September 22, 2009

What is Marriage? -Part II

By Father Thomas Berg *

Last Tuesday, 90 members of the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a bill (H.R. 3567) that would repeal the one federal law that currently protects the traditional definition of marriage, the Defense of Marriage Act. This is the latest in nation-wide attempts to redefine the traditional understanding of marriage. Last week in this column, I began a reflection on why that traditional understanding must be upheld and why gay couples suffer no injustice in being denied the unique legal privileges traditionally granted to married heterosexuals. It all hinges on what marriage is in the first place.

Last week's column led to a consideration that the traditional (natural law and Catholic) understanding of marriage is based on a vision of the human person as a soul-body whole in which the body is not merely instrumental to an intense emotional bonding (as in the contemporary understanding of "marriage") but rather can be constitutive of a unique kind of union which only one man and one woman can enter into through sexual intercourse.  Consequently, sexual intercourse (and not other kinds of sexual acts, including sodomy) is uniquely capable of bringing about that kind of union which the natural law tradition, Catholic theology, and human cultures for millennia have exclusively called marriage.   And here's why.

Even though a man and a woman are complete organisms in themselves, with regard to the act of human reproduction each stands as an incomplete, complementary and potential participant. The act of sexual intercourse -- unlike any other human action and unlike any other kind of act involving human genital intimacy -- renders the man and the woman together a complete reproducing organism, a potentially life-producing unity. And even if the couple happens to be sterile, by the very nature of the act, they still become one organism, one flesh.

Persons who argue that acts of sodomy, mutual masturbation, and so on can have the same value as sexual intercourse presuppose a premise that the traditional view rejects, namely, that sexual acts are merely a means to achieving the end of intense emotional bonding.

Genuine marriage, to the contrary, is a total sharing of life and love, based not on intense emotional communion, but founded rather on the physical communion uniquely possible between a male and a female due to their sexual complementarity. That complementarity can bring about what the Bible calls a "one flesh union." Tragically, this understanding of marriage has largely been lost in contemporary culture.

Now, if the preceding argumentation is true, one could challenge it by saying it leads to the implausible conclusion that rape or premarital sexual intercourse would also render those involved "married." Such a conclusion does not follow, however.  Sexual intercourse can in fact bring about such a union, but only when simultaneously based on the willing and publicly pledged consent (in permanence and exclusivity) of the man and the woman to enter into that kind of union.  The unique union we call marriage is that which is entered into by one man and one woman who constitute with their bodies what they consent to with their reason and will.  When those conditions hold, such a commitment brings about marriage; subsequent love-making consummates that commitment, making it real, literally as "one flesh."

Consequently, teenagers, or even engaged couples who have sexual intercourse share partially in physical and emotional intimacy, but they do not bring about the complete communion of life and love which only the pledge of permanent and exclusive fidelity can make possible.  In fact, persons who engage in sexual intercourse outside of marriage not only engage in the mere counterfeit of the genuine good of marital union, but also open themselves up to an array of potentially damaging consequences stemming from the essential disorder of their sexual relations.

Such is not merely a "Catholic opinion." It is, rather, a reading of human nature in truth. To hold that only one man and one woman can bring about a genuine marriage, and that gay couples are incapable of doing so is broadly considered discriminatory and its expression, "hate-speech."  Such are the cultural turbulences we must endure in bearing witness to fundamental truths about the human person. We acquiesce to the extinguishing of those truths only to our own peril.  

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.


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