The Personalist Project

According to recent polls the pro-life cause seems to be winning its argument with the younger generation; yet, the defense of traditional marriage seems to be losing ground.  Why is this?  I’m sure there are many reasons, but one may be that the pro-life argument is basically simple and strait forward (it’s a human being, quite obviously, in the womb) while the “pro-choice” argument has to get extremely convoluted to try to justify itself.  On the other hand, the “homosexual marriage” argument is simple (if people want to marry, let them), while the traditional marriage argument gets complicated (technical definitions of marriage involved, intimate physical details required, objections about parallels to infertile couples, etc.).  This just goes to show that the simple argument is not always right—it is with abortion, it is not with homosexual marriage. 

So my question is, how can those defending traditional marriage present their argument is a more strait forward, less technical way?  I had two thoughts on the matter.  We’ll see if they help—or also get too complicated.  Furthermore, my second point on the legal situation is made in the full knowledge that I am not a lawyer, so I can’t fully evaluate its applicability.  Nonetheless, I’ll plunge ahead…. 

First, although the courts seem to be going in the direction of allowing marriage to be defined however the couple wishes, is this truly reasonable?  Is there no essence to what “one flesh” means?  For instance, if I entangle my body with someone else’s, e.g. in a wrestling match, does that make us one flesh?  It would seem not.  Or, even if I penetrate part of your body, or you mine, e.g. if I stick my tongue in your ear or you put your finger in my mouth, does that make us one flesh?  It would seem not. 

Even if we willed it so or made vows about it, would that make us one flesh?  Why?  Suppose we make an agreement that if we take vows and suck each other’s toes, then we are married.  Does that make it so?  No.  Here the Church teaching that what makes “one flesh” is the union of male and female in the marital act, wherein the two different sexual systems meaningfully unite and make sense of one another, appears in all its reasonableness.  The sexual systems in the human body are the only ones that are “incomplete” in isolation.  Every other system—skeleton, nerves, circulatory, skin, etc.—makes sense all by itself, but the sexual system in man makes no sense by itself and the sexual system in a woman makes no sense by itself.  Only together in the traditional marital act do they make sense.

So even if a more intimate part of my body is revealed, used, or penetrated by another, why should that make us actually “one flesh” or united in marriage if it is not a uniting of male and female sexual organs?  Here, though somewhat technical, we have access to an understandable core of the act required for the consummation of marriage.  Thus president Clinton was not exactly wrong when he said, concerning Monica Lewinsky, “I did not have sex with that woman”—he did not have a complete marital act.  It is not just any kind of intimacy that makes two people one, but only the full marital act.

Furthermore, considered legally, is there any way this might be defended in the modern court system?  I submit that one place might be in the definition of annulment.  Here there might be a chance to get even a “liberal” judge to acknowledge a physical requirement of a traditional marital act.  For example, let’s take a wild hypothetical— such imaginative situations are sometimes used in ethics and moral theology.  Suppose two people get married and then on the first night the bride finds out that the husband has married her only for her money.  He brags about this and about having tricked her into it.  Now she’s stuck, he claims, because even with a (“no-fault”) divorce, he’ll get half of all she owns as well as of future earnings!  But suppose they have not consummated the marriage.  Then, of course, she could go to court and ask not for a (“no fault”) divorce, but for an annulment—leaving the shyster con-man with nothing.  If he claimed they were married just because they had said vows, but she claimed they were not because they never had a full marital act together (regardless of what other intimacies they had had), what judge would ever award the fellow half the property?  Is there a possible legal argument here for a full, traditional marital act as a requirement for a legal marriage?

Comments (15)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Mar 5, 2012 3:37pm

Thanks for these ideas, Michael.  They will help me in preparing my lecture on sexuality. Re-reading DvH's Man and Woman, I appreciated a distinction he made, which reminded me of some the discussions surrounding the talks you and Christopher West gave for us three years ago.  The question then was at what moment the Sacrament of Marriage is effected.  Is it at the altar with the vows, or is it later, with the act of consummation?  

DvH wasn't addressing this question directly, but he did say that the marriage vows make the marriage irrevocable.  They are permanent vows.  Hence, a dispensation from the Pope is needed to break them.  The conjugal act makes the marriage indissoluable.  Even the Pope can't undo it.

In my online debates about "same sex marriage", I often take this line: The debate is not whether gays are equally citizens, the debate is whether a homosexual liaison is or can be the equivalent of marriage.  It isn't and it can't be.  No force of law can make it so.  Only marriage has procreative power.  Only marriage unites the two halves of the human whole.  Only marriage serves the common good.

Michael Healy

#2, Mar 5, 2012 8:53pm

Katie--Yes, it is not a question of the "rights" of persons with homosexual tendencies; it is a question of the actual facts about marriage and "one flesh."  Just because two people will it so doesn't change a reality.  

God bless you in your endeavors to teach and write on the topic.  This is one of the most difficult challenges in the modern world and I admire all who take it up, such as Robert George at Princeton and Pat Lee at Franciscan.  


#3, Mar 10, 2012 10:42pm

Hi Michael,

Whenever I bring up sexual complimentarity in a conversation about gay marriage. It goes back to things like, love is not just plumbing, or orientation is not just external or there are people who are intersex etc.

