On the meaning of "natural marriage" and other types of relationships
The following essay is based on the term of "natural marriage", that considers complementary sexuality between man and woman as foundational to optimized social life: since children are naturally engendered of sex between one male and one female at a time, and the child has a natural right to know and be raised by his biological parents, the sanest social policy seems to be that which promotes the natural family as permanent, monogamous, exclusive, faithful and stable. Other sorts of mutually consenting, free will relationships can be accommodated in a healthy society, but these are substantially different from "natural marriage".
For the purpose of social policy regarding the presumption of a natural marriage, it seems adequate only to ensure that the two persons are entering into the relationship freely, with knowledge of the obligation, and presumed capable of generation by being of an age of sexual maturity. Whether they can or choose to procreate is not in the interest of the State or society, and any intrusion into that question is a violation of basic human dignity and rights of conscience. It seems sufficient that they are sexually mature, consenting, and with sufficient intellectual capacity for the State to presume and recognize a valid marriage.
What if there were no such thing as 'natural marriage'?
In order to discuss rationally the recent movement toward granting homosexual unions the same name and equal status as a natural marriage, we should first consider the following:
1) If either children were not naturally born of sex between a man and a woman, or 2) if sex had nothing to do with procreation, or 3) if children did not optimally require the stable and loving relationship between their parents for their welfare and emotional, psychological, social, and moral formation, then none of this call for "equality" would even be an issue. Also, 4) if society accorded no special advantages to natural marriage, promoted as 5) stable, faithful, exclusive, and permanent between two persons of complementary sexuality, the call for "equality" probably wouldn't be an issue either. Whether society ought to do so is a legitimate question, but I see neither advantage in not doing so, nor in claiming that other sorts of relationships have the primal societal importance and social interest as does natural marriage. To flesh these out:
- If children were not naturally born of sex between a man and a woman, then all relationships would be completely and truly equal in fact (and therefore presumably in the eyes of the law).
- If sex were not naturally procreative, the State and society would have no legitimate interest in who had sex with whom. It would be an entirely innocuous and benign and morally neutral activity. There would be no basis for concern whatsoever (nor laws) against incest, pederasty, prostitution, pornography, homosexuality, bestiality, or anything else. These are only of any social importance because of the importance of sex itself.
- If children did not optimally require a stable and loving family for their flourishing, there would be no pressing need to promote any sort of stable relationships at all. Rather, it can be argued economically for the purposes of a consumerist society that the more transient and mobile and unattached the populace is, the more the economy is fueled and the more the workforce can be shifted as demands change. People might still want to establish such domestic households for emotional, relational, rational, economic or social reasons, but neither the State nor society would have any particular pressing interest in promoting that mode of living. Apart from children optimally requiring some stability for formation, education, and socially developing with friendships, the case for stable and permanent households seems weak. There might well be other considerations, such as our natural propensity to settle down and own property, or an argument that social stability and home ownership reduces crime rates, but these are not necessarily compelling reasons for social policy to privilege any particular mode of living.
- If there were no tax advantages (the dependent deduction is a joke economically, but that's beside the point), or recognized common pooling of assets such as joint property ownership, survivorship, automatic insurance enrollment, visitation rights in hospitals and prisons, inheritance, etc. there would be little reason for anyone to ask the government to regulate their relationship. Apart from these 'benefits", why in this age of centralized, bureaucratic, governmental intrusion into every area of private life should anyone be clamoring to be processed and documented by bean counters keeping tabs on citizens at the instigation of policy wonks and meddlesome legislators?
- If there is no intention for stability in the relationship, then why should it be considered marriage or the State take any particular interest in the private intimate lives of individuals? If there is no intention to fidelity, exclusivity or permanence, then how can it justly be considered the same as a relationship that is committed to these principles? If the relationship is inherently sterile, which is necessarily the case of homosexual relationships and cannot be presumed between adults of complementary sexuality (without invasive and grotesque medical testing that is the business of no one but the two parties), then apart from the sorts of social and economic advantages mentioned in #4, there does not seem to be any pressing reason for social policy to privilege any other sorts of private relationships with the same benefits that reasonably adhere to natural marriage.
The argument for Registered Domestic Corporations as distinct from Marriage
I would also suggest that a healthy society in a pluralistic culture as the 21st century West can, and arguably ought to, accommodate other modes of life, whether homosexual or polyamorous or free love communes of any number of consenting adults. From a perspective of Catholic moral theology and anthropology, these would not be optimal for the true end of the human person, and indeed they would be understood as morally and relationally defective. But it is a very legitimate question from Catholic jurisprudence as to whether the State ought to intrude on the rights of persons to prevent them from living as they see fit; and, more importantly, there is an argument from justice that all members of the society ought to be able to enjoy all the benefits and the goods of the society equally as persons under the law.
It seems that the law could therefore legitimately provide for some sort of legal status (a registered domestic corporation, for instance) to any group of mutually consenting adults of any number for the sake of establishing some domestic arrangement, which can establish and protects rights and responsibilities regarding property, inheritance, insurance, visitation, survivorship, etc. This however is something quite different from marriage of man and woman that can be by nature presumed to be generative and therefore transgenerational, and therefore must accommodate third parties (children) who are not signatories to the original contract. A homosexual relationship cannot ever be fertile or generative, and is naturally limited to the contracting parties, and so the legal needs of the homosexual couple are more limited than those of a natural marriage. It seems these can all be handled easily by a contract attorney working within a duly legislated contractual structure to provide for the rights and responsibilities of the contracting parties, as well as for the State to recognize such rights and responsibilities enforceable in the courts.
Thoughts from the Catholic view of human relationships in a secular society
While from a Catholic anthropology and sociology the natural family is the basis of society and this precedes the State, our modern post-Enlightenment civilization considers the individual as radically atomic with all relationships being constructs (as is 'gender', 'family', 'rights', 'person', etc.). That is, for better or worse, the political and societal reality we now live in. Our modern society is transient and psychically unmoored. Sex is the medium of exchange in hookup culture. Contraception severs the natural relationship between sex and procreation. Divorce on demand has created a sort of serial monogamy where the bonds of natural family are weakened. The Atomic-age and socially atomic "nuclear family" displaced the extended family as Americans became more mobile and left in droves for the suburbs. Most importantly, our entire legal system is now simple legal positivism informed by the utilitarian and pragmatic principles of social organization. There is no appeal to natural law or natural rights inherent in the person: rather, rights are seen as assigned to individuals and to be allowed or limited as best seen fit by the Government. Even the family today has no natural right to guardianship of the parents' children (the notion that a child can 'divorce' his parents by court order), and the parents have no natural right to form, educate, and care for their own children as they best see fit (the German government's attack on homeschooling, for instance, or the manner in which Social Services will swoop in with militarized police to seize children from the parents).
All of this points to a steady erosion of natural bonds of man - woman - child as the basis of society. And while children are naturally engendered of sex between man and woman, and we as sexual adults naturally form intimate sexual relationships with others, the primary question concerning marriage and family is not about the relationship of the partners or spouses, but rather between the children and parents. There is no more important, permanent, and natural relationship than that of the parent and child. Lovers and spouses and crushes and hook ups come and go. One's mother and father is always one's parent, and one's child is always one's child. The child naturally and properly comes to understand everything through the example of the parent, and the child optimally receives love, affection, care, and affirmation of who she or he is as a person in relationship from the parents. One need not spend too much effort defending this against the obvious evidence of psychological trauma and dislocation that divorce or being made an orphan or adopted precipitates. (This is not a criticism of adoption at all, which is a sad but unfortunately necessary process where society has to step in to provide for the child when the natural parents are lost. Adoption itself is the work of the angels).
There is no greater natural love than a parent for a child, and no greater sense of loss than that of a parent who must bury a child. There is no greater influence on a person's emotional state and ability to have healthy relationships than that given by the parents. The parents are called to properly form their children as healthy, balanced, moral persons to be launched into society, and when they fail to do so the ripple effects to society can be damaging indeed. All of this suggests the primacy of the parent-child relationship which society at large ought to respect, protect, and privilege.
Bad biblical arguments don't undermine the rationality of "natural marriage"
But the central point here is that natural marriage thus discussed is a natural institution which has been privileged by virtually every society for very good reasons. Parenthetically, the commonplace claim that the Bible supposedly gives all sorts of models for "marriage" and "family" is really a bad argument. Deficient Old Testament models of human relationship, even within some Scriptural context, do not argue for no reasonable and rational view of marriage. From a perspective of Christian theology, had the OT patriarchs and Kings gotten it right and had well ordered and just societies, there would be no need for the perfecting revelation in Christ. If one wants to argue that Solomon's 700 wives, or patriarchal slave-concubines are salutary models for human relationship that should be held as exemplars, go for it. But simply arguing that there is no reasonable, rational, and just model for marriage because of deficient understandings in the late Bronze age is as unreasonable as suggesting that there is no ideal to a just society because the Code of Hammurabi required the death penalty for the owner of the tavern in which some conspirators met, and that there is no ideal of justice that sane social policy ought to promote.
Looking for coherent consistency in language and social policy
Natural marriage serves a different sort of purpose than other voluntary relationships. It is a different sort of thing than other relationships, and so is properly called by a different term. Without getting too philosophical, we as rational beings call different things by different terms to understand their specificity, and to keep them separated for the purposes of understanding and communication. This is the natural pattern of human rationality: we compare and contrast the characteristics and traits of different things, name them, and order them so that we can grasp the created world. This is a fundamental method of human organization, so basic and natural that we forget that is how we can tell the difference between our mother and our father, or between a car and an apple. Different types of things are given different names, and even similar sorts of things are given adjectives to distinguish them: the red apple from the green apple.
(If one objects to that, I would like to know in what other cases we fail to call different types of things by different terms to keep them separate: if any relationship can be termed "marriage" then marriage simply means relationship, which gets us nowhere.)
The proper political question is "how do we properly ensure the rights and responsibilities of all citizens, while providing for the necessary social structure that optimizes the good of children and the formation of future generations?" It seems to me that there are other legal remedies that don't impinge on the primal and foundational relationship of the natural family as the basis of society.
If you disagree with the above, I am happy to discuss the arguments in civil and mutually respectful terms. Uncivil or disrespectful comments will be deleted.