What’s in a Name?

Now that England has became the latest in a lamentable series of morally wayward nations in Europe to bestow legal recognition on so-called same-sex “marriage,” we might want to answer some of the questions that its proponents in this country are tossing around.

If two people love each other, why should the state and society discriminate against them? Is not love blind? After all, isn’t marriage merely an ornamental legal arrangement between two persons? True it used to be considered an ancient, solemn and sacred vow between a man and a woman, but what’s the harm in simply allowing the word “marriage” to evolve and expand just enough to subsume notions of same-sex “marriage” as well?

On the surface and at the most superficial level, such rationales may make a certain degree of sense. But what we are dealing with here is sophistry, artful chicanery with words. It cannot withstand the scrutiny of human nature and experience.

Is the term “marriage” merely an empty, meaningless word given to a vague idea that is, or at least ought to be, elastic enough to accommodate the demands of the times? Behind such an idea is a concept about the word “marriage”: that there is nothing intrinsic in the word itself that ought to forbid the tinkering around with and reconfiguration of it. But looking deeper we see that this is an idea about all words. Words are just words. They should be capacious, expandable, not rigid and immutable.

This is known in philosophical circles as “nominalism.” For example, an apple, seen through the foggy prism of a student of nominalism, is whatever those in power say it is. It could really be an orange, a tree or a rock. Someone long ago gave the name “apple” to this particular object for the purpose of identification and organization of knowledge, but there is nothing in the essence of the thing that connects it with all others of its kind. This example is an extreme one for the purpose of demonstration, but the main point remains eminently valid. The principle thesis of nominalism is to assert that there is no common denominator serving as a thread, weaving things together in their immutable (unchanging) essences. A realist would here pause and note that the name identifies the thing, while the unifying essence is the thing itself. To call the thing by the name that identifies it then, is to speak the truth. According to the nominalist, there is absolutely no relation between the name and the thing. In fact, to the nominalist, only particular things exist — here an apple, there an apple — but no apple nature, no “appleness,” no universal essences that would serve to unite the particulars into a common nature.

Carrying the apple analogy over to the human person presents one with a similar pageant of confusion. According to the nominalist, there is no such thing as a universal human nature. The catchphrase “human nature” is nothing but a handy verbal net, thrown over the scattered mass of individuals by medieval philosophers and theologians, that serves no purpose outside the practical need to organize the merely biological and physical similarities shared between humans. The nominalist sees human beings as merely isolated individuals, like atoms, bouncing meaninglessly off one another before resuming on their course of extreme individualism and radical isolation. The idea of sharing a common nature with others is seen as oppressive and contrary to modern notions of freedom and liberation. As a result, nominalists seek to wriggle through the net of human nature and proclaim themselves fully self-determined and autonomous. But the plot thickens. Subsequently, the person is utterly cut off from the other, devoid of a golden thread of transcendence spun from the wheel of a common human nature by the hand of the Divinity.

For millennia, marriage, and the family that results from this union, has been understood as the most essential and natural element of society. There is something intrinsic in the very nature of marriage that makes it a fundamental and permanent ingredient in the recipe of human society. The exclusive element of this union of one man and one woman is permanently crystallized into the nature of marriage and cannot be carelessly airbrushed out by the signature of a feckless federal judge sophisticating the law according to his own whimsical ideology. The continuance and stability of a healthy society is dependent on the promotion of marriage and family: the latter naturally resulting from the former.

For the nominalist, concepts like “traditional marriage” are nothing but the innovation of the name-giver. Whoever bestows the name is given the power to define precisely what a given thing is. Marriage then, is nothing more than a name that various cultures and religions have given for the legal union of a man and a woman. There is no reason why, with the changing of time, the word “marriage” cannot be molded to include gays, multiple partners… whatever.

The problem with the nominalist’s worldview is that it denies that which, to borrow a phrase from Jefferson, is a self-evident truth. Reducing reality to nothing but a flimsy, mix-and-match play with words does injustice to the volume of universal human experience. There is something about the apple, and all apples, that makes it an apple. Its taste, texture and origin combine to make it what it is, in reality. The apple has an essence, not just a name. Marriage, by what it is, also has an essence and consequently cannot be anything but the solemn, indissoluble union of one man and one woman. The deconstructionist word game of the nominalist and subsequently the gay “rights” movement is, in itself, plagued with a fatal self-contradiction. They deny that there is any transcendent, unchanging and universal meaning attached to words like marriage, (after all, words are just words) all the while making their case by lofty aspirations to transcendent, unchanging and universal concepts like equality, fairness, justice and freedom.

The deep inroads made by nominalism have had serious ramifications for society, ranging in a host of important issues. To refuse something its essence and only grant it the hollow shell of a name, devoid of any deeper meaning, is to throw the world and reality into an undecipherable and never-ending spiral of confusion that can only result in some form of tyranny. To toss universal and transcendent essences out the window in favor of nominalism allows whoever is in power to arbitrarily dictate the conditions and terms of the “good” and “just” society based on his inscrutable whims. The only protection against the tyranny of nominalism is to recognize that creation is laden down, gifted, with unchangeable essences. A name is more than just a decorative ornament or accessory: it identifies what something is. Apples are apples, marriage is marriage.

© Copyright 2006 Catholic Exchange

Maldonado-Berry works at the Vatican Information Service in Rome. He is also studying Social Communication at the Pontifical University of Santa Croce. He writes frequently on church, cultural and political issues.

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