Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Contracepting Conservatives

I’m sorry, guys, but you’re not getting it both ways on this one. Unless there’s a clear Constitutional basis for excluding homosexuals from the benefits of marriage (I am not, of course, discussing the sacrament of marriage – only the social entitlements of the state’s recognition of some sort of unique and prolonged state of unity, whatever you may wish to call it), then the argument must be that marriage between man and woman brings some unique benefit to the state, and therefore deserves social protection and patronage. And, if this is the contention, then it must be made on the basis of Natural Law.

Conservatives love Natural Law. We abhor the notion that law may simply be posited on the caprice of the judiciary. We believe that the world is structured in such a way that careful observation and the application of reason allows us to discern a right way of living, and that this transcends the vicissitudes of fashion and culture. For this reason, there is not just “law,” but “good laws” and “bad laws.” Laws are good insofar as they express the natural order of things, and God’s intention for how we live our lives, individually and communally.

And so if we are to contend that marriage between man and wife is a relation that contributes uniquely to the social good, we ought to be able to identify a specific difference – some aspect through which this relationship is different from all others. The specific difference does not wholly express that relationship, but it is that through which we differentiate one kind of thing from another. Thus, we say the specific difference of man, through which he is differentiated from beasts, is rationality. I don’t mean that I think he is just rationality – but it is the part of man’s “whatness” that I can put my finger on that allows me to see that my children and my pets are, indeed, very different kinds of beings. At least on their better days (my children’s, that is).

Although there are many kinds of intimate and loving relationships, there is one unique to that between man and wife, and that thing which makes it unique is the begetting and rearing of children. Just like “rationality,” I do not think this difference sums up the entirety of the married state, but it is the thing which is different about this love than the love between parent and child or the love between dear friends, or any other human relationship. This relationship is not unique in the state by some random assertion. Deep down to its very roots, it is unique.

When we say that somehow technology has liberated us from the natural constraints of marriage, what we are really saying is that it has liberated us right out of what marriage is. A thing is always defined by its limits. You might want to see how far those limits extend, but you can find yourself going to a point where you have left the thing behind, altogether. In this conquest of technology over nature, and the reorientation or reduction of the conjugal act towards pleasure (or I will even grant “intimacy”), we have lost an appeal to the unique difference in the relation between man and wife to other unions and relationships that fulfill a variety of human needs and appetites. Why, indeed, should this new order of marriage between man and wife be considered as fundamentally different from these other relationships? And if we are to afford this relationship special privileges and benefits, on what basis are we to argue that this differentiation is rational or just? It makes sense for an insurer, for instance, to deny coverage of obstetrical care for men, the basis of this discrimination being the unavoidable fact that men don’t have a uterus. That natural and undeniable fact is the reason we consider this to be common sense, and not really discrimination. It’s not a question of rights, or of justice. It just is.

I am not arguing that there is absolutely no differentiation between homosexual relations and marriage where contraception is a given. I’m just arguing that when we accept contraception, we have given up the single most important basis for differentiation in human relations. The conservative position on marriage will inevitably fall, unless conservatives return to the traditional teachings of the Church. It may take time for homosexuality to become an accepted social norm, but it will happen. When it does, any abstract theoretical distinctions will prove to be an inadequate platform for legal distinctions. Marriage, as we know it, will become a meaningless term.

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