Surveying history for anything resembling same-sex marriage in any culture, clime, or era is a fruitless search. It has never been proposed, not even in ancient Greece, as some would like to argue. So why does this enigma of history seem like just the next progressive step in our own culture?
The answer, oddly enough, seems to be locked up in the birth control pill. Let me explain.
Healthy cultures and civilizations all have one thing in common. There is a deep understanding (even if not always acted upon or articulated) that my life has meaning because of the sacrifices I make for those who come after me, through loyalty to a clan, tribe or wider society. This simple “our lives for theirs” approach is what has animated history for centuries. Think of the building of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, which the early masons knew would never be finished in their lifetimes. “Our lives for theirs” is an easy barometer to see if a civilization is on the rise or on decline. When that order becomes inverted, like ancient Rome or late Renaissance Venice, where each man and woman lives just for himself, the civilization will decay and cease to exist.
The sexual revolution of the 1960s is a marked example of this inversion in the West with the arrival of the pill. Never in the history of the world had the fundamental link between human sexuality and reproduction been so decidedly unhinged, ushering in a new conception of sexuality. Sex became about many things: self-expression, self-gratification, exploration, desire, etc.…but not about its main reason for existence: to propagate the species. The general “our life for theirs” attitude lived out by parents for centuries suddenly became suspect as self-gratification came into vogue. “Why would anyone voluntarily put themselves through all that hard work to raise more than two children?” became the new model under which we live today.
While contraception of various sorts was nothing new, the wholesale use of it was. Without the “baby bonus,” concepts of self-control, self-mastery, self-donation have not only became outdated, but an object of mockery. Denuding sex of its natural procreative character made sex simply about “me,” not my spouse, my children, my family, or my community. Porn, “twerking,” and the over-sexualization of young children are only the latest additions in the “sex is about me” trajectory.
Aristotle (384 -322 BC) was the first to argue for the link between what we find pleasurable and what is needed for a healthy polis, or more generally, society. An act was pleasurable to ensure that it would take place, but was not the most important reason for the action. Food tastes good so we will eat. The connection between sexual pleasure and procreation is why same-sex marriage has never been accepted in the history of the world before. It was always generally understood that such a “marriage” is not fruitful no matter what the feelings may be of those involved.
Generations of couples coupling without conceiving have led to the misperception that sexuality is, in fact, merely another contact sport, or whatever else you may want it to be, without a fixed meaning other than pleasure. Sex in the minds of most no longer has any natural link with making babies. And if the link dares to happen biologically when nature asserts herself, it is a failure, a mistake, an accident – not the natural course of things.
How, then, one asks, could Catholics be so cruel to want to deny same-sex marriage to those who just have a different idea about sex? Why limit ourselves to heterosexual activity within marriage? Can’t pleasure and satisfaction be found elsewhere? Well, clearly they can, to a degree. But babies cannot. And the stable families necessary to raise healthy children, study after study has shown, cannot be reformulated into any shape of laissez-faire family.
Statistics show that 95 percent of Catholics are using contraception to limit family size. Clearly there has been a dramatic failure to educate ourselves about what the Church teaches on love and sexuality in the pews, in classrooms, and in Catholic media. But at the heart of it, the Christian ethos, embodied in Christ’s own sacrifice of himself for all of us, needs to be revived. Ultimately, are our actions life-giving or sterile? To this question, our answer should always be “our lives for theirs.”