Catholic World Report
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September 14, 2015
Last year’s Synod proposed we consider the “constructive elements” of non-marital unions. But are these elements really present there?
(Photo: | michaeljung)

This is the fourth part of an essay by Dr. Kampowski addressing theological arguments on pastoral approaches to marriage and family, especially those raised during last year’s Synod of Bishops. This installment evaluates the ways in which specific “family models”—here, the divorced and civilly remarried and those in same-sex unions—may be considered “on the path” to sacramental marriage.

In the coming weeks, Catholic World Report will be publishing Dr. Kampowski’s essay in five installments. The first can be read here, the second here, the third here.

The divorced and civilly remarried

We have already discussed the problem connected with Prof. Schockenhoff’s attempt to see the constitutive elements of marriage in the unions created by those who are divorced and civilly remarried: in the very act of making a permanent commitment, they definitively dishonor a permanent commitment; by the very promise of exclusivity, they break a promise of exclusivity. And even if they are open to children, the question remains whether their union is a conducive context for welcoming them. We will look again at the “constructive elements” the Synod’s reports suggest can be found in non-marital unions. Are they really present there?

The stability of the public bond

There is, first of all, the particular stability created by a public bond. However, anyone who has already entered a stable public bond and in the lifetime of his or her spouse attempts to enter into another stable public bond undermines the stability of these bonds. Talking in the context of civil law, the more often a stable public bond is broken and reproduced with someone else, the more it approximates the until-further-notice model of cohabitation. True, the partners publically declare themselves and legally sanction their relationship, recognizing civil responsibilities and obligations that will perdure even if one of them abandons the union. Yet, the idea of stability involved in the second civil unions of the divorce is different not just quantitatively but qualitatively from the idea of stability implied in Christian marriage. Between the impossibility of dissolving a union and the possibility of dissolving a union at a cost (high or low is not essential), there is a difference in kind. What is at stake here is, in any case, not the good of a (literally speaking) stable bond.

Deep affection

Can the divorced and civilly remarried experience a deep affection for each other in their union? Of course. Is this affection necessarily constructive? No. One can indeed sense profound affection for someone and out of this affection commit acts of grave injustice. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, Francesca’s and Paolo’s affective love for each other did nothing to gain them heaven. At least according to the Italian poet, their act of adultery was not excused, let alone declared a virtue, on account of the way they felt for each other. Our affections are not an oracle. There would seem to be a truth to our loves that needs to be discerned again and again. In the case of the divorced and civilly remarried, we are speaking of an affection that has led them definitively to close the door to their spouse to whom they owed, in mercy and love—but also in justice—the attitude of hope for a possible future reconciliation, even if they have become alienated, even if the other has taken the very same step. It is at least hard to see how the affection of the divorced and civilly remarried for each other is a constructive element of that union—again: under the aspect of that union.

Responsibility for children

They may indeed have responsibility for their common children, but they very often also have responsibility for the children they had with their spouse. The responsibility for these children would have required them to seek reconciliation with their spouse, or, if not possible, at least not definitively close the door to the love that was at the origin of their children’s being. The argument that it is in the children’s interest to be provided with a stepparent, i.e., that it is better for them to have two parents, one of whom is a stepparent, rather than to be raised by just one biological parent, is contradicted by sociological data which suggests that children living in stepfamilies run a higher risk of being abused than other children. [1]

The ability to overcome trials

With respect to the purported “constructive element” of overcoming trials together, this second civil union  would struggle to give expression  to it, precisely inasmuch as it is built on the final despair of being able to overcome difficulties together. With one’s entering a new union, one’s hope dies. It is an act of despair, inasmuch as despair anticipates the bad outcome, throwing in the towel before the match is over. Sealing a new union means giving up on someone, refusing to believe that difficulties can be overcome. In fact, for those who advocate giving ecclesial recognition to second unions, like Cardinal Kasper and Schockenhoff, the failure of the first union, that is of the marriage, seems to be the only thing definitive that is admitted in the argument. It is needless to say that this way of looking at things is rather pessimistic. John Paul II’s approach in Familiaris Consortio, on the other hand, is expressive of a true Christian hope. It is to this hope that Pope Francis, too, refers when he says, “Human beings can experience conversion; they must never despair of being able to change their lives.” This is true for one’s own life as well as for the life of others. As long as there is hope for conversion, there is hope for reconciliation, that is, until one’s last breath.

Guidance toward the Sacrament of Marriage

The fifth “constructive element” is evidently absent. The second union could not be a path toward marriage. Strictly speaking, it is a crucial step away from one’s marriage. But even those who would call the second union a “marriage” would not see it as a step toward marriage, since marriage is what to their mind has precisely been reached by entering it.

