Monday, November 13, 2006

Marriage – is it Hetero?

From a response a few years back – reposted to drown Studio60 in clarity

John, you asked a very constructive question in regards to marriage and sexuality, let me repeat your question here:

“If it doesn't have to do with being turned on, mentally and physically, and acting upon one's desires, then what does define our sexuality? What defines us being heterosexual?”

Keep in mind that you have caused me to search out better definitions and understandings with respect to our current conversation, so I am starting to build on past knowledge, and may only be able to answer you thoroughly in the future and not at this immediate time.

However, I believe I have come to terms with what it is that we are discussing, and I believe I can define “sexuality” in a way that you can take away from this conversation and say, “So this is where the crux of the debate lay on their side.”

Okay, let me start this long – arduous – definition of heterosexuality. First of all, the claim that the law ought to be morally neutral about marriage or anything else is itself a moral claim. As such, it is not morally neutral, nor can it rest on an appeal to moral neutrality. We are both debating a subject, and as such, both are using reference points, subject/object distinctions, and the like. We are far from being neutral and must admit we are trying to propose one mortal system over another. I am sure we are both agreed on this.

The CORE of the traditional view and understanding of marriage (remember that homosexuality has long been condemned as immoral by the natural law tradition of moral philosophy, as well as by Jewish and Christian teaching, not only that, it may have been recognized by past cultures, but never authorized… as the gay rights movement is asking for today):

Marriage is a two-in-one-flesh communion of persons that is consummated and actualized by acts that are reproductive in type, whether or not they are reproductive in effect (or motivated, even in part, by a desire to reproduce). The bodily union of spouses in marital acts is the biological matrix of their marriage as a multi-level relationship: that is, a relationship that unites persons at the bodily, emotional, dispositional, and spiritual levels of the being.

Marriage, precisely as such a relationship, is naturally ordered to the good of procreation and to the nurturing and education of children) as well as to the good of spousal unity, and these goods are tightly bound together with a healthy society (< <>

The distinctive unity of spouses is possible because human (like other mammalian) males and females, by mating, unite organically – in other words, they become a single reproductive principle. Although reproduction is a single act, in humans (and other mammals) the reproductive act is performed not by individual members of the species, but by a mated pair as an organic unit. Germaine Grisez has made this point:

“Though a male and a female are complete individuals with respect to other functions – for example, nutrition, sensation, and locomotion – with respect to reproduction they are only potential parts of a mated pair, which is the complete organism capable or reproducing sexually. Even if the mated pair is sterile, intercourse, provided it is the reproductive behavior characteristic of the species, makes the copulating male and female one organism. Masturbatory, sodomitical, or other sexual acts that are not reproductive in type cannot unite persons organically: that is, as a single reproductive principle. Therefore, such acts cannot be intelligibly engaged in for the sake of marital (i.e., one-flesh, bodily) unity as such. They cannot be marital acts!”

Rather, persons who perform such acts must be doing so for the sake of ends or goals that are extrinsic (definitions at the end) to themselves as bodily persons: Sexual satisfaction, or (perhaps) mutual sexual satisfaction, is sought as a means of releasing tension, or obtaining (and, sometimes, sharing) pleasure, either as an end in itself, or as a means to some other end, such as expressing affection, esteem, friendliness, etc. In any case, where one-flesh union cannot (or cannot rightly) be sought as an end-in-itself, sexual activity necessarily involves the instrumentalization of the bodies of those participating in such activity to extrinsic ends.

In marital acts, by contrast, the bodies of persons who unite biologically are not reduced to the status of mere instruments. Rather, the end, goal, and intelligible point of sexual union is the good of marriage itself. On this understanding, such union is not a merely instrumental good, i.e., a reason for action whose intelligibility as a reason depends on the other end. The central and justifying point of sex is not pleasure (or even the sharing of pleasure) per se, however much sexual pleasure is sought – rightly sought – as an aspect of the perfection of marital union; the point of sex, rather, is marriage itself. Considered as a bodily (“one-flesh”) union of persons consummated and actualized by acts that are reproductive in type.

Because in marital acts sex is not instrumentalized, such acts are free of the self-alienating and dis-integrating qualities of masturbatory and sodomitical sex.

Unlike these and other nonmarital sex acts, marital acts effect no practical dualism which volitionally and, thus, existentially separates the body from conscious and desiring aspect of the self which inhabits and uses the body as its instrument. (On person-body dualism, its implications for ethics, and its philosophical untenability, see: John Finnis, Joseph M. Boyle, and Germaine Grisez, Nuclear Deterrence, Morality and Realism [Oxford University Press; 1987], pp. 304-309.)

As John Finnis has observed, marital acts are truly unitive, and in no way self-alienating, because the bodily or biological aspect of human beings is “part of, and not merely an instrument of, their personal reality.”

But, one might ask, what about procreation? On the traditional view, isn’t sexual union of spouses instrumentalized to the goal of having children? It is true that Augustine was an influential proponent of something like this view, and there has always been a certain following for it among Christians. The strict Augustinian position was rejected, however, by the mainstream of philosophical and theological reflection from the late Middle Ages forward, and the understanding of sex and marriage that came to be embodied in the civil law of matrimony does not treat marriage as a merely instrumental good. Matrimonial law has traditionally understood marriage as consummated by, and only by, the reproductive-type acts of spouses; by contrast, the sterility of spouses – so long as they are capable of consummating their marriage by a reproductive-type act (and, thus, of achieving bodily – organic unity! This is why court annul a marriage that hasn’t reached this unity) – has never been treated as an impediment to marriage, even where sterility is certain and even certain to be permanent (as in the case of the marriage of a woman who has been through menopause or has undergone a hysterectomy).

According to the traditional understanding of marriage, then, it is the nature of marital acts as reproductive in type that makes it possible for such acts to be unitive in the distinctively marital way (“one-flesh”). And this type of unity is intrinsic, and not merely instrumental, value.

Thus, the unitive good of marriage provides a noninstrumental (and thus sufficient) reason for spouses to perform sexual acts of a type that consummates and actualizes their marriage. In performing marital acts, the spouses do not reduce themselves as bodily persons (or their marriage) to the status of means or instruments.

At the same time, where marriage is understood as a one-flesh union of persons, children who may be conceived in marital acts are understood not as an ends which are extrinsic to marriage (either in the strict Augustinian sense, or the modern liberal one), but, rather, as gifts which supervene on acts whose central justifying point is precisely the marital unity of the spouses. Such acts have unique meaning, value, and significance, as I have already suggested in this post, because they belong to the class of acts by which children come into being – what I have called “reproductive-type acts.” More precisely, these acts have their unique meaning, value, and significance because they belong to the only class of acts by which children can come into being, not as “products” which their parents choose to “make,” but, rather, as perfective participants in the organic community (i.e., the family) that is established by their parents’ marriage. It is thus that children are properly understood and treated – even in their conception – not as objects of the desire or will of their parents, but as subjects of justice (and inviolable human rights); not as property, but as persons.

Excerpts from Robert P. George, The Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis.


Extrinsic (Random House Webster CD-Rom) – all are relevant.

1. Not essential or inherent; not a basic part or quality; extraneous: facts that are extrinsic to the matter under discussion.

2. Being outside a thing; outward or external; operating or coming from without: extrinsic influences.

3. Anatomy. (of certain muscles, nerves, etc.) originating outside the anatomical limits of a part.

Intrinsic (Random House Webster CD-Rom) – all are relevant.

1. Belonging to a thing by its very nature: the intrinsic value of a gold ring.

2. Anatomy. (of certain muscles, nerves, etc.) Belonging to or lying within a given part.