On being fruitful

(“Bart” continues his series of reflections on sexual ethics, from the perspective of a gay priest):


Image by nerdcoregirl via Flickr

In their instructive work The Sexual Person, authors Todd A Salzman and Michael G Lawler offer their readers the following definition:

We define a natural, reasonable, and moral sexual act as a just and loving act in accord with a person’s innate sexual orientation that facilitates a deeper appreciation, integration, and sharing of a person’s embodied self with another embodied self. Biological-genital complementarity is always a dimension of the natural, reasonable, and moral sexual act, and reproductive complementarity may be a dimension of it in the case of fertile, heterosexual couples who choose to reproduce. Reproductive complementarity will not be a possibility in the case of homosexual couples, but genital complementarity—understood in an orientation, personal, and integrated sense, and not just in a biological, physical sense—will be. (page 67)

The above quote serves me as an introduction to the knotty topic of procreation (the authors use the word “reproductive”) and same-sex marriage. Knotty because procreation is probably the single issue of any relevance that distinguishes between hetero and homosexual couples. We need to realise that there are two parts to the “procreation” argument against extending marriage to same-sex couples. The first part of the argument links procreation to marriage: if the couple cannot as a couple procreate, then they are not entitled to call their relationship marriage. Is this argument reasonable and correct?

Let’s have a look again at the introductory quote. What the above-mentioned authors are saying is that, from a biological point of view, a same-sex couple cannot have children in common, i.e., the child will not be the biological offspring of that couple, but only of one of them and a third party (I am not going to delve into the issues of cloning here). This factor is used by opponents to same-sex marriage to stress the difference between marriage and other forms of relationship, claiming that procreation is intrinsic to the understanding of marriage, and the children born into that marriage are the result of the married couple’s sexual activity.

This argument has often been rightly countered by proponents of same-sex marriage that neither sterile nor elderly couples are prohibited from getting married, even though the procreative dimension of their marriage is excluded from the outset. Nobody would thereby claim that they’re not married. Correction: the Catholic Church would consider the marriage of a [heterosexual] couple that excludes the possibility of having children as being invalid, and thus open to being declared null. But then again, Catholic teaching on sexuality is so defective that it’s not only queer folk that have issues with the Church.

Okay, we’ve heard it all before: “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:22). Why this little quote from Genesis should be used to back a gamut of arguments beats me. I should hope that it’s not meant to be understood as a command or we’d all be trying to outdo each other by having as much progeny as is possible. And where does that leave persons like yours truly, who have chosen to be celibate; are we going directly against that command? Anyway, with close to seven billion human beings, you could hardly say we’re on the WWF’s endangered species list.

In the light of how marriage has evolved as an institution, I would much prefer to read the Genesis commission as a statement of God’s willingness to bless human activity, particularly to bless human love by revealing its fruitfulness. Marriage (where it is based on love) mirrors love’s tendency to be fruitful. By fruitfulness I mean that there is growth, development, enrichment and other qualities that contribute to better human living. The quality of a good marriage is its fruitfulness, first and foremost in the life of the couple itself, and then in their children. The fruitfulness of marriage may be extended to other persons adopted into the family, and will reveal itself in the works of justice, peace and charity that a couple engages in with other persons in society. Procreation is just a part of the fruitfulness of marriage, albeit an important one. If love is the major ingredient in marriage, then fruitfulness (not totally identified with procreation) is its by-product. We will need to ask ourselves, whether or not the love of two persons of the same sex is of a quality that can lead to this commitment demanded of marriage, and will it lead to their being fruitful in their love. I would reply: Yes, to the same extent that a heterosexual couple can achieve this level of commitment. As you will observe, I am using the more inclusive word “fruitfulness”, rather than the word “procreativity”. By using the word “fruitfulness” I am trying to show that the quality of love and commitment that goes into a marriage is what makes that marriage fruitful, and not the simple, biological fact of children born into that marriage.

This brings me to the second part of the “procreation” argument, that concerning gay parenting. Where laws have been enacted to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples, the major stumbling-block has usually been that of parenting rights, including the right to joint adoption of children. In specific cases the term civil unions/partnerships was used instead of marriage to exclude certain parenting rights.

Gay Couple with child

Image via Wikipedia

I am not arguing the fact that a child’s best chances of growth are in a stable, loving environment, and that marriage is supposed to create that sort of environment. Neither am I disputing the logic of linking a child first and foremost with its biological parents. Reality is however much more complex. There are countless examples of children coming from a dysfunctional home environment, and who have parents who for some reason or other fail to provide for the love, care, etc. that children need if they are to grow up to be healthy, mature adults.

Despite the hullabaloo about seeking the child’s interests first, the Church – and those of its ilk who insist that same-sex couples cannot be suitable parents – seems to forget that often, same-sex couples are offering a home and a future to children who did not receive the same from their biological parents. Such is particularly the case with children adopted from welfare centres or the like. My colleague Terry has raised this point several times, and with good reason (see for example: British adoption agency seeking gay parents, dispels myths). The claim that children need a mother and a father sounds hollow, especially when it is used to block gay parents from offering hope to these kids by adopting them. One doesn’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure that what children really need if they are to grow up in a wholesome home environment is to experience love: both the love that their parents have for each other, as well as the love that these parents show towards their children. Everything else is built on this.

In summary, when one begins to sift through the arguments of the opponents to same-sex marriage, one soon realises that these arguments do not really hold water. Or better still, some of these arguments had better not be used against heterosexual couples because many will definitely fail the test.

Suggested reading:

The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology

(Todd A Salzman & Michael G Lawler)

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

Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics
(Margaret Farley)

Previously, in this series:

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