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{Originally posted September 2004, grammar modified slightly}

George Weigel, a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a Roman Catholic theologian and one of America’s leading commentators on issues of religion and public life. He is the director of the Catholic Studies program at EPPC.

I came across one of his articles, “Defining ‘marriage’ prevents further dismantling of moral culture” in the March issue of the WNY Catholic, which after research found was also published in numerous other publications under different titles.

There are so many commentaries on the subject, but thought it would be a start to go through one of them, by someone who is esteemed in the field of Ethics. I am publishing it here for research purposes only and not to infringe on copyright, and am making attempt to contact the author to join in the discussion.

Just a Note …

I, myself, am a “straight” and married Roman Catholic who came from a traditional family. However, I am in no way homophobic, and respect people of other religions, cultures and lifestyles regardless of differences from my own world-view and circumstance. My approach to such discussions is to attempt understanding of an argument such that the conflicting premises bring themselves out for closer examination, and then, well, examine them! With a formal education in Philosophy and Ethics, and having studied scripture my whole life, along with dabbling in Anthropology, History, and various sciences, I do not shy from debate with anyone, regardless of credentials, for two reasons.

(1) I may learn something or even change my mind for the better.
(2) Credentials are meant to weed out silly debate, but by themselves have little or no weight in the validity of a logical argument. If the objective is truth, the playing field between any two people is even.

Enough said … The article can be found in a couple places online, including HERE.

Let us break down the content and structure of his arguments.

1. It’s not an accident that the proponents of “gay marriage” want to claim the word “marriage.” Gay activists understand that ideas, which have consequences, are formed by words. Everyone knows that, whatever the benefits conferred and whatever the rhetorical chaff surrounding those benefits, a “civil union” is not a “marriage.” Defending the right meaning of words is more than an exercise in semantics; it’s a defense of a public moral culture which recognizes that there are moral truths built into the human condition. …

And also …

2. Culture is made of ideas-shaped-by-words. One of the ways communism tried to destroy civil society and democratic culture was through verbal mendacity: “people’s democracy” was the communist euphemism masking the reality of totalitarianism. If the word “democracy” and what it means was worth defending (and it was), so is the word “marriage.”

This is the point of the article. The definition of “marriage” (or any other word) creates boundries and a framework by which not only people can discuss things, but by which law can be developed and clearly understood. We had enough trouble with giving women the vote when our Declaration of Independence (a political, and not a legal document mind you) declared all MEN equal. And apparently this didn’t mean slaves either, but I digress.

How the word marriage is defined will in many ways dictate the formation and interpreation of civil law. In this point all can be in agreement. I am confident this is why Gay Rights activists won’t settle for “union” status, but equality in words means legal claim to those words and all resulting consequences.

And us philosophers must agree on definition to have a meaningful conversation, as they by default become our premises. So here it is, the rest of argument #1:

One of those truths is that “marriage” – an institution millennia older than the modern state – is “exclusively a union of one man and one woman.” The law’s recognition of that truth is no small thing. If “marriage in the United States is exclusively a union of a man and a woman,” then those who wish to defend the primordial institution of marriage will not be contradicted by the law when we do so.

But this is the problem – there is not agreement on the definition of marriage if we assert one of two things.

(I) Marriage always meant something that does not exclude by its nature such a relationship between same sex individuals.

(II) The definition of marriage has somehow changed or must change to allow for such a relationship between same sex individuals. (This is similar to the problem with the constitution and women’s sufferage.)

We will come back to this, as it appears to be the crux of the entire matter.

3. It’s important that the law help keep public discourse about marriage honest. Doing so strengthens the hand of other institutions committed to defending and promoting stable marriages – institutions like families, churches, synagogues, schools, and voluntary associations. These institutions of civil society are, arguably, even more important than the state in building what Maggie Gallagher of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy calls a “marriage culture.” Their work would be undercut if the legal meaning of “marriage” is changed, i.e., distorted and debased.

This point explains that the problem seen by the author of defining marriage is a cultural and not merely legal one. I think most people would agree, as marriage was a gereally understood phenomenom well before there were distinction between the civic and religious aspects of a community.

