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Here is the gay marriage question no-one seems to be asking: If it’s all the same, then what’s the difference? With so much talk about equality, love, commitment and stability, is there simply no difference between gay marriage and marriage between a man and a woman? Is there absolutely nothing distinctive about marriage as it has traditionally been understood?

The answer is obvious but too easily forgotten: A life-long commitment between a man and a woman is a relationship involving sexual difference, involving male-female complementarity. For this reason, it allows children to be conceived and born within the life-long union of their own natural parents, and it is a form of commitment and family life that allows children to grow up with their own natural parents over a lifetime. This simply isn’t possible for a same-sex couple.

This doesn’t mean that a man and a woman are obliged to have children, or that they are always capable of having children. It’s simply a recognition that one distinctive aspect of this kind of male-female relationship is that, in ordinary circumstances, it can involve conceiving and bringing up their own children. (It’s not uncommon to talk about the ‘distinctive characteristics’ of something, even if there are exceptions. For example, it’s a distinctive characteristic of human beings that we use language; and the fact that some human beings cannot talk or choose not to talk does not undermine this).

This is not a religious argument (appealing to the Bible, the Anglican marriage service, or the Pope); it’s not a historical or sociological argument (highlighting national traditions or cultural norms); it’s not even a moral argument (although it does have moral implications). Nor is it a crude ‘biologist’ argument, reducing people to their genitalia and their reproductive capacities, because sexuality involves the whole person and not just procreation.

It is actually a humanist argument, appealing to an irrefutable truth about human nature that any rational person can acknowledge: that children can only be conceived by a man and a woman, and that marriage between their own parents is a form of family life that will allow children to grow up within the life-long embrace of their natural mother and father.

We have a word for this kind of life-long and public commitment between a man and a woman: it’s called marriage. It doesn’t exclude the fact that there are many other kinds of relationships, some of them involving love, stability and life-long commitments; nor does it rule out other forms of family life that come about for all sorts of different reasons. We have an assortment of words to help us understand some of the distinctions (‘marriage’ being one of them), and we need these words for the sake of clarity and honesty about some of the differences there are between different kinds of relationships.

This is why it’s misleading and even deceptive to claim that allowing gay marriage would make no difference to traditional marriage and to all those men and women who are already married. It’s often asked, rhetorically: What harm would it do? What difference would it make? Is it not just about allowing more people to share in the benefits of marriage? Is it not just about adding something rather than taking something away? Are we not simply increasing rights and widening the franchise?

This is simply untrue. If marriage is redefined to include gay marriage, it means that the core understanding of marriage will no longer include that aspect of sexual difference and complementarity, and that aspect of creating a family where one’s own children may be conceived and raised (even if this doesn’t happen for every couple). The definition of marriage will be narrowed (or perhaps we should say widened) to a relationship of love, friendship and mutual support. This is not just an addition or a minor change; it is a radical undoing of marriage as it is commonly understood. It makes it impossible for a man and woman to have their marriage recognised as a union that involves sexual-difference, because they are being told – in the new definition – that their sexual difference has nothing to do with the nature of their marriage. A right has been taken away and not just added.

There is a strange and perhaps unintended effect of the proposed legislation. It will not actually allow gay people to marry (where marriage keeps its traditional meaning); it will change marriage into a form of civil partnership. It will mean that marriage as it has traditionally been understood will cease to exist; and for a man and a woman wanting to commit themselves to each other in a life-long partnership, their only option will be a form of commitment that replicates the present civil partnership commitments for gay couples.

The fact is, of course, that many men and women will continue to marry, and the majority of them will conceive and raise their own children. Marriage as it has traditionally been understood will seem to go on, but we won’t have a specific word or public institution for it any more; and the irony is that if we are not allowed to use the word ‘marriage’ we will have to invent one which describes exactly what the word marriage used to describe.

But this is not just about words and definitions. Our whole society, not just ‘the state’, has until now recognised that marriage (as a life-long commitment between a man and woman) has been a relationship that deserves special recognition and special privileges. This is not because it is the only kind of life-long or loving relationship (it’s obvious that there are many others); nor is it because society scorns these other relationships (it’s got nothing to do with homophobia or gay rights); it is simply because – to state the obvious once again – marriage between a man and a woman, unlike a same-sex relationship, allows children to grow up with their own natural parents.

This non-religious and non-moral humanistic fact does lead to a moral question: Is it good and desirable, all things being equal, for parents to conceive and bring up their own natural children, and for children to be brought up within the loving union of their own natural mother and father? Most people would say yes. This isn’t to discriminate against other forms of relationship and other forms of parenting and family life, it is simply to acknowledge the unique meaning of marriage between a man and a woman, and to recognise that this distinctive relationship brings particular benefits to individuals and to society. That’s why we have a special word for this relationship, ‘marriage’; and that’s why this relationship is ‘institutionalised’ and given a special place in our society.

