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Can Anyone Define Marriage? (Part 2)

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What is the proper role of the Church in the debate over marriage? Is sacramental marriage different than natural marriage? And what is the role of governments in this debate: to determine what marriage is or to discover and protect what marriage is?


Cy Kellett: Hello and welcome again to Catholic Answers Focus. I’m Cy Kellett, your host. And this is the second part of a conversation we’re having with Father Sebastian Walshe, a Norbertine priest of the Abbey of St. Michael in the Diocese of Orange, California, about marriage, something that had always seemed, at least in our culture, kind of obvious what marriage was. It is not obvious anymore. And so we need help to get clear definitions and clear understandings of what marriage is, so that we’ll know what to do when we’re married and we’ll know how to talk about marriage and share the reality of marriage in a world that maybe has lost touch with that reality.

Cy: Father Walshe holds a master’s in sacred theology and a doctorate in philosophy from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas in Rome, also called the Angelicum.

Cy: Thanks for coming back for a second conversation, Father.

Fr. Walshe: Absolutely. My pleasure.

Cy: So maybe we should start again … By the way, if you missed part one, go listen to part one. But just a quick review of the definition of marriage, marriage as a natural phenomenon and as a supernatural phenomenon.

Fr. Walshe: Absolutely. So the classical, traditional definition of marriage is: “a lifelong communion between a man and a woman established by their free consent for the sake of the generation and the education of children.” That’s the classical definition of marriage. And then the sacramental definition of marriage adds to the end of that, which is also a sign of the union of the human and divine, a sacrament or sign. So I could give the whole thing like this: “a lifelong communion between a man and a woman established by the free consent for the sake of the generation and education of children, which is a sign of the union of the human and the divine.” Something like that, for that sacramental understanding of marriage.

Cy: I have to say that if you accept that definition of marriage, there’s a lot of marriages in this world, or what are being called marriages in this world, that you’ll have to say, “No, that does not meet that definition.”

Fr. Walshe: Absolutely.

Cy: Not all modern inventions either, these … But we’ll get to that, so-

Fr. Walshe: Sure.

Cy: You contrasted in our last episode the kind of modern idea of marriage-

Fr. Walshe: Sure.

Cy: Which is what?

Fr. Walshe: Yeah, so the modern idea of marriage replaces the purpose of marriage. So in the definitions I gave you, there’s really two purposes: the generation and education of children, and then the sacramental significance, to signify this union of the human and divine. Okay? All of which are compatible with each other. The new definition of marriage that’s been used in modern parlance and social media today, social communications and so forth, is something like this: “a legal contract between persons, which is for the sake of mutual enrichment or romantic love and which is somehow ratified or established by the state.”

Cy: Mm-hmm.

Fr. Walshe: Okay? So you’ve got this idea of a legal contract. The authority that establishes and says when a marriage happens is the state rather than being something which arises spontaneously from the inclinations of human nature. So the purpose in this new idea of marriage is enrichment, self-fulfillment, romantic love, emotional fulfillment, whatever you want to call it. It has to do not with children, not with objectively signifying the union of the divine and the human, but rather the subjective desire for fulfillment, for feeling loved or whatever else.

Cy: Right.

Fr. Walshe: That becomes the new purpose of marriage, right? Now, if you grant that second, that last definition of marriage which I gave you, if you grant that, then there’s no reason in the definition why marriage should be between a man and a woman. Because obviously two men can have emotional fulfillment with each other.

Cy: Right.

Fr. Walshe: In just the same way a man and a woman could, if that’s what you’re out for, what you’re looking for, huh? There’s no reason why it has to be one man and one woman. Because maybe some people think, “We need to have multiple partners to feel fulfilled,” you know?

Cy: Right.

Fr. Walshe: Or whatever else. There’s no reason it has to be lifelong.

Cy: No?

Fr. Walshe: Because as soon as your emotions run out, it’s time to find a new partner and whatever, huh? And there is no reason why, in the new definition of marriage, there’s any foundation in nature for it. It’s not founded in nature. If you look back to the original definition I gave you of marriage, that’s something that arises spontaneously from human nature itself. Human beings were coming together, having children together, and raising their children together, before the state of California or any other state ever existed.