Originally, the early Church did not perform marriages (for various reasons) for nearly two centuries. If you were Christian and insisted on getting married, you went to the Roman magistrate. Over the centuries of Christianization (and in the vast majority of the rest of the Western and Near Eastern world), where governemnts were at least partially theocratic, recognized marriages were done by the power of the Church, and looked at (by many to this day) as a God-given institution and even Sacrament.

Strangely, today, the battleground regarding marriage laws is only that – a legal issue. People may banter about in an effort to enforce religious-type mores through a majority in both Houses, but no one brings in the subject of religious freedom as a CONFLICT with law. The Church (in any denomination or religion) does not have final authority over such matters – at all. You simply cannot have a state-recognized marriage without first being granted a civil licence by the municipality in which the service (religious or otherwise) is performed. Why no one questions this is beyond me, but then again, we as a culture (and by law) have a history of placing the taboo on some people being married, a taboo enforced by law.

No, I’m not talking about same-sex marriage (pardon the use of the yet-to-be-agreeably defined term), but of the use of blood tests and other examinations to disclude from such a union the physically and mentally handicapped. I would not doubt there are still laws on the books in many states regarding this.

In any case, we can agree that marriage is an overall SOCIAL phenomenom, with both legal and religious aspects, although the author makes it clear which side of the fence he is on by presupposing a definition that is up for debate, “stable marriages” which, as Weigel’s argument follows, by inclusion of same-sex participation makes the definition of marriage “distorted and debased”. We will deal with this in the course of the discussion.

4. When gay activists talk about the “benefits” of marriage, they’re talking about entitlements granted by the state.

This may be true. But if one would ask why, I don’t think it unreasonable to assume it is obvious. Same-sex couples cannot receive recognition (and the important aspect of equality under the law) any other way, as they cannot find acceptance in mainstream churches or even whole social communities.

Again, I am surprised this issue has not (yet) created a religious schism, or at least an outcropping of new “gay-enabled” denominations such that the state would be compelled to recognize same-sex couples “married” by a church in virtue of basic religious freedoms protected by the Constitution.

However, the author continues this point which almost contradictorily allows for a definition of marriage people on both sides could agree on. Here is the rest …

When advocates of “marriage” rightly understood talk about the “benefits” of marriage, we mean, at least in the first instance, something different. As Gallagher puts it, we mean “the good things that happen when husbands and wives are joined in permanent, public, sexual, emotional, financial, and parenting unions” – we mean the good things that happen to couples, and to the children who grow up in stable families. Legal “benefits” are secondary to these goods, which are public goods, not just state-conferred private goodies.

Only if one assumes the “gay marriage” concept is a fad or political ploy would one think that same-sex couples do not wish the same as the rest of us, namely joining in “permanent, public, sexual, emotional, financial, and parenting unions”. This assumption is spurious at best.

It cannot be denied that there are religious homosexuals in every major denomination, “in the closet” or not. In spite of their second-class status in the supposedly blanket “we are all sinners” category, many are active in the Church. However, many homosexuals denouce formal religion in retaliation of judgement, becoming “Godless” in the eyes of us so graced with religious affiliation, which is our own self-fulfilling prophesy at best.

But back to the point, it is reckless to assume that same-sex partners are some other breed of human that does not have the same physical, financial, emotional, and other familial needs. So this differentiation between definitions of marriage (i.e. “two people” vs. “a man and a woman”) simply does not exist. The difference must lie in other aspects of the word “marriage”.

And yes, I overlooked one other point, that of parenting in a “stable family”, which is a major issue and will be discussed shortly.

5. If the advocates of “gay marriage” succeed in legally claiming the word “marriage,” the notion that sexual love is simply a matter of satisfying personal “needs” will be further enshrined in our law. We’ve already gone too far down that road, thanks to an out-of-control U.S. Supreme Court and misguided initiatives like “no fault” divorce. To lose the word “marriage” is to lose more than the word “marriage” – it’s to lose any idea of sexual love as an expression of sexual complementarity, permanent commitment, and generativity.

This does not follow logically, unless you read it carefully.

