More About Marriage

Here’s some more throat-clearing about marriage, before I get to the more difficult task of saying something useful about this controverted topic.

The discourses of marriage, it occurs to me, have clouded the topic by latching onto the notion of “marriage” as “the zone of licit sexual activity.” I’m trying to figure out what it would look like to think about marriage apart from sex. I’m trying this not because I don’t think sex is important — I do, emphatically, think it signifies with near-unique importance — but just that importance engenders an interference pattern when it’s brought into close proximity to the importance of understanding what’s what about marriage. I may be better able to figure out what I think, and why, if I attain some clarity by deliberating about them each in relative isolation.

So, for instance, I’m not sure how one could possibly object to two people devoting themselves to shared lives, mutual care, lifelong exclusive spiritual intimacy, whatever the sexes of the couple so united in loving harmony. Fred and Wilhelm (or Frieda and Violet) feel a homo-erotic attraction, that might complicate their ascetical harmonious partnership, but it’s nonetheless admirable, isn’t it?

Now, I may be deliberating incorrectly about marriage, but I thought that all the non-sexual stuff was pretty important (at least, I hope it is, since I can’t imagine that it’s any buff, agile, dextrous, sizzling manliness of my own that sustains my marriage). [I’m not excluding sexual expression as an important component of marriage, and I understand about the possibly-definitive question of procreation — but a relatively broad proportion of thoughtful Christians doesn’t construe procreation as a sine qua non of true marriage, and I don’t want to exclude their hesitancy from the discussion without pausing to consider what intimacy looks like without sex, and what we have to say as moral theologians about such intimacy.] Put it crudely: a sexual relationship without kindness, fidelity, unique intimacy, and mutuality doesn’t constitute much of a basis for marriage, so far as I can tell; and all of those things without sex sounds a lot more like Christian marriage (no jokes, here, please).

Now, should the church (understood in a more “reasserting” sense) discourage people from forming particular intimate homoerotic relationships even when those relationships don’t involve sexual expression? On what basis — that it would be a dangerous kind of friendship? Would that presuppose that people couldn’t possibly live in ascetical celibacy nurtured in a shared life? Are the people Paul criticizes in Romans 1 culpable not only if they actually “committed shameless acts with men,” but if they might be tempted to commit those acts?

One can short-circuit a ton of moral-theology problems by stipulating that procreation constitutes a normative condition for legitimate marriage — but I doubt that everyone involved in the present discussion would be willing to resolve the conundrum by appeal to this simple premise. The difficulty begins, though, when one relaxes that norm even slightly. Just which relationships might be permitted to count as marriages even when they do not have procreation as their telos? On what basis?

I’m aware that there’s a substantial literature of analytic and pastoral casuistry on this topic; my interest is not to short-circuit it, but respectfully to situate it and to examine its rationale. Here, though, we reach a point where a “conservative” perspective has rather less traction than would be desirable; once one begins making allowances, one has a harder time barring the door to the allowances one doesn’t accept.

End of tonight’s throat-clearing. Again, I’m not [consciously] trying to stack the deck one way or another; I’m staking out the terrain on which I can make sense of the disagreements we’re having, and whether there’s any prospect of those disagreements attaining some livable resolution.

* Scholars debate the sense of “burn” here, whether it serves metaphorically to describe lust, or eschatologically to designate punishment. I’m inclined toward the latter, but whichever sense one adopts, celibacy remains the state that Paul commends, marriage the state that he grudgingly permits as preferable to flames.

5 comments / Add your comment below

  1. What you describe here is very similar to what historian John Boswell describes as early church practice in his book A Marriage of Likeness. Are you familiar with it?

  2. The US edition of Boswell’s work is entitled: Same-sex Unions in Pre-modern Europe. (The British ed. Marriage of Likeness does have material not in the US ed.) Also, a little research showed that the Library of Congress has established a Subject Heading for the type of marriage you describe: “Companionate marriage”.

  3. Holly, I was thinking of Boswell’s work as I was writing. I don’t want to hang a lot of weight on it, since some of the people with whom I’d be arguing contest his reading of the materials, but he’s pointing toward some kind of social phenomenon related to the topic.

    I had the general sense that “Companionate Marriage” might do different work in different contexts, so I was avoiding the term (likewise “Spiritual Marriage”). That’s part of the reason all of this is so deucedly hard to talk about (and one reason I’m spending so much effort at throat-clearing before I take a particular stand). That, and the fact that others who know more of the relevant background material than I are looking over my shoulder!

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