Orange County Thomas More Society Presentation
November 20, 2013, Fr. Joseph Illo
Thank you for participating
Thank you, Greg, for that introduction, and to Steve Contungo and all of you for inviting me to your meeting this month. Steve’s children attend Thomas Aquinas College, where I serve as chaplain, and I had the privilege of helping his daughter Sarah with her senior thesis last semester. I am pleased to say that in our college Student Center, we have only three paintings of saints: St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Joseph, and … St. Thomas More. The patron of Catholic jurists is quite well loved at Thomas Aquinas College.
Arguably, Catholics make the best lawyers, since you have 2000 years of legal tradition behind you, and belong to the organization most responsible for developing the western system of rule of law. I saw on your website that you’ve organized an annual diocesan Red Mass. In my last parish, we held an annual Blue Mass to honor and pray for first responders, and a White Mass for physicians, but never quite got the Red Mass off the ground, even though we had a lot of attorneys in the parish. Every time we held a planning meeting, the lawyers could never agree among themselves….
Is a priest competent to speak on marriage?
I’ve been asked to speak on the question of marriage, and of course, never having been married, I immediately agreed. Priests, perhaps like lawyers and doctors, imagine that we are experts in every topic, or at least can talk like we are experts. I don’t claim to be an expert on marriage, but I began life in a marriage (my parents celebrated their 60th anniversary this year), and for 23 years have been “marrying” all the finest ladies in my parish. Not only do priests prepare couples for marriage, and celebrate their weddings, but more importantly we talk them through the difficult times after the wedding, and in the process learn a certain amount of inside information about marriage dynamics. And I might say, that celibacy affords us a certain objectivity, a disinterestedness, when engaging the emotionally-charged difficulties couples must face. Finally, priests study and teach theology, and so are able to apply some fundamental principles to the question of marriage.
One further disclaimer: I am a parish priest by trade, not a professional theologian, sociologist, or legal expert. At my disposal is a basic grounding in theology and many years’ parish experience, but I am not an expert and scarcely the last word on the subject. Although I would suspect you all would be less likely to succumb to the fallacy that “whatever father says is true,” many take what a priest says on a spiritual subject like matrimony as magisterial. My talk centers mainly on natural-law arguments for marriage, although of course it depends on ideas developed in the Christian tradition. We are here to think through this question together, and I encourage your questions and comments after my presentation.
What is marriage: framing the question
Is marriage defensible? To answer that question, we must first ask: What is marriage? It seems an obvious question, but suddenly, nobody can agree on a definition of marriage. But the simplest things in life are often the hardest to define. St. Augustine famously said in the 11th chapter of his Confessions, "What then is ‘time?’ If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it, I know not."
Robert George, Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and Visiting Professor at Harvard Law School, has written a little book on this question, along with co-authors Sherif Girgis and Ryan Anderson, entitled: What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense. Defining marriage turns out to be a complex question, difficult to encompass and articulate. Even this book, which I highly recommend, having made an essential definition, circles around and about that core trying to articulate just what it is. Robert George and his co-authors, however, have come up with a most succinct definition: marriage is a “comprehensive union.” That is, marriage is a union of body and soul inherently oriented toward the generation of new life. As I will explain, and is perhaps already self-evident, this can only obtain between one man and one woman.
What distinguishes the marriage bond
There exist all sorts of friendship bondings among humans: coffee klatches, business partnerships, a grandfather and granddaughter, two bachelor brothers keeping house together, communes of like-minded adherents, from Catholic monasteries to nudist colonies, reading clubs, sports clubs, scout troops, etc. What makes the marriage bond distinct, and why would the state want to regulate it? The government doesn’t issue “friendship licenses” for hiking clubs, or require divorce procedures for two elderly sisters who had lived together but go their separate ways after an argument. Why does the government involve itself in marriage at all? The reason must be that marriage—the union of will and body between man and woman (ratum et consummatum)—generates new human beings, new citizens, the care and education of whom greatly affects society. Government must help rightly order our societal goods, among which children are the most precious. Children are our future, and our present, and we neglect their health and education to our common demise. Even if we don’t care about children as individuals, our own public security and peaceful retirement depends on them. That’s why you see billboards on the freeway promoting “responsible fatherhood;” even the most radical secularist in “fatherless America” understands that children growing up without parents turn out very badly for everyone concerned.
