A reader of Open Tabernacle has challenged me to make a statement about a Catholic ethic of sexuality and marriage that would leave room both for gay and straight marriages, while respecting the procreative norm that is central to the Catholic theology of marriage. I believe other members of the Open Tabernacle team are also accepting this challenge, and will be posting their own statements. If I’m right in my expectations, these will be complementary statements that aren’t in any way coordinated—a confluence of interesting reflections about sexuality and marriage from a number of Catholics today who are thinking through both critiques of the current theology of sexuality and marriage, and suggesting new approaches to the issues more adequate to the lived experience of faith of the people of God.
The Procreative Norm as Central to Theology of Sexuality and Marriage
Here’s the assumption with which I’d like to begin my own proposal for an ethic more adequate to the lived faith experience of Catholics today: Even the most hidebound traditional Christian theologies of marriage—e.g., the Catholic one—have surprising openings to the possibility of gay marriage. Those openings are apparent when we examine the actual lineaments of traditional theology (and so, the need for that preliminary act of critique, as a ground-laying for the development of a position more adequate to the lived experience of faith today), moving beyond what we think we know about the tradition and beyond the skewed perspectives of prejudice.
Moving beyond what we think we know: when we look at the history of how marriage has actually been practiced within the Christian community, we find that there’s a surprising discrepancy between what Christian communities say they’re doing in marrying a couple, and what they actually do. The most common objection one encounters today to ecclesial sanction of same-sex unions is that marriage is really all about procreation, and has always been all about procreation. This argument assumes that marriage has developed as a social (and church-sanctioned) institution to safeguard families, to assure that the rights and property of husband, wife, and children are handled within clear legal strictures that prevent the social disarray that occurs when such a central social institution is not clearly enshrined in custom and law.
There’s certainly validity to this argument, but it works only if the sole or major purpose of marriage as an institution is and always has been biological procreation. And it seems to me that a careful look at both history and current practice immediately demonstrates that this is simply not the case.
And so it is important to begin this discussion of how (or whether) the church could find theological room to consecrate both opposite- and same-sex unions by noting an incontrovertible fact about how the churches have long viewed and practiced marriage. This is the incontrovertible fact that from time immemorial the churches have married heterosexual couples beyond childbearing years, as they have also married couples in which it is apparent that having children will not be possible, due to physical problems of one or both spouses.
People who do not intend to or cannot have children are permitted to marry in all Christian churches of which I have any knowledge—heterosexual couples, it goes without saying. No one thinks twice about approving such marriages; churches don’t think twice about blessing them.
The churches’ longstanding practice of celebrating heterosexual marriages in which there is no possibility of procreation—in which the bride is too old to bear children or medical issues prevent the couple from conceiving, issues known prior to marriage—conclusively demonstrates that, at the very core of the churches’ practice of marriage and the theology underlying that practice, there is a strong recognition that marriage is fundamentally about something more than procreation of children (on this point, see also Michael Bayly’s outstanding analysis of the fruitfulness of committed gay relationships earlier this week on this blog site). In officially recognizing the union of two people promising themselves to each other and the community for life, in blessing that union in a church setting, we recognize something that goes beyond the intent to procreate biologically, as the basis for the church’s blessing of marital unions.
If it were otherwise, the churches would refuse to marry couples too old to conceive children or unable to conceive children for other physical reasons. If it were otherwise, churches would expect all couples who marry to promise that they intend to have children whenever possible—since marriage is solely or primarily for biological procreation.
Sacrament of Marriage in Historical Perspective
In order to find that “something more than procreation” that is, in the traditional theology of marriage, at the heart of marital unions and the churches’ decision to bless heterosexual unions that cannot be biologically procreative, we need to look carefully at how marriage entered the Christian community as an official ritual act. Here, it is important to note that the sacrament of marriage developed out of social practice: the sacrament of marriage presupposes and ritualizes a social practice that had developed prior to the Christian sacrament of marriage. This social practice itself saw marriage as about something more than procreation.
In its roots, in its essence, this social practice was one whereby two spouses promised themselves and their goods to each other within a public context in which the community acknowledged the lifelong public commitment of the two spouses, promising to support that commitment, to help the committed couple foster the gifts that might develop through their shared life, and to receive those gifts for the common good of the community. Communities have a vested interest in recognizing and supporting such lifelong unions—even when the unions do not intend to bear children—because such unions have the promise of serving the common good, and they can fulfill that promise fully only within a social context of recognition and support.
