As St. Augustine wisely noted over 1,500 years ago, Christian society and secular society – which the saint termed the “city of God” and the “city of man” – are in constant conflict with one another. Perhaps nowhere is the struggle between these two entities more evident today than in their respective conceptions of marriage.
For the very definition of marriage in America is currently being called into question. During this election cycle, voters are being asked to determine whether gay marriage should be recognized by the state in Maryland, Maine, Minnesota, and Washington.
But the debate over gay marriage is indicative of a larger struggle between two radically different worldviews concerning the societal bedrock that is the institution of marriage. And the struggle runs even deeper than marriage, since both of these conceptions of marriage are inextricably bound up with their radically different understandings of sexuality.
The Christian conception of sexuality holds that sexual intercourse has the twofold purpose of procreation and unity. For the Christian, the bond of sexual intercourse is the physical reflection of the unity between two lovers. This unifying bond between man and woman is inherently fruitful and life-giving; the couple is granted the opportunity to participate in the creation of new life through their love for one another, if God so blesses their union. Their love for one another literally becomes an image of the creative mystery of God; through love, new life is created.
From a Christian perspective, marriage is a sacrament that creates an indissoluble bond between one man and one woman. For the Christian, sexual intercourse and marriage are inextricably intertwined. The act of sexual intercourse in marriage forever alters the relationship between a man and a woman. When a married couple consummates their relationship, an indissoluble bond is forged between the pair; they are bound until death parts them.
By contrast, the permissive view of sexuality holds that the act of sexual intercourse serves primarily as a source of mutual pleasure. The act of intercourse becomes little more than the satisfaction of a biological urge. Procreation is merely a byproduct of the sexual act, to be prevented or discarded whenever “unwanted” or inconvenient.
From a permissive perspective, sexual intercourse and marriage have literally nothing to do with one another. Marriage is merely legal recognition of a consensual relationship – a recognition that does not alter the bond between consenting partners in any substantive way. From the permissive standpoint, any type of consensual sexual relationship between any number of partners is acceptable.
There is no viable middle ground between these two views of marriage and sexuality. As soon as one accepts the twin assertions that intercourse can be decoupled from reproduction and that marriage and sexual intercourse are not fundamentally linked, one cannot logically oppose gay marriage, incestuous marriage, or any consensual relationship as a “true” marriage. Modern society, which is currently attempting to straddle these two conceptions of marriage, finds itself inexorably sliding away from Christian mores.
The widespread acceptance of artificial contraception is the first fruit of the permissive view of marriage and sexuality. If the sexual act is divorced from the purpose of reproduction, artificial methods of preventing conception are clearly acceptable – and even desirable, since they increase opportunities for pleasure. Abortion is the logical extension of contraception; after all, both abortion and contraception prevent the unwanted fruit of a pregnancy.
When the link between sexual intercourse and reproduction is severed, no logical reason remains to exclude any type of consensual relationship which precludes reproduction from marriage. Hence, gay marriage – indeed, any type of consensual sexual relationship becomes an acceptable type of marriage. Polygamy, incest, S&M relationships – these types of relationships are acceptable forms of marriage in the permissive worldview, if all parties involved in the relationship consent.
Some may argue that certain types of consensual relationships (i.e., incest) may be personally disgusting to many or even most people, and thus would never be permitted by society as acceptable marriage. But that is a naïve argument at best – after all, the same claim could have been made about homosexual marriage 20 years ago.