This, then, is what distinguishes marriage from any other type of human bonding or companionship or relationship: it is naturally and essentially oriented toward children. A side note here: we often fall into the trap of speaking about “traditional marriage,” which concedes that there are different kinds of marriage. In the western legal tradition, at least until a few years ago, there have never existed various forms of marriage, such as “traditional marriage,” “open marriage,” “flexible marriage,” “same-sex marriage,” etc. Despite the recent iterations of the courts, there is still only “marriage,” which is distinct from any other kind of friendship, companionship, legal arrangement, or human bonding, precisely because it is capable of generating new life. We need to be precise in our use of the term; certainly those who want to redefine it are willing to wage protracted legal battles just to do that; we need to insist on its proper use, for our use of words indeed affects our concepts. So, when I use the word “marriage” in this talk, I’m talking about marriage, which is the comprehensive union between a man and a woman. Some may argue that this begs the question of what marriage is, but it makes sense to start from the concept as commonly understood before we determine if it should be redefined.
“Comprehensive Union”: Total gift of self
Again, let us attempt to define “comprehensive union.” Marriage is comprehensive in the sense that it comprehends everything in the human person. It is total, it is a complete self-gift of body, soul, mind, and heart. Can marriage be partial—can I be “kind of married?” Is marriage a compromise? For years I’ve worked on Engaged Encounter and Retrouvaille weekend workshops with married couples. Any of those happily married couples will tell you that once you begin thinking of marriage as a compromise—I give 50% and she gives 50%, and maybe this week I can get by with 48%—once I start thinking like that, my marriage is headed south. Marriage requires 100% from each partner. It is not only a business relationship (certainly it includes a business arrangement) where contracts are drawn up and one party is not obligated beyond narrow contractual requirements. Marriage requires the whole person. No-fault divorce, which began the process of redefining marriage forty years ago, reduces marriage to merely a contractual arrangement. I was talking with my 80-year-old mother yesterday, who has been married for sixty years to my father, and raised six children with him—she knows a thing or two about marriage. She visited my older brother last week, who is caring for his wife after her surgery. “Bobby is caring for her, changing her dressings and her drains, bathing her, feeding her.” She was amazed that this little boy to whom she had given herself fifty years ago was now giving himself to his wife. He could have just hired a full-time nurse (he has hired a part-time nurse so he can get to work), but he wants to care for his wife as personally as he can. This kind of arrangement is not merely contractual—it represents a total gift of self.
“Comprehensive Union”: Faithful and permanent
Marriage is “comprehensive” in that it touches every aspect of the human person and requires a total gift of self until death. Nothing less can hope to bring about happiness in such an intimate relationship. It requires exclusivity, or what we call fidelity (monogamy), because the human person can only love one person at a time. Certainly, we can appreciate and love groups of friends, and both parents, and all our children, but when it comes to total surrender to another person, the human psyche needs a single object of that gift. Ideally, marriage should be lifelong, or “permanent,” because the human person finds it emotionally repulsive to surrender to another in complete trust, to build a life together over many years, only to see it collapse and then have to start over again. A comprehensive union takes all that we have to give, and we find it exhausting to do it more than once. Commonly those who have lost a spouse to death, or gone through a divorce, will tell you that he or she “isn’t ready to do that again” or “is not interested in marriage again.” The nature of a comprehensive union demands that spouses enter into marriage intending lifelong fidelity, even if that goal is not realized in every marriage.
Thus, if marriage is a comprehensive union of mind and body, it demands of that union totality, meaning fidelity and permanence. But fidelity and permanence could be said of same-sex “marriage” as well, although same-sex couplings do not have a very good track record when it comes to fidelity and longevity. You could say the same, however, for most marriages today, after thirty years of no-fault divorce. Most Americans are serial bigamists, if we could say so, a phenomenon of which we are perhaps even more aware here in Southern California.
So what is it about marriage—again, I’m referring to the exclusive, lifelong comprehensive union of one man and one woman—what is it about this type of human relationship that distinguishes it from other types of friendship bondings? It is not sex—anybody can have sex. It is not common interest, or emotional attachments—any kind of group or couple can have emotional involvement, but we don’t call them marriage.
