Defining Marriage Down

A question posed by Bill O’Reilly has been nagging at me for a couple of weeks: “What is wrong with gay marriage?” None of his on-air guests had given him reasons.

Meanwhile, the Connecticut Supreme Court has joined Massachusetts and California in “defining marriage down.” This battle is carried out in the courts because very few legislative bodies could form majorities in favor of “same-sex marriage.” My Webster’s defines “marriage” as “the social institution under which a man and woman establish their decision to live as husband and wife by legal commitments, religious ceremonies, etc.” But in 2003, the high court of Massachusetts imposed a more flexible meaning: “a voluntary union,” “the commitment of two individuals to each other.”

In other words, the courts ignore the centuries-old meaning described in the dictionary, and trim “marriage” down to a contract of friendship between any two persons.

Why do gay rights advocates seek this ceremony? A public ceremony provides public recognition. It elevates a private relationship into a public reality. Though public recognition is the real emotional force in this effort, gays also have practical motives, such as the legal warrant for sharing in health, pension, and other benefits now limited solely to traditional marriage.

But if the courts water down the legal concept of “marriage” to a mere benefit-sharing contract between two individuals, we will not in principle be able to stop at same-sex unions. Why restrict “marriage” to husbands and wives, or same-sex couples? Are there not many sorts of companionships equally worthy of public blessing: elderly sisters living in one household, or any two (or three, or four) members of any household?

What our common law has heretofore singled out for support is an exchange of lifelong, covenantal vows between two persons. Not just any two persons, but one man and one woman. These spouses needed to be able in principle to have children through their marital union, though it is not the business of the state to monitor whether they are doing so.

Of course some gays and lesbians also rear children. However, these are not children who share in the blessings of having both a mother and a father. Still, same-sex partners often provide a good upbringing, and that is to their credit.

Nonetheless, the vast majority of children are born of man-woman unions. It is therefore in the high interest of the state to regulate these unions carefully, and to grant them special privileges. In meeting the deepest interests of the state, same-sex couples are not equal to man-woman couples, and should not have equal privileges. Why is this?

States that suffer a decline in childbearing begin to wither in many other aspects of national life, such as prosperity, defense, and a well-undergirded future. Thus, states have long developed policies that encourage the married life of husbands and wives committed to a lifetime of rearing good children. They do this in the historically warranted expectation that stable, loving households will more frequently nurture children who becoming accomplished human beings and free responsible citizens, fit for maintaining a free republic long into the future.

A particularly fruitful activity of the state is to cultivate public recognition of the beauty and utility of the permanent love of a mother and father. Such a love by its daily workings engenders among their children the confidence of being unconditionally loved and an example to emulate in their own commitment to the next generation. Besides, marital love and childbearing demand special commitments to self-sacrifice. Rewarding these is good government policy, in partial compensation for the good brought to the commonwealth by these sacrifices.

As Alexis de Tocqueville observed, Americans were prepared to trust their republic by the marital fidelity experienced in a vast majority of their families. He contrasted this with the European institution of the mistress.

In Europe almost all the disorders of society are born around the domestic hearth and not far from the nuptial bed. It is there that men come to feel scorn for natural ties and legitimate pleasures and develop a taste for disorder, restlessness of spirit, and instability of desires. Shaken by the tumultuous passions which have often troubled his own house, the European finds it hard to submit to the authority of the state’s legislators.

As we see today, a strong currency is extremely beneficial to nations. Maintaining the full faith and credit of the marital union that gives birth to a nation’s families is an even more serious duty. Strong families, oriented toward the rearing of highly skilled, virtuous, and creative children are necessary to the future common good. By honoring these families and rewarding them with benefits, the state encourages actions crucial to its own health.

Justice demands that equals be treated equally. No other relationship between two persons adds as much to the common good of states as does the fruitful union of husband and wife. Two-person relationships are not all equal. Each type should be rewarded by the state in proportion to its benefits to the common good. That is the true principle of equality and justice.


Michael Novak (1933-2017) was George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy from the American Enterprise Institute, is an author, philosopher, and theologian. He was also a trustee and a visiting professor at Ave Maria University.