September 15, 2009

What is Marriage? -Part I

By Father Thomas Berg *

With New York Governor David Paterson determined to legalize same-sex "marriage" in New York, it's a good moment to revisit this controversial issue from a Catholic and natural law approach. 

The legal recognition of gay "marriage" is currently required by court order in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Iowa, and by legislation in Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire.  Active efforts to repeal gay "marriage" are taking place in New Hampshire and Iowa, and a referendum to that effect will be on the ballot in Maine this November.  A federal challenge to California's Proposition 8  is now underway and seeks a ruling that would overturn laws protecting the traditional definition of marriage in all states, making gay "marriage" the law of the land. There is also a separate court challenge to the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

To understand why the traditional definition must be upheld and why gay couples suffer no injustice in being denied the unique legal privileges traditionally granted to married heterosexuals, we must first step back and ask:  what is marriage in the first place?

Princeton University professor of Jurisprudence Robert George responds to that question in the current issue of First Things.  In what follows, I attempt to make Dr. George's superb but understandably technical and philosophical explanation a bit more accessible to readers.

Most people would agree that marriage, whatever it is, is about two people becoming united, about the union of two human persons. Assuming this is true, we then ask ourselves:  what kind of union are we talking about?   It is safe to say that a broad spectrum of people believe this union to be a special kind of human bonding which takes place in the depths of their psychological-emotive selves.  Marriage, in this view, is essentially about the union of two psychological 'selves' on that intense emotional level of their being.  

On such an understanding of things, bodily expressions of intimacy and physical union are very important, but serve only as instrumental means of expressing this unique but preeminently emotional bond of the two selves. And this is because a person -- in this conception of things -- is primarily the conscious, individual 'self,' while bodily existence is only instrumental to fulfilling the wants, desires, and preferences of that 'self'.  (And a corollary to this view is that once the 'self' is apparently deteriorated -- because of mental illness, brain injury or disease -- and that 'self' is no longer expected to express itself in a meaningful way or experience a "quality" existence, many in our culture find it difficult to explain why we should continue providing nutrition and hydration to such individuals, that is, why we should continue maintaining their bodily functions when such preservation arguably fails to serve the end of maintaining the mental activity of the 'self').

Now, if that -- what I have just described -- is the essence of marriage, then I don't have a leg to stand on in opposing gay "marriage."  I concede that two gay men or two gay women can attain that level of psychological-emotional bonding.  If that is marriage, then exclusion of gay couples from the benefits accorded to those who have entered into such a bonding would, indeed, be discriminatory.

Allow me then to disagree with the major premise, namely, that the union sought by persons intending marriage is a kind of extreme emotional bond.  There is another kind of union which marriage brings about, a unique union, the understanding of which requires us to reject other premises from the foregoing view:     

· Human persons are not psychological selves inhabiting bodies; rather, they are embodied persons, mind-body or soul-body wholes.

· They bring about this union not through a communion which is merely psycho-emotional in nature, but through a communion that is bodily;

· Sexual intercourse is therefore not merely means of attaining a unique emotional bond; rather, sexual intercourse is uniquely capable of constituting the singular kind of union which human cultures for millennia have called "marriage".

Why sexual intercourse (and not other kinds of sexual acts, including sodomy) is uniquely capable of bringing about the marital communion -- literally a "one flesh" union -- of a man and a woman will be the topic of next week's column.

Father Thomas Berg is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie). More of Fr. Berg’s publications are available at

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.