Cy: Right. Yes.

Fr. Walshe: Because our species, our nature won’t continue in a good way unless parents come together and raise their own children together in a stable union, a communion.

Cy: But then here we get to a basic thing that I think people would say: “Well, fine, that’s your definition of marriage. But this is my definition of marriage.” And so, the question is, is the definition that you gave of marriage, after a long process of intelligent reflection, a discovery of something natural, or is it a creation of something that people wanted to make?

Fr. Walshe: Yes, excellent. That’s a great question. So, with regard to names, I mean, Shakespeare said “A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet,” right?

Cy: Yeah.

Fr. Walshe: And frankly, a garbage heap by any other name would still smell bad.

Cy: Yeah.

Fr. Walshe: And so, you can go ahead and name a garbage heap marriage.

Cy: Yes.

Fr. Walshe: But it’s not the same thing as the garbage, you know? As the marriage, which signifies something really beautiful, okay? So the first thing I’d like to point out is we’ve got two fundamentally different realities that are going by the same name. That causes confusion, okay? In human history there have been men and women coming together having children raising their children.

Cy: Mm-hmm.

Fr. Walshe: Right? And those lifelong communions.

Fr. Walshe: And now, in recent history, we have other groups of people coming together, whether they be men and women, whether they be men and men, women and women, whatever groups you want, who are coming together with a state-ratified legal contract, and they’re calling that marriage. Well, fine, they have the same name. They’re not the same reality. They’re obviously completely different realities. One of them is a legal contract. The other one is a union which is a consequence of human nature, right? So let me show you, just by a few steps, why it is that the traditional definition of marriage is actually discovered in human nature, not imposed by the power or authority of the state, okay?

Cy: Okay.

Fr. Walshe: Here’s how you do that. First, having children is a natural inclination for our species. In fact, every species, right? Even a card-carrying Darwinist tells you. Every species has a natural inclination to reproduce. And when I define natural inclination, what I mean is this: it’s a tendency a natural thing has for the activities necessary for the being or the well-being of that nature.

Cy: Okay.

Fr. Walshe: So, if human nature doesn’t reproduce, then there won’t be human beings in the next generation. Obviously our natural inclination is there, an objective natural inclination for reproduction. And that’s true whether or not it’s conscious. A natural inclination is deeper than a conscious inclination. A conscious inclination would be something you experience in your mind, your emotions. Natural inclinations are deeper than that. Sometimes, for example, a person, because they’re sick, loses the conscious inclination to eat. And then they actually, the doctors have to force feed them or to give them an IV or some sort of a, you know-

Cy: Right.

Fr. Walshe: To give them nutrition in another way. They’ve lost the conscious inclination, but they retain the natural inclination because if animals don’t eat, they die. And so, it’s necessary for the being or the well-being of any animal’s nature that it eat. Similarly, it’s necessary for the being or the well-being of any animal nature, living thing, that it reproduce. So clearly, reproduction is natural for human beings as it is for all living things. The next step is to see it’s natural and the fulfillment of a natural inclination for a parent to want to care for its own offspring and to live with its own offspring, right?

Cy: Yes.

Fr. Walshe: Because if human beings don’t care for their own children, what will happen to human nature?

Cy: It ends.

Fr. Walshe: It ends. Exactly. No one’s going to take care of your kids better than you. And if you say, if all human beings run around and drop their kids off in dumpsters, our species will end real quickly. So clearly, living and caring for your own children, and doing that together with the other person who happens to have the same child as you because you’ve made that child together, is a response to a natural inclination. It has to happen if our species is to go on.

Cy: Yeah.

Fr. Walshe: Right? And then finally, the idea that it should be one man and one woman, that’s also natural. And there’s many signs of that. The natural jealousies that a woman has when her husband’s got many interests and vice versa.

Cy: Yeah.

Fr. Walshe: The fact that in our species, men and women are born in equal numbers, roughly about 50/50. If you are a lion, there’d be about eight women for every male lion … Eight female lions for every male lion, approximately.

Cy: Yeah.

Fr. Walshe: Because that nature doesn’t demand one-on-one unity, huh?

Cy: No.

Fr. Walshe: But for our human nature, men and women are supposed to be equal. And if a man had two wives, then each one would be unequal to their husband. It’d be like half a spouse.

