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Marriage: It’s Natural

Natural Law Arguments in Defense of Marriage

Brian McCall


(Posted 2/23/10
As the institution of marriage is now under near constant attack with several additional states gearing up to redefine it altogether, it is appropriate to consider the arguments in support of the divinely ordained nature of this institution.  It is imperative to do so at this time in particular as the organs of power in our society are bent on denying that marriage is the lifelong union of one man and one woman for the purpose of begetting, rearing and educating children. 

We have a president and media Gestapo who propagate the falsehood that marriage is whatever they declare it to be.  Interestingly, in a public debate in which I participated over California Proposition 8 last November, my challenger began his remarks by stating that he believed the State had no business defining what constituted a marriage.  He concluded therefore that the law should let anything be accepted as a marriage that is claimed to be such by individuals, regardless of its form. 

I began my reply by saying that he was absolutely correct in his premise that the State had no business defining marriage.  His inference was, however, incorrect.  The reason the state has no business defining what is marriage is that no person has the competence to do so.  The state, and any individual, for that matter, is likewise incompetent to define or redefine what is water, fire or the sun.  Marriage is what it is, as these other substances are.  People have the ability to think about and understand to a greater or lesser extent what comprises the pre-existing essence of marriage.  The state has only the ability to craft laws with respect to the implications flowing from this reality to the extent necessary for the common good. The institution itself is not in any way subject to the volition of individuals or the state.

So if marriage is not whatever we want it to be, how do we know that it is the lifelong society of one man and one woman for the purpose of begetting, rearing and educating children? 

There are two sources of our knowledge, the Natural Law and the Divine Law.  In this article we will consider the Natural Law reasoning which proves this definition.  We will examine the Natural Law, not because it says anything different from Divine Law or is superior to it.  On the contrary, as they both have their origin in the same source—the Eternal Law, the Divine Reason—they are completely in accord with one another.  Our reason is that we must be familiar with these arguments to defend the truth in a nation whose leaders willfully refuse to listen to arguments from the Divine Law.

Our ultimate object must be the total willing conversion of society to Christ and His Church so that all joyfully and willingly accept the Divine Law and desire to act accordingly.  In the interim, prior to that time which we must work toward in tandem, if our society conforms its mores, institutions and laws to the Natural Law the common good will be better served.  Again, we should not abandon the efforts towards conversion; yet we should seek to improve the current situation by reference to arguments made on the natural level, the only level of discourse open to those in whom grace is not yet operative.  As St. Thomas would say, since grace perfects nature, the more people conform to nature the more disposed they are to accept grace.

With this explanation for the need of articulating Natural Law arguments about what constitutes marriage, let us turn to the substance.  Natural law thinking employs a methodology of deriving principles of moral action (“ought statements”) from what we can discern about the way things are.  One approach to reasoning from the nature of things to the law obligated by such nature looks at the purpose or function of things to deduce proper action on the basis of asking whether the proposed action accords with or detracts from that purpose. 

We can thus make arguments about what marriage ought to be (and derivatively what society should recognize as such in its institutions) by examining the function or purpose of the act distinguishing this state from others.  The thing that separates marital relationships from other relationships is the use of a particular act, appropriately enough referred to for centuries as the “marital act.”  Now what is the function or purpose of this act?  Simple observation demonstrates that this act has the function of bringing into existence other creatures like those making use of it.  The function of the act, that which it naturally produces, is procreation.  This logical inference is no different from concluding that the function of inhaling is to breathe oxygen. 

Some try to argue that it is possible to use the marital act for other purposes.  Yet, the fact that a thing oriented for a purpose is capable of being misused for another purpose does not disprove the fact of its natural inclination.  One can use the ability to inhale to breathe in deadly poison, but doing so is not using the act in accordance with its natural function.  Modern technological knowledge about the operation of the biological aspects of the marital act has only confirmed what people have always known.  For the act to be oriented towards this function of procreation, a male and a female must be the participants.  Resorting to use of the marital act (or more accurately a part of it) by two persons of the same gender is inherently not ordered to this purpose.  The purpose is in no way capable of being attained in this manner.

So far we have proven only that a man and a woman together making use of the marital act are necessary to orient it towards its natural function.  We have not yet demonstrated the further conclusion that for humans (as distinguished from other animals) the act involves a long term stable relationship between the partners.  To do so we need to consider human beings not in relation to what they have in common with animals but the aspect of their nature that distinguishes them.

First, we can note that unlike many animals, human beings are born incapable of satisfying even the most basic needs for survival.  They require an extended period of complete care by mature humans to even survive.  Just on a physical level, people are born social animals (creatures that depend on being present in a society).  This indicates another purpose associated with the act of procreation.  It must be undertaken in a situation in which a society exists, the presence of people capable of fulfilling this long term need for care.  Thus, the end of the act can be further described as procreation and care (or rearing of) offspring. 

True, some other animals also require similar periods of physical care. But Man is further distinguished from all animals by his unique characteristic of having the use of reason and volition.  It is also evident that these powers are present but not capable of being used at all initially.  They need to mature. Human history also demonstrates they are capable of being used well or poorly.  As St. Thomas explains we need to be trained in the use of these faculties and in the subjection of the lower faculties (the passions for example) to them.  If modern psychology has proven anything, it has demonstrated the great complexity inherent in this process of training reason and will.  Training, in the use of these complex, interrelated faculties requires more than mere physical care.  It requires education and discipline.  These processes extend over several decades (almost one before the faculties are even able to be used, the age of Reason) and another decade to acquire the discipline of how to use them well.   

