By: Matthew Dugandzic
It might just be the recent release of Les Misérables, but something about political protests feels very French to me. (And not just because the French just had their 2nd March for Marriage – La Manif Pour Tous – which drew 1.4 million people last weekend). The French overthrew one king, watched as an emperor took his place, got rid of him, and then suffered through several more decades of chaos while struggling for democracy. In short, they have a strong commitment to social justice, individual liberty, and civil rights.
I was happy to see something of the esprit français yesterday at our nation’s first March for Marriage; many people showed up in opposition to our movement to protect traditional marriage in the law. In their eyes, they were there to defend equality and justice. While I praise them for their strong commitment to fairness in the face of (what they perceive to be) injustice, I fear that there is a deep flaw in their thinking.
Supporters of same-sex marriage, like the French revolutionaries, equate liberty with pure autonomy. “Freedom” is the same thing as “the ability to do whatever you want.” With this as their main moral contention, it is no surprise that they view legal restrictions which seek to uphold man-woman marriage as unjust discrimination against equality.
The point of view outlined above reveals an impoverished understanding of human nature that has two pertinent consequences. Firstly, if one holds that true freedom lies in doing what one pleases, one must also hold that human nature is totally ambiguous and that happiness lies in doing whatever one wants to do. This simply cannot be the case; now matter how many chocolate cakes I want to eat, I can only eat so many before I put myself at risk for heart disease. We human beings are not disembodied minds; we must respect our corporality.
Secondly, if human nature is ambiguous, that means that marriage is as well. For those who support traditional marriage, marriage is an institution that is based in human nature and that precedes the state. Marriage arose in human history because men and women had a tendency to bond with one another and this bonding had a tendency to produce new life. As such, marriage could present itself to the state as a natural institution that brought the next generation into being. The state recognized the potency of marriage and saw that it had a vested interest in protecting the next generation for the good of society. It is only when marriage is understood to have a specific nature, itself based on human nature, that it means anything to the state at all.
Moreover, states often do more than merely endorse or recognize marriage, they integrate it into their legislature so as to protect it and promote it. In doing so, they ensure that a number of benefits follow for the sake of married families and, therefore, for the sake of the states themselves. For example, by singling out marriage as the only human relationship to merit legislation, the state gives marriage pride of place in a society and makes it something for its people to strive for. By requiring married spouses to remain faithful and committed to one another (by disallowing divorce or by making divorce acceptable only in special circumstances), the state assures children that their parents will assume responsibility for them. By allowing married couples tax benefits, the state ensures that married couples will be able to provide for their children.
However, if marriage is ambiguous, then it loses its intrinsic connection to procreation and, therefore, any reason for being subject to legal regulation. If marriage is not protected by the law because of its procreative power, then the law is merely regulating friendship, love, emotional connection, and/or commitment, which the state has no business regulating.
As the social science data on this subject develops, and as people critically consider the potential – and limitations – of their human nature, I hope that more people will begin to recognize the special character of marriage. Hopefully they will see that, by protecting marriage as it is, they are doing their nation a great service because, by extension, they will be doing their best to ensure that every child be brought up by the man and woman who brought him into this world.
Those lovers of equality and justice that I saw at the March for Marriage therefore have nothing to fear from our defense of traditional marriage. To the contrary, defending traditional marriage promotes equality by giving every child the best possible starting-point in life. Furthermore, it promotes justice by providing for every child what he deserves – a loving mother and father.
Matthew Dugandzic is beginning doctoral studies in Christian Ethics at the Catholic University of America.