We have all, or nearly all, done it — talked about “gay marriage” or “same-sex marriage”. But according to William B. May, who has been in the thick of the marriage debate in the United States, that’s a mistake. MercatorNet asked him to explain.
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MercatorNet: People trying to defend marriage know that “same-sex marriage” is a contradiction in terms, nonsense in fact, but isn’t it just shorthand for referring to an issue? What’s the harm?
William B May: The only reason there is a debate about the legal definition of marriage is because of confusion about its true meaning and purpose. Without truth about marriage, people take positions based on emotion and sentimentality. To restore the truth about marriage we must witness it in a way people can understand.
The first thing to consider is that no one is really proposing to put something called “same-sex marriage” in the law. They take “a man and a woman” and replace it with “two people.” That has consequences that people are not considering. So be careful not to oppose something that is not there.
When they eliminate “a man and a woman” from marriage laws it eliminates the only civil institution that is specifically geared to unite children with their moms and dads – the sole reason for marriage being a privileged institution in the first place. That exposes the hidden agenda and the truth about what is at stake.
Opponents argue that they don’t want to change marriage, and men and woman can still get married, so what is the big deal. The problem is that men and women are not getting married, and this has created a crisis with increasing fatherlessness and associated consequences, and an increasing number of children living in poverty. Removing this child-centric institution from the law removes authority to actively promote the unique value of men and women marrying before having children. It makes it illegal for public institutions to do so and makes it legally discriminatory for anyone else.
What should we say instead of “same-sex marriage”?
Using the term “same-sex marriage” is one of the traps we fall into. It implies the issue is about participation in it by same-sex couples and makes us sound like our only motive is to oppose their aspirations. It is critical to educate people that the issue is redefinition, not participation and that redefining marriage has consequences. Redefining eliminates the only civil institution that is geared to uniting children with their moms and dads. The issue should be whether or not we need such an institution.
Why do the terms we use matter so much? Are there implications we are not seeing?
We live in a relativistic culture in which words mean different things to different people. For example when you talk about children needing a mother and father, or say that a married mother and father is good for children, that statement may be true, but different people have different understandings of what children need and what is good. This invariably leads to a debate about outcomes for children and competency in parenting, and who can do a better job, which escalates emotions. Ironically this has little to do with the meaning and purpose of marriage.
Being born into a family with mom and dad united in marriage is a human right, as the Catholic Church teaches, and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child implies (in Articles 7 and 9 ). Our moms and dads are part of our identity and we carry their flesh for all of eternity. With every right there is a corresponding duty to promote respect for that right and in this case to promote civil marriage as the foundation of the family of common ancestry.
It is also important for people to be able to distinguish between a real human right, that can only be recognized by law and never created, and a claimed individual right or license. A human right applies to each and every person without exception. The human right of children to know and, as far as possible, to be loved and cared for their moms and dads is a right that can be known by both reason and our own desire for connection with the man and woman from whom we originated. This is also an experience of God’s plan for creation, but is not dependent in belief in God.
What definition of marriage do you recommend we should use in debating this issue?
“Marriage unites a man and a woman with each other and any children born from their union.” That is what marriage is; that is what it does. The trouble is that children and family have been disconnected from marriage.
Factors include no fault divorce making it adult-centric, the separation of sex from procreation and marriage, having children becoming a life-style choice for personal fulfillment, and the increasingly accepted practice of intentionally depriving children of their moms or dads or both through assisted reproductive technology (sperm and egg donation, and surrogacy).
Considering these factors, it is difficult for people to understand marriage by discussing complementarity, procreation, motherhood and fatherhood, etc. It must be expressed in its totality. In reality, marriage unites a man and a woman with each other and any children born from their union. It is a fact, something that the law can only recognise, not change. If the word is redefined in the law, marriage will still exist, but will be no longer recognized in law as such. It becomes discriminatory to advocate that is has any unique value to society, at least under the name of marriage.
What do you think of the term “traditional marriage”? Is it useful?
I just use the word “marriage”, but I am careful to use it in a context so people know what I mean. “Traditional marriage” communicates what we mean but nothing about its true meaning and purpose in a way people can understand. Traditional has a connotation of connection with and holding onto the past. However, marriage is about the future.
How does this work out at the ballot box? How are referendums worded?
I have felt that defining marriage between a man and a woman in law does not go far enough. The law in some way needs to imply its public interest; clarifying that its purpose is more than recognizing loving, committed relationships between men and women. Perhaps it should state something like, “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognize. All public institutions must promote its unique value as the only civil institution that unites children with their mothers and fathers.”
Opponents will object because it reveals the real meaning and purpose of marriage. They argue that children raised by same-sex couples have a right to married parents, but this changes the subject because every child in this situation has lost their mom, dad or both. Arguments that this could provide stability for such children implies that marriage is merely a human creation for some sociological objective. Marriage is about the free choice of a man and woman to make themselves irreplaceable to each other in preparation to receive life as a gift. Marriage is the foundation of the communion of irreplaceability we call the family.
Opponents cause further confusion by saying marriage can’t be about procreation because not all married man and woman have children. That may be so, but every child has a mother and father and has a right, as far as possible, to be born into a family with them united in marriage. All married men and women engage in the same conjugal act, which is a commemoration and renewal of the marriage vows. Even sociologists from across the political spectrum agree that it is important to reestablish a norm for men and women to marry before having children.
How can we stay on the front foot in debates on this issue? Can we ever avoid being labeled “bigot”?
When we use the term “same-sex marriage,” it immediately tells people we are against someone and the so-called “rights” they are advocating. It’s an unfortunate tactic of our opponents to attribute motives to those defending marriage in an effort to seek sympathy, discredit, and intimidate. Avoiding the use of the term and instead focusing on what we are for will help greatly.
We can understand the sincere desire of some people to have same-sex relationships recognized, but marriage would have to be redefined in the law in a way that eliminates the only civil institution that unites kids with their moms and dads. How can anyone justify that? This issue is not about homosexuality at all. It is about whether marriage is a reality that not only unites a man and a woman with each other, but with any children born from their union.
What opponents are really proposing is that marriage be redefined in the law to be merely an institution for recognizing committed relationships for the benefit of the adults. What is the public interest in that? We love talking about other people’s sins, so it takes discipline to avoid getting drawn into a conversation about sexual ethics and personal behavior and stay focused on the reality of marriage.
Actually, the marriage redefiners seem to agree with you. They don’t use “gay marriage” or “same-sex marriage” either, but talk about “marriage equality”. Why do you think that is?
Their research shows that 58% of people in the US already believe that the purpose of marriage is to recognize committed relationships for adults. So all they have to do is to say same-sex couples want to marry for the same reason anyone else does.
The current understanding of marriage is one of the factors contributing to the fact fewer people are marrying and more than half of children born to women under 30 are outside of marriage. This is a crisis that is touching almost every family. The focus must be on changing current ideas about what marriage is for the benefit of society and our own families instead of focusing on why same-sex couples don’t qualify.
I imagine that marriage redefiners don’t want to use the term “same-sex or gay marriage” because their current approach is more effective, and the terms conjure up “anti-gay” feelings.
William B May is president of the United States organization Catholics for the Common Good and played a prominent role in the Proposition 8 effort that successfully restored the definition of marriage between a man and a woman in California – since overturned by the courts. He is the author of Getting the Marriage Conversation Right, a Guide for Effective Dialogue .