The latest installment in the Intercollegiate Review’s symposium, “Sex and the Polis” is an article by my friend and recent Notre Dame graduate Chris Damian titled “Defining Marriage Isn’t Defending Marriage.”
I admire the perspicuity with which Chris diagnoses deep and less frequently discussed problems in contemporary relationship (let alone marriage) culture: the atomization of our social fabric, the collapse of the institution of adult friendship, and the demolition of civic and communal networks in which non-married persons can feel at home. Like most of the work being done at Spiritual Friendship, the perspective of Chris’s article is refreshing. But I think Chris’s narrative of how the marriage culture has reached its present point is mistaken, chiefly because he misunderstands the same “proponents of traditional marriage” whose view he critiques in his piece; or at least, he understands that view to be narrower than it actually is.
Friendship and Marriage: Different in Degree or Different in Kind?
Chris begins his article by saying:
Conservatives aren’t losing to the culture on marriage because they’re wrong. They’re losing because they’re answering the wrong question, because they’ve failed to grasp what the issue actually is. It isn’t same sex marriage: it’s people wanting same sex marriage.
This distinction does not exist. The “wrong question” that “conservatives” are answering is (presuming from the title of Chris's article) “what is marriage?” (My unease with the blanket term “conservative” in this context is due to the fact that while opponents of same-sex marriage may be politically conservative, there are nevertheless meaningful differences in how opponents of same-sex marriage ground their arguments against it, in how they understand the “traditional” marriage—another unhelpful phrase—that they do support, and why they support it.)
Yet in defining marriage, one recognizes and calls attention to distinctions between marital relationships and non-marital ones, including the sorts of non-marital friendships the cultural reinforcement of which Chris advocates. It is the burying of just such relational distinctions—which Chris laments later in his piece—that is constitutive of and in turn spurs the revisionist view of marriage. The cultural diffusion of the revisionist view of marriage is largely responsible for the conflation of distinct kinds of human relationship, because that view understands marriage to be the pinnacle of committed, meaningful, loving, non-related adult relationships, all of which occupy the same spectrum and thus are directly comparable. One federal judge said in 2011 that "'marriage' is the name that society gives to the relationship that matters most between two adults." Immediately one can see how friendship is imperiled by such an understanding.
On the conjugal view of marriage, marriage is a comprehensive union of persons that is therefore intrinsically oriented toward the procreation and raising of children. It is a basic human good, a relationship in participation of which persons enjoy an irreducible form of flourishing distinct from non-marital or extra-marital friendship. It is different in kind and not degree from non-romantic friendships. Chris reiterates later that “the rise of ‘gay marriage’ does not come primarily from a crisis in the understanding of what marriage is. It comes from a crisis in the understanding and practice of love, commitment, and community.” But the latter and the former are inseparable in this instance, because the revisionist view of marriage is constituted by these crises. Americans are now clamoring for same-sex marriage because they misunderstand what marriage is, and they misunderstand what marriage is because it has been obscured through these misunderstandings of love, commitment, and community.
To be sure, the crumbling of communal institutions into which non-married individuals can be drawn and feel interconnection is due to many factors. A strong marriage culture, including social support for the nuclear family as the building block of society and the optimal environment in which children are raised, is not one of them.
How Marriage and Friendship are Distinct
We now live in a world in which we see marriage as the source and summit of love and romance. So anyone who experiences romantic attraction would be led to believe that this attraction is either a step towards marriage, or intrinsically disordered.
If we viewed “traditional marriage” as something which began before the eighteenth century, we would probably be led to reject this “marriagization” of love and romance. We should not forget that union in body is not the same thing as union in soul. The traditional view has been that it is in marriage that two “become one flesh.” But it is the traditional view that two become “a single soul” in friendship.
The problem is that in modern culture, these two views have been fused. The popular conservative notion, that your spouse should be your best friend, has fueled the popular liberal notion, that your best friend should be able to become your spouse. Aristotle has said that living together “is the chief mark of friendship”, but today adults are only expected to live with their spouses. Unlike most people throughout history, we now expect spouses to fulfill most of our emotional and practical needs. We don’t expect chaste friendships to be lifelong commitments with concrete responsibilities. So unmarried friends, in the most robust sense of the word, become a cultural anomaly.
A bit of clarification is needed here. Nobody sees marriage as the “source” of love and romance. But marriage is undeniably the “summit” of romantic love, since marriage is the good end toward which romantic-sexual love is ordered; thus, any romantic-sexual inclinations the satisfaction of which cannot be actualized in a procreatively-oriented action (and there is only one) are disordered in this respect. Again, the revisionist view obliterates the normativity of sexual complementarity from marriage, thus elevating marriage into the “summit” of all love (not just romantic-sexual love) and denigrating friendship to something inferior.