“Comprehensive Union”: Orientated toward procreation
The only factor that distinguishes marriage from any other human relationship—and this is my main point—is its inherent orientation toward the generation of new life. No other human relationship organically results in new life. And if one man and one woman produce a child, then that child needs what we call a “home;” he has a right to his own natural father and natural mother, who are best suited to provide a safe, loving, nurturing, and educating environment for him. Children flourish optimally when their own father and own mother love each other and thus render themselves capable of providing a nurturing environment for their children’s development. Of course, this ideal is not always possible. Death, or irreconcilable differences, or work or war, or illness, may destabilize the relationship between mother and father and break the child’s home apart. But to deny marriage and family life as the norm, as the goal, of societal development is to deny human nature. You may be unconsciously thinking that two men can be a marriage and a family, but I repeat, because we are inundated with revisionist propaganda: any arrangement other than one man and one woman does not a marriage make, certainly not according to the natural law.
To unpack this a bit further: marriage must be inherently open to the generation and nurturing of human life, or it is not marriage at all. Even infertile couples—either marriages of those who discover they cannot have children, or marriages of elderly people—are still oriented toward the generation and care of children by the very physical and psychological nature of husband and wife. Not every marriage must bear children to be valid, but every marriage must be oriented and open to new life to be valid. Otherwise, why would the state have any interest in regulating and supporting it? Manifestly, then, marriage cannot be confected between two people of the same sex, because they are incapable of organically generating new life. The question of polygamy is less obvious, but it is fairly obvious that exclusivity—the total gift of self between individuals—recommends itself best to the care of children. If I have children with various women, it is likely that I will favor some children over others, as it is unlikely that I will love all their mothers equally. It’s hard, well nigh impossible, for a man to love two or more women equally with his whole heart; his heart will be divided; and of course, I would say it is even harder for a woman to love two or more men equally with her whole heart. The best thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother, as they say. A man with two “wives” can only love each mother of his children with part of his heart, and as we’ve said, marriage requires totality, a complete gift of one’s person.
The Inherent Link between Sex and New Life
How do advocates of same-sex marriage, or serial marriage, or open marriage, argue against what seems manifestly evident from simple biology and more complex psychology? They do so by refusing to admit the crucial link between sexual intercourse and new life. Before technology permitted us to separate sex from babies (before hormonal contraception, and in vitro fertilization, and artificial insemination, and human cloning), society depended on marriage to generate and educate offspring. Marriage was the best way to provide for a stable and flourishing population. But with the advent of artificial generative technologies, and as the Christian ideals of fidelity and sacrificial love waned, we have quietly been separating sex from babies, and marriage from children, at least in our minds.
Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, apart from his duties as Archbishop of SF, serves as chairman of the USCCB Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage. In June he spoke to all of his priests on the subject: “To put it succinctly,” he said, “sex is either for babies and bonding, or it is for fun and games.” The two views are mutually exclusive. All the world’s cultures, but most clearly the Christian culture, have defined marriage as oriented toward the generation and rearing of children. But how many of us think of marriage like this today? If I say to you, “marriage is about children,” I venture to think that you would say “no, marriage is about me and her. Marriage is about us, not any children we might decide to have.” And therein lies the difference. If marriage is just an emotional bond between two adults, if marriage is not intrinsically ordered to the generation of new life, if marriage is essentially about adults, then marriage can take any shape those adults wish. It can be for a year or ten years, it can be with one partner or several partners, it can be with members of the same sex or a different sex, it can be based primarily on financial gain, or sailboating, or travel, or any other common interest. Marriage would have no intrinsic definition if it exists only at the whim of the adults concerned. Only if marriage is intrinsically ordered to children can we define it in reference to an unchanging biological reality: that is, the generative process. Only if marriage is fundamentally ordered to offspring does it need to be a monogamous, permanent commitment (most same-sex couples prefer “open arrangements” rather than exclusive, permanent bondings, and there seems to be no inherent reason to prefer one over the other).