Same-sex unions

Could any of the “constructive elements” that according to paragraphs 27 and 41 of the Synod’s final report are conceivably present in some non-marital unions—such as cohabitation or the second unions of the divorced and civilly remarried—also be detected in same-sex unions? To be clear, the final report does not speak about positive aspects of same-sex unions, while the midterm report explicitly speaks of only one such aspect, which is the “mutual assistance to the point of sacrifice” (no. 52). However, once we begin looking for the constructive elements present in non-marital unions, there is no inherent reason for not looking for these also in same-sex unions, which are one particular kind of non-marital union. We will hence take the liberty of asking whether the five constructive elements that, according to the Synod’s final report, are found in different-sex non-marital unions may also be present in same-sex unions. We will also add the one constructive element indicated by the midterm report (mutual assistance) to our list.

The stability of the public bond

Gay-rights activists are struggling hard for same-sex couples to be permitted to contract a stable public bond. The question is why any given union should be socially recognized as such. Are their reasons for it apart from the will of the partners? If the bond is socially recognized, then society would need to have a say in it. What interest would society have in recognizing a union, in giving it a certain status, and in endowing it with certain privileges? Married couples, who publically assume the state of matrimony also assume the munus, or office, of serving life in and through their relationship. Therefore their union evidently has social relevance: it is through marriage that a society is renewed; its new members are born and raised here, which is also the reason for the public interest of keeping this union stable. In same-sex unions, on the other hand, stability is not an inherent requirement of anything the partners do. Without sexual difference, the partners cannot become parents through each other, and hence their relationship cannot be called to be at the service of the procreation and education of human life. Hence there is no reason why this relationship should be of public interest. The dimension of stability, even if perhaps promised before a human judge, is not required by the relationship in itself—the two are not embarking on a lifelong project at the service of life. The wish for stability resides solely in the arbitrary will of the partners. A change of mind of one of the partners will be of no consequence to anyone beyond the two. We see that in this case, a possible stability of the union is no “constructive element,” but rather an arbitrary personal choice.

Deep affection

Of course, partners to a same-sex union can feel profound affection for each other. As in the case of de facto unions and of the divorced and civilly remarried, we need to ask whether this affection is rightly ordered. One can be very close friends and feel a deep affection for someone without becoming sexually active. Now friendship is usually about something. If as the ancient Romans used to say, friendship consists in wanting the same thing and in rejecting the same thing—Idem velle atque idem nolle—as Pope Benedict XVI reminds us in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est,[2] then it would seem that it has to be about some thing: a common mission, a common good. Structurally speaking, the spousal relationship has such a defining mission, whether it actually achieves it or not: the procreation and education of children. From its very being, this relation is open to a third, namely the child. It is a comprehensive union of life and love—so comprehensive and unifying that a new life may spring from it. This common good and common mission continually renews the spouses’ friendship and their affection. For their relationship to go beyond the two of them, it is enough that they preserve their intentional or volitional openness to life, even if on account of reasons outside their control, they cannot conceive. As long as the union is between a man and a woman, their possible sterility will be only accidental—it will be due to some contingent difficulty or obstacle that in some cases can also be removed.

The partners of a same-sex union may indeed have common interests and common projects. They may be friends who share a common good. And yet, this mission or goal will have nothing to do with their being sex partners. As sexual relation, their relation is necessarily sterile. In their case, this sterility is substantial, belonging to the very nature of their union. Thus, they would never ask a doctor to examine them to find out why they cannot conceive, something that different-sex couples would in fact do. Inasmuch as theirs is a sexual union, the partners of the same sex are turning in on themselves, since structurally-speaking their relation is not life-giving. It is not that their affection grows and matures due to a common project, as is the case in marriage. Rather their affection is the basis of their union.

As Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George argue, if the law, or any other authoritative institution, were to call same-sex unions by the name of “marriage,” “many will come to misunderstand marriage […] as essentially an emotional union.”[3] It would mean seeing marriage in the way that is diagnosed and lamented by Pope Francis in his exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, namely, as “a form of mere emotional satisfaction that can be constructed in any way or modified at will” (no. 66). To this view he objects, explaining that “the indispensable contribution of marriage to society transcends the feelings and momentary needs of the couple.” Indeed, until very recently, the wisdom of humanity has seen marriage as a publically assumed office, a mission at the service of the life springing from its union, whence derive its qualities of permanence and exclusivity. It is probably highly reasonable to engage on this mission only with someone for whom one feels affection, but this affection does not make marriage. In fact, as Jean Guitton points out, “Some get married because they love each other; others end up loving each other because they’ve gotten married. The best would be to have both in each marriage.”[4] In any case, it is not the being-in-love that makes the marriage.

