Marriage Wars

On a transatlantic flight this summer, I found myself watching Bride Wars—not, to be sure, my first choice for entertainment.

The movie was nothing special:  a scheduling glitch turns best friends Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson into enemies when their weddings at the Plaza Hotel end up falling on the same day; after ruining each other’s ceremonies, in the end, they reconcile.  At around the same time I saw the movie, the New York legislature was voting to legalize gay “marriage,” which made me take the film a bit more seriously than I might have otherwise.  (And probably more seriously than the film deserved.)

One line in particular struck me as off.  As they sit giggling and awed in her office, famed wedding planner Marion St. Claire (Candice Bergen) tells the brides-to-be, “A wedding marks the first day of the rest of your lives.”

The line rang a false note because both of the future brides were already living with their boyfriends, and had been for some time, so it was hard to see what was going to change so radically in their lives.  For both of the women, the wedding itself—the party and ceremony and dresses and flowers and location—was what really mattered, not any change in lifestyle or family structure.

Of course, the characters in the movie were caricatures, whipping all the sparkles and froth that come with a wedding into comic obsession, but the attitudes underlying the exaggeration are real.  Over lunch several months ago a Jesuit priest was talking about preparing a couple for marriage; they asked what an appropriate donation to the church would be.  When he suggested that they give the same amount of money they were spending on flowers, they blanched.  “That much?” they said.  We are willing to pay more for what we value more.

David Brooks devotes the first chapter of his insightful book Bobos in Paradise to weddings, noting that the trend in bobo weddings (those of the educated upper-middle class) is toward idiosyncrasy, the more exotic the better.  It’s now a social obligation to be more creative than the next couple.  Brooks notes a trend since the 1960s toward composing one’s own vows:

The people who used the traditional vows were making a connection to the generations that had come before, taking their place in a great chain of custom.  The people who wrote their own vows were expressing their individuality and their desire to shape institutions to meet individual needs.

Setting aside the irony that obligatory individuality is itself a form of social conformity, what Brooks is getting at, and what a silly film like Bride Wars reveals, is what I believe is the basic difference between the two side of the gay “marriage” debate:  the question of whether marriage is an objective or subjective good.

It’s first perhaps necessary to diffuse the poisonous charge that traditional marriage is “discriminatory,” though this comes up even in mainstream media sources.  Marriage is a privileged institution; in recognizing marriage, the state is providing a subsidy to those who enter into that institution.  Such subsidies—which range from tax benefits to a certain (dwindling) social prestige—are meant to encourage a certain type of behavior.  The charge of discrimination is nonsensical because a privilege, by definition, only goes to some people and not to others; the real question in the marriage debate is, what sort of behavior should the state be encouraging?

It should come as no surprise that those who have ethical objections to homosexual behavior do not want to subsidize it, but it is grossly unfair to accuse them of discrimination, a charge which could not be more corrosive of civil debate and public discourse.  Their position is merely that of tolerance, neither punishing nor rewarding homosexual relationships.

States choose to subsidize marriage because of the social goods that come out of the institution.  The primary social good coming out of marriage is, of course, children.  Our society’s attitude toward children is sadly not as welcoming as it should be, with children seen by many as a burden, a drain on resources, almost a threat.  Nonetheless, without children no society has a future—a sentence so obvious I would be reluctant to write it if it were not so patently forgotten in our “culture wars.”

I should probably address another objection one commonly hears around this point in the debate, even though I don’t think it a particularly good one.  What about sterile couples or those who choose not to have children?  The answer to this objection is that in recognizing marriage, the state is not endorsing particular relationships; legislators do not take a vote on every couple applying for a marriage license to determine if their relationship will provide society with social goods that merit subsidy.  In recognizing marriage, the state is subsidizing an institution, not a string of relationships.  To use an imperfect analogy, the state may encourage the institution of public libraries because of the social goods—a better educated populace—they provide, even though some people go to public libraries just to use the air conditioning in the summer, not to become better educated.  Besides, even childless couples contribute in some way to the primary good of marriage by entering into and living in the type of relationship in which children are generally produced and ideally raised.

Implicit in the argument for gay marriage is the move away from marriage as an objectively defined social institution with definite goods and toward the idea of “marriage” as any relationship that provides me with subjective goods:  feelings of being loved, some notion—in our civil law, rather weak—of stability and commitment, sexual satisfaction, and the like.  In this way of looking at the issue, I define how I want to live, and civil marriage amounts to state validation of my decision.