In the Catholic tradition, marriage is a “late” sacrament, one of the last sacramental acts to be added to the canonical list of sacraments. Marriage was a “late” sacrament because it ritualized a social institution that preceded it and had been going on for centuries alongside the church, which the church eventually decided to bless in a sacramental way, while incorporating the historic roots and presuppositions of that institution into its sacramental theology.
Prior to its sacramentalization, marriage was viewed within Graeco-Roman culture as first and foremost a contract between two people to commit their lives to each other, to share their lives and goods, to use their committed relationship for the common good within their community, and to partake of the benefits afforded by the community to those making such a public commitment. In its historical roots in Western culture—and this includes its historical roots in the church itself—marriage is the contract or commitment of two persons to live together in a committed way that builds the community which sanctions the marriage, and which affords legal and other benefits to the committed relationship because it serves the common good of the community.
Those who focus on biological procreativity as the purpose of marriage are correct to this extent: marriage is meant to be a generative union of two spouses, a pro-creative one (pro-creative in the sense that it generates life even if that life is not a biological child), in which those who share themselves and their goods for life develop gifts that enrich the community which recognizes and supports their union. This is why churches have not ever thought twice about marrying heterosexual couples that cannot or do not choose to bear children: acknowledging, supporting, and blessing lifelong committed unions of spouses that offer generative gifts to the community is in the shared interest of the community.
In the traditional Catholic theology of marriage, these insights are ritualized in the following way: the spouses make a public vow, within the context of the Christian community, to commit themselves and their goods to each other for life; the community (in the person of the priest) receives that promise and blesses the union; in blessing the union and receiving the couple’s vows to each other, the community simultaneously covenants itself to support the union, to foster generativity within the union, and to receive the gifts of that generativity.
These are the bare bones of the traditional Catholic theology of marriage. Those bones have a place for unions that are procreative in the sense that they will bear children. But they also have a place for unions that will be procreative (pro-creative, offering life) in the more fundamental sense in which all committed, blessed unions are procreative—in the sense of a generativity that is not restricted to the bearing and raising of children. In its longstanding practice of blessing heterosexual marriages that cannot or do not choose to include the procreation of children, the church implicitly—and strongly—recognizes that marriage has a more fundamental meaning than procreation. It is about biological procreation and more: it is about manifold kinds of pro-creation and generativity within a communitarian context.
Procreation as Generativity: Moving Beyond Biological Reductionism in Theology of Sexuality and Marriage
Which is to say that biological procreation is not the foremost goal of marriage, either in its intent as a social-ecclesial institution, or in the reasons for legal sanction and church blessing of the institution. The foremost goal of marriage is a generativity that may or may not include the procreation of children; marriage’s foremost goal is a pro-creative generativity in which (shifting here from legal to theological language) the spouses commit themselves to share in the manifold pro-creative possibilities offered to all of us, single or married, straight or gay, as we share in the call to co-create the world with God. Within the context of marriage, the primary pro-creative task is to build a life together that is solid, committed, open to the community that sanctions a couple’s committed life, and thus capable of offering gifts to the community that would not be possible for the couple to develop apart from the community’s support, expressed through its official recognition of the marital relationship.
It is within that communitarian context, I would argue, that the legal benefits and supports accruing to marriages in which children are borne makes most sense. That is, there is a larger context within which the specific decision of some couples to have children makes sense, as an argument for marriage: this context is the generativity of all marriages, whether those marriages include the bearing and raising of children or not. Every marriage, every legally sanctioned (and/or ecclesially blessed) union of two people who commit themselves to each other in a public and solemn way within the communitarian context, has the potential to bring gifts to the community (i.e., to be generative and pro-creative), and those gifts are most effectively fostered and protected when the community sanctions, blesses, and supports the public union of the spouses.
As this historical analysis of the deep roots of sacramental marriage in the Catholic tradition also reveals, in the Catholic tradition, marriage has always been regarded as a sacrament that the two spouses themselves effect. It is not the church that marries the spouses, in venerable Catholic sacramental theology. It is not the priest who makes the marriage. It is the couple themselves who marry each other, standing before the Christian community, which is represented in the person of the priest.
