What Price Marriage?

A Review of What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense

“What Price Glory?” is the title of a 1924 play about life, death, and heroism in the trenches of World War I.  One of the co-authors, Laurence Stallings, was a Marine sergeant in the famous Battle of Belleau Wood during which the Marines earned (according to American combat reporter Floyd Gibbons) the eternal epithet, “Teufelshunde”—“Devil Dogs.”  Stallings was wounded in that battle, eventually losing one of his legs. 

This review—“What Price Marriage?”—points to another kind of war, that of preserving the original meaning of marriage—the union of one man and one woman as husband and wife.  In the near, and not so near, future there will be countless skirmishes and many pitched battles between preservationists and revisionists.  The difference is that we who are for traditional marriage Whatismarriage_bkwill likely be on the defensive for decades to come.  We will not have the chance to shock the opposition with an offensive as definitive as the Marine advance at Belleau Wood.  If the opposition is able to be shocked at all, it will be in retrospect when it finally recognizes the societal no-man’s-land it helped create by ignoring the goods inherent in conjugal love: commitment, exclusivity, procreation, complementarity, and stability.

What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense is, in fact, part of an ongoing strategic offensive, certainly in light of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions on Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).  The authors—Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George—would eschew the military references.  They have taken great pains to keep the dialogue non-confrontational.  You will find in their work no button-pushing words, ad hominem attacks, “hetero”/“homo” juxtaposition, or moral/religious arguments.  It is straight, transparent common sense.  There are no cunning, carnivorous agendas in sheep’s clothing.  So, the warring metaphor (if it is a metaphor) is solely mine.

About the authors: Were I ever brought before a civil or criminal court for “hate speech” (in support of traditional marriage), I would want the authors to be my defense team, no question.  Their minds are like ginsu knives that can slice through anything from brass pipe to overripe tomatoes.  If they learned a modicum of legal protocol, the prosecution would have its hands full. 

I have listened to Girgis, seen Anderson, and heard George give a talk in Sacramento.  All are professional, beyond intelligent, and unflappable.  In addition, Professor George (Princeton University) has a marvelous sense of humor.  Even if my case were lost, the listening public would be way better educated about the reality of marriage, and not a little mesmerized.  

In What Is Marriage? there are six chapters sandwiched between an Introduction and Conclusion, followed by an Appendix.  The text covers 109 pages, all filled with straightforward, down-home thinking.  That does not mean it is an easy read—it presumes that the reader’s forebrain has been oiled with Logic 101, Aristotle 202, and Aquinas 303.  I am hyperbolizing, somewhat.  There are some paragraphs I had to re-read several times to get the gist.  But most major points leap off the page and are quite brain-friendly.  I shall spotlight a few of those points, and, where appropriate, insert a reservation or two.


According to the authors, there are two operative views of marriage today, one existing from time immemorial and the other from the day before yesterday:

(1) The conjugal view “has long informed the law… of our civilization.  It is a vision of marriage as a bodily as well as an emotional and spiritual bond, distinguished thus by its comprehensiveness…. In marriage, so understood, the world rests its hope and finds ultimate renewal” (p. 1).

(2) The revisionist view focuses on “a loving emotional bond, one distinguished by its intensity—a bond that needn’t point beyond the partners, in which fidelity is ultimately subject to one’s own desires.  In marriage so understood, partners seek emotional fulfillment, and remain as long as they find it” (pp. 1-2).

In the first definition, note well the word “comprehensiveness.”  For the authors, marriage is a comprehensive union, meaning “a union of will (by consent) and body (by sexual union); inherently ordered to procreation and thus the broad sharing of family life; and calling for permanent and exclusive commitment, whatever the spouses’ preferences” (p. 6).  Such a union, by definition, exists only between a man and a woman.

The central purpose of the book is to show that conjugal marriage laws are rationally grounded.  While doing that, the authors argue that marriage is a moral reality—“a human good with an objective structure, which it is inherently good for us to live out.”  Their syllogism:

Premise A: “Marriages have always been the main and most effective means of rearing   healthy, happy, and well-integrated children.”

Premise B: “The health and order of society depend on the rearing of healthy, happy, and well-integrated children.”