I would argue that what a movie like Bride Wars demonstrates is that the problematic attitudes underlying the push for gay marriage have already taken root deeply in general societal attitudes toward marriage.  As marriage has come to mean less and less objectively—a wedding no longer signifies a change in lifestyle, since couples are already living together; nor a permanent commitment, since divorce is as much norm as exception; nor even an openness to children—people have tried to load the old forms of marriage with greater subjective, often sentimental, weight.  Gay marriage represents a threat to traditional marriage, not because of what it is in itself—because heterosexuals will somehow be lured away from their heterosexuality—but because it represents state endorsement of what is already a faulty understanding of the nature and goods of marriage.

The tremendous social consequences of the breakdown of the traditional family mean that, win or lose, the fight for traditional marriage is worth waging.  Perhaps, however, in order to be effective, the field of battle needs to be broadened beyond gay “marriage.”



16 Responses to Marriage Wars

  1. Qualis Rex says:

    Salve Anton, having just come back from transatlantic+transaharran flights myself, I guess I should be grateful I was not subjected to this particular in-flight movie (although I did sit through 2 Egyptian and Bollywood comedies which were more disturbing than entertaining). I fully appreciate what you say about marriage (and family in general); in both the US and Europe it is actually becoming more of a societal inconvenience than an expected outcome or duty. The “tax benefit” you refer to really only applies to lower-income households; for those of us who earn 2 incomes, it is actually referred to as the “marriage penalty”, as we have to pay more taxes than if we were single and filing separately (yes, I know this first hand).

    To your other point, it is a bit sad that so many couples go into marriage (and even baptism) with such naivete and ignorance (another priest friend of mine tells me stories of how many times he has to explain why a very expensive and “cute” low-cut strapless brides-dress/bridesmaid dress is not appropriate for the rite of marriage at the altar of the Lord, or why a Mohammedan or Hindu cannot be the baby’s God parent). But don’t lose hope; these are also teaching moments and opportunities for catechesis, which was obviously lost on the generation before us.

    God bless you now and always!

  2. Given the fact that gay and lesbian couples can and do have children, both through medical procedures and from adoption, your only non-religious objection doesn’t stand.

    That being said, keep in mind that your church still has the right to not marry gays, just in the same way it has the right to not marry Jews. People may be angry for you about that, but so what?

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      I have to disagree with you on both counts, NotAScientist. Single people, or groups of people living together (in, say an orphanage), can either adopt children or produce them artificially, but that doesn’t mean they’re married. And it certainly doesn’t mean that the state should subsidize and validate their lifestyle. Three guys living together could, in theory, coax a surrogate mother into having a child for them, but that doesn’t mean they’re married and I don’t think the state should validate or encourage that sort of institution as normative.

      Adoption is a very good thing, but it can’t really be the norm since adopted babies have to come from somewhere. It is a very laudable way of dealing with the consequences that happen when for some reason the norm breaks down. And, though neither one of us is a scientist, the sort of artificial means that would be required for two same sex couples to bear children are, to put it mildly, ethically quite problematic and, again, certainly not the sort of thing the state should be in the business of subsidizing and encouraging.

      And I think, insofar as it is possible, every child has a right to a father and to a mother. To encourage attitudes toward marriage and family that make it less likely that children will have both father and mother in their lives is morally reckless to the point of cruelty. I realize, of course, that one can point to individual “non-traditional families” that are healthier than individual traditional families, but on the whole — which is what we have to deal with when we’re talking about state recognition — the traditional family is better for children and society.

      And as to your point about the autonomy of the Church; it has already been eroded in places like Massachusetts, Washington, San Francisco, and Illinois, in which the Catholic Church has been forced out of the adoption business because the advocates of “tolerance” just won’t tolerate any group operating outside of their rather narrow moral principles. If the Church really is guilty of discrimination here, in a manner akin to supporting Jim Crow laws, then her opponents would be quite justified in trying to drum her out of existence — which is precisely the trajectory we’re seeing develop.

      • “And, though neither one of us is a scientist, the sort of artificial means that would be required for two same sex couples to bear children are, to put it mildly, ethically quite problematic and, again, certainly not the sort of thing the state should be in the business of subsidizing and encouraging.”