Again as modern psychology has demonstrated the details of each person’s path to making proper use of these faculties is highly unique.  It interacts with the nuances of each person’s personality type and other factors.  Thus, those directing this process must be able to acquire the relevant breadth of experience of the contingent factors present for each new child over the course of time.  Thus, the aspect of the end of the marital act which we have called the education and training of children requires a fixed, stable society, i.e., a society which is not dissoluble and whose members are not coming and going. 

Again, man is a social animal.  He needs stable social interaction to develop and make use of his faculties.  Where people can come and go from a place at will, they are not in a society; they are merely sharing for the moment living space.  The reason and will need to be made to work in harmony with Man’s social nature.  This learning is acquired by observing and experiencing others living in society.  One living in an environment that is not a society of two adults that can serve as the model for societal interaction is not able to be educated in the use of his social nature. 

Human experience confirms this conclusion.  One need not look to Catholics (or even Natural Law proponents) for evidence that children who grow up in incomplete or non-existent familial societies have greater difficulties in mastering the use of reason and their wills. 

Another aspect of the social nature of man confirms the need for a man and a woman to form this society.  As Aristotle and St. Thomas explain, society is born out of the incomplete nature of individuals.  This does not mean that human beings are incomplete physical forms (like a dog with a missing leg).  Rather, they are incapable of fulfilling all of their needs (in the broadest, not just material sense) themselves. Society results from the completion of each member through interaction with the others.  A society is formed among those in need of what others have.  Thus, for centuries  neighborhoods formed, in part, because some families produced food, others clothes, others shoes and they needed to live together to compliment and fulfill each other’s material needs. 

Now, men and woman compliment or complete one another.  We have already seen this on the physical level.  Neither a man nor woman contains within himself or herself what is necessary to beget a child.  Each one brings something to complete the process.  It is also true on other levels.  Men and women’s physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual compositions differ and therefore compliment each other. Therefore a society of merely one type is incomplete, lacking the balance of complimenting abilities.  This is why societies of one gender need to transcend the mere natural level: a supernatural grace (religious vows) is needed to make such an unnatural society possible. Grace supplies for the want of nature in such supernatural societies. 

The state of marriage is a natural society.  (I recognize that Christ transformed this natural state among the members of the Church into a supernatural sacramental state.  Yet, grace does not eradicate nature but merely builds on it.)  Thus, for this society to be a society it requires members that complete one another.  Thus, this society needs to be more than long lasting; it needs to be comprised of members that compliment rather than mirror one another. 

To summarize, the ends or purpose of the marital act are the begetting, rearing and education in a society of children.  These ends require the use of the act by a man and a woman who have formed a stable, enduring and complimentary society.

Now, some may object to these arguments by suggesting that the end of the act can be defined not as we have, but as the attainment of pleasure.  We can observe that the act results in this sensation so whenever it does so, it is fulfilling its purpose.  The problem with this argument is that pleasure is not a useful guide for practical decision making about means to proper ends.  The experience of pleasure is a byproduct of attainment of a proper end (or put another way, doing good) but it can also accompany other situations.  For example, one may experience a sensation of pleasure in inhaling burning tobacco smoke.  Yet, this sensation of pleasure does not correlate with a conclusion that smoking tobacco furthers the good or end of bodily health and preservation of life.  This type of reasoning is analogous to the following argument.  I need to go to Egypt.  I know that if I am in Egypt I will feel hot.  I board a plane that lands in Panama.  I experience the sensation of being hot.  I would wrongly conclude that I have reached my end destination, Egypt.  Pleasure may then be an aspect of a properly oriented act (or in as Aristotle and St. Thomas would say attaining a state of happiness) but it is not identical with it.  Pleasure therefore cannot be an end (or good) in itself as it is merely an attribute associated with ends.     

This trap of misconceiving pleasure as a guide to right behavior is not the exclusive property of those holding an incorrect understanding of marriage.  Even some Catholics, such as Christopher West, have succumbed to this fallacy by making pleasure (albeit one they attempt unsuccessfully to keep properly restrained) the center of the argument.

Thus, we have proven from the book of natural observations that the nature of the marital act indicates ends which necessitate a complimentary and permanent society to be formed between a man and a woman.  Since God is the author of both nature and direct revelation we know that these conclusions from Natural Law will concur with revelation.  A brief look at the traditional Nuptial Mass will confirm such.  Marriage is referred to as an institution ordained for the “propagation of the human race” (first part of the Nuptial Prayer).  Note this phrase is not just the birth or more individual humans but the propagation or continuation of the human race (humani generis) which requires the training and education in that which makes one human.  The Epistle from St. Paul speaks directly of the complimentary roles of man and woman that make up the marital society (Eph. 5: 22-33).  There are several references to the need for permanence – “May you see your children’s children” (second Post Communion). 

Thus, Natural and Divine revelation concur.  Their author designed it this way.  Marriage is designed to further the purpose for which it is created.  The fact that Divine Revelation (even from the first book of the Bible) needs to reaffirm this fact demonstrates why we need to be reminded of the conclusions of nature.  Men who are poorly trained in the use of their reason can fail to recognize this truth written in our nature.  Yet, the law written on the heart cannot be totally erased (even if obscured).  Thus, the more Natural Law arguments are made eventually the heart will see the Truth of the way things are.  Those in power know this all too well.  Unable to defeat the arguments from nature, their only resort is to pass laws, currently pending before Congress, to silence them by force of law dressed in the guise of law. 

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