Cy: Right.

Fr. Walshe: And if a woman had two husbands or more, they’d be unequal, right?

Cy: Mm-hmm.

Fr. Walshe: So our nature demands equality. And a sign of that is the fact that in our nature, human beings are born in roughly equal numbers in the sexes.

Fr. Walshe: So, there you have it. You’ve got men and women reproducing, living together with and raising their own children, and doing this together in a couple with one husband and one wife. All of those are the result of natural inclinations. And unless people do that, our nature goes away, or at least it’s in a very bad way. Take the new definition of marriage. What happens to our nature then? Nothing. If two men decide not to have sexual relations with each other, or two women, or whatever, this is not going to be the detriment of our species whatsoever. There’s no natural inclination for something that has nothing to do with reproduction and continuing our species. And therefore, that new definition of marriage is not something discovered in nature. It’s something created by the state.

Cy: Ah, yeah, right.

Fr. Walshe: And then here’s the danger: once the state creates one form and then calls it marriage, then the state thinks it has authority over the other thing which had always been called marriage, namely, natural marriage. And the state starts thinking that it has control over every relationship within a family.

Cy: Yeah.

Fr. Walshe: And therefore you get all these things where now the parents’ rights are ignored, the state gets to say who’s married to who, the state gets to say who’s male and female and all these other things.

Cy: Right. You even think of a state like China, in which generations of women are just brutally abused and not permitted to have more than one child.

Fr. Walshe: Absolutely.

Cy: I mean, the state, if you give the state that authority to define marriage and regulate things like birth, you’ve created something monstrous.

Fr. Walshe: Yes, absolutely. It’s totalitarianism. So what does the word “totalitarian” mean? It means total, complete. In a healthy state, the sphere of authority is restricted. It does not extend to the natural world. You know that in Communist Russia, they wanted to have Communist mathematics? Did you know that?

Cy: No, I did not.

Fr. Walshe: In order to advance the Communist propaganda of the state? Well, you can’t do that to mathematics. Triangles are things out there objectively, regardless of whether or not you think that they’re one way–

Cy: Whether you call it “Comrade triangle” or not.

Fr. Walshe: Right. Exactly, exactly.

Cy: Yeah, okay.

Fr. Walshe: And so, the state’s sphere of authority doesn’t extend down to the natural world, right? It only extends to the things that the state creates.

Cy: That’s a very helpful thing. The state’s sphere of authority does not extend down to the natural world.

Fr. Walshe: Absolutely.

Cy: Yeah, the state doesn’t get to say what … I don’t know, what-

Fr. Walshe: What a person is.

Cy: Yeah. Right, right.

Fr. Walshe: What male and female are. What marriage and family are.

Cy: Yeah.

Fr. Walshe: The state has simply an obligation to accept those and recognize those from nature, and then work with nature in order to somehow bring nature to its perfection.

Cy: Beautiful, yeah.

Fr. Walshe: Like a doctor has to accept the human body for what it is, and then use his art to assist the nature of the human body to heal.

Cy: Right.

Fr. Walshe: The state has an analogous role to play in the political sphere. The other way in which the state becomes totalitarian is that it trespasses, transgresses on the supernatural realm, right? So Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” The totalitarian state wants everything that’s God’s.

Fr. Walshe: And so, you see this in a totalitarian state. They start trying to change the definition of natural things and to try and control them, like marriage, family, male, female.

Cy: Right.

Fr. Walshe: And conversely, they restrict religious freedom. And we’re seeing that movement in our own culture today.

Cy: Wow, that connects a lot of dots right there.

Cy: Okay, so having said all of that, I do think there is still one … I mean, you gave a kind of answer why plural marriage can’t meet the natural definition of marriage. But a lot of people will say, “Look, Father, that’s the way people lived for thousands of years.” That’s actually maybe older. I don’t know if they’re correct in saying this but they’ll assert this.

Cy: And certainly the patriarchs lived that way. And so we have, even in scripture, images of the ancient world, in which plural marriage seems to be the norm.

Fr. Walshe: Yes.