More importantly, the "traditional" view of marriage is not simply that man and wife become “one flesh” in a physical sense. Nor do man and wife become “one soul” on the traditional view; the reality is richer than that.
In marriage, man and wife become a “uni-duality,” in John Paul II’s phrase; two persons are united comprehensively, totally: not just in body or soul (neither of which is exhaustive, though both are constitutive, of personhood) but in totality. So, the “fusion” whereby marriage is seen to be the union of body and soul is neither false, nor culturally novel, nor harmful for friendship; indeed it has been the steady teaching of Christianity, expressed countless times in the Tradition.
Finally, no valid entailment can be drawn from the proposition, 1) one’s spouse should be one’s best friend, to 2) one’s best friend should be one’s spouse. Only on the revisionist view is such propositional reflexivity intelligible, since “spouse” and “best friend” are synonymous; this conflation cannot be attributed to the conjugal view or its cultural entrenchment.
Marriage is now seen as the stabilizing force in society and as the highest form of friendship. Thus, household communities have become distinctly insular in modern society. Proponents of the “traditional view” of marriage have argued that, as children mature, they benefit “from the committed and exclusive love of their parents for each other.” This seems partial-minded to me. Historically, households were often more like villages than like modern apartments. They have been composed of parents, children, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, employees, servants, and friends. Children would have seen a variety of committed and inclusive loves. In these households, it didn’t take a mother and a father to raise a child; it took a village. I think it still does.
This is clearly equivocation. The exclusivity espoused by proponents of the conjugal view is very apparently a sexual exclusivity; the inclusivity of which Chris speaks is not sexual in nature at all. To suggest that these (or other) proponents of the conjugal view believe that spouses ought not to enjoy deep friendships and relationships outside of their marriage is to read into these proponents’ arguments a claim that is not even hinted at.
Chris then writes,
If [Americans] don’t marry, they’re expected to remain independent. Today, some of the only established institutions in which unmarried men and women can establish lifelong relationships of stabilizing interdependency are monasteries and convents. One of the only established places in which modern unmarried Americans can leave singleness for loving, committed, and lifelong community is in the religious community. But not everyone who is unmarried will, or should, join a religious community. For the rest of these unmarried people, especially for gay people, the cultural message from conservatives over the last couple of decades has been: find a way to get married, or you’re on your own.
Has this been the “conservative” message? More so than the “liberal” message, or the “American” message? The collapse of the institution of friendship is not in any way connected to a strong marriage culture, a former or present widespread acceptance of the conjugal view, the reality that the vast majority of persons are in fact called to marry, or the fact that healthy marriages are the foundational building block of society. John Paul II said, “As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live.” In Lumen Gentium we read that the family is the “domestic church.” Both references are to the family of father, mother, and children, though neither reference can be construed as a downplaying of the value of extended family or of communal child-rearing networks.
Is the social and familial atomization of which Chris speaks the fallout of “conservative support for “traditional” marriage? Or does its causal history entirely elsewhere—with the opponents of “traditional” marriage, and with the political opposites of conservatism?
“‘Struggle alone’ is the last message conservatives should give to gay men and women,” Chris writes near the end of his piece. I fully agree, as should everybody. Sadly, the proponents of the revisionist view suggest that “struggling alone” is the only option left to those Americans whose relationship with their best friend is not a comprehensive one.
I’m not suggesting throwing out the textbook on marriage, but I am suggesting that what conservatives think is the textbook may only be a small chapter (or even just a few pages) in a much larger work that needs to be written on human relationships, love, and community.
Yet the authors of What Is Marriage? are aware of Chris's final point:
It is a point lost on both sides of this debate that the social prevalence of the revisionist view would make things harder on single people: As marriage is defined simply as the most valuable or only kind of deep communion, it becomes harder to find emotional and spiritual intimacy in nonmarital friendships (p. 65).
The conjugal view’s restoration could thus help us recover the companionate value of friendship: that bond which King David called “more wonderful to me than the love of women,” which Augustine described as “two souls in one body”; a bond all the sweeter for being chosen, but no less demanding for those who know its depths (p. 66).
Chris is spot on with his diagnosis of the modern problems that make single life a cross for those who are called not to marry or who do not marry. But his article is laced with suggestive references to how the “traditional” view of marriage is partially to blame for present woes. It is not.
Extra-marital and marital friendships are neither incompatible nor competing goods. The most promising way to reintroduce this truth to the culture is to elucidate the distinctions between these goods, which is just what the "textbook on marriage" does, and does well.