Yes, Let Us Clearly Redefine Marriage:
Why the Church is so Opposed
to Gay Marriage
In the beginning, marriage was a relationship between two men. A man exchanged goods or services with a girl’s father to procure a virgin bride—a bride who likely became one of several wives. This way, he could assure himself that any children he supported held valid claim to his property. Yes, marriage began as a business transaction to assure male property rights. Often, marriage provided other benefits; increasing the family labor force, acquiring a trade agreement or securing a political alliance.
Marriage provided the basic economic unit of society. In choosing a bride, a man considered whatever skills a woman possessed that could contribute to his business. “Queen” or “tinker’s wife” were job descriptions, not relationships rooted in affection.
Although only required of bishops, the nascent Christian Church defined the ideal marriage as lifelong monogamy. This was, however, the ideal, not the reality.
Whereas fidelity was usually expected of a woman, and insured by various cultures through the use of chastity belts, veiling and foot binding, it was long excused if men expressed their affections outside marriage. Men owed nothing to children produced in these amorous liaisons: no support while alive, no inheritance after death. Such children were “illegitimate” because they held no legitimate claim to their father’s property. Only legitimate children had a claim to property rights.
Even a sacramental, Christian marriage (not instituted until 1215), had a long way to evolve before it reached today’s, loving paradigm. Women seldom held rights of mate-selection or even a right to reject a choice made by a father or matchmaker. Until the 20th century, wives had no option to leave men who subjected them or their children to cruelty. Marriage for women was about duty: primarily the duty to produce a male heir to a husband’s possessions.
According to the ancient Greeks, and echoed by theological giants like Thomas Aquinas, birthing girls was “an accident of an inferior womb.” The flawed logic of male-centric culture presumed that God always intended to create boys. The lack of sons was seen as a woman’s greatest offense for she had thwarted God’s purpose.
Our procreative expectations of marriage have changed significantly. A “barren” wife is no longer returned to her father like defective merchandise. Genetics have revealed that gender is determined by the father’s chromosomes, not the mother’s; eliminating women’s shame. And, marriages of senior citizens and persons with disabilities that prevent conception are considered valid.
Romantic love was viewed as a good and desirable thing, it just wasn’t viewed as a desirable expectation of marriage until the mid eighteenth century. And then, it was expected that a good marriage would eventually develop an affectionate spousal bond. Marriage was seldom entered into because of love until much later in that century.
In fact, the ancient Greeks ridiculed the idea that a man could develop as deep an enduring bond with a woman as with another man. According to Stephanie Coontz in Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, “In Christian texts prior to the seventeenth century, the word love usually referred to feelings toward God or neighbors rather than toward a spouse.” Believing that familiarity would erode male authority, medieval men were cautioned not to allow wives to use terms of endearment.
“True love” existed in fairy-tales and the dreams of young girls. To curb misjudgments inspired by such fantasies, important economic and political decisions (like marriages) were arranged by elders.
Only in the late nineteenth century did Westerners begin to question long-held presumptions of male superiority and privilege. Society moved quickly to embrace greater equality between genders. Embarrassed perhaps by long-standing injustices, North Americans seem to have cast the memory of this rather recent, former era aside.
In my grandmothers’ day, a young woman bold enough to choose her groom, seldom married without her father’s permission. Once wed, she had no recourse if abused. Just one generation ago, women were routinely counseled by clergy to “win an abusive spouse for God” by praying for him while humbly submitting to his violence ala St. Monica. Far from convicting his erring soul, such meekness has been proven to enable an escalating pattern of violence; perpetuating abuse into succeeding generations.
Advocates of “traditional marriage,” refer, then, to a relatively recent, short-lived “tradition.” In fact, some anthropologists argue that this concept of marriage, born of mutual affection; of one man remaining faithful to one woman for an entire lifetime, and that woman devoting herself to the organization of his household and rearing of his children, existed only as an ideal for a very brief transitional period. This period began with the functional dissolution of the extended family caused by the increased social mobility of the industrial revolution. The Ward and June Cleaver relationship of the North American 1950’s, they contend, never really gained a foothold in society at all, but like the gallant hero of Victorian novels, was the romantic ideal hoped for beyond any consistent evidence presented by reality. Women who “didn’t work” took in laundry and boarders, sold pies, eggs and handcrafts, harvested gardens, entertained their husband’s business clients–in short, increased the household income.
Today’s North American couples seldom consult a matchmaker and usually know each other well before the wedding day. Most brides expect to maintain a career, and may out-earn their grooms. With greater economic independence, women are willing to “hold out” for a loving “soul-mate,” rather than assure financial security by surrendering to a loveless marriage.
Most significantly, that elusive, often repudiated Victorian ideal of romantic love has become the expectation–not the exception. Any young couple standing before a nuptial altar today will professes mutual love as the reason for marriage. Love alone, not the need to produce a fortune’s heir or strengthen a trade agreement, is today’s compelling reason for marriage.
And whatever other influences also enter the picture, “loss of love” is most often cited as the primary reason for uncontested divorce. In fact, According to David H. Olson and John Defrain in, Marriage and the Family, Diversity and Strengths, being “no longer in love” is the second most frequently cited reason for all divorces—right after adultery. Love has become the reason for marriage in North America.
