Speakers debate the definition of marriage


The Tocqueville Program sponsored a formal debate entitled “What is Marriage?” between Sherif Girgis, defending the conjugal view, and Professor of Philosophy at Wayne State University John Corvino, espousing the revisionist view of marriage.

Girgis—currently a PhD candidate in philosophy at Princeton University and a law student at Yale University—co-authored the book What is Marriage: Man and Woman a Defense with Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, and Ryan Anderson.  Corvino is the author of What’s Wrong with Homosexuality?.

“I got into the debate because I care about the public goods at stake, but most of all because I have the sense that there wasn’t any debate,” Girgis told the Rover.  “It was name calling and cultural intimidation and I felt that very deep problems in the revisionist view of marriage were being blithely overlooked.”

The Lincoln-Douglas style debate allowed Girgis 12 minutes to present his side of the argument with an 18-minute rebuttal from Corvino, followed by a 6-minute conclusion by Girgis.  Students had the opportunity to address the speakers in a question-and-answer period after the formal debate.

“The thing that distinguishes marriage on the revisionist view,” Girgis began, “is a certain kind of deep, romantic, emotional bond.  That’s what makes it different.”

Girgis explained that this view of marriage does not account for the features of marriage on which both sides typically agree, namely that marriage is a sexually exclusive, permanent union between only two people with an inherent connection to family life.

“If what makes it a marriage in the first place is that deep, romantic, emotional bond, if it’s the quality or depth of the intimacy that’s involved, if love is what makes a marriage,” elaborated Girgis, “then there is no reason of principle, and in fact it would be kind of arbitrary and restrictive to pledge permanence as opposed to being together for as long as that deep romantic bond lasts.”

According to Girgis, the revisionist view of marriage does not distinguish between different forms of unions but only recognizes marriage based on the degree of love involved in the bond.  “This is basically a view of marriage that collapses marriage into companionship more generally,” he explained.

With this new definition of marriage, Girgis reasoned, there is little basis to uphold the social norms that typically follow from marriage.

“The more the state teaches, the more the law teaches, the more the culture teaches, that marriage is basically about companionship more broadly,” he contended, “the harder it will be to uphold the more specific norms of marriage that give it social benefits.”

Girgis then offered an account of the conjugal, or traditional, view of marriage defined by comprehensive union.  Girgis explained that the marital act is a union of heart, mind, and body insofar as it is “a common action, toward common ends, in the context of commitment.”

“In the marital act, a man and woman are coordinated toward a single bodily end as a whole,” Girgis declared.  “Because the very act of marital love on this view is also the kind of act that makes new life, marriage is inherently fulfilled by family life, and therefore by a comprehensive range of goods.”

He concluded by arguing that the conjugal view has been supported historically across distinct cultures that had no contact with the Judeo-Christian tradition, and even in cultures that supported homoerotic activity.

“They were responding to something in reason, something in the truth about human life that the comprehensive union is distinctively valuable and of distinctive value to the common good,” Girgis stated.

Corvino responded to Girgis’ arguments by suggesting that Girgis had focused on the wrong answers to the wrong questions.  “Relationships are good for people; marriage is good for relationships; and some of our fellow citizens happen to be gay,” he posited.

“Having someone to come home to at night, to wake up with in the morning, to share life’s joys and sorrows with, is an important part of the human experience,” Corvino argued.  “Ultimately at its best, it can make us better people.”

“I think that marriage is a complex, historical, social institution.  It involves a cluster of features that you see more of in certain cultures, more of in other cultures,” continued Corvino.  “Marriage is a personal commitment.”

Corvino elaborated on his definition, claiming that marriage is not just a commitment between the two people, but also involves the community.  Because marriage is a social institution, the community holds the couple to that commitment.

Furthermore, Corvino explained, marriage is a legal status that allows married couples certain privileges such as medical benefits, protection from testifying against one’s spouse, and aid in divorce.

Corvino contended that the conjugal view of marriage “places much too much emphasis on coitus and makes it a necessary condition of what marriage is.”

“Trying to define marriage in terms of this neat set of necessary and sufficient conditions, where we make coitus a necessary condition is a mistake,” continued Corvino, “but once you give up that notion, the argument against same-sex marriage falls apart.”

Corvino offered an alternative definition of marriage: “Marriage is the social institution recognizing committed adult unions which are presumptively sexual, exclusive, and lifelong, and which typically involve shared domestic life, mutual care and concern, and the begetting and rearing of children.”

Arguing that all should enjoy the goods of marriage, Corvino said, “The real question we are asking is how should we treat our gay and lesbian neighbors and brothers and sisters.  How should we treat same sex couples vis-à-vis other couples in society?”

He concluded by stating that what distinguishes marriage from other unions is that marriage is a romantic bond: “Marriage is something that we think of as distinctively romantic, but that’s not just something that I’m stipulating, that’s something that’s part of that long-standing history and part of what’s distinctively valuable about these relationships.”

In his rebuttal, Girgis defended the criteria of a comprehensive union by pointing toward the arbitrary distinctions in the revisionist view.

“If you think of marriage as primarily distinguished by the degree or quality of the companionship, there are no distinctions among any type of activity,” Girgis explained.  “Everything that is positive experience can foster that.  So it is really hard to see why some of the things that are positive experience, namely sexual interactions, have to be part of the vow and nothing else does.”

In the question-and-answer period that followed, senior Jake Bebar, an openly gay student, asked Girgis if he should seek a conjugal marriage or remain in a chaste gay relationship.

“You are an act of love, a specific act of love of a God who is love, and in particular, you have a vocation to add to the world sums of beauty and love that no one else on Earth can do, that only you can do … that Christ needs you to do,” Girgis responded.  “Behind this vision of marriage is an opening up of other possibilities of vocation.”


Hailey Vrdolyak is a junior political science and theology major.  Contact her at hvrdolya@nd.edu.