Cy: So how do you overcome that? This is not a modern invention. So how do-

Fr. Walshe: Well, let me first, let me say something there. We accept in our society divorce and remarriage over and over and over again. You know what I call that?

Cy: What?

Fr. Walshe: Serial polygamy.

Cy: Okay. Yeah, right.

Fr. Walshe: Because what you’re doing is you’re taking another husband, another wife, another husband and whatever. Serial polygamy. At least the polygamist is trying to be present to and take care of his previous wife and children.

Cy: Right, he’s not just abandoning them-

Fr. Walshe: The divorced and remarried person sends a check, at best.

Cy: Yeah.

Fr. Walshe: So the funny thing is we sit here and we talk about polygamous marriages as if they’re horrible, and yet we accept divorce and remarriage. Well, it’s the same thing.

Cy: Right.

Fr. Walshe: It’s the same thing. It’s actually worse, what we have in our culture. But how can we see that polygamy, polyandry, these plural marriages, how can we see they’re not in keeping with human nature? I gave some indications already, namely the natural jealousies that exist between spouses, the fact that in our species we’re born one-to-one. But if we look back to the definition of marriage, remember, the purpose of marriage is two-fold: the generation and the education of children. If you just want to generate children, fine. A man can have lots and lots of wives. If that’s what they’re all about, is just the generation.

Cy: Oh, right, yeah.

Fr. Walshe: But we have to educate the children. And clearly that hampers the education of the children. First of all, it hampers their moral education, because it shows the children that the wives are unequal to their husbands.

Cy: Yes.

Fr. Walshe: Do you see that?

Cy: Which is immoral.

Fr. Walshe: Which is immoral.

Cy: Yeah, right.

Fr. Walshe: And then you just can’t take care of that many children and educate them if you’re having five or six wives and then you’ve got 48 children or something like that. Nature, human nature is not capable of caring for all those children at once. I mean, for crying out loud, most women today have a hard time taking care of two or three children, much less this huge number of children that would come in a polygamous relationship.

Cy: Right

Fr. Walshe: So it’s contrary to the education of children to have a plural marriage like that in an obvious way. So even the definition of marriage indicates that. Finally, if you’re talking about the sacrament, there’s only one Church and one savior, Jesus Christ. And because of that, there’s another reason why sacramental marriages couldn’t be plural and why that dispensation, which may have been granted for the patriarchs in the Old Testament, is no longer extant. Because the union of Christ and his Church is meant to be signified by marriage, which is one man and one woman. And by the way, religious pluralism is abounding in our society where we say, “It doesn’t matter. There can be many churches or whatever,” in the same society in which divorce and remarriage is proliferating. Isn’t that interesting?

Cy: Oh, yeah.

Fr. Walshe: Now that the sacramental sign of fidelity between husbands and wives has gone, now everyone thinks you can be saved in whatever religion you find yourself, because they think that Christ has many spouses. Isn’t that amazing?

Cy: Ah, that is amazing, yes. I got to get to one more, if I can. Because around the world, millions of people still live in a cultural circumstance where the understanding that we have here of consent, and the necessity of consent in marriage, is completely different.

Fr. Walshe: Yes.

Cy: So how would you defend saying a father can’t just give his daughter to a man and the daughter is then married to that man? Well, how would we say that’s not marriage?

Fr. Walshe: Absolutely. Again, you look to the purpose of marriage here.

Cy: Okay.

Fr. Walshe: If the purpose of marriage is the generation and the education of children, no one’s going to be able to care for and educate their children, undertake a lifelong duty, which consumes a greater part of your energy and life–you’re not going to be able to do that well if you enter into it unwillingly. Even when you willingly enter into marriage, it’s hard enough. But if you enter into a relationship like that unwillingly, and you feel like you’re being raped or something every time that your husband has relations with you, your so-called “husband,” obviously the education of the children will be greatly damaged in a kind of relationship like that. So clearly, the education of children, for it to be done well, for our species to turn out right, needs free consent from both spouses. And in the history of the Church where they had so-called “arranged marriages,” go back and read the documents.

Cy: Yeah.

Fr. Walshe: The Fathers of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas, they all in unanimity say the bride has to give her consent. And if she doesn’t want to, no matter what her parents say, it’s not a marriage. The Church never, ever upheld marriage, as it were, done by force. So all through the history of the Church, what are so-called “arranged marriages” just means that the father proposed someone to his daughter, and for the most part, the daughter would say, “Okay, I accept.”