How would you respond to these comments?

richard sherlock

#4, Mar 11, 2012 1:13am


Marriage is and must be understood in terms of its telos. One cannot understand anything without understanding final cause. What is the end of marriage? Nurturing new life must be part of this. This nurturing must be male and female. It can't really be anything else and we know both from tradition and revelation ( the marital analogy of male and female and God and the Church/world is all over scripture) . We also know this from empirical data (reason). Children raised by same sex couples ( also children of divorce) don't do as well. They are not headed as firmly in the right direction and children , biological or adopted, raised by two complimentary parents. The data is overwhelming

Michael Healy

#5, Mar 11, 2012 7:12pm


In reply to such objections, one has to try to bring out that our sexual orientation is not just "plumbing" and that our bodies are not "external" to our being.  We are embodied persons, so what we do with our bodies we do as persons.  Our bodies are not just "tool"s we use or "foreign places" we inhabit; they are our very being, informed by the living soul.  Thus we are not just (falsely) "subjecting" the person (as a higher kind of being) to neutral biological systems (as a lower kind of being) when it comes to the meaningful nature of sexual acts; rather, we are following nature as united with and informed by personal being--thus, a deeply meaningful and intimate "nature" shows its normative dimension here.  Wojytla (JPII) is excellent at presenting the tradition in a deeper way to express the deeper truth of human sexuality as essentially personal, as is Von Hildebrand.

richard sherlock

#6, Mar 12, 2012 12:50am

Michael and others

Once recognize the telos of marriage is nurturing new life and realize the data that we are in a demographic winter then the case against "gay marriage" is empirically unassailable. We should not encourage relationships that cannot be truly reproductive. what we need is bold truth. My students are generally against "gay marriage" But they have no good reasons. I try to give them the good reasons. It is difficult because many students don't want to be part of tyhe "culture" but they also don't want to contest the culture boldly

Devra Torres

#7, Apr 3, 2012 7:05pm

I think arguments against gay marriage (or "gay" "marriage") are bound to seem incoherent unless we recover the idea of any marriage being essentially about both procreation and permanence.  Advocates of changing the definition of marriage look around and see plenty of heterosexual married couples who see procreation as optional and fidelity as conditional.  They don't see anyone trying to place legal barriers in front of unions like this, and they want to know: "Why are you picking on us?"  Those who embrace the Pill and no-fault divorce but not "gay marriage" could rightly be accused of inconsistency. 

Gregory Borse

#8, Apr 3, 2012 11:05pm

From a constitutional point of view, the courts can only be interested in this question from a legal point of view--not a biological, nor a philosophical, nor a theological point of view. Opponents of same-sex marriage; proponants of hetero-sex marriage ought to confine themselves to legal questions. The others are legitimate, but not cogent to the concerns of a secular administration of the law and the government's interest in protecting or licensing this or that. Period.

Gregory Borse

#9, Apr 3, 2012 11:07pm

This is not to take a side one way or the other.  It's to make a distinction. Like the one Rome made in determining the legality of Christianity, oh, about the time of Constantine. It's a line that has to be drawn at some point. That is, perhaps, where we are now. Perhaps not.  But it's a legal, not a theological, question. The theological question is settled and will change not regardless of the legal disposition.

richard sherlock

#10, Apr 4, 2012 12:00am


If I understand what you are saying I must respectfully disagree. The law must ask what a marriage is or what is marriage. But I am a firm believer that you cannot understand what something is without final cause. That is to understand what a tractor is you must know what it is for. Planes and cars are made with the same material and in the same way but they are not tractors. Same with marriage. This requires philosophy at least maybe not explicit theology but at least Aristotle's philosophy. To be consistent and not take a position that will lead to "bestiality" you will need to hold that marriage must be open to new life in a way that gay marriage simply cannot be.

Gregory Borse

#11, Apr 4, 2012 10:03am

I understand your point, Richard.  I'm just not sure that the law can go so far as to either determine or consider the sacramental nature of marriage qua marriage (as we Catholics truly mean it).  You may well be right, ultimately--and I share your thoughts on "final cause" in coming to understand anything.  But, does the law take into consideration the final cause of, say, a human being, in its adjudication of the administration of civil society?  It may well be best if it, indeed, did, but I don't think it has as a matter of practice in the past. 

richard sherlock

#12, Apr 4, 2012 4:49pm

I appreciate your response. I know the law doesn't often do this but then how can the law say that slavery is never right and the way ranchers like I was growing up are not doing something wrong. Don't we have to say that human nature is such that we have free will and animals do not

Gregory Borse

#13, Apr 4, 2012 7:34pm

Nice call, there Richard.  As I was re-reading and then typing my response, I thought precisely of slavery as the counter-example that shredded my own position.  Of course, Roe v. Wade gives the lie to any sense of philosophic consistency under the law re: the nature of the human person.  It is, after all, of a piece.  Say--let's do this:   Let's convince Catholics to act and vote like Catholics in the U.S.  We'd run the joint if we did!

richard sherlock

#14, Apr 4, 2012 7:48pm

Really good Greg. We need to get Catholics to vote like Catholics. Even if we both agree that a candidate like Romney isn't perfect and isn't even Christian he or someone like him is more likely to appoint judges who will recognize the human personhood of the unborn than alternatives. It comes down to this. Do you know in your soul the dignity of all human persons or not

Gregory Borse

#15, Apr 4, 2012 8:25pm

Thanks, Richard.  Your posts were very thoughtful.  I'll be back!

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