The marriage debate

The call for same-sex marriage ignores the procreative dimension that has always been part of the traditional Catholic understanding of marriage, writes Richard Norman

Writing to Catholics in England and Wales, the Archbishops of Westminster and Southwark argue that ‘[the] roots of the institution of marriage lie in our nature. Male and female we have been created, and written into our nature is this pattern of complementarity and fertility.’

In Catholic thought there are two dimensions to the marriage relationship, the unitive and the procreative: marriage both makes for the ‘mutual society, help, and comfort’ of the spouses, but also provides the appropriate social context for the birth and nurture of children. It is clear from recent Government Equalities Office statements that only the unitive significance of marriage is considered relevant to contemporary secular discussion.

Theology of the body

Why ought the procreative dimension also be thought important – indeed necessary – to the proper understanding of marriage? The answer is all to do with a theology of the human body which teaches that the body is first of all created: ‘God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.’ Human bodies are created possessing sexual identity: Pope John Paul II wrote of ‘the Creator’s decision that the human being should always and only exist as a man or a woman.’

Traditional natural theology articulates why this should be. It speaks of a nuptial understanding of the body, which premises the phenomenon of gender upon humanity’s creation in the image of the Triune God. Again, John Paul II explained that humanity in the image and likeness of God strives towards the unity enjoyed by the Trinity, which is nevertheless achievable only whilst retaining the distinctiveness of the individual persons. The human body "speaks" theologically, and there is ‘[a] word that is inscribed in it, that speaks its meaning and its destiny’, to quote Carlo Maria Cardinal Martini. Human culture, whether secular or religious, cannot help but interpret the body in terms of some metaphysical "mythology".

In relationship to each other

Marriage is a sacrament precisely because the spouses draw one another beyond themselves into newness of life. Whereas any physical and social union may go some important way towards modelling this, yet only marriage where unitive and procreative dimensions are seamlessly interwoven models this completely, with the procreative aspect of the relationship clearly significant of the human destiny to new life. The Trinitarian character of marriage (its unitive dimension) must always be paired with its (procreative) Resurrection character. Fertility, as the archbishops recognise, moves complementarity beyond domestic self-sufficiency.

Grace builds on nature

(Alongside chaste singleness,) the marriage relationship is the sacramental means by which voice is given to the body.

Marriage "orders around" the physical union between a man and a woman. In turn, human bodily reproductive capacity points towards this physical union. Grace builds upon nature, and the sacrament of marriage supervenes upon the natural fact of reproductive pairing: ‘...sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.’

Same-sex physical union does not in turn relate to human reproductive capacity. Consequently, it is not a union which fully reveals human identity as created.

A shared bodily nature

This is because human bodily nature is shared across the variety of sexual identities: the body of someone who identifies as homosexual nevertheless still possesses the same reproductive capacity (both in terms of the mechanisms of inclination or desire, and those of physical union) as a heterosexual person. The homosexual body is similarly oriented towards procreation, even if homosexual personal experience is not. A homosexual identity cannot be read out of the body in the way that marriage "reads" the body. Indeed, only marriage or chaste singleness can read the created original history of a human body (and its divinely willed destiny).

The ecology of man

Speaking to the German Parliament in September last year, Pope Benedict talked of the importance of ecology, advising that ‘[we] must listen to the language of nature and we must answer accordingly.’ He went on, ‘there is also an ecology of man. Man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will. Man is not merely self-creating freedom. Man does not create himself. He is intellect and will, but he is also nature, and his will is rightly ordered if he listens to his nature, respects it and accepts himself forwho he is, as one who did not create himself.’

Revealing the truth

Marriage is a means by which the original and ultimate truth about humanity is revealed. The marriage of homosexual persons threatens to falsify that vision, because it does not treat the human person as a unity of body and soul. The call for same-sex marriage unacceptably ‘spiritualizes’ human relationships, because it cannot properly integrate the body into an understanding of the fundamental meaning of those relationships. In contrast, Martini points out that, ‘[a]ccording to Sacred Scripture, the human being is a whole and the human body is at once part of earth and of heaven.’ So too, marriage is at the same time both a natural coupling and a supernatural vocation towards life-giving communion. ND

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