Marriage. What’s in a word?

Here’s the video I inserted at the end of my last post, for those of you who may have entered the discussion at this stage. Though the clip talks about civil unions, the intent clearly is to provoke a debate about marriage. Extending marriage legislation (including use of the term “marriage”) to same-sex couples is probably a government’s litmus test, the sign of its commitment to recognise the equal status of its LGBT citizens. I have already expressed myself as favouring the use of the word marriage rather than the terms civil unions or partnerships. Today, I thought it necessary to give a few reasons (there will probably others I have failed to mention), reasons that reflect both what I have gleaned from other sources as well as my own take on the matter. Naturally, I would like my words to be seen as an encouragement to same-sex couples  who already are in a civil union or partnership to continue to insist on getting civil authorities (as well as religious institutions as the case may be) to fully incorporate these civil unions/partnerships into the wider institution of marriage. So the caveat is: if couples so wish. I would be the last to wish to force a hetero-normative institution (that is how marriage is viewed in some quarters) on gay and lesbian couples, as not every couple may see itself as being prepared to take on the baggage that comes with the institution of marriage.

"Victory!" - This couple has been wa...

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Marriage. “What’s in a word?” You may ask. Why should one choose to use the word “marriage” to cover same-sex unions too? For a start, if the state, through its laws, wants to give all the rights that a heterosexual couple has through marriage to gay and lesbian couples, then it (the state) will need to explain why it insists on using two different terms to cover the same ground. We’re talking of same-sex couples having the same rights and duties, as well as privileges as straight couples, in other words, deserving of equal status and recognition. If, on the other hand, the state does not wish to accord the same status to the unions of same-sex couples, as it does to heterosexual couples, then it should be challenged to give its reasons for making this distinction, or in other words, why it is discriminating between its citizens.

To my mind it’s pretty clear that in calling such unions anything else but marriage, the state is perpetuating through its legislation the stigma that same-sex love is different (read: inferior, perverse, unnatural), as well as regarding its LGBT citizens as being somehow needy of ‘special’ rights different from those of others. I sincerely hope that offering civil unions to same-sex couples is not a case of giving sop to Cerberus. There are those who claim that where civil unions/partnerships were introduced, they have paved the way for marriage to be extended to same-sex couples. Only time will tell if they are right in making this claim.

The second reason I would like to mention here is that there is so much at stake. Even though I am opposed to its stance, I can understand why the Catholic Church’s leadership – aided and abetted by like-minded persons in the religious milieu and in civil society – chooses to wage an all-out battle against the introduction of marriage equality rights. I agree that the institution of marriage is considered to be highly valuable for the Church’s mission. Given the importance of marriage in human society, is it any wonder that also gays and lesbians recognise its value? I can’t for the life of me understand how LGBT persons can be accused of distorting or watering down the importance of marriage by desiring it too. Are we sullying someone else’s marriage, or cheapening it? Even when one takes into account all the changes and developments that have occurred, it is hard to dispute the fact that marriage is foundational to society. It is highly valued, so it is obviously much sought after. Not without reason either, because it is accorded a special status (and protection) in society, over and above other forms of unions, groupings, and organisations. Marriage is generally associated with stability, security, growth, and purpose. It is not simply the stability and security of the couple which is at stake, but also that of the children, likewise that of society. It is precisely for this reason that by allowing same-sex couples to marry (putting them on an equal footing), the state is affording stability and security to same-sex couples, and their children, should there be any. In so doing society’s stability and development would be enhanced rather than reduced.

The recent case of the B&B couple in Cornwall who were judged to have discriminated against a gay couple brings me to point number three: why create ambiguity by calling the unions of same-sex couples by another name instead of marriage? Why are we trying to reinvent the wheel? Why not let the word marriage continue to extend in its meaning to cover new ground? Is it necessary to use different terms to mean exactly the same thing? Practicality dictates otherwise. Marriage is a universally recognised term for commitment of the highest order; civil unions/partnerships do not enjoy this universality, that is, not everyone immediately understands the implications of being in a civil union.

Let’s put it this way, the meaning of the word marriage has already been extended so as to cover a number of situations. It wouldn’t be out of place to talk of the marriage of two car companies, just to give an example, or the marriage of ideas, to give another. We could marry brawn to brains, or beauty to intelligence. The word marriage signifies a union, a blending of things. In biblical language the union between God and the people of Israel, and in the NT, between Christ and the Church, has been described in marital terms. Why then should marriage not be allowed to signify the union of two persons albeit of the same sex?

Opponents of same-sex marriage frequently tie up marriage to procreation.  They do so to contest the claim that same-sex couples mirror heterosexual ones, deserving of the same rights. Some of these opponents may concede that civil unions/partnerships could be acceptable insofar as these unions accord rights to the couple, but remain opposed to, say, joint adoption rights. I will focus on procreation and marriage in next week’s post, limiting myself today to this final point: the essential ingredient in marriage is the all-embracing commitment that the spouses make to each other, not simply at a contractual level (though necessary for legal purposes), but more importantly, at a personal level, as a commitment where the two parties unreservedly give themselves to each other. Often the word “pact” or “covenant” is used, especially in a religious environment. In the Catholic rite of marriage the consent that the spouses give to each other is the key element for the marriage to be considered valid. The special commitment of two persons to each other – essential to the understanding of marriage – is, in my view, relatively easy to apply to same-sex love and commitment. Are same-sex couples capable of this level of love and commitment? If yes, than why should their love be accorded a different or inferior status? The failure of a number of heterosexual couples to rise to this level of love and commitment does not lead to marriage being ruled out for the remainder. Why should a different standard be applied to the LGBT community?

Suggested reading:

The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology (Moral Traditions)

(Todd A Salzman & Michael G Lawler)

Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe

(John Boswell)

Same-Sex Marriage: Pro and Con(Andrew Sullivan)

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One Response to “Marriage. What’s in a word?”

  1. william Says:

    Terry,
    Of all the post you have made this is by far the most important and timely one. You ask all the right questions and I for one would like for someone to tell me why I am inferior to heterosexuals and not be given the same rights and responsibilities that they enjoy. There is simply no valid reason why anyone should not be considered equal to another human being. The idea that the religious right holds to that by granting homosexual persons the same rights that they enjoy including the right to be legally recognized as married would somehow undermine marriage in general and undermine theirs in particular,
    This is pure nonsense. How is my loving another person be that male or female going to impact someone else’s marriage? There can be no other reason to deny gay people the same rights that straight people enjoy than to hold to the belief that we are inferior to them. This flies directly in the face of God who St. Paul declares emphatically that God is no respecter of persons. If God considers ALL his children equal then we ALL are equal. It’s high time the religious authorities and those who call themselves Christian to start believing and living, behaving like Christians. Does the scripture Paul always point to “To put on Christ” escape them? What part do they not understand?


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