spot change when the comparison requires data that you cannot have personally experienced.

    PS: This is not a naive “the past was better”. There were, and still are, real issues to be addressed. But the current situation is like kids on a waterslide – “stop whining about the empty pool at the bottom and enjoy the ride!”.

  13. Andrew,

    The only way I can find for this statement to make sense is if sex (and conception) is not a mutually consensual activity with mutually consensual goal.

    Not only that, but the inference is insane. ‘Only men had the choice whether to conceive or not’? Because, what – women had to have sex and had no say if a man wore a condom? It’s not like a pill, you know. You can tell if someone is wearing one. In fact, you can insist, on pain of no sex.

    Which, I suppose, only highlights your point that it’s a couple’s issue.

  14. Not only that, but the inference is insane. ‘Only men had the choice whether to conceive or not’? Because, what – women had to have sex and had no say if a man wore a condom? It’s not like a pill, you know. You can tell if someone is wearing one. In fact, you can insist, on pain of no sex.

    Except that we can demonstrate that it doesn’t work that way! We have learned from the Evangelical “abstinence-only” sex education that simply telling someone not to have sex doesn’t work (now there’s a social experiment for you, Tom!). In the heat of the moment, men are not the only ones who can lose their head and forget to use or insist upon a condom (that, of course, is if they’ve even been taught how to use one properly or if one is even available). The birth control pill is taken in the cold light of day, not in the heat of the moment – this is so different than using a condom!

    If marriage is being damaged by people using contraception, though, then the solution is not to ban gays from getting married, but to either fix how people are using contraception or remove their ability to use it altogether.

    And, Sault, clearly when Tom talks about the decoupling of sex with marriage, childbirth, etc, he’s not singling out women. It’s not as if it’s okay if men decouple these things.

    You’re absolutely right – it’s a couples issue, so we should be talking about both condoms and the birth control pill together. Of course there are differences, but as you said, it’s not okay for men to do these things either.

    So the question then is – to save marriage, do we teach people how to use contraception properly, or do we forbid them from using it entirely?

    We know from the failed social experiment that is “abstinence only” sex education that pregnancies and abortions will rise, but that’s an acceptable price if it means that marriage is saved, correct?

  15. Sault, we have to be cognizant of political realities. There may or may not be a time in the future someday when it would make sense to talk about putting strict limits on contraception, but that time is not now. We could, at least, reverse the insanity of requiring business owners from paying for it if it’s in opposition to their conscience and religion, and we could recover some sanity with respect to parental consent. That ought to be politically approachable at least.

    In the meantime it would be a very good idea to teach men and women that there is no such thing as sex without enduring consequences, even with contraception. It’s an action with extremely strong emotional effects. Or, if it isn’t that—if it’s just “casual”—then the participants are forever cutting themselves out of what it could be and should be; they’re tossing away the best part of it!

    Education, and strong families, are our best strategies at this point.

  16. How do I know that there is a causative effect between widespread use of contraception and the changing attitudes about marriage, instead of just being a correlation?

  17. Doesn’t it make sense that when marriage, sex, and childbirth become disconnected from each other, that artificial contraception would have had something to do with it?

  18. I am going to try and use the metaphor of alcoholism/addiction to explain what I mean. Let us imagine that the view of marriage as one primarily of love (and not one connected with the necessity and obligation of childbirth) to be an addiction. When treating this condition, you have to focus on the root cause, whatever that may be. The next biggest step is dealing with the enablers – those who create an environment for the abuse to continue. What you are proposing is that contraception is the root cause of this addiction. What I am proposing is that contraception is only an enabler – if you take away the contraception, the root cause is still there. I propose several other possible factors.

    One is a reduced economic necessity. Once upon a time it was commonplace to have children to help the family out financially (to help out on the farm, or continue the family business). As our standards of living have raised we no longer have this need.

    Another possible factor is something that you have already touched on – hedonism. We live in a society that caters to the individual. In an age of iPads, smart phones, and products/services aimed at satisfying every want or desire that an individual can have, is it any wonder that some may view marriage as a personal matter, and not one that involves others (including children, which I can say as a father can be quite the complicating factor in life)?

    What about figures in the media who promote the idea that you can successfully raise a child outside of wedlock? Oprah comes to mind. Her approval on this has hurt society, I think. Not good.

    Finally, there is the influence of competing points of view. If “marriage is a heterosexual union for the purpose of raising children” is a Christian value, then anything that dilutes Christianity dilutes that definition and its validity (primacy? force? persuasiveness?) as well. This can be anything from the New Age movement to the rise of the non-theists to the Mormon view of polygamy to competing religions.

    To sum, I think that without substantive evidence the view that contraception is to blame is incorrect – it is not the driving factor that you think it is.

    Which is why I asked why you feel the way you do.

  19. Okay. My next question would be how we would know what a self-centered marriage would look like. You have stated before that marriage has an “effusive love” expressed in the form of children. If a couple can have children but chooses not to, would that be considered a self-centered marriage?

  20. My next question would be how we would know what a self-centered marriage would look like.

    Wouldn’t the answer be found in what the couple was living for, as a couple? If their “mission statement” was all about them, then having children wouldn’t really change that really. Of course, God can and does use children to change people and get them out of their self-centeredness. – but some perpetually resist and remain bitter and hostile toward the blessing of children to the very end.

  21. First, why must we, across the board, be obligated to have children? Our world is becoming dangerously overpopulated, and its only due to the work of a few great scientists that we are able to feed them. As a race, consume more resources than our planet can provide. Why are we under the unilateral obligation to have children?

    Second, if a couple is involved in charity work, non-profit volunteering (e.g. at their local church or food bank), and other such humanitarian efforts, is that enough to qualify them as having that “effusive love” that you speak of, and not have the self-serving form of marriage that you condemn?