To deny the distinctive nature of marriage between a man and a woman, and to promote gay marriage, is actually to deny the commonly held assumption that (all things being equal) it is good for children to be brought up by their own natural mother and father. This might seem like a big leap of logic, but it’s true: To define marriage only in terms of love, commitment, stability, etc – to make gay marriage ‘equal’ – means that there will no longer be any social or legal recognition of the particular family unit where children are conceived and raised by their own natural mother and father in a public and life-long commitment. At present, we recognise different kinds of family life, and we preserve a special place in our society for the kind of family where parents can try to raise their own natural children in the context of a life-long and public commitment, and where children can grow up with their own natural parents in this same context. If gay marriage legislation is passed, it will no longer be possible to promote the idea that marriage between a man and a woman has a distinctive meaning and a particular benefit for children and for society.

Let me try to summarise all this. The distinctiveness of marriage between a man and a woman is not something that depends on religion or tradition or morality: it is a fact of human nature and of the nature of society, that this kind of relationship (unlike a same-sex relationship) involves sexual difference and complementarity, and that this kind of relationship (unlike a same-sex relationship) is a union in which parents can conceive and raise their own natural children – even though there may be particular reasons why a particular couple are unable to do this.

But the argument against gay marriage is a moral one, because it involves what is understood to be good for children, for family life and for society. This is not because of any prejudice against gay people; it is because society recognises the particular benefits that come when children can be brought up by their own mother and father in a loving and life-long relationship, in a commitment that has been made to each other and before others. This isn’t always possible; but when it is possible, it’s a good thing – to be loved by your own natural mother and father, and to be supported by their own continuing love for each other; to love your own children, and to know the continuing love of the person with whom you conceived these children. Very few people would deny that these are good things, for individuals and for society, even if they are sometimes difficult to achieve. That’s why we should acknowledge the particular relationship that can allow and nurture them. That’s why we should keep marriage as it is.

[Last edited - in response to feedback - on 19 Dec 2012]

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In my recent talk about the saints, I was developing an idea about how human maturity and sanctity involve learning to depend on others rather than learning to be more independent and self-sufficient. I linked this to a particular interpretation of Original Sin and the Fall. Here is the passage:

Let me look at the Adam and Eve story in Genesis. This is my speculation and not Catholic doctrine.

Adam and Eve leave Eden

One of the tragedies of the Fall, even before the sin of eating the forbidden fruit, was the fact that when Eve was tempted, instead of sharing this problem with Adam or with the Lord, she tried to argue with the serpent on her own. She didn’t turn to another and ask for help; she faced the challenge alone, trusted in herself too much, and in effect asserted her autonomy instead of allowing herself to receive the support of another. And I’m not making a point about woman’s need for man here. Adam, even though he was enticed by Eve and complicit with her choice, also acted alone. He didn’t stop to talk or reason with Eve or with the Lord. He just acted (Genesis Ch 3).

It’s the same with Cain and Abel in the following chapter of Genesis (Genesis Ch 4). This is a difficult passage to interpret, but at its heart it’s about two brothers faced with difficulties and temptations. When Cain was struggling with the Lord (because for some reason his offering was not acceptable to the Lord), instead of turning to his brother Abel, confiding in him, asking for his support and help and advice – he killed him. And when the Lord confronts him and says ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ Cain replies, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ He should have been his brother’s keeper, but he was not – and this is the heart of the tragedy.

And even more so (this is my interpretation), Cain should have allowed his brother Abel to be his keeper; he could have turned to his younger brother in this moment of crisis, in this struggle with the Lord, and asked for his help. But instead, he depended on his own resources and turned against his brother. Think of what Abel could have done for Cain if Cain he had opened his heart to him and confided in him?

The passage continues: “And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” This is usually interpreted as meaning that the blood of Abel is crying out in vengeance against his brother, broadcasting the truth of his murder – and this is surely the primary meaning of the text.

But perhaps there is another hidden meaning here, which is that Abel’s blood is crying out in petition for his brother. Abel, in this story, is the just man, the innocent victim, like Christ. Just as Abel (we can suppose) wished he could have cried out to support his brother in that moment of temptation and crisis, now he cries out to the Lord, offering his own forgiveness, asking for forgiveness from the Lord for Cain, and praying for a sinner – his brother – just as Christ would pray for sinners from the Cross.

The point here is that Cain failed to be his brother’s keeper – he chose independence rather than dependence on another. Abel, in contrast, is the one who would have wanted to be his brother’s keeper, but wasn’t given the opportunity in this life. And now in death his blood cries out not just to indict his brother, but to intercede for him.

So part of our own healing and reconciliation as Christians is learning to become more dependent on others, learning to need others, when the constant temptation is to go it alone and isolate ourselves.

We see this healing and reconciliation taking place in many ways, one of which is in praying for each other, and asking others to pray for us.

A profound vision of redeemed Christian life is expressed whenever we pray to the saints. We turn to them not just because we want to get something from them, but also because we want to acknowledge our dependence on others, to show how much we need the help of the people God has made part of our lives.

Depending on the saints undermines the false idea that autonomy is the highest human goal. We are not made to be autonomous or self-sufficient; we are made to depend on each other – to be ‘keepers’ of our brothers and sisters, and to allow our brothers and sisters (at the appropriate times) to ‘keep’ us.

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