In same-sex unions, it is the affection that makes the union. Let us think this idea down to its consequences. A slippery-slope argument is not about predicting the future or attempting to draw arbitrary lines in the sand. It is rather about spelling out the logic of an idea. Now the logic of the idea that the partner’s affection is at the basis of their union implies that there is no reason to limit the union to two. As Girgis, Anderson, and George lucidly explain, “For revisionists, marriage must be distinguished simply by emotional union and the activities that foster it. But why should these be limited to two people? […] If some relationships turn out, as sometimes reported, more stable or emotionally fulfilling when sexually open, and marriage is emotional union, how could exclusivity be integral to it?”[5] In sum, whoever “insists on principle that we should recognize same-sex relationships as marriages” to be consistent would also have “to accept (and favor legally recognizing) polyamorous […] relationships as marriages.”[6] The issue here is not one of predicting that that in a few years there will be motions in Western parliaments asking for the legal recognition of polyamorous unions. This may or may or may not be the case. All we are saying is that if parliaments decide to call same-sex unions by the name of “marriage,” then they are saying that affection alone is sufficient to serve as the basis of marriage, and with that there is no inherent reason for why they should not also call a union of two men and three women by the same name, as long as all members of the union feel affection and sexual attraction for each other.

If affection makes marriage, then the only confines to what kinds of unions we will want to call by that name are the limits of our imagination. Wherever the state espouses the principle that emotional union makes marriage, by implication it attempts to abolish marriage as an institution that has something to do with human generation. Of course, the powers of parliament are limited. As Karl Marx wisely points out, no parliament can actually change the nature of marriage any more than it can alter, by legal decree, the law of gravity: “The legislator […] does not make the laws, he does not invent them, he only formulates them, expressing in conscious, positive laws the inner laws of spiritual relations.”[7]

From the part of the Church, it is certainly noble to seek the good wherever it can be found. And yet, in some ways, to claim that the mutual affection between the partners of non-marital unions could be a good proper (and not just accidental) to these unions is a two-edged sword. The question of the partner’s mutual affection is the central issue in the cultural struggle about same-sex “marriage” and the even wider struggle about the meaning of marriage as such. The advocates of same-sex “marriage” claim that it is the partner’s affection that makes marriage—in every case, whether we are speaking about same-sex couples or different-sex couples. Anyone who is convinced of the premise “affection makes marriage,” and who hears the Church speak appreciatively of affection as a constructive element of non-marital unions, is likely to understand that the Church is beginning to open up to same-sex “marriage.” It seems, rather, the Church’s prophetic stance is required, for the love of the Gospel and for the love of the world, which the Lord has come to save, but which is steering on a highly self-destructive path. In fact, as Pope Francis points out, today “the family itself is not infrequently considered disposable, thanks to the spread of an individualistic and self-centered culture which severs human bonds and leads to a dramatic fall in birth rates, as well as legislation which benefits various forms of cohabitation rather than adequately supporting the family for the welfare of society as a whole.” Here, the whole Church needs to join Pope Francis in speaking out against our culture’s self-destructive tendencies and should certainly do nothing that could even remotely be taken as an encouragement for our culture to continue going along this ruinous path. In the end, as Francis reminds us, “every threat to the family is a threat to society itself. The future of humanity, as Saint John Paul II often said, passes through the family.”

Responsibility for children

How about the responsibility for children in same-sex unions? The Synod’s final report, we remember, did not speak about same-sex couples, but about other non-marital unions: cohabitation and second civil unions. The midterm report, in contrast, appears to appreciate a “mutual assistance to the point of sacrifice” proper to these unions (n. 52). At the same time the document affirms that “the Church pays special attention to [...] children who live with same-sex couples and stresses that the needs and rights of the little ones must always be given priority.” Evidently, same-sex couples cannot be responsible for their own children, since their union is inherently sterile. But they could adopt where legally permitted, or acquire children through the means of artificial procreation and, if they are males, through surrogate motherhood.

The Church has always insisted that each human being is called to love and that to this vocation corresponds the right to come into being through an act of love, namely through the loving embrace of his or her father and mother (see, for instance, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction Donum Vitae, February 22, 1987). The different techniques of artificial procreation—and especially surrogate motherhood—violate the dignity of the child thus conceived, inasmuch as the act that brings the child about is not an act of love but one of technical domination. But what about adoption? Is it not a sign of loving care to give parents to an abandoned child in need of a family? The first thing to say about the presumed right to adoption on the part of same-sex couples is that the whole debate appears to be centered around the desires of these couples much more than the needs of the children. How is it possible that a synodal document speaks of same-sex unions, of children living in their context, and of the interest of these children without emphasizing that it could not possibly be in the interest of these children to be raised by same-sex couples? The little sociological and pedagogical data we have about these recent developments speaks against such provisions.[8] But it also stands to faith and reason. Apart from the fundamental consideration that children will more easily find their identity when they grow up with a father and a mother, having before them both sexes and witnessing their complementarity and difference, there is still another consideration to be made. Children are not a trophy in the struggle to end a purported discrimination, and they are not among the things anyone could ever meaningfully claim a right to. They are not commodities, but subjects who deserve to be loved unconditionally for who they are and not insofar as they happen to fulfill an emotional need or heal a personal void. However this may be, it would in any case seem that the first and foremost responsibility of a same-sex couple for children would precisely be neither to fabricate them technologically nor to adopt them, which is why the responsibility for children could not possibly be a constructive element of their union.