Cy: Yeah.

Fr. Walshe: But the accepting part had to be there, right?

Cy: Indeed, that would be an invalid marriage if she had-

Fr. Walshe: Absolutely, right.

Cy: If it was a royal marriage or something, that marriage could be invalidated.

Fr. Walshe: Yes. And real quickly, real quickly: the Incarnation took place that way too. God didn’t just make Mary pregnant. He asked her consent.

Cy: Yes. So I feel like as we maybe slip back, we de-Christianize our idea of marriage … Because the Christian Church took what had been reasoned out by people like Aristotle and what had been revealed even to the Jewish people and all that, the Christian Church then expands and creates this idea of marriage that is rooted in the natural world, has supernatural consequences, requires things like the consent of a woman, which was not widespread before that. Then we have created a situation where children are raised in dignity, where women are treated in a dignified way, where-

Fr. Walshe: Marriage is all about the best environment for children to flourish and be happy.

Cy: But as we kind of let go of that, we see the dignity assaulted in every way, that children are harmed and their dignity insulted and disregarded–and women too.

Fr. Walshe: Absolutely. Let me give a simple example. You know, today, now it’s legal for, say, two men or two women to so-called “marry.” They have this new definition of marriage. And together with that, right away came the right to adopt children. And the arguments always say things like this: “They’re just as good parents. They have a right to children.” But have they ever stopped to look at it from the child’s perspective? Have they ever asked this simple question: is a mother useless?

Cy: Yes, right.

Fr. Walshe: Is a father useless? Because that’s what you’re saying when you say that two men can do just as good a job as a man and a woman. You’re saying mothers are useless and completely expendable, and that fathers are useless and completely expendable.

Cy: Right, they can … I do think they can intend to do a good job.

Fr. Walshe: Absolutely.

Cy: It’s just that-

Fr. Walshe: But a man can never be a good mother. And vice versa.

Cy: Right, but as you said, nature is deeper than just our conscious intentions-

Fr. Walshe: Our intentions, exactly.

Cy: Yeah.

Fr. Walshe: And the fact that sometimes men and women do a bad job is no argument. You know, you don’t argue with apples and oranges. In other words, take a couple that loves their children that’s a man and a woman, and then a man and a man, and presumably they love the children that have been given to them by adoption. But nevertheless, those children in the same-sex relationship, they’ll never see, for example, what a relationship is between members of the opposite sex.

Cy: Yeah.

Fr. Walshe: They’re never going to see that. They’re never going to ever experience, maybe, the love of a mother in their whole life. Imagine being a little girl and never having a mother and never having someone to look up to and say, “She taught me how to be a mother.”

Cy: Right.

Fr. Walshe: Or being a little boy and never having a father. Or even being a little boy and never having a mother. Or vice versa, a girl without a father. Those are essential relationships rooted in human nature. So it’s not enough to have good intentions.

Cy: No, indeed. And you have the very sad feeling that a lot of children will be hurt even by parents who did not intend to hurt them. And it will be their stories as adults that will cause a reconsideration.

Fr. Walshe: Yeah, sadly. I hope we don’t have to wait that long, but I think you’re right.

Cy: Yeah. As it is with with plural marriage, it’s often the reflections of the children who say, “That’s not what you think it is. That’s not as, you know, it’s not all roses.”

Fr. Walshe: Absolutely.

Cy: Father Sebastian Walshe, thank you very, very much. Really appreciate you taking the time with us.

Fr. Walshe: My pleasure, Cy. God bless you.

Cy: And you too. Thank you. And thanks to everybody who has joined us here on Catholic Answers Focus. We do this every week. We’d love it if you’d share it. So wherever you get your podcasts, if you would give us a like, if you would give us a mention, share it if you can share it on that app, that would be just great. Also, join Radio Club. Go to CatholicAnswersLive.com, put in your email address, and you are a member of Radio Club. And what that means is we send you free stuff, and we let you know whenever there’s a new edition of Catholic Answers Focus. We will see you next time, God willing, right here, on Catholic Answers Focus.

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