Why does changing the gender roles of the participants affect the notion that sexual love is selfish? Is not marriage already an excuse for guilt-free sex? No, I am not suggesting that as a wholesale statement, but while many do beleive this, the opposite is also true – if marriage in our society was about sex, then why all the “living in sin” and otherwise non-marital conujugation? Perhaps this points to a “modern” view (definition?) of marriage not dependent on sexuality of any (particular) kind, but that is at the fringe of the scope of my argument here.

The author’s point follows logically because of his presuppositions about sexual love, in particular in that it is an expression of generativity, which one cannot deny. However, this quality is assumed by the author to be necessary and intrinsic, not as an optional quality.

This is the traditional (Western Judeo-Christian-Islamic) view of marriage. Marriage is for having and raising children. Period. To this day, the catechism of the Catholic Church states there is an “inseperable connection” … “between the unitive significance and the procreative significance” of “the marriage act.” (2366, in fererence to Casti connubii by Pius XI)

We can agree on both sides of the fence in principle but not as an absolute, because in either case are faced with couples (same-sex or opposite-sex) who cannot reproduce. The Church has no remedy for this, as either children come out of the specific act itself or not at all (Catechism, 2376). Instead are words that may seem shocking in tone to some. “The Gospel shows that physical sterility is not an absolute evil” and should “give expression to their generosity by adopting abandoned children or performing demanding services for others.” (Catechism, 2379)

This sets the tone for what I beleive Weigel is implying as the basis for a “stable family.” However, it gives what cannot be taken back. In SOME way, shape, or form, the ability to have children naturally is NOT a pre-requisite for marriage in and of itself.

Are “civil unions” a good idea? No, they’re not. But to cite Maggie Gallagher once again, while “civil unions are one unwise step down a path way from a marriage culture,” so-called “gay marriage” is “the end of the road.” The question of “civil unions” can be dealt with on a state-by-state basis, by legislatures rather than by arrogant courts. The question of what “marriage” means requires a binding and unambiguous national solution in which the word “marriage” reflects the human and moral reality of marriage.

This is a political observation, and apart from the assertion of a negative value judgment, is correct in and of itself. A binding and unambiguous national solution should reflect the human and moral reality of marriage. BUT THIS IS WHAT THE DEBATE IS ABOUT! If we assume that defining marriage to include same-sex couples is morally wrong or inconsistent with human nature, then Weigel is absolutely right. But if we do not challenge and honestly evaluate this assumption, we run the risk of alienating a whole segment of God’s people, forcing them to unecsessarily live a lie or contradiction in their faith, as well an depriving them of a sacrament and formal committment that would eliminate the need for non-marital relations.

Yes, this is a moutful that some will applaud and others cover their mouths in shock. It is not a purely logical argument as much as a plea. But it is a legitimate position that cannot be ignored.

So let’s get to work …

Defining “marriage” for what it is is a good in itself. Defining “marriage” for what it is is good for children. And defining “marriage” for what it is erects a barrier to the further dismantling of a public moral culture that, by recognizing the truths embedded in human nature and human action, is capable of sustaining democracy.

We can all vote for that (except I have NO idea what the author means to tie in the viability of democracy with the nature of marriage in social structure), but THE DIFFERENCE is in what we believe is “good for the children” and what are the “truths” embedded in human nature and action.

These are not “plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face” axioms. If they were, there would be little or no debate. There is a LOT of debate. There are a lot of people who do not take for granted Weigel’s commonly-held assumptions about human nature and the nature of marriage. This is what we must explore.

Defining Marriage

I am asserting here that it is a viable position to say the “traditional” view of marriage is NOT consistent with history, anthropology, or even scriptural study. It is a product of the Christian West and is based in a particular form of marriage used by the Jews at the time of Christ.

All three disciplines agree that polygamy was acceptable (at one time or another), as was concubinage and even slavery. I am not making a moral judgment about any of these – I am stating a fact.

Sidenote: Christ, who respected marriage covenants in the utmost, when confronted over the “legal” nature of marriage (religiously and socially, mind you), merely brushed it all aside as nonsense, saying “At the resurrection, people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.” (Matthew 22:30, NIV) But as this can be interpreted as not pertinent to our current temporal existence, I leave it only as food for more metaphysical thought.