The priest hears and receives the marriage vows on behalf of the community, and on behalf of the community, promises the support of the community, so that the public committed couple are welcomed into a community that promises to welcome and cherish the two whose lives are now becoming one, and to provide a communitarian context in which their committed lives may be effectively lived out. In traditional Catholic thinking about marriage, one of the chief benefits—perhaps the chief benefit—promised to those who marry is the recognition and support of the community.
Ethical Implications of Communitarian Inclusion or Exclusion
And so depriving married couples of the support of the community—of its welcome, assistance, sanction—simply because they are unable to have children or choose not to have children is unthinkable, because it is unthinkable, from any sound Christian ethical context, to exclude people from communion for arbitrary reasons. It is ethically unthinkable to accept the gifts that arise from the procreative union of a couple, while denying that couple’s presence within the community and right to offer its gifts to the community—and to receive the community’s support. What Christian community today would really consider proposing that heterosexual couples that cannot have children should be refused such community welcome, sanction, and support?
What Christian community today would try to exclude such couples from full communion? Would any Christian community today preach that couples which appear capable of bearing children but apparently choose not to do so should be censured and excommunicated?
If the answer to that question is no (and, on the whole, I believe it is), then there is a principle of elemental justice—of fairness to all—at work here, which the churches are grossly denying to gay couples simply because those couples are same-sex couples. If Christian opponents of gay marriage who use the marriage-for-procreation argument would think a moment about the practical consequences of their theological position, I think that they might begin to see that it is not merely capricious and unjust: it is actually cruel and unethical.
To make the point as sharp as possible: a significant number of married heterosexual couples who cannot have children choose to adopt children. In doing so, they take the generative, pro-creative gifts of their officially sanctioned and blessed life together, gifts developed in the communitarian context of the church, and offer them to children borne biologically by someone else.
Now think for a moment about what we, as a Christian community, say to the children of same-sex couples, when we refuse to offer those couples (and thus their children) the same support, sanction, blessing, and benefits we offer to a heterosexual couple raising children not biologically its own. The one variable in the two examples is a simple (and, I would argue, insignificant) one: the fact that one couple consists of a man and a woman, another of a man and a man or a woman and a woman.
When we refuse to sanction, bless, and take into the communitarian context of the body of Christ a gay couple with children, we implicitly punish the children of that relationship simply and solely because their parents are of the same sex. Biological non-procreativity is not really the issue, is it? Not if we sanction, bless, and take into our community a biologically non-procreative heterosexual couple with children . . . .
And so we need to ask ourselves today, as children of same-sex couples are excluded from a Catholic pre-school while children of heterosexual couples that fail to fulfill the norms of Catholic teaching are welcomed: Are Christians so certain of the rightness of their belief that gay marriage is not to be blessed that they can afford to stigmatize children, when a not insignificant number of gay couples do choose to raise children—in some cases, biological children of one member of the couple? This is not even to raise the issue of the way in which the resistance to gay marriage on the part of churches affects family members other than the progeny of a gay union; these members include siblings, parents, and other relatives who are often also part of the community context in churches that refuse to sanction and bless the love of their brothers/sisters/children/relatives.
It is certainly also possible to make strong arguments for gay marriage that prescind altogether from the church context. Again, there is a principle of elemental fairness at stake here: if we choose to marry couples legally without demanding that those (heterosexual) couples are capable of bearing and intend to bear children, then it seems that we are running the risk of profound injustice when we deny legal sanction to the many gay unions that exist all over the world—unions that many people in the communities within which they occur would regard as beneficial to the community as a whole.
Excluding gay couples from the right to marry excludes gay couples from all kinds of legal benefits automatically available to non-procreative heterosexual couples when they marry: clear laws governing the disposition of property; shared health benefits; tax benefits; legal visitation and decision-making rights in cases of hospitalization and sickness, etc. When society actually penalizes gay couples who seek to maintain a generative shared and committed life by withholding such benefits, it makes committed gay relationships—along with their potential to provide generative gifts that serve the good of their communities—difficult, indeed.
The gist of my argument has to do, however, not with these legal benefits, but with the “benefit” of inclusion and support within the church context. No social benefit is more significant to human well-being than the benefit of being brought inside the communitarian circle of love and support. No social practice is more cruel than pushing people outside that circle.
Churches that push out and refuse to bring inside—churches that do this to anyone—are abdicating the most fundamental mission of church. I would argue that before churches decide that it is God’s will that they close ranks, tighten the circle, and exclude, they think long and hard about their rationale for doing so, and about what Jesus would have them do.