Sexual Complementarity Matters in Marriage

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

First Things runs a testimony today by Ryan Shinkel, a student at the University of Michigan. Having done so himself, he writes that it’s possible for a young person to change his mind on marriage, and not in the way that’s currently trending.

He begins:

In high school I wrote a research paper titled “Gay Marriage as a Constitutional and Human Right.” I was earnest and impassioned, motivated by a desire to see justice done and unsure of how or why anyone could disagree . . . I agreed with Jon Meacham, “society can no more deny a gay person access to the secular rights and religious sacraments because of his homosexuality than it can reinstate Jim Crow.”

He now sees it differently:

The turning point came when I read a paper by [Roger] Scruton and Phillip Blond. They distinguished how a romantic union between two individuals of the same sex could have the same level of intensity as that between two individuals of the opposite sex. Yet they said that the conjugal view of marriage did not see exclusivity of romance as the telos of marriage. Rather, it “extends beyond the individuals who marry to the children they hope to create and the society they wish to shape.”

He comments:

Many today suffer from what I like to call the Princess Bride Syndrome: They think marriage is about romantic union, while sexual complementarity is an afterthought. As the film’s wedding priest begins comically, “marriage is what brings us together,” and only upon the insistence of the evil Prince Humperdinck, does he mention “man and wife” at the end.

Shinkel continues: “Pointing out that this afterthought of sexual complementarity is the actual crux of the debate has for me removed barriers to discussion.”

He adds that:

I came to realize the institution of marriage is not merely a private contract between two partners. Rather, it is a natural, social, and civil partnership in the living present between the past and future. Because of the inherent procreative capacity in the conjugal act, the union is also the union of the generations, of all society. And the interested members in this partnership are, as Burke said, “not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” The state rightly takes a particular interest in this type of relationship.

He strikes an encouraging note. Despite this reality:

Due to the cultural and legal changes of the sexual revolution such as no-fault divorce, my generation has been given a different “tradition of practical rationality,” to borrow from MacIntyre, by which to analyze moral and legal issues.

To counter this post-sexual revolution “tradition,” he points to “Anscombe Societies and the many conversations I have had that helped reshape opinions even when they have not changed minds.”

There are many campus groups, programs, events, and initiatives to encourage supporters of traditional marriage. And there are total formation programs and approaches at schools – like one I was observing a bit at the University of Mary in North Dakota this past weekend (see here and here and more to come) that help young people develop an outlook on life that is reinforced by a community that lives in the world and faces the same challenges. They support one another, have fun together, and want to live this countercultural life in freedom.

Perhaps the most important point in Shinkel’s piece is the testimony that authentic civil conversation between people is possible, even on marriage.

Many adults could afford to learn from his example.

What I find, and what this young man is clearly an example of, is that so many young people want to live good lives that make sense. They are open to moral truth, acknowledge that it exists, and recognize that it could bring order to fragmented lives.

What if sexual complementarity matters? It’s one of those foundational questions. If we never ask or address it – and see and acknowledge it at work – all the marriage debates in the world may not amount to much but polarization, anger, bitterness, and continued misery. 

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