Margaret Scott, NewsArt

Define the meaning of marriage in our Constitution

  • Article by: STEPHEN J. HEANEY
  • March 7, 2012 - 8:07 PM


Robert Franklin's call for "some straight talk about the marriage commitment" (Feb. 24) is on the money. He notes the percentages of divorces, cohabitation and out-of-wedlock childbirth.

Marriage is in such bad shape, he says, that calling for a constitutional definition of marriage as between one man and one woman is like calling for an architect when the house is ablaze.

Then, as a reductio ad absurdum, he suggests that we could, if we wanted, make divorce difficult to obtain and enforce laws against fornication. Will we? No, because we have grown beyond such government control of personal choices.

There was a time within the last 40 years when divorce was difficult to obtain, and when the community did enforce laws against sodomy, fornication and adultery (laws that, in many jurisdictions, remain on the books).

So Franklin has brought to the forefront a fascinating question: Why did such laws exist? Was society power-hungry or collectively insane? The answer: Neither.

Until quite recently in history, the human race understood that when a man and a woman have sex (even "protected" sex), there is a good chance they will have a child. It is the nature of things. This result has grave consequences for the couple, the child and the community at large.

We recognized that the only responsible way to engage in sexual activities is in a relationship committed to lifelong self-gift and sexual fidelity, a commitment protected by the community -- hence, marriage. It is here that human beings come into existence, grow up, and learn how to be truly human.

If sex did not naturally lead to children, no one would have ever thought up marriage. Nor would there be laws against fornication. Adultery and divorce would have no meaning. Rules exist not to ruin our fun, but to protect the institution, the couple, the children and society.

It only makes sense to live in a society that has laws if those laws help us flourish. Naturally, we all like to be free of constraints on our actions. But what is this freedom for? If it's not helping us flourish, it's not much use. So how is our newfound sexual freedom working out?

Children today live in socially sanctioned fear that their parents will leave -- assuming they have both parents. If this happens, they live in turmoil, shuttling between several residences, or are left without supervision. They live with an increased chance of poverty and a decreased chance of success at school and in life.

Women live with similar fears -- that, if abandoned, they must struggle to bring up their children without a male role model, or that they must settle for having some man in the house. Poverty and domestic abuse abound.

Men have no reason to delay their gratifications for the sake of something bigger than themselves. If they do enter marriage, they too live in fear that the first disagreement will bring its dissolution.

Society overall has suffered increased poverty, a widening gap between rich and poor, increased violence, decreased productivity and the loss of neighborhood cohesion -- directly attributable to the destruction of a true marital sexual ethos.

By all means, let's ask our gay friends to come join this party.

The institution of marriage, defined as between man and woman, is like a hydroelectric dam; the accompanying laws about sexual activity are like flood barriers channeling the water into the dam. Together, they set productive limits to our sexual activities.

Over the last 50 years, we have knocked down the barriers to get water for our private purposes; now we act surprised when our land and homes are damaged, even destroyed.

Instead of reinstalling the barriers, those who want to keep their watery "freedom" yell, "Blow up the dam!" To do so, however, only extends the flood downstream.

Acting as though sex and marriage can mean whatever we want has not led to anything good. Officially abandoning their true meaning is not the solution. Don't blow up the dam. Reinforce it.

Define the meaning of marriage in our Constitution.


Stephen J. Heaney is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of St. Thomas.

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