        I see no ethical problem with in vitro fertilization.

        “And I think, insofar as it is possible, every child has a right to a father and to a mother. ”

        Biologically, sure. Socially, no.

        Studies show that the most healthy children are raised in two-parent house holds, but that the gender of the parents doesn’t matter. Unless you care about what the kid ends up believing about homosexuals, and not just their health.

        “the traditional family is better for children and society.”

        No, it’s not. It’s not worse for children and society, but the studies show that it isn’t any better either.

        “in which the Catholic Church has been forced out of the adoption business because the advocates of “tolerance” just won’t tolerate any group operating outside of their rather narrow moral principles.”

        This is misleading.

        They have not been forced out of the adoption business. They have been forced out of being contracted for adoption from state-run organizations. The Catholic Church can be discriminatory. The government can’t. And a private organization can’t use government funds or resources while discrimination.

        You get help from the government, or you can discriminate. One or the other. Not both.

        “then her opponents would be quite justified in trying to drum her out of existence”

        Out of existence? Eh. Out of business? Definitely. But legally, through getting people to stop going to the Church.

      • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

        Well, I have to thank you, NotAScientist, for what is an invaluable contribution to the discussion of this issue. Many Catholics, particularly those with more liberal political convictions, are reluctant to acknowledge that the state subsidizing homosexual relationships represents a threat to religious liberty. But you have made it explicit: one of the consequences of your ideology, if not necessarily its primary aim, is to use the law to discourage people from being Catholic (as well as, presumably, evangelical, Mormon, Orthodox Christian, or Orthodox Jewish to name but a few).

        Our religion is bad (discriminatory); you want to use the law to try to stop people from practicing it.

        Archbishop Dolan’s timely letter to the President protesting attacks on religious freedom could not have found more eloquent validation:

        You’ll forgive me for not bowing down before the authority of your anonymous studies. The claim that gender doesn’t matter in the raising of children makes me wonder how much experience you have living in human society at all. Doesn’t matter if a boy grows up with out a father? Right. How do your NotVeryScientific studies measure “healthy” exactly? And how do they support the claim that societies as a whole — not just individual anecdotal cases or samples so small that they amount to mere anecdote — are just as well off when children grow up without fathers? I suppose the only scientifically valid way to do so would be to study such societies, of which there are a few — like the inner city black community and the Indian reservation on which I live. Remember when we’re dealing with real children — instead of just ideological pawns — we’re talking about real pain, real suffering, real disfunction.

        So should the state subsidize the sort of relationships that guarantee children will be artificially produced in order to grow up without either a father or a mother? How acute does one’s ideological myopia have to be that one will even entertain such a question?

        And you still really haven’t addressed the argument in the original post, which is not so much that homosexual relationships are in themselves harmful as that redefining marriage based on the subjective preferences of individuals as opposed to the objective benefits the institution produces for society only serves to reinforce the sorts of individualism and selfishness that have weakened the family and produced truly great harm.

        I’ve discussed the ethical problems with IVF before:

        I suppose refusing to encourage others’ use of IVF, though, will merit me and others like me second class citizenship in the brave new world you are advocating…

  3. Jack Holden says:

    If I may, I’d like to broaden the discussion beyond more than just continued illustrations of the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage and family. Anthony, I think you’d agree that the reality of sexual diversity isn’t going away. LGBTQ people are and will continue to successfully mainstream and the deviant and piranha-like imagery used against us for centuries is no longer holding sway among the population of the Western world. The closet will not get larger, it will only get smaller. I know from my own experience that you belong to a religious congregation that has a fair number of gay men, some of whom in the private environs of their communities will even acknowledge that fact. And I’d be willing to be bold enough to say that you very likely have gay relatives and maybe even friends.

    You are not going to budge on upholding the traditionalist theology of marriage. Okay, I got that. Is there, however, any positive you can offer to the LGBTQ community with regard to relationships? And indeed I’d be willing to posit for the moment that for those in the LGBTQ community that are unable to healthily integrate their sexuality or remain so foundationally confused about their sexuality, maybe organizations like Courage have some value. But surely it can’t be Courage or nothing?

    After all, for every confused member of Courage there are many more properly adjusted and self-confident gay, lesbian, bi and trans people who are interested in being both Catholic and gay. I would hope that as a member of the Society of Jesus, well known for its theology and pastoral work on the margins, you will give some time and consideration to a positive pastoral approach for LGBTQ Catholics as they seek to love God and love others.

