Marriage’s Demise Signals a Queasy Culture

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Gay marriage is wrong not because it threatens traditional marriage. Gay marriage is not a cause of social ills, but a consequence of social illness.

There are certain things that healthy societies don't have to discuss. One of them historically has been what a "marriage" is. Even putting "marriage" in quotation marks signals something in our culture currently is amiss. Do we really need to indicate that there's some question about what counts as a "marriage?" Unfortunately so. As many readers are aware, one of the most divisive contemporary issues — and it's not an issue in America alone — is the meaning of "marriage." Where previous generations could use the term unreflectively, we find ourselves knee deep in the sludge of linguistic and cultural confusion, where the notion of marriage as the permanent union of one man and one woman makes less and less sense to some of our peers. Instead, they claim, "marriage" is merely a word, and as a word, is flexible enough to cover the unions of man and man, woman and woman, and of course, perhaps more than one of each.

Because of this cultural confusion, because of this loss of confidence in the meaning of a word and the shape of the institution it signifies, our President and our Congress find themselves facing a question unthinkable as recently as 20 years ago: Should the Constitution be amended to state what a marriage is, and thereby what a marriage is not? I support a marriage amendment, but we must recognize that the need to amend the Constitution to define "marriage" is no good thing. To paraphrase James Madison, we are proving ourselves less than angelic when we require more governance to tell us what marriage is.

But men are not angels and government we do require. In this case, the great good that is marriage, such a great good that all cultures possess it in some form, requires legal support. Marriage is an enormously important social institution. Marriage is of such great importance that Jews and Christians understand it to be of divine origin; a unique social union of two people, the bond of which cannot be broken by men.

Conservatives are often accused of arguing that gay marriage "threatens" non-gay marriage, and the accusers often retort by showing the high failure rate of traditional marriage. But let's be clear that sociology for or against gay or traditional marriage will and should not decide the case for or against gay marriage. Let's grant that the question is not whether my marriage is actually threatened by Bruce's "marriage" to Jim. Of course it's not. Gay marriage is wrong not because it threatens traditional marriage. Gay marriage is not a cause of social ills, but a consequence of social illness. The case for marriage, and for law that supports it, rests where it always has from culture to culture: on the recognition that marriage is that unique sex-bridging institution bringing together man and woman in the business of creating more men and women. It is a forward-looking and thus essentially hope-filled institution. The diminishment of marriage through failing to support its permanence through no-fault divorce laws and through abolishing its uniqueness and making it just another malleable social institution signals the sickness of that society. It is to place hopelessness, or even cynicism, where hope once stood. What makes this most crass in the American situation is the ostensibly financial motivation for much of this move: access to tax privilege and health benefits and insurance. For these things we will sacrifice marriage?

Joseph Capizzi is Fellow in Religion for the Culture of Life Foundation and Associate Professor of Religion at Catholic University of America.