We will never understand marriage if we don’t understand the intrinsic connection between sex and babies. One of my friends, who lived in a contracepted marriage for many years and then “went natural,” described procreation as the essential “glue” that holds spouse together. A few years ago, over hors d’oevres and some fine wines at a dinner party, the conversation veered into the decay of marriage over the last fifty years in America. An Episcopalian woman blurted out to me, “Father, it all started with the pill.” I solemnly agreed, but discreetly kept silent on the fact that it was her church, the Anglican church, that first permitted use of artificial contraceptives at their Lambeth conference in 1930. At the time, contraception was illegal in most state constitutions; it was tantamount to prostitution or mutual masturbation—using another’s (or one’s own) body simply for pleasure, without accepting the responsibilities that authentic love requires. The widespread use of artificial contraception has since radically destabilized marriage, and ultimately rendered the concept of marriage unintelligible. If marriage is not about babies, it is not about anything, and it is about anything.
Marriage based on love, not power
When couples come into my office for marriage preparation, I find it effective to lay the cards on the table in the first meeting: “marriage is about children, not only about you.” Couples “in love” tend think of nothing but themselves, understandably, but marriage based on no more than self-interest, or even common interests, does not last a lifetime, because interests change. Married love, to be all that it is designed to be, must be effusive, to go beyond itself. Since I’m Catholic, and the couples are seeking Catholic marriage, I use the image of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph to describe the Christian ideal of marriage. In the Holy Family, the child was the most important (Jesus), and the woman (Mary) came next, and the man (Joseph) quietly supported both in the background. Post-Christian cultures, like pre-Christian cultures, see family life exactly upside-down from this: the man is the most important, since he has the most power, and then the woman, and last in consideration is the child. These are relationships based on power, not on love, and the divorce culture manifests how deeply we have bought into this. Disregard for the child in non-Christian cultures—evident in abortion, infanticide, child abuse and neglect, and divorce—is the inevitable consequence of power-based societies. We aspire to a society based on self-giving love.
“Conjugal” and “Revisionist” views
Robert George and his co-authors describe the current controversy as between two opposing concepts of marriage, what they call the “conjugal view” and the “revisionist view.” You might call the “conjugal” view the traditional view, marriage as understood by virtually all cultures in human history up until the last forty years. In the “conjugal” view, marriage requires a physical bond in addition to an emotional bond, while in the “revisionist” view, marriage requires only an emotional bond. Paradoxically, bodily sex is more important to the conjugal view than the revisionist view, which includes any kind of “open” marriage—divorce, promiscuity, same sex arrangements, polyginy, etc. Only the conjugal view, which requires lifelong exclusivity to one spouse that is open to children, understands the body as a vehicle of a greater love. Only the conjugal view is “natural,” respecting the human body’s functions and structures without manipulating or forcing them into unnatural behaviors.
An interesting scientific fact is that sexual activity triggers the release of neurochemicals in the brain such as dopamine, serotonin, and various endorphins. These chemicals narrowly focus bodily energy and mental attention on one object; they minimize pain and maximize pleasure; they sear into the memory centers of the brain an intense bond with the object of one’s affection. These chemicals naturally lead to permanence and exclusivity with the object of our sexual activity. In merely biological terms, then, our nature seeks to preserve the species by encouraging permanent, monogamous bonding. Sexual bonding is as natural as breathing. If the individual doesn’t breathe, he dies, and if the race doesn’t generate children, it dies. And the best really the necessary, environment to beget and raise children, on which our social survival depends, is the permanent, faithful comprehensive bond we call marriage.
Sexual union has an objective bodily dimension, what we call coitus, the joining of complementary sexual organs. But sexuality is broader than mere genital contact—it involves the total person as male or female. Every cell in a man’s body is male, and every cell in a woman’s body is female. In the sexual confusion of our time, some undergo what they call “sex change operations.” This plastic surgery, however, only fabricates non-functional imitations of male or female genitalia. It does not change a person’s sexual identity. You would have to replace every cell male cell in a person’s body with a female cell to do that. George Burou, a Casablancan physician who has operated on over seven hundred American men, explained, “I don’t change men into women. I transform male genitals into genitals that have a female aspect. All the rest is in the patient’s mind.” Sexual union is a matter of body and soul, since the human person is a body-soul composite. Sexual union does not mean merely achieving orgasm; it means the union of bodies and souls that are capable of being so united.
