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The Marriage Debate
The conjugal view of marriage leaves us just as free for companionship.


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Neither does it discourage companionship. It would be a failure of moral and spiritual imagination to suppose that companionate ideals could not be realized in deep nonmarital bonds. Not recognizing certain relationships as civil marriages will not make people lonelier unless we embrace the revisionist idea that emotional intimacy is what sets marriage apart, so that it would be socially unacceptable to seek companionship outside it.

In other words, the more we absorb the revisionist idea that marriage simply has to the highest degree what makes any bond valuable, the shallower our friendships will be. Self-disclosure, unembarrassed reliance, self-forgetfulness, extravagant displays of affection, and other features of companionship will come to seem gauche and imposing outside romance and marriage.

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The conjugal view, by contrast, gives marriage a definite shape, as inherently oriented to one-flesh union and hence to family life. So it leaves room for finding emotional union in other bonds. Restoring it could help us recover the companionate value of deep friendship, that bond which Augustine described as “one soul in two bodies.” In this way the conjugal view liberates us for other forms of companionship.

This begins to address the question of what unmarried people should do, given the special personal value of marriage. They should have deep and fulfilling relationships. They should have the finest ales and best steaks, if they please. They should pursue art, adventure, service, ministry or music or writing or any of a thousand other ways of adding to the world’s sums of beauty and love. They, like anyone else, should live richly and give freely. In no two cases will that mean the same thing; in none would retaining conjugal-marriage laws ban anyone’s options.

We all do need community, and in this respect some people will know more hardship than others. Thus young people experiencing same-sex desire can face isolation as their peers first awaken to the opposite sex; confusion about their own emergent feelings; humiliation by bullies if they say too much or the black burden of a secret if they keep silent. Parents and teachers must be sensitive to these struggles.

As relatives, co-workers, neighbors, and friends, we must remember that social hardship isn’t limited to youth. Whatever keeps some people from legally recognized relationships — under whatever marriage policy — we should fight arbitrary or abusive treatment of them with the same force and diligence with which we would oppose unjust distinctions by race or sex. People left dry by isolation of any kind we should graft onto other forms of community — as friends, fellow worshippers, neighbors, close partners in common causes, de facto members of our families and big siblings to our children, and regular guests in our homes.

As for the concern that traditional marriage law, if it does not ban or discourage companionship, at least impairs certain forms of it by robbing them of public status: People rightly take delight in the public knowledge of their bonds, and not just the romantic ones. Nicknames and team names, idioms and inside jokes, joint projects and pacts all serve as much to make a friendship public as to build it up. Yet no one proposes to recognize deep friendships by law. Even among worthy bonds, the state must keep clear distinctions where blurring them would harm the common good.

Finally, you might want the law not just to get out of companionship’s way, but to foster it. But among all the forms that companionship can take, which should law single out, and why? Legal recognition makes sense only where regulation does: These are inseparable. The law, which deals in generalities, can regulate only relationships with a definite structure. Such regulation is justified only where more than private interests are at stake, and where it would not obscure distinctions between bonds that the common good relies on. The only romantic bond that meets these criteria is marriage, conjugal marriage.

*   *   *

Perhaps by now our answer seems to prove too much. If same-sex partners’ material needs can be met, if their equal social dignity can be upheld, if various of their bonds can enjoy publicity, one might ask, what difference could it make if their relationships were legally recognized? What good do supporters of conjugal marriage hope to accomplish by withholding just that?

But to ask this is to assume, mistakenly, that the conjugal view is concerned with targeting same-sex relationships. In fact, it is the redefinition of marriage, not any particular conferral of benefits, that concerns us. What we wish to avoid is the harm this would do to the common good. Our argument — in the book, here, and elsewhere — has not been about homosexuality. In the first and last analysis, what we have debated — and defended — is marriage.

— Sherif Girgis is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at Princeton and a J.D. candidate at Yale Law School. Ryan T. Anderson is a William E. Simon Fellow at the Heritage Foundation and Editor of Public Discourse. Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University. This adaptation of  Chapter 6 of their new book, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defenseappears courtesy of Encounter Books.

 



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