The fact is that from time immemorial, marriage as a unified definition over these disciplines can only be seen in one of two ways, both denying Weigel’s claim that marriage, “an institution millennia older than the modern state” is “exclusively a union of one man and one woman.” (Argument #1) Here are the two possible natures of a definition based on history, anthropology, and scripture.

(1) Marriage is extremely inclusive in that the ideal has not changed, but has expressed itself in many different ways in many different cultures over the centuries, such as polygamy, marriage simply as sexual consumation, concubinism (for child-bearing or pleasure). Other forms of marriage, though not recognized by traditional (Western) religion are also the norm in many other cultures and societies, and in light of evolution, we can find such varied reflections in the social structure of higher primates or any other creature.

(2) Marriage evolves or changes to suit the needs of man’s societies. This is similar to the concept that God does not change, but theology does.

Either of these could be true, but denial of same-sex participation is usually accompanied with even worse premises, namely that homosexuality itself is a mental illness, unnatural, and or unhealthy in both relationships in general and families in specific.

Here are the facts by which to judge these premises, which are otherwise mere socially acceptable opinions and prejudices:

Homosexuality is found not only in every culture of the world, but also in most other species’ behavior, including primates. It can mean dominance or sexual gratificalion, which aren’t necessarily virtues we wish to extoll as humans, but that is not the question. If it occurs in nature and occurs consistently in HUMAN nature, moral or not, it is natural.

The question of morality is a complex one that could entail endless discussion, so let us assume (for now) that all other things equal, homosexuality is amoral. We can deal with that at the end.

On an important sidenote, we are not all created (born) male and female – a small segment of the human population clearly has characteristics of both or neither, with unusual chromosonal content to boot. Do these people have a place to share in the sacrament of marriage? Such cases may or may not be in the extreme, but worthy of entering into the equation somewhere.

The writers of earlier versions of the DSM classified homosexuality as an illness. Along with many other errors, this was corrected in more recent versions. Psychological problems related to homosexuality are in the form of stress caused by guilt, a social response. The activity itself causes no more harm than masturbating supposedly causes blindness.

Physically natural and psychologically not problematic, there is still much debate over the roles of nurture versus nature in the homosexual individual, but counselling to “turn” people “straight” are currently attempted both pharmaceutically and by behavioural conditioning.

However, most people agree that a child needs to grow up with both male and female parental figures. This is a society-wide problem where there are countless single-parent households. However, where an orphanage would logically be considered an evil by people who hold fast to this rule, there are other figures in these children’s lives. Many single parents raise children with the help of a grandparent, uncle, or some other stable person in their lives. Many others don’t get even that, and it has nothing to do with same-sex parenting.

So I am not defining marriage here, but establishing that a definition must be based on something other than the false assumptions above, expressed emphatically by Weigel and held loosely yet widely among the masses.

Which brings us for now to defining “stable marriage” …

Defining Stability in a Marriage

For practical purposes, let us subtitute the term marraige for “family unit”, as the two are interchangeable by many people’s definition of marriage.

A stable family unit usually consists of two committed individuals raising one or more children over the course of their lifetime, usually with some additional support from family, friends, and Church.

As mentioned above, this is often not the case due to unwed mothers, divorces, and abandonment. In fact, the divorce rate still hovers at around 50% last time I checked.

So, can a same-sex parenting situation (by adoption, etc.) be stable? There are no statistics I know of regarding same-sex “marriages” as they are not recognized. It is also more difficult to adopt when two people aren’t legally married. But what is known is that many homosexuals form life-long solitary partners, “monogamous” if you will spare me the use. Every gay couple I have ever met has made a long-term commitment they have kept, often much longer than the average lifespan of a traditional marriage.

But I beg for data on this. I may research it as I am able, but appreciate any input from others who have done so.

But I do not blindly accept any stereotype where gays are any more promiscuous or otherwise sexually deviant than the general population. Fornication is a cultural norm (sadly, if I must place a moral value upon such a thing), but is part of the human condition, not a “gay” thing. This is similar to the fact that the percentage of child molesters in the Catholic priesthood is no greater than any other segment of society. For those who have studied this latter phenomenom, the problem is not in correlation between sexual lifestyle and sexual abuse, but one of how the situations have been handled politically within the Church.

