Thoughts on sex and marriage – Part 1

by SDG

in Moral Theology

SDG here with some initial thoughts on sex and the marriage debate.

Same-sex "marriage," many urge today, is a matter of civil rights. Two men or two women have the same "right" as a man and a woman to enjoy the legal recognition and privileges that come with civil marriage.

One obvious question raised by this contention is: What is marriage? Why have societies conferred legal recognition and the privileges pertaining thereto to a man and a woman? What is it about this type of relationship that calls for some sort of social recognition? Why is marriage, socio-anthropologically speaking, an