    I think a great first step is to engage with those participating in the “More Than A Monologue” discussions. For more information, I’d invite folks to check out the website:

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:


      Thank you for your very thoughtful and challenging response. You are correct that I’ve had experience dealing with gay Catholics in a variety of pastoral and non-pastoral situations, though for very obvioius reasons I’m not going to discuss the details of those situations. Each one is different, needless to say, and the most important thing to keep in mind in such situations is that we in the Church are all trying to help each other grow closer to God. What precisely that movement looks like will depend on one’s starting point and all the other forces that shape our lives.

      But I think you are calling for something else as well, and you point to what I honestly think is a gap in our theology. We have centuries of theology of the priesthood and religious life (some of it better than others!) and (thanks especially to John Paul II, among others) we have a rich theology of married life. But we are really missing a theology of the single life, even though we recognize that as a legitimate vocation. I think if such a theology were to be developed, at least some of it would speak to the situation in which many gay Catholics find themselves.

      The point that all sides of the debate need to keep in mind is that the Church’s teachings on sexuality are not meant to be a list of prohibitions, but rather are meant to lead us to true happiness. Such a path is by no means easy, and the sort of theology I’m suggested would honestly have to address such themes as loneliness (which I’m convinced more and more as I consider the celibacy to which I’ve been called is a genuine part of the path to Christ, even a blessing). Sin and forgiveness also would have to be a part of such a theology, though I think modern people are often uncomfortable with those ideas. I even wonder if delving into such unlikely historical precedents as the role and dignity accorded to widows in the early Church might produce creative and useful fruit…

      And I’d like to offer a challenge back to you. Part of the problem with the issue we’re talking about — the place of gay Catholics in the Church — is, I agree, due to the theological gap I’m acknowledging. But part of the problem too has to do with assumptions and attitudes in the so-called gay rights movement, in gender studies departments, etc., which are deeply flawed and could never lead one to anything resembling the Christian notion of happiness. The tendency to equate one’s identity as a human with one’s sexual desires, for example, needs to be challenged. An over-emphasis on sexual exploration and “self-discovery” seems to me at times to be simply academic language for promiscuity. I think that gay Catholics need to challenge the gay political movement just as vigorously as they challenge the Church — though doing so will be less culturally acceptable.

      In this regard, I’d push back a bit at the assumption behind “More than a Monologue.” Given the current cultural climate, the discussion of these issues might be considered a monologue, but only because the Church’s voice is not considered at all. The monologue comes from a mainstream culture that drowns out other voices. I freely admit, however, that in past decades the situation was to the contrary. Neither situation is conducive to the sort of creative and practical theological development I’m talking about and which I think, and hope, you genuinely desire as well.

      Thank you again for your response. Though I realize I’m not giving you a completely satisfactory response — no final word — I hope at least that it is clear there is a place for gay Catholics in the Church, which we all need to be more creative in articulating.

      I’d appreciate your prayers!

      • Jack Holden says:

        Thanks for your response Tony.

        I take it from your brief mention of the need for a more robust theology of singlehood that a robust theology of relationship for LGBTQ people, even the most platonic, is not desirable? I find it problematic if, in order for the body of Christ to theologize creatively regarding this issue, we must reanimate historical spiritualties of widowhood. This sends a strong message that conformity to a solitary, non-romantic life is the only way forward for queer people.

        As is common, the difference comes down to philosophical persuasions. You are not going to confirm life or love-giving opportunities can arise out of queer intimacy and sex based upon your holding to pre-modern physical and metaphysical concepts of the person. I have admittedly abandoned attempts to discover human essence, which in conclusion requires a statement of faith more than a statement of fact, in favor of an examination of existence and encounter in those who seek out the presence of our ultimate grounding.

        Such is the way of the world I suppose.

        • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

          On the contrary, a theology of the single life would have to be a theology of relationships. Single people can and do have fulfilling relationships. In speaking about a “LGBTQ theology” you seem already to have some idea of the result you want to get. A better theology is likely to encompass a wider range of relationships, and, yes, those relationships would have to be Christian. Treating contemporary notions of “romance” as the desired endpoint — or starting point — is unlikely to yield anything genuinely Christian. A better question to ask, rather than what can I (or we) get out of relationships, is: how can my way of life be a service?