    Third, would you characterize these activities (service towards others and raising children) as Christian values specifically, or as good moral qualities in general, without being necessarily specific to Christianity?

    Thank you for your responses, this discussion has helped me understand your viewpoint. I found a reference on the Lambeth conference of 1930. The Catholic commentary that I have read about it condemns it in what appear to be similar terms that you have used – a beginning of the end of traditional marriage. I thought that you might find it interesting, as it was before the advent of the birth control pill.

  22. @Sault:

    Starting by the end: it is a teaching of the Catholic Church that contraception is morally wrong and intrinsically so. There is both Biblical support and philosophical considerations that support this conclusion, but this position is *NOT* shared by all Christian denominations.

    *Prudential* concerns may lead the couple to choose not to have children — they already have many, some sort of disease on part of one of the spouses, etc. What is morally wrong is to engage in sexual intercourse and then *frustrate* the end of the act (e.g. to have babies), be it by “artificial” means like the use of contraception or other “natural” means like withdrawal. Since the time frame window in which a woman can get pregnant is relatively small, the couple can choose to have sexual intercourse outside of that time frame. Once again, as far as the *moral* matter concerns, this is complicated by several factors like intention, the effect that such choices have on the person itself, etc.

    In fact such a (typically Aristotelian) approach to ethical matters (virtue ethics) is probably important here. One question one always has to ask as a Christian is what kind of person am I *becoming* by choosing X? We Become what we Will. So assume for the sake of argument that the Catholic position on contraception is essentially correct — we do not need this much, but it just makes my point clearer. So, first, if you will an intrinsic evil, and insofar as you will an evil, you become evil, and second, because if you act upon the evil that you will, and insofar as you do evil, you become evil.

    It is in that context that I think you have to read Tom Gilson’s statement.

    First, why must we, across the board, be obligated to have children?

    Who said that? See first paragraph. Since you quoted the Catholic Church, did you know that the Catholic Church holds that Mary, the mother of Jesus stayed a virgin until her death? This implies in particular that besides Jesus, she never had any other children. And yet she was married with Joseph. Obviously she was not guilty of any sin (the Catholic Church holds very strong positions about the sin-less status of Mary). So ask yourself this, what is wrong with your question?

    Second, if a couple is involved in charity work, non-profit volunteering (e.g. at their local church or food bank), and other such humanitarian efforts, is that enough to qualify them as having that “effusive love” that you speak of, and not have the self-serving form of marriage that you condemn?

    Sault, you are conflating things. Replace in the quoted paragraph the word “couple” with “two friends” and ask yourself what difference does it make? None. None of those activities (charity work, volunteering, etc.) is specific to a married couple qua married couple, so it is accidental whether they do engage in it to ascertain if *as* couple, they have or not have a type of self-serving marriage.

    Third, would you characterize these activities (service towards others and raising children) as Christian values specifically, or as good moral qualities in general, without being necessarily specific to Christianity?

    Not quite sure I understand your question; it is fairly obvious that non-Christians raise children and it is also fairly obvious that some (many? Do not know) do volunteering work. Now, it is true that in Christian teaching, raising children and charity towards others (take care of the widows, the orphans and the poor in their tribulations) is a special concern, even a special duty, for all Christians, a concern that you do not find say, in the typical secular, modern liberal parlance, so in that specific sense, I guess the answer is yes.

  23. @G

    it is a teaching of the Catholic Church that contraception is morally wrong and intrinsically so.

    One of the questions that I’ve been meaning to get around to is if Tom feels the same way.

    did you know that the Catholic Church holds that Mary, the mother of Jesus stayed a virgin until her death?

    Oh, absolutely. Mariology is a central part of Catholic doctrine. I do not see it as supported either in a Biblical or the social context of the time.

    Since the time frame window in which a woman can get pregnant is relatively small, the couple can choose to have sexual intercourse outside of that time frame.

    I.e. natural contraception. It is also rather unreliable.

    What is morally wrong is to engage in sexual intercourse and then *frustrate* the end of the act (e.g. to have babies)

    It is immoral to reproduce irresponsibly. I have already cited how we are currently consuming more natural resources per year than the Earth currently can sustainably provide. If continued, that *will* result in human death (e.g. wide-spread starvation, for instance). Man may have been told to multiply and replenish the Earth, but He was also told to be a steward to it… and one very good way to do that is to curb our population growth.

    It helps me to know where this position comes from – whether Genesis, belief in “personhood” (life beginning at conception), etc. At some point even ideology must bow to necessity, if we want to survive as a human race at least.

    Who said that? [that we are obligated to have children]

    Tom has stated that marriages that result in children are valid expressions of love, and that marriages that do not aren’t. This implies that we *should* have children. Opposition to contraception likewise carries the same implication.

    My questions are geared towards understanding not just Tom’s position, but how he arrived at the conclusion that self-serving marriages exist and that they are bad.

    The best way that I know how to do this is by looking at something concrete – statistics, for instance. Is a side effect of a non-effusive marriage a drop in birth rate, for instance? I am looking for some sort of corroborating evidence.

    None of those activities (charity work, volunteering, etc.) is specific to a married couple

    Conflation this is not. We have already specified married couples, not “friends”. This relates back to what I have just said – from a neutral third-party perspective, what differentiates a self-serving marriage vs one that isn’t? I am speaking solely of married heterosexual couples, as that is where Tom asserts this changing definition has arisen from.

    In other words, if self-serving marriages are identical to non-self-serving marriages to a neutral third-party, then how do we even know they exist?

  24. Sault, I fell behind on this conversation, and I apologize for that. I have some painting to do this morning, and I’m hoping I can catch up after that.

Comments are closed.

Comments are closed.
%d bloggers like this: