Last week I wrote a brief essay entitled “God, Gay Marriage, and Gag Reflexes,” in which I argued that attempts to construct non-religious arguments for “traditional” marriage fail because they are not actually non-religious. Although their arguments may be framed in secular philosophical terms, they only make sense when one shares the implicit religious assumptions of the authors about our existence within a purposive created order.

Last week Michael Bradley responded to me with an excellent and thorough critique that I recommend to readers if they haven’t seen it already. Precisely because his critique was so thorough, I cannot answer all his points here, but I will respond to what I see as the overarching point Bradley makes, and try and flesh out why I think Christian marriage is more worth taking the time to defend than “traditional marriage.”


The main bone of contention, as I see it, is the usefulness (and coherence) of the distinction between Christian marriage and what might be called “natural marriage”—a concept that contains many points of contact with Christianity, but is nevertheless independent from it.

Bradley points out, that although very few of our contemporaries buy this natural, “conjugal view of marriage,” many people living prior to the birth of Christ did buy it, and so it cannot depend upon Christianity for its continued health. The “legal and philosophical traditions of marriage” in the West that I argue are grounded in the Christian faith that undergirds Western civilization (notwithstanding the synthesization by Christianity of elementa veritatis in pagan philosophy ), Bradley holds to be traditions that “both precede and—though often running parallel to—are distinct from Christian understandings of marriage.” Therefore, he argues, “publicly-available (non-religious) reasons” exist for the defense of this natural/conjugal view of marriage, and “a compelling case can be made for marriage simply by appeal to those reasons.”

Bradley is—it is fair to point out—in quite good company here. The authors of What Is Marriage? claim,

The conjugal view of marriage has long informed the law – along with the literature, art, philosophy, religion, and social practice – of our civilization.

Note the order of causation here. Whereas I assume that the secular philosophical concept of traditional marriage is a product of Christian civilization, the authors of What Is Marriage?—and Bradley—appear to regard it as an abstract Platonic form that floats free of any particular tradition of thought:
To be sure, the world’s major religions have historically seen marriage as a conjugal relationship, shaped by its role in binding men to women and both to the children born of their union. But this suggests only that no one religion invented marriage. It is rather marriage—the demands of a natural institution—that has helped shape our religious and philosophical traditions.

I agree, of course, that marriage is a “natural institution.” But human nature is rational, and rationality—as Andrew Haines pointed out earlier this week—is embedded within particular religious and philosophical traditions of discourse. Marriage is not something that exists in a pure realm of ideas, descending from time to time in order to help shape different religious traditions in different ways.

The important point here is not that it is wrong to view marriage in this Platonic way (though, incidentally, I think it is), but that those who wish to view it thus can’t both have their cake and eat it. The “conjugal view of marriage” can’t be both a total philosophical abstraction, and at the same time also be expected to perform as a “publicly available” concept capable of appealing to the 99.9% of the population who are not philosophers or experts in jurisprudence.

The more serious problem, however, is simply that Christian tradition (even if it recognizes a sort of natural marriage), does not, I think, easily permit the kinds of distinctions that many of the “traditional marriage” crowd wish to make between Christian marriage and natural marriage.

When Christ abolished the provision for divorce that existed in the Mosaic Law, he saw himself not as superimposing a religious precept on top of the natural institution of marriage, but as restoring marriage to its natural state:

Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” He said to them, “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matthew 19:4-9).

"From the beginning it was not so." Inherent within Christian marriage, as it has historically understood itself, is a restoration of marriage's true natural properties—properties that even the ancient Israelites were not capable of grasping correctly despite the aid of divine revelation. Christian marriage is founded on Christ’s appeal to that original natural order, to what God “made” in the beginning, and that is precisely why it is theologically (and morally) dangerous for Christians to begin distinguishing between Christian marriage and natural marriage.

If, for pragmatic reasons, those in the public eye prefer not to use “God-talk,” that is one thing. Given that so few of those involved in the traditional marriage movement are theologians, it would be unreasonable to expect them to construct religious arguments (which is not to say non-theologians should not construct such arguments if they wish to do so). But simply abstaining from making theological arguments is very different from mounting a principled intellectual defense of a separate concept of "natural marriage."

In his Addresses to the Roman Rota in 2002 and 2003, Pope John Paul II returned twice to the theme of the unity between marriage as a natural and religious institution, a repetition that highlights the importance he wished to give the point.

In his 2002 Address, the Holy Father acknowledged that “countless men and women of all times and places have complied” with what he calls the “divine and natural plan” of marriage, “even before the Savior’s coming and a great many others have done so after his coming, even without knowing him.” To claim that Christian marriage is the ideal we are charged with defending, then, is not to claim that all marriages of non-Christians are defective. Many non-Christians live the moral truth about marriage better than many Christians do.

The Pope goes on to speak about the specific property of indissolubility, in comments that reveal his thinking on the unity of natural and Christian marriage. Indissolubility, he says, is not simply a good for the Christian community. Rather, it exists as “a good for spouses, for children,” and most importantly “for the whole of humanity.” And one can only give a “valid and complete response” to the problem of marital breakdown by turning to the “word of God,” precisely because, as the Pope argues, it is a “natural dimension of the union” of marriage that it concerns “a plan that is divine.”

In 2003, the Pope returned to the same theme even more explicitly, warning Catholics against the idea that there are “two marriages: one profane and another sacred.” He asserts that “there is no room in the Church for a vision of marriage that is merely immanent and profane, simply because such a vision is not true theologically and juridically,” and warns against Catholics taking on a “secularized mentality” that “tends to affirm the human values of the institution of the family while detaching them from religious values and proclaiming them as fully independent of God.”

Arguably, it is this very drive for human independence from God—rather than simple mistakes in philosophical reasoning—which is the cause of the disintegration of marriage within Western culture. And if this is the case, it is naïve to think that more and better defenses of “traditional marriage,” more statistics, more legal arguments, more ballot measures, more rallies, and more sociological studies, are likely to do much good, because all such things fail to address the spiritual malady that is at the root of our current predicament.

Whatever the merits of a “conjugal view of marriage” that runs parallel to the Christian view on certain points, the Christian West has already had its consciousness raised by the Incarnation. It is too late to return to being virtuous pagans now.