Panel discussion addresses questions at the heart of the marriage debate

Roughly 230 members of the Notre Dame and local communities gathered on St. Patrick’s Day in Debartolo Hall 101 for the panel discussion: “Marriage, the Church, and the Common Good: Philosophical, Pastoral, and Social Reflections.” The event was sponsored primarily by the Tocqueville Program for Inquiry into Religion and American Public Life and the Irish Rover. Notre Dame senior Michael Bradley moderated the discussion [Editor’s note: Bradley is Editor-In-Chief of the Rover].

Four scholars spoke on the panel, addressing the fundamental questions of what marriage is, why it matters, how public policy should reflect these understandings and how the Catholic Church can contribute to the discussion of this foundational institution.

Ron Belgau is a graduate student in philosophy at Saint Louis University and founder of the website Spiritual Friendship. Sherif Girgis is co-author of What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, a JD candidate at Yale and PhD candidate in philosophy at Princeton. Ryan T. Anderson is Girgis’ co-author, a PhD candidate in political science at Notre Dame, William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the Heritage Foundation, and editor of Public Discourse. Jennifer Roback Morse holds a PhD in economics from the University of Rochester, taught at Yale and George Mason, and is the founder and president of the Ruth Institute.

Belgau began the discussion by acknowledging that “debates over same-sex marriage are extremely polarizing.” As a gay Catholic who embraces the Church’s teachings on sexuality, Belgau emphasized the need for a positive pastoral example for men and women who have same-sex attractions. He noted the experience many people have of “homosexual sins [being] graded on a very different scale than heterosexual sins.” In light of this tendency for homosexuals to feel marginalized, Belgau noted the importance of discussing ways for these people to respond to God’s calling and to use their particular gifts within the Church, with a particular emphasis on spiritual friendship—understanding the Church’s teachings as offering a positive vocation for same-sex attracted people.

In contrast with the negative precept to not engage in “gay sex,” Belgau said that a deeper understanding of the Church’s teaching on chastity can provide a positive vision for same-sex attracted persons. To be chaste, Belgau explained, is “to be able to order our sexual desires in accordance with right reason, in accordance with the plan that God wrote into creation that is known through right reason but which is also revealed to us in the Church.”

Belgau concluded by discussing the importance of mercy as related through the St. Patrick’s Day Gospel reading. “If we respond to this call to bear witness in a way that recognizes our own sin, recognizes our own struggle, then we have a very different witness to give to our culture,” he said.

Girgis began by noting that “The Church’s theology of marriage is not just a theology—it is an ethic,” which incorporates political philosophy and espouses a vision of the common good. “What marriage is,” Girgis stated, “is something that can be known by reason, not just by revelation.” No vague notion of equality can provide any conclusions about what marriage really is or how it should be enshrined in law, Girgis explained

He described two competing views of marriage, which he called the revisionist view and the conjugal view. Under the revisionist view, marriage is distinguished from other forms of personal communion by an emotional union of varying degree or intensity. This view of marriage fails to account for the norms of marriage that most people on both sides of the debate acknowledge—that is, monogamy, permanence and exclusivity. If the revisionist view is true, Girgis argued, there is no reason in principle to pledge permanence because whatever intense emotional union exists between two people is not necessarily permanent. There is no reason in principle to expect sexual exclusivity, because some people find that they foster stronger emotional unions with multiple sexual partners. Finally, he argued, there is no reason in principle that marriage should be restricted to couples, as a group of three people can foster some sense of intense emotional union.

The revisionist view of marriage, Girgis said, is not inherently sexual. In principle, it is replaceable with other types of activities that also foster emotional union. The failure of the revisionist view to account for the common norms ascribed to marriage suggests that it is not the true vision of marriage.

Girgis offered the conjugal view of marriage as the alternative. This view is characterized by the comprehensive union of spouses on all levels of their being. Their union consists in unifying acts, unifying ends and unifying commitment. As a comprehensive union, marriage involves bodily union in the marital act. Just as all the parts of an individual’s body coordinate towards a single end—the sustaining of biological life—so too do the bodies of husband and wife coordinate in the marital act towards a unifying end—the creation of a new human life. “Only in the marital act do a man and woman themselves make up a single whole, coordinated towards a single end,” Girgis argued.

Marriage is oriented towards a whole range of goods, especially new life. “The very act that makes marital love is also the kind of act that makes new life,” Girgis said. This makes marriage comprehensive in its unifying ends—oriented towards procreation and the wide sharing of domestic life.

Girgis continued, noting that marriage is also comprehensive in its unifying commitments, to permanence, exclusivity and monogamy. This comprehensive commitment ensures the authenticity of the unifying marital act oriented toward the unifying ends of procreation and family life.

How does this relate to the Church’s witness on marriage? “This vision of marriage makes it clearer that the sexual ethic of the Church is not just a grab-bag of morals. It’s not something you can pick and choose from … You should not seek the experience of comprehensive union without the reality of comprehensive union,” Girgis said.

Anderson addressed why marriage matters from a public policy perspective. “Marriage exists as a policy institution to unite man and woman as husband and wife to be mother and father to any children their union might create,” he said. “Whenever a baby is born, a mother will always be close by.” The question for public policy is whether a father will be close by, too, and for how long.

Anderson emphasized the unique importance of mothers and fathers. Citing a wealth of social science evidence built up over the last 40 years, Anderson highlighted that gender-differentiated parenting is important to child development, for both boys and girls. “Marriage makes a difference, and being raised by a mother and a father makes a difference,” he said. This is what gets government into the marriage business, because “the sexual union of man and woman can create a child and that child needs to be raised.”

Anderson detailed ways in which redefining marriage negatively impacts the marriage culture. These consequences follow from the law’s role as a teacher and from the fact that “ideas have consequences, and bad ideas have bad consequences.” Redefinition would exacerbate the problem of absentee fathers. “How will the law teach that fathers are essential when we’ve changed to law to make fathers optional?” Anderson asked.

He noted that religious liberties are also at stake, alluding to the growing number of cases of private business owners being coerced to provide services for same-sex wedding ceremonies.

Morse situated contemporary challenges to the conjugal view within the more longstanding narrative of the sexual revolution. By the “sexual revolution,” Morse had in mind two primary ideas: “First, the Sexual Revolutionaries hold that society ought to separate sex and procreation from each other, and from marriage. Second, the Sexual Revolutionaries teach that men and women are completely interchangeable for all significant purposes.”

This revolution is wrong-headed, Morse argued, because “it is completely irrational to believe that we can create a society around the premise that sex is a sterile activity.”

“Marriage, lifelong sexual exclusivity and the whole sharing of life, creates a social expectation and support structure to unify people for a lifetime,” she said. The idea that men and women are interchangeable is also false, she continued, based on social science evidence.

“Another corollary of the Revolutionary ideology is that adults are entitled to any sexual relationships they choose, and the children will be fine,” Morse continued.

Morse argued that it is not the government’s business to accommodate adults in pursuing any desired sexual experiences, but that the government’s business in marriage is to provide generational justice for children so that they can be known by their mother and father.

The Catholic Church contrasts these dominant ideologies of the sexual revolution. “The Catholic view says every child is a gift from God. The Revolutionary view says every child is a choice, a problem to dispose of if you don’t want one, and a commodity to obtain if you do want one,” Morse explained.

“We believe that God loved the universe into existence, that God wishes us to participate in this love. We believe that marriage between one man and one woman is a symbol of God’s faithful covenant with his people. We believe that every sexual act is deeply meaningful…We believe that the human body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, not a toy, or a shell, or an empty vessel,” she concluded.

A 30-minute question and answer session followed the panel presentation.

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