          You claim to eschew any notion of human essence, but, as is inevitable in relativistic post-modern denials of human nature, it seems you’ve assumed quite a bit about human “needs” and fulfillment. Denying human essence doesn’t ensure that we won’t make assumptions about human nature; it just guarantees that those assumptions will be unexamined and generally incoherent.

          The way forward for all people, whatever their sexual desires, is Jesus Christ. And the way of the cross is very definitely a different path forward than that proposed by post-Freudian notions of sexual liberation and “fulfillment”. If it’s to be “theology” it will have to choose the former and abandon the latter.

  4. “Our religion is bad (discriminatory); you want to use the law to try to stop people from practicing it. ”

    Not quite.

    Your religion is bad, and I would use only legal methods to encourage people to stop practicing it.

    “And how do they support the claim that societies as a whole — not just individual anecdotal cases or samples so small that they amount to mere anecdote — are just as well off when children grow up without fathers?”

    There is nothing particularly special about a father. Males are more likely, in general, to have certain traits that your religion believes desirable. But women can have those traits, and those aren’t the only good traits that exist.

    “So should the state subsidize the sort of relationships that guarantee children will be artificially produced in order to grow up without either a father or a mother?”

    If the state is already subsidizing the sort of relationships that form because 15 year old Bobby and 13 year old Betty didn’t use a condom, got pregnant and were told to get married by their Catholic family…yeah. I see one as much better than the other.

    “I suppose refusing to encourage others’ use of IVF, though, will merit me and others like me second class citizenship in the brave new world you are advocating…”

    I love it when christians play the martyr card. The only thing you’re being prevented from doing is being discriminatory to other people. And I have no sympathy if that makes you feel bad.

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      Thank you again for the clarity of your (slightly bigoted) remarks, NotAScientist. Many who look at this issue would wrongly understand the legalization of homosexual marriage as a question of tolerance; you make it clear that it involves much more dramatic social engineering. Religious people will be required to endorse and affirm the “lifestyle choices” of others, and if they refuse, they will be legally squeezed in an effort to stop them from practicing their faith. Such low-level legal persecution is beginning already, though many refuse to acknowledge it; you make it clear that it is no accident, that it is intentional and deliberate.

      I’m glad you included one of the well-documented “studies” you alluded to earlier, though one might perhaps more accurately label it an “inflammatory and imaginary hypothetical that doesn’t really prove anything at all”…or “study,” whichever you prefer.

      And I might finally note, that in addition to the qualities of fatherhood, which I and, I am proud to say, my Church value, we also place great value on motherhood. So much so, in fact, that we believe a child has a right to both a father and a mother. Your admission that there are generally male and generally female traits is really all my argument requires, since I’ve argued all along that in recognizing marriage, the state is endorsing an institution, not investigating and endorsing a whole range of different kinds of relationships.

  5. ryan says:

    Thank you.

  6. pasisozi says:

    If you’re so concerned about traditional marriage, what are you doing to make divorce difficult and remarriage afterwards nearly impossible, as Christ taught in the Gospels?

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      I think the Church’s teachings on divorce are pretty clear, and pretty much in line with what Jesus taught.

      Keep in mind that the defenders of traditional marriage did not choose this battle. None of us really wants to have the gay “marriage” debate, but it’s been forced upon us.

  7. […] their weddings at the Plaza Hotel end up falling on the same day; after ruining each other's… Win or lose, the fight for traditional marriage is worth waging… __________________ Your socks stink. To view links or images in signatures your post count […]

  8. Jessi says:

    Not to be rude, but you are dead wrong. There is something special about a father, as there is something special about a mother. A ballerina does not go to a football coach in order to learn to be a better dancer. And a football player does not go to a ballet instructor in order to learn to play football better. Can each learn something from the other? Yes. Balance and grace, strength and endurance. But to be a better dancer- you go to a ballet instructor. To be a better football player, you talk to your football coach. A woman learns to be a woman by being around other women; men from other men. CAn we learn from the other? Yes. I spent alot of time with my father growing up, but I learned how to be a woman from my mother. Children do need the influence of both a mother and a father. That is not to say that there are not exceptions to this rule. There are many children who flourish with same sex parents. But as Fr Anthony has stated several times–when dealing with any isue, you must always look to the norm rather than the exceptions.

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