Conjugal view in culture: Casablanca
The other night the College showed a classic movie to the students, Casablanca. It has been some years since I watched the 1942 film, and it struck me how clearly the concept of marriage was assumed in that movie. Ingrid Bergman (the Norwegian beauty “Ilsa”) is in love with two men, but only one of them is her husband. She had been told he perished in a concentration camp when she fell in love with Rick in Paris. When she finds her husband still alive, she leaves Rick so as to be faithful to her vows. When she and her husband find themselves in Rick’s Casablanca nightclub some years later, she realizes she does not have the strength to see him a second time. “You will have to think for all three of us,” she pleads of Rick. Deeply in love with her, Rick thinks correctly, respects her marriage vows, and arranges safe transport for Ilsa and her husband to America. He is left quite alone in German occupied-Africa, but one gets the sense at the end of the movie that Rick will find happiness because he has done the right thing. Despite his seemingly overwhelming feelings, Rick has upheld the permanent monogamous bond between Ilsa and her husband.
People no longer assume that respecting marriage vows is the right thing, because marriage does not mean the same thing it did. It has been some years since vows have taken precedence over “falling in love,” or that feelings trump promises. Behind Rick’s decision to respect the vows his beloved had made to her husband was an understanding of marriage radically oriented toward children and family life. Much more was at stake for Rick and Ilsa than their own emotional bond: at stake were any children that might be born to them, and even more importantly, the children born to any married couple. Rick knew, if I may surmise it, that his adultery with Ilsa would scandalize and cheapen other people’s marriages, and even if only in a small way, lead to the general destabilization of marriage and family life. Adults suffer when their marriages decline, but the first victims are always the children. My last parish supported a sister parish in Vladivostok, Russia. I spent two weeks there one year with a group of parishioners, painting, wallpapering, and building the youth center for our sister parish and got to know the state of Russian society today. The divorce rate is 95%, the economy is irreparably disabled, and more than half of the men in Vladivostok are alcoholics. Soviet Russia, too, redefined marriage, distributed free contraceptives, and paid for people’s abortions. Russia today is a wasteland of human wreckage, especially in places like Valdivostok, far from the wealth of Moscow. It is always the children and the poor that suffer the most when the educated and the wealthy decide to redefine social structures.
Marriage: A sacred institution oriented toward human life
Either sex is essentially sacred, or sex is essentially profane. It’s possible to posit aspects of sexuality in both terms, but it’s not possible to posit the essential purpose, the final end, of sex in both terms. A minority understands sexuality as essentially salvific, that is, oriented toward an end beyond this world, to the ultimate salvation, or perfect health, of the human being: what we call heaven. To understand sexuality in this way, of course, you have to believe in heaven in the first place. On the other end of the spectrum, another minority understands sexuality as essentially recreational, with no deeper significance than immediate personal pleasure. For this minority, I suppose, transient human pleasures are as much as one can expect from this life. But the vast middle hasn’t thought through the question enough to have any clear ideas about a deeper meaning for sexuality or marriage, which rightly orders our sexuality. Most folks, I would bet, think of sexuality vaguely as something fun and important and a little sacred, but mostly kind of what you make of it. We have not so much rejected as forgotten the essentially sacred nature of marriage and sexuality.
There is much more that can be said on this topic. For example, we must more fully articulate the sociological and psychological benefits of marriage for spouses and children compared to the damage and dysfunction resulting from other forms of sexual bonding. Many studies, most of them disregarded or suppressed by the same-sex marriage lobby, have demonstrated this. We should also look at the legal questions—why should the state be involved with marriage at all? How and to what degree should government regulate marriage? But for our purposes this afternoon, I would just say that once we lose sight of the essential purpose of marriage—that is to generate and care for new life—we have lost any objective definition of marriage. Marriage is about love between spouses, certainly—that is the hook that brings two people together. But it must go further than this. It must blossom, develop, perfect itself in the generation and education of new life, and in every case be open to new life. Even if the spouses are not given their own biological children, their relationship’s radical orientation towards new life defines their marriage. Without this orientation, marriage cannot be defined, still less defended.