Lastly, it is important to note that homosexuals (as teachers, parents, care-givers, etc.) are statistically less likely to engage in the sexual abuse of children.

Apart from a staunch belief that homosexuality is wrong, why would anyone want to discourage fidelity and emotionally stable family units by banning same sex unions of any kind? That is why it seems hypocritical (to those who do not beleive homosexuality is inherently wrong) to the cause of preserving the family under the elimination of a form of “marriage” demanded by a segment of the population.

So a family that prays together and stays together and raises a child (having male and female figures in their life as in any other circumstance) cannot be a bad thing, unless we cannot accept the homosexual lifestyle at all.


I am not proposing a definition of marriage here because this is not my intent. My intent is to bring sound judgement to the discussion and beg consistency between our varied assumptions and our conclusions.

The arguments that a clear definition of marriage be set for the benefit of law and cultural integrity is a common ground. It is the definition itself that is up for debate, and one’s definition is often based on some understanding (or assumption) of history, anthropology, scriptural study, and even psychology, as well as convictions of morality.

(1) When marriage is defined in relation to procreation, same-sex inclusion in the marriage definition is similar to circumstances where opposite-sex couples cannot have children biologically, and there are no known disadvantages to the stability of a family by the presence of a same-sex couple. “Spouses to whom God has not granted children can nevertheless have a conjugal life in full meaning, in both human and Christian terms. Their marriage can radiate a fruitfullness of charity, of hospitality, and of sacrifice.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1654)

(2) Gay marriage is not necessarily about special privelages (legal rights and benefits) or condoning the expressing of sexual love, at least not any more than with any opposite-sex couples. It is about choice to have a life-long commitment as consistent with Gallagher as quoted by Weigel, “the good things that happen when husbands and wives are joined in permanent, public, sexual, emotional, financial, and parenting unions”, differing only where the two people are of the same sex.

(3) Opposition to homosexuality is faulted if it is based solely on misconceptions of nature, pshychology, or common prejudices.

From these points I am suggesting that the only legitamate grounds for not including same-sex couples in an agreeable definition of marriage is on the basis of belief in the immorality of homosexuality itself.

It is a harsh accusation, and I stand by it. This is not about the children, the family, or some hypothetical devaluing of people who are married in opposite-sex unions. Comparable to the pains to racially diverse couples not so long ago, it is not about cultural identity or promiscuity. This is about the acceptance or unacceptance of the homosexual lifestyle. It is undeniably one of moral judgment alone. (Again, it is not my point to argue that here.)

That is why I beleive the issue is falling on the courts. It is not about a denial by homosexuals that what they are doing is immoral and an attempt to win anyway, but rather that because the judgment has already been made in our Churches and many a community, that they require a venue that is idyllically impartial toward particular moral understandings.

If we are to take sides, we must be honest with ourselves as to our true intentions. Our options for same-sex inclusion in the marriage definition are similar to our choices in other debated topics.

(1) We can be against it for moral reasons but not attempt to legislate morality. We may even ensure rights to those who disagree with our moral understanding.

(2) We can be against it and wish to legislate morality, through interpretations and definitions.

(3) We can be for it, and not allow attempts to legislate a particular morality, and if possible, legislate to protect one’s choices in the matter.

I beleive that only the first and last options are consistent with a democracy such as ours, and the safest course in spite of socially natural resistance to change and acceptance of such a non-traditional lifestyle. I do not accept fear of losing traditional Christian or other values in our society as a legitamate political viewpoint. It is a personal one, a religious one, or a cultural one, but we live in a great country whose identity by its amazing nature is not dictated politically by any one religion or culture.

The playing field is then even, and any thing immoral shall crumble under its own decay in time, or be proven good and true when sustaining itself, left unimpeded in the light of day.

And the problem will not go away – ever – by any other means.

{Note: Correspondence made in 2004 to reach George Weigel for a rebuttal or documented debate regarding his article went unanswered.}