The ability to overcome trials

Could the ability to overcome trials be a constructive element of same-sex unions? Here, one must ask what these difficulties are about. What are the partners fighting for? Partners to a same-sex union may indeed have a common project. Yet this project will be extraneous to their forming a same-sex union. In other words, the fact that they are sexually active with each other could hardly play any role for their common project if such exists. As affective and sexual relationship, their relationship does not go beyond the two of them and could hardly be called a common project. As friendship, they may have many common goals, which they could still pursue even if they ceased to be sexually active and even if they ceased living together. If their difficulties are with their relationship as affective, romantic, and sexual, one may take into consideration that nothing beyond the two of them depends on these aspects of their relationship. If they seek to overcome difficulties for the sake of a common project that goes beyond the two of them, this project may well be worth fighting for, but it will also have nothing to do with their relationship being a romantic one. Hence, “overcoming difficulties” could not be a constructive element of their relationship as this particular kind of relationship.

Guidance toward the Sacrament of Marriage

Now the fifth point, being “occasions for guidance with an eye towards the eventual celebration of the Sacrament of Marriage” does not apply if we are convinced that marriage by its nature is between a man and a woman, which we have already tried to argue above. Hence, we pass on to the next and final point.

Mutual assistance to the point of sacrifice

The midterm report suggests that in a same-sex union the partners lend each other “mutual assistance to the point of sacrifice” (no. 52). Now again we may ask whether friends need to be sexually active or emotionally involved to sustain each other to the point of sacrifice or to lend each other mutual support. And could not two family members, say two brothers, or a mother and daughter, do the same for each other? Why would these be goods specific to same-sex unions or in any way derive from them as same-sex unions? Again, these goods may well be present, but if so, they do not specifically derive from the particular kind of relationship, but simply from the fact that the two are more than just lovers who feel a mutual sexual attraction and romantically colored attraction for each other. They are also friends.

Evidently also in a marital union, the partners are or can be both lovers and friends. Nonetheless a conjugal relationship is different under decisive aspects, inasmuch as it goes beyond the spouses’ affection and friendship. Their union is in itself potentially fruitful and hence constitutive of new, original goods that go beyond the two: goods that are themselves worth fighting for and that make their relationship worth fighting for. As marital union, their union is one that is stable “unto death do us part.”  Here the stability is not based on an arbitrary act of the will of one or both partners and goes beyond the fact that the two of them are also friends. It is inherent to their union. They are not only lovers, they are not only friends, but they are also potential father and mother of each other’s children. It is under this latter aspect that they married each other; this is the aspect that defines their union as a marital one and that also accounts for its indissoluble stability. To sum up, the “assistance to the point of sacrifice” and the “valuable support” cannot count as “constructive elements” of same-sex unions as same-sex-unions.


[1] Cf. N. Zoe Hilton - Grant T. Harris - Marnie E. Rice, “The step-father effect in child abuse: Comparing discriminative parental solicitude and antisociality,” Psychology of Violence 5 (Jan 2015), 8-15; V. A. Weekes-Shackelford - T. K. Shackelford, “Methods of Filicide: Stepparents and Genetic Parents Kill Differently,” in: Violence and Victims 19 (2004): 75-81.

[2] Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter Deus Caritas Est, December 25, 2005, n. 17. Sallust, De coniuratione Catilinae, XX, 4.

[3] Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, Robert P. George, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, Encounter Books, New York 2012, 7.

[4] Jean Guitton, Mon testament philosophique, Presses de la Renaissance, Paris 2007, 188.

[5] Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, Robert P. George, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, Encounter Books, New York 2012, 18-19.

[6] Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, Robert P. George, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, Encounter Books, New York 2012, 20.

[7] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 1, Lawrence & Wishart: London, 1975, p. 307.

[8] Cf. for instance: American College of Pediatricians, “Homosexual Parenting: Is It Time For Change?” (2013),; Mark Regnerus, “How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships? Findings from the New Family Structure Study,” in Social Science Research 41 (2012), 752-770.

About the Author
Stephan Kampowski 

Stephan Kampowski is professor of philosophical anthropology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome. Following his doctoral dissertation on the action theory and moral thought of Hannah Arendt, his recent work has focused on issues in bioethics.

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