The Catholic Thing
HOME        ARCHIVES        IN THE NEWS        COMMENTARY        NOTABLE        DONATE
Love Weaker than Commerce Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Friday, 20 June 2014

Up until very recently, marriage had been universally thought of as consisting of three essential characteristics: conjugality, permanence, and exclusivity. This had been more or less reflected in our laws.

Conjugality refers to the way by which a marriage is consummated: coitus between the male and female spouses. Permanence means that the marriage cannot be dissolved (or annulled) unless certain specific conditions are met or one of the partners dies. Exclusivity refers to the sexual relationship and means that neither party in the marriage is free to engage in extra-marital intimacies.

Even polygamous unions may fulfill these criteria, for the husband is married to each wife while the women are not married to each other and thus do not have “wives.” For this reason, upon the husband’s death, each of the marriages in a polygamous cluster is immediately dissolved.

Conjugality is only a condition because of the nature of sexual intercourse: it is ordered toward bringing into existence offspring of the union of the two parties. This is why handshakes, hugs, kisses, or other forms of bodily touching, penetration, or intimacy can never count as conjugality.

But this is also why it is wrong to say that the latter are indistinguishable from conjugal acts that cannot bring forth offspring due to illness or age. For such conjugal acts, though sterile, do not cease to be conjugal acts, just as a man in a coma does not cease to be a rational animal simply because he is not able to exercise his rational faculties.

Just as the comatose man still possesses human dignity even though he is not able to exercise his unique human powers, the conjugal act between a husband and wife that is incapable of conceiving possesses no less dignity precisely because it actualizes the same profound and mysterious union that is by nature ordered toward bringing into existence a unique and irreplaceable person that literally embodies that union.

Given the sacred nature of conjugality, as it was once without controversy believed by virtually everybody, exclusivity and permanence make perfect sense, especially if one also believes that children are not only best raised, but by nature entitled to, a mother and a father who bind themselves to each other under the authority of a covenant whose contours they are not competent by mere consent to dissolve or change.

Of course, all of this – conjugality, permanence, and exclusivity – is not only no longer taken for granted, it seems literally incomprehensible to most citizens morally formed in a post-1960s culture.


         The Pharisees Question Jesus by James J. Tissot, c. 1890

With the enactment of no-fault divorce laws beginning in the early 1970s, permanence began to dissipate. Exclusivity quickly followed. The sexual revolution brought with it not only the unraveling of the mores against fornication, but also the concepts of swinging, open “marriage,” and even polyamory. So, violations of exclusivity slowly became understood as not intrinsically wrong, but rather, only wrong insofar as the spouses do not grant their mutual consent.

Thus, not unexpectedly, came the proliferation of out of wedlock births, single parenthood (with children from a variety of male and female suitors), broken families, and blended families.

Consequently, nothing special in marriage remained. Every relationship in the familial tapestry can in principle be severed, reattached, or removed as long as all the adult agents consent. However, those without capacity (i.e., children) may be eliminated (by abortion, if not post-natal) or, along with any common property, “equitably” distributed to interested parties by the state in judicial proceedings firmly committed to enforcing the couple-relative contours of this new institution that is called “marriage.” 

Given this trajectory, why should conjugality remain? That is precisely what is implied in the public rhetoric of supporters of the legal recognition of same-sex unions. It makes perfect sense to many of our fellow citizens, in light of their personal experience of having grown up in a culture in which they were taught that “marriage” is virtually an artifact shaped by our disembodied wills rather than a sacred institution that we did not invent and under which our embodied wills are bound when we enter it.

But this brings us to one of the great ironies of our age. Recently, a baker in Colorado was told by the state that he may not refuse to make and decorate a wedding cake for a same-sex couple who had been “married” in Massachusetts, but had planned a reception in Colorado, which presently does not legally recognize such unions. The baker had refused because he could not in good conscience offer direct material support for a liturgical event that his theological beliefs affirm as gravely immoral.

Oddly, with the demise of the conditions of exclusivity and permanence, and now conjugality, this ruling means that each partner in a legally recognized marriage (or civil union) literally has less of a legal obligation to each other than the baker has to the couple. Apparently, the state believes that preserving the relationship between baker and same-sex couple is of much greater importance for the cause of public justice than doing the same for the relationships it claims to be vindicating.

Or to put it another way: It is more difficult in Colorado for a baker to leave some customers than it is for the partners of a “married” couple in Massachusetts to leave each other.

 
 
 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (18)Add Comment
0
...
written by Jack,CT, June 20, 2014
Dr Beckwith,
The last Paragraph was all
you needed it truly brings it home-
0
...
written by schm0e, June 20, 2014
Indeed.

Maybe part of the problem is that we like to describe everything two-dimensionally -- that the sea of culture we all find ourselves swimming in enforces such a perspective.

To wit: "Exclusivity refers to the sexual relationship and means that neither party in the marriage is free to engage in extra-marital intimacies." This certainly seems quite clinical, completely devoid of a dimension higher than material. But marriage is "a profound mystery" on the order of "Christ and the Church".