There are some today who argue for a need to formalize our definition of marriage as “a union of one man and one woman.” St. Augustine (354-439 CE) advocated the same thing in his letter, The Good of Marriage. His purpose however, didn’t address the current agenda to eliminate the possibility of same sex marriage, but sought to discourage polygyny; that long-standing, traditional form of marriage wherein one man took several wives.
Clearly, marriage is not the same thing it was even two generations ago!
Yet, if we define marriage in the terms to which it has already evolved; if we eliminate unfair restrictions of gender-defined roles, economic dependence and subservience of one spouse to the other; if we name freely-chosen, committed love between respected equals as the purpose of marriage, we open the possibility of marriage to same sex couples.
And, gay marriage poses a threat–not, as detractors claim, to marriage as it is currently lived in Western culture, but to the repressive structures of patriarchy upon which marriage was founded.
You see, Western marriage is still transforming itself. We have not yet realized spousal equality. We remain locked in behavioral patterns formed in an age of male privilege. It is well documented, for example, that even in two career households; women still perform the overwhelming majority of childcare and routine household chores.
If society sanctions life-long, loving commitments between persons of the same sex, we will face daily examples of equality in marriage. We will see a living model for marriage that those in relationships stunted by ill-fitting, stereotypical expectations will learn from—and emulate. For, there simply is no clearer vision of a marriage of equals than the freely chosen, mutual love of two members of the same sex.
In a gay marriage, there is no culturally apparent “head” of the household. There can be no gender-defined, obvious helpmate. Both partners may naturally presume co-equality. In these relationships, roles and chores must be individually negotiated according to personalities, personal interests, skills, time-availability–and yes, acts of sacrificial love.
Between partnered lesbians, there can be no presumption based on “headship” that one’s career is more important than the other’s, no pre-determined expectation regarding the division of child rearing and routine household tasks.
The marital equality that modern heterosexual couples struggle to achieve already exists, quite naturally, in the committed life partnerships of many of today’s same sex couples!
If men and women can envision truly equal marriages, and refuse to accept even the most resilient of gender-roles, we will grow to esteem each other as true peers. We will negotiate differences on more equal footing, expressing love and giving of ourselves in balanced ways. And our relationships will become stronger because we will be freer to reveal our true selves to each other without the artificial contrivance of culturally defined gender-limitations.
Acceptance of same sex marriage is also a profound threat to hierarchical privilege within the Catholic Church.
For I believe that more than any of the often quoted “texts of terror, Ephesians Chapter Five holds the key to the Church’s resistance to gay marriage:
- 22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
The priesthood represents itself as the image of Christ on earth. In this metaphor, the faithful, united as one, are the bride of Christ. Historically, this image served to teach men the level of loyalty expected of them. The Church hierarchy demanded nothing less of men than the absolute fidelity and unquestioning subordination they, in turn, expected of their wives. Men accepted the absolute authority of the priesthood because they commanded similar power at home.
Yet, it is the absolute power of that unquestioned authority that allowed widespread abuse within the Church. If the laity should see how well a marriage of true equals can work; they might clearly understand just how dysfunctional their Church has become. They might recall to consciousness a time in our collective past wherein the vox populi (the voice of the people—the manifestation of the Holy Spirit, alive and moving in the hearts of the faithful) was a driving force, directing the formation of doctrine and Tradition –as well as Papal pronouncements.
With such a guiding model of equality in marriage, we might reclaim our dignity as children of God and, like a newly empowered, long battered wife, collectively say to the hierarchy, “We won’t accept your abuse for ourselves or our children any more! If you wish to remain one with us, you will respect the voice of the Bride of Christ as coequal with your own.” The last vestiges of ecclesial Patriarchy would crumble. The Church would again become a life-giving source of joy to all her children–not just for those in positions of unchecked power.
It is well past time to redefine marriage, but not as a union of one man and one woman which falls far short of righting abuses or advancing wholeness and healing. We need to define marriage as the ideal aspired to and reflected in the best intentions of today’s married couples.
Marriage should be defined as a freely chosen, exclusive partnership of respected, adult equals; a joyous union of two minds and hearts, souls and bodies; a strong physical, spiritual and emotional bond; a commitment to deepest intimacy and profound mutual caring that provides an harmonious environment for the personal growth of both individuals and a foundation upon which to nurture others the couple enfolds in their celebration of love.
Although children remain one of the greatest blessings of marriage, we should defend childless marriages as valid marriages none-the-less, for it is the strength and union of committed love infusing life with vibrancy and outreaching purpose that reflects a spiritual truth about the life-giving nature of God, not the mere animal-function of producing offspring. Defined this way, marriage remains an icon of the sacrificial Love of Christ for His people and an enduring bond of stability; enhancing the entire community that affirms the couple’s commitment.
Yes, it is definitely time to recognize that the ability to prayerfully commit to a loving, life-long relationship that is reflective of the love of God and has nothing to do with outdated gender roles or sexual orientation. Let us redefine marriage in terms that reflect what is already lived. Let us redefine marriage in terms that truly express the length and breadth and depth of God’s love.
©2009 Peg Helminski