Homosexual Marriage: Only Ourselves to Blame

No prominent American commentator anticipated the rapid sequence of events that in early 2004 brought hundreds of homosexual couples—in Massachusetts, California, New York, Oregon, and elsewhere—before religious and public officials who were willing to pronounce them married.

But amid all of the many pundits praising or damning homosexuals for breaking the marriage barrier, few have reflected on just what kind of institution homosexuals—who have never laid hold of marriage in the past—are now claiming. Indeed, if Americans scrutinize carefully the way the national culture has in recent decades re-defined wedlock for heterosexuals, they may well conclude that it is not homosexuals that have changed so much, but rather marriage itself.

Once defined by religious doctrine, moral tradition, and home-centred commitments to child rearing and gender complementarity in productive labour, marriage has become a deracinated and highly individualistic and egalitarian institution, no longer implying commitment to home, to Church, to childbearing, to traditional gender duties, or even (permanently) to spouse.

That homosexuals now want the strange new thing marriage has become should surprise no one: contemporary marriage, after all, certifies a certain legitimacy in the mainstream of American culture and delivers tax, insurance, life-style, and governmental benefits—all without imposing any of the obligations of traditional marriage (which homosexuals decidedly do not want).

Thus, while the attempt to deny homosexuals the right to marry is understandable and even morally and legally justified, such an attempt is probably foredoomed if it does not lead to a broader effort to restore moral and religious integrity to marriage as a heterosexual institution.

Only the ideologically blind would deny that homosexual marriage threatens violence against all the moral and legal traditions that have defined wedlock for millennia. Homosexual activists have themselves asserted that they aim at more than a “mere ‘aping’” of heterosexual marriage: they want homosexual marriage to “destabilize marriage’s gendered definition by disrupting the link between gender and marriage.” They thus value the homosexual wedding ceremony in part because of the “transformation that it makes on the people around us.” But the disruptions in marriage and the accompanying transformations of the American people hardly began with homosexuals or homosexual marriage.

The history of a sea change

To recognize how profoundly mainstream American culture had changed the institution of marriage before a single wedding license had been issued to any homosexual couple is to realize that homosexual marriage culminates a decades-long attack, rather than initiates a distinctively new assault.

Once strongly reinforced by both religious doctrine and legal statute, marriage stood for centuries as the socially obligatory institution that shaped the individual for an adulthood of self-sacrifice and cooperative home-centred labour focused especially on the tasks of childbearing and child rearing.

For centuries, almost all Americans recognized marriage as a divinely ordained union of husband and wife entailing distinctive but complementary gender roles. Nor, until relatively recently, did the imperatives of marital theology lack for this-worldly reinforcement. As historian Allan Carlson has stressed, traditional patterns of “householding” assigned “reciprocal, complementary tasks [to] husbands and wives” engaged in various types of “household production, ranging from tool making and weaving to the keeping of livestock and the garden patch.” Marriage thus defined the very foundation of “a basic economic unit” which “bound each family together” as a “community of work.”

Sustained by their religious beliefs and absorbed in the labours of maintaining an autonomous home, American couples made their wedding vows both fruitful and durable. The fruitfulness of the traditional American marriage accounts for the words of a 19th-century American Congressman proudly inviting a foreign visitor to:

“visit one of our log cabins… There you will find a strong, stout youth of eighteen, with his Better Half, just commencing the first struggles of independent life. Thirty years from that time, visit them again; and instead of two, you will find in that same family twenty-two. That is what I call the American Multiplication Table.”

By the middle of the 20th century, the American supports for marriage had weakened in a number of ways—none of them involving advocates of homosexual marriage. By the 1950s the home’s surrender of productive functions had become so complete that Harvard sociologist Pitirim Sorokin saw it becoming a “mere incidental parking place” for consumption and relaxation. Many wives consequently experienced what one social historian labelled the “festering contradiction of modern womanhood” as their traditional home crafts lost economic value and cultural legitimacy, so threatening to reduce their social status to that of menial parking-place attendants.

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  • Hey

    You can applaud the changes, you can go with the changes and even benefit from them, or you can sit and cry and lament them, but you will never essentially reverse them. The river always flows just in one direction, whether you like it or not. Marriage is one of the institutions, and like all others, it is changing and will continue to change. The problem with America is that while it once was the champion of progress and positive change, it has not take a backseat, and sometimes looks like it’s paddling against the current.

  • Harold Fickett

    This is one of the strongest pieces of analysis we’ve published here at Catholic Exchange.  Unlike the commentator, “Hey,” I believe that if we understand the several forces redefining marriage long before the advent of homosexual marriage, we can reclaim marriage in its true character.  This will certainly mean more and more Catholic couples choosing to live in a deliberately counter-cultural way, and that’s happening through the comeback of large families and home schooling.  Two of our bloggers, Cari Donaldson and Dwija Borobia, are part of this movement, as they live (and write) in dramatic opposition to marriage-as-a-benefits-package. 

    The author’s emphasis on the economic forces that have torn traditional marriage apart is crucial; it’s also something that even the conservative Catholic press shies away from because of its reluctance to advance any criticism against a free-market system.  Sadly, the practical necessity–or what appears to be the necessity–for  most of having two outside-the-home incomes does more damage, I imagine, to traditional marriage than any other factor, and railing against the behavior this promotes while leaving unaddressed the root cause vitiates the authority of traditional marriage’s defenders.  People think, “How are we ever going to live like that?” Since there are so few good options, they ignore the biblical charge “to be fruitful and multiply” and budget their commitment to the family, as all of life becomes a cost-benefit analysis. 

    Let’s do something really interesting here at Catholic Exchange and think how young Catholic couples and the rest of us can participate in the invention of a new family-friendly economy that will allow traditional marriages to flourish.  We ought to have special editions devoted to ways in which Catholic couples can have a home-centered economy, particularly in non-agrarian settings.  The family farm makes home-centered economies natural, but only so many can go back to the country, albeit I’ve seen this done successfully and in a heroic way, especially around Clear Creek Monastery in northeastern Oklahoma.  In order for Catholics to supply the counter-cultural witness that’s needed (and which they themselves would benefit from), many more non-agrarian options need to be invented and replicated. 

  • Sueshaw17

    This entire article would have made more sense if “homosexuality” was left out. It’s as if  the author is trying to get two points across at the same time and it gets a little confusing for my simple mind. No we do not live in the times of Ozzie and Harriet, things are getting crazy in this world. I am not a homosexual but have many friends who are and are married. Although that lifestyle is not my own, I try with my heart to understand what they must be going through. I do not believe that true homosexuality is a choice. Although I have met many educated, professional people that do. This thinking, in my opinion, immediately removes all intelligence from them. None of us are God, and if God is love, then He loves them as well. It is not our job to try and figure out what God thinks about good loving people. Most of the homosexual people I am in touch with are professional, upstanding citizens. This article makes me feel as if “these people” are worthless souls and are damned to hell. As a christian, I don’t buy it. People pick and choose what they want the Bible to say to make it work for them. It’s sickening. Marriage in itself, I agree, is not what it should be, I think about that fact a lot. People are not willing to make the commitments it takes to keep a marriage together. All these values come from the home. So sad most homes are in a state of chaos. Thanks for listening, Sue.

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