Conclusion: “That is why law, though it may take no notice of ordinary friendships, should recognize and support marriages” (p. 7).

The authors want to be clear: Giving benefits to same-sex relationships is not the problem; what bodes ill for the common good (the good of society) is redefining marriage.  Why?  If the law redefines marriage to include same-sex partners, many in society will come to see marriage as simply an emotional union (the revisionist view).  In negative terms, marriage will then come to be misunderstood.  Why is that problematic?  Because, they say, “to the extent that marriage is misunderstood, it will be harder to see the point of its norms, to live by them, and to urge them on others” (p. 7).  The norms?  Exclusivity, permanence, and, hence, family stability.

The sense here is that the misunderstanding of marriage will come as a result of any redefinition of marriage.  In truth, the emotional-union view of marriage has been constantly gaining ground for the past 45 years.  Contemporary revisionists are simply splicing into a power grid already there.  The turbine that started the transformation from the conjugal view to the revisionist view, and continues to power it, is the mindset that must control all aspects of new human life.  I am talking about an objective, historical development: Contraception engendered a “contraceptive mentality” which, in turn, pushed the legalization of abortion as a “contraceptive” backup, which, in turn, raises the specter of infanticide as a backup for botched abortions.  All the controls on life are linked, and all have affected, and will affect, the way we look at marriage.  If the procreative dimension of marriage is seen as a major liability and something to be stalled, neutralized, or eradicated, then the emotional-bond factor of marriage automatically moves to the front. 

(Obviously, the above comment would not be included in What Is Marriage? since it introduces the moral dimension of human sexuality.  A moral slant might stop the prospective reader who would be open to cultural and political arguments, but not to ethical ones.  By the by, the authors are under no illusion that reasonable arguments will move those who do not want to be moved by reasonable arguments.  They see the debate as between people of “sound mind and character who disagree on the solution to what they agree is a debate worth having.”  So the book is directed to revisionists who have the requisite mind and character.  How many revisionists are of that ilk?  The authors are much more optimistic than I am.)

Marriage, say the authors, brings many cultural and political goods to the table, and that is why the state is involved with marriage in the first place.  It follows that, if marriage is redefined, those cultural and political goods will be damaged.  Said goods are real marital fulfillment, spousal well-being, child well-being, friendship, religious liberty, and limited government.  In Chapter 4 (“What’s the Harm?”), the authors address each of these goods and its dissolution if marriage is redefined.  The section on friendship is unexpected.  The argument is this: If marriage is basically an emotional union, then friendship becomes a lesser form of marriage, thereby losing much of its own uniqueness and worthiness.  The section on religious liberty is crucial.  All pastors, deacons, and lawyers (open to pro bono work) should pay particular attention to the authors’ warning for the present and future.  They do not hyperbolize here.  Indeed, they cannot—how can one exaggerate an approaching litigation tsunami? 

The authors are adamant about their overall approach.  The book is not about homosexuality, makes no appeal to divine revelation or religious authority, uses social science and history only in supporting roles, and is mainly philosophical.

Chapter 1—Challenges to Revisionists

The cornerstone of this chapter is the statement that basic human goods help us thrive.  Examples of those goods are health, knowledge, play, aesthetic delight, and friendship.  Based on such goods, the questions become: What is distinctive about marriage?  And what kind of relationship must two persons have to enjoy the specific good of marriage?  The authors then assert that those who seek to redefine marriage are mistaking human goods for legal artifacts.  That is as confrontational as the book gets.

The chapter also shows why the revisionist view must be false.  It does so by highlighting the fact that such a view cannot account for three points common to both sides of the debate:

(1) The state has an interest in regulating certain relationships. Every culture we know legally regulates marriage. Pertinent question: Regarding the revisionist view, why involve the state in what amounts to legal regulation of tenderness?

(2) The state’s interest exists only if the relationships are sexual. Pertinent questions: Why is sex more expressive of marriage than other pleasing activities that build attachment?   What unifies sex and the other features of marriage as one good? 

(3) The state’s interest exists only if those relationships are monogamous.  Emotions are not a good center around which to form vows, say the authors.  Furthermore, revisionists have trouble linking sex and marriage, marriage and exclusivity, or marriage and family life. 

