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Sliding Down the Mountain

As the Supreme Court of the United States deliberates the fate of the federal Defense of Marriage Act and the state of California’s Proposition 8, pundits are asking how we got to this point. What was the precedent that has culminated in the possibility that the U.S. will legalize same-sex marriage, as has been done in nearly a dozen countries worldwide?

In recent days, my Facebook news feed has been filled with friends citing an article by Damon Linker, in which Linker claims we should go back some fifty years to the advent of birth control pills for women:

Any number of objections could be raised against this line of argument. (Is it really true, for example, that “our civilization” has affirmed a single definition of marriage?) But I’m primarily interested in focusing on its most decisive weakness—which is that it gets a crucial chain of causality exactly backwards. Permitting gay marriage will not lead Americans to stop thinking of marriage as a conjugal union. Quite the reverse: Gay marriage has come to be widely accepted because our society stopped thinking of marriage as a conjugal union decades ago.

Between five and six decades ago, to be precise. That’s when the birth control pill—first made available to consumers for the treatment of menstrual disorders in 1957 and approved by the FDA for contraceptive use three years later—began to transform sexual relationships, and hence marriage, in the United States. Once pregnancy was decoupled from intercourse, pre-marital sex became far more common, which removed one powerful incentive to marry young (or marry at all). It likewise became far more common for newlyweds to give themselves an extended childless honeymoon (with some couples choosing never to have kids).

Linker’s article is thought-provoking and well worth a read, but he makes basically the same point many Catholics have for nearly a decade now: We got to where we are because of contraception, legalized in the U.S. in the 1965 case, Griswold v. Connecticut. Because of Griswold, so the theory goes, the floodgates flew open and out flowed Roe v. Wade, Lawrence v. Texas, and our current possibility of legalized same-sex marriage.

One problem with this theory is that it does not take into account the worldwide move toward legalizing same-sex marriage, mainly in the developed West in countries with a distinct Christian heritage (even a Catholic heritage in countries like Argentina, Belgium, and Spain). To find out what might have started the snowball sliding down the mountain, we’ll have to back up and take a look at the Christian understanding of marriage.

Catholics understand marriage between two baptized Christians to be a sacrament. The Catechism of the Catholic Church outlines three marks of Christian marriage: it lasts until death parts the spouses (CCC 1644–1645); it requires fidelity (CCC 1646–1651); and it is open to new life (CCC 1652–1654). These marks are summed up by the Catechism this way:

Conjugal love involves a totality, in which all the elements of the person enter—appeal of the body and instinct, power of feeling and affectivity, aspiration of the spirit and of will. It aims at a deeply personal unity, a unity that, beyond union in one flesh, leads to forming one heart and soul; it demands indissolubility and faithfulness in definitive mutual giving; and it is open to fertility. In a word it is a question of the normal characteristics of all natural conjugal love, but with a new significance which not only purifies and strengthens them, but raises them to the extent of making them the expression of specifically Christian values (CCC 1643).

Like all of the sacraments, marriage is a sign. The marital relationship between man and woman is supposed to be a sign of Christ’s own spousal relationship with his bride, the Church:

The entire Christian life bears the mark of the spousal love of Christ and the Church. Already baptism, the entry into the People of God, is a nuptial mystery; it is so to speak the nuptial bath. which precedes the wedding feast, the Eucharist. Christian marriage in its turn becomes an efficacious sign, the sacrament of the covenant of Christ and the Church. Since it signifies and communicates grace, marriage between baptized persons is a true sacrament of the New Covenant (CCC 1617).

In the West, especially in Europe, where Christianity sunk deep roots over a period of 1,500 years, the social understanding of marriage as lifelong, faithful, and fruitful was influenced by the Catholic sacramental understanding of Christian marriage. Even non-Christian religions in countries overwhelmingly Christian found themselves under strong social pressure to conform to the Christian ideal (e.g., the 19th-century Mormons had to end polygamy as a condition of Utah’s recognition by the U.S.).

But after a millennium and a half of the sacramental understanding of Christian marriage, a spanner hit the works. A controversy arose in Christendom over whether or not marriage was a sacrament. The major Protestant Reformers, namely Martin Luther and John Calvin, rejected marriage as a sacrament. The immediate result released spouses from lifelong marriage vows and whole peoples from fidelity to the Church. Over the centuries since, advances in atheistic philosophy and scientific technology uprooted marriage’s links to fertility.

It’s taken five hundred years to upend the roots of Christian morality and make same-sex “marriage” conceivable, but avalanches have the power to pull out even the most massive of trees if they build up enough snow during their descent.

No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.
— Stanislaw Jerzy Lec


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