Maybe a culture that is so unaware of the universally pervasive yet nearly undetected -- and how's that for an irony? -- Dimension of Life can't help but fumble blindly for some meaning to the relationship that it’s drawn to besides a three-point definition. And all this fumbling around has resulted in the tragic absurdity they tell us is the "post-modern world"
0
...
written by Theodore Seeber, June 20, 2014
You've got it backwards; conjugality died first. Birth control killed it. The rest happened because conjugality died and sex got separated from procreation. No-fault divorce, abortion for when the birth control fails, and even adultery, all stem from the fatal wound sustained from contraception.
0
...
written by Kathy, June 20, 2014
Two 'B' words that seem very "married" in my mind:

Beckwith and Brilliant
0
...
written by Ray, June 20, 2014
B & B makes me think of Benedictine and Brandy. Sorry.
0
...
written by EP, June 20, 2014
A pretty poignant juxtaposition there at the end. The spiral into incoherence and inconsistency.
0
...
written by Seanachie, June 20, 2014
What role, if any, have abundant government welfare programs emanating from the mid-1960's facilitated and enabled "the proliferation of out of wedlock births, single parenthood (with children from a variety of male and female suitors), broken families, and blended families"?
0
...
written by K_Francis, June 20, 2014
A bit of advice for any business owner who may find themselves in a similar situation. If you are not allowed to refuse service in your state, the next best thing will be to tell them outright "ok, I'll bake your cake/ take your pictures/ make you a man-size wedding dress, etc., but I feel obligated to tell you that all proceeds earned from this transaction shall be donated to support traditional marriage.
0
...
written by Rose, June 20, 2014
Christianity has never approved of polygamy!!! When you wrote about a polygamous marriage being equal to one man one woman marriage you exposed your stupidity. This is why the Catholic Church is having a hard time convincing people to be against gay marriage and the sanctity of one man one woman marriage. As a woman (and former Catholic) I am completely offended by this paragraph. And this paragraph destroyed the rest of your column.
0
...
written by Brad Miner, June 20, 2014
@Rose: I think you need to read Prof. Beckwith's column with a bit more attention. He's neither endorsing polygamy nor suggesting that Christianity does. He's exploding the weakness in arguments against traditional marriage. Thus he refers later to those who consider sacramental marriage just one among many 'marriages', that they have: "grown up in a culture in which they were taught that 'marriage' is virtually an artifact shaped by our disembodied wills rather than a sacred institution that we did not invent and under which our embodied wills are bound when we enter it."
0
...
written by Elizabeth Sheehy, June 20, 2014
@Rose: I believe the reference may have been to wives and concubines in the Old Testament, often used argumentatively by the opposition in support of allowing SSM and other abberations. How often did God tell the Israelites that they were a hard-headed, stubborn people? I do believe the same can be said of US!
0
...
written by Myshkin, June 20, 2014
@brad

I completely understand what Dr. Beckwith is getting, and agree with the post's reasoning and its point. Yet I too, like Rose, was offended by the seeming use of polygamy as a kinda-sorta-even-so example. IMHO, if that paragraph were to be removed from the post, it would actually strengthen Dr. Beckwith's argument. So why include it? If it was meant to add something to the argument, it's purpose needs to be clarified with respect to the main point, rather than roped in as a kinda-sorta-even-so example. And I would add, if I were the author, the fact that, though it is being used as an example on TCT, in truth the Roman Catholic Church condemns polygamy.
0
...
written by Manfred, June 20, 2014
@Francis: @Brad: Please run by me again how polygamy meets the criterion of EXCLUSIVITY when multiple "wives" are sharing the attention and affection of one man. Thank you.
0
...
written by Joshua, June 21, 2014
Regarding coitus and conjugality, I agree completely. No coitus, no marriage. Consequently, I believe the Bible and not Roman tradition regarding Joseph's relationship with Mary.
0
...
written by Baker, June 21, 2014
Conjugality (consummation) has never been a universal requirement of civil marriage at any time in U.S. history. Unconsummated marriages and marriages where the parties are incapable of consummation are legally valid. The institution of civil marriage has long been used as a vehicle of legal convenience between parties who have no sexual desire or ability.
As to the claim that "It is more difficult in Colorado for a baker to leave some customers than it is for the partners of a 'married' couple in Massachusetts to leave each other," my bakery can bake a cake for less than the $220 divorce filing fee in Massachusetts. But if you break the law in Colorado or Massachusetts, it's going to cost you extra.
0
...
written by Jason, June 21, 2014
Mr. Theodore Seeber's comment, third from the top, is exactly correct. The central purpose of the marital act is both unitive and procreative. The pleasure involved is not central to purpose.

Contraception perverted that by placing pleasure at the center of purpose and eliminating procreativity altogether. Thus, contraceptive sex is a perversion of nature.

All the rest of the decay developed as a result of that perversion.
0
...
written by chardin, June 24, 2014
Heterosexual Christians redefined marriage a generation ago by the wholesale embrace of artificial contraception. It should only surprise those who've not paid attention that same sex "Marriage" would be a fait accompli. Anyone persecuted for standing their ground against SS marriage should be applauded and supported, but it would be tragically ironic if by their own actions they facilitated it's advent.
0
...
written by David, July 18, 2014
I loved the last sentence. However, the larger issues around marriage all seem to be rooted in a failure to realize that Church and State are, and should be, separate institutions. It is better for the Church and better for the State. Thus, "marriage" as a merely civil, legal status, is quite distinct in meaning from "Marriage", the Sacrament. "Marriage" the Sacrament and Church recognition thereof need not change one iota, regardless of what changes occur regarding "marriage" as a mere civil/legal arrangement.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters


busy
 
CONTACT US FOR ADVERTISERS ABOUT US
Banner
Banner
Banner
Banner
Banner
Banner
Banner
Banner
Banner