Upshot: If one thinks that conjugal marriage laws unjustly discriminate against same-sex relationships, one will have no way of showing why the same is not true of multiple-partner and nonsexual relationships.  The authors sum up the chapter well: “As we deprive marriage policy of definite shape, we deprive it of public purpose” (p. 21).

Chapter 2—Comprehensive Union

Here the authors show why the conjugal view can only be possible between two people and why spousal commitment is meant to be exclusive.  Why can sexual union make two people one body as nothing else can?  The answer is layered, and a paraphrase or two would not do the argument justice.  The following quotes give a measure of the depth the layers cover:

But it is a remarkable fact that there is one respect in which this highest kind of bodily unity is possible between two individuals, one function for which a mate really does complete us: sexual reproduction.  In coitus, and there alone, a man and a woman’s bodies participate by virtue of their sexual complementarity in a coordination that has the biological purpose of reproduction—a function that neither can perform alone….

… It is the coordination toward a single end that makes the union; achieving the end would deepen the union but is not necessary for it.

… Our legal and philosophical traditions have, significantly, long termed this act the generative act.  If (and only if) coitus is a free and loving expression of the spouses’ commitment, then it is also a marital act.

… So a husband and wife’s loving bodily union in coitus and the special kind of relationship that it seals are valuable, even when conception is neither sought nor achieved.  But two men, two women, and larger groups cannot achieve organic bodily union: there is no bodily good or function toward which their bodies can coordinate (pp. 26-27).

In the same chapter, the authors cover the subdivisions, “procreation and domestic life” and “permanence and exclusivity.”  Under the first, they say that “marriage is ordered to family life because the act by which spouses make love also makes new life; one and the same act both seals the marriage and brings forth children” (p. 30).  Under the second, they state what all spouses know inherently, namely, that permanence and exclusivity (comprehensive commitment) are essential to marriage and the stability of the family. 

By contrast, permanence and exclusivity are clearly optional in the revisionist account of marriage since the focus is on the emotional bond itself.  The conjugal view, then, better explains why spouses should pledge sexual exclusivity at all, since it “distinguishes marriage by a certain type of cooperation, defined by certain common ends: bodily union and its natural fulfillment in children and family life.”  The conjugal view, therefore, “is not at all arbitrary in picking out sexual activity as central to the vow of exclusivity” (p. 34).

Chapter 3—The State and Marriage

Verily, societies rely on families for stability and strength.  Under the subdivision, “Why Civil Marriage?”, the authors argue that the state must be involved with marriage.  Why?  “Because the public functions of marriage—both to require and to empower parents (especially fathers) to care for their children and each other—require society-wide coordination” (p. 40). 

And here is another way of answering the question: Children need time, care, and supervision to mature.  Civilization depends on healthy, upright, productive citizens.  Strong marriages produce healthy, upright, productive citizens, so civilization depends on strong marriages.  Therefore, the state is called to be involved—it is part of the state’s vocation, if you will, to support marriage and family.

Marriage, if redefined, will not be automatically tied to the goods just talked about: comprehensiveness, procreation, domestic life, permanence, and exclusivity.  With the dissolution of those goods, comes the dissolution of marriage.  Whereas a strong marriage culture spells limited government, an ambiguous married culture (“where marriages never form or easily break down”) will require the state to expand in order “to fill the domestic vacuum by lawsuits to determine paternity, visitation rights, child support, and alimony.”

Chapter 4—What’s the Harm?

This crucial chapter has already been mentioned, but it is well to take note of the opening revisionist question: “How would gay civil marriage affect your lives, liberties, or opportunities, or your own marriages?”  Again the authors answer in syllogistic style:

(1) Law tends to shape beliefs.  (“Tends,” for this reviewer, is too restrained.  Roe vs. Wade, for example, shaped, and then some.)

(2) Beliefs shape behavior.  “No one acts in a void.  We all take cues from cultural norms, shaped by the law.”

(3) Beliefs and behavior affect human interests and well-being. 

Indeed, say the authors, revisionists agree that it matters what a state or nation “calls a marriage, because this affects how [citizens] come to think of marriage” (p. 54).

Chapter 4 is important, because it faces, head-on, the slings and arrows that come one’s way when supporting the conjugal view of marriage.  Additionally, it cites helpful articles and studies which help form the grist of arguments and counter-arguments.

Chapter 5—Justice and Equality

Here the authors spotlight infertility and interracial marriage vis-`a-vis the conjugal view of marriage.  First, the authors set the backdrop: “The conjugal view is internally consistent, and it respects the principle that people of all inclinations have equal dignity and title to all the same rights” (p. 73). 

Concerning infertility, a man and woman form a true marriage when they “establish the comprehensive mind-and-body union that would be completed by and apt for procreation and domestic life and that thus inherently calls for permanent and exclusive commitment” (p. 74).  In other words, true marriage comes to be when a couple forms a union of mind and body that bespeaks procreation and family which, in turn, bespeak permanence and exclusiveness. 

The couple can be infertile and still have that comprehensive union with its inherent intentions and goods.  Indeed, say the authors, “to recognize only fertile marriages would be to suggest that marriage is valuable only as a means to children—and not what it truly is, a good in itself” (p. 77).  John Paul II’s take is the same: “In fact, every act of true love toward a human being bears witness to and perfects the spiritual fecundity of the family….  For everyone this perspective is full of value and commitment, and it can be an inspiration in particular for couples who experience physical sterility” (Familiaris Consortio, 41).

Concerning interracial marriage, revisionists often equate traditional marriage laws with interracial-marriage bans throughout the South during the early half of the 20th Century.  The authors correctly point out that those who opposed interracial marriage did so, not because they thought such marriages could not exist, but because they wanted to keep the two races from mixing.  It was not marriage discrimination but, rather, color-of-possible-progeny discrimination.

The bottom line of the chapter is in three succinct parts: 

(1)  “… marriage is not a legal construct with totally malleable contours—it is not ‘just a contract.’  Instead, some sexual relationships are instances of a distinctive kind of bond that has its own value and structure, which the state did not invent and has no power to define.

(2)  “… the state is within its rights to recognize only true marriages.”

(3)  “… there is no general right to marry the person you love, if this means a right to have any consensual relationship recognized as marriage.  There is only a general right not to be prevented from forming a true marriage” (pp. 80-81).

In short, equality means treating like cases alike, and the conjugal view of marriage is not like any other relationship.

Chapter 6—A Cruel Bargain?

The authors take on the “argument from compassion,” to wit: keeping the traditional definition of marriage would continue to hurt the feelings of a certain segment of society.  If same-sex couples do not have access to marriage, the thinking goes, then their relationships are, de facto, stigmatized.  In a sentence, the authors respond: “Redefining civil marriage means pretending otherwise.”  In other words, to inject other relationships with the language of real marriage, legal or otherwise, would be tantamount to playing make-believe.  And the consequences of playing make-believe have already been spelled out. 

A final, well-fashioned quote: “Not recognizing certain relationships as civil marriages will not make people lonelier unless we embrace the revisionist idea that emotional intimacy is what sets marriage apart, so that it is socially unacceptable to seek companionship outside it.”  With that, the authors have forehanded the ball hard into the revisionists’ backcourt.

What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense
by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George
Encounter Books, 2012
133 pages

Related on CWR:

“Further Thoughts on What Is Marriage?” by John S. Hamlon (June 26, 2013).
“Defending Marriage, and Why It Matters” (April 8, 2013): An interview with Ryan T. Anderson, co-author of What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About John S. Hamlon 9 Articles
John S. Hamlon taught religion, philosophy, physics, and chemistry at the high school level prior to teaching undergraduate and graduate courses on the Catholic Catechism, marriage, and Christian ethics. He continues to teach theology/philosophy courses for adults at Easter's Faith Formation Center, Sacramento, CA. He has an MA in theology from the University of San Francisco and did doctoral work in systematic theology at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley. He was the associate director of the St. Ignatius Institute, University of San Francisco from 1994 to 2001. Prior to that, he was the program director for national and international conferences on NFP, marriage, and family at St. John’s University, Collegeville, MN. He’s the author of A Call to Families: A Commentary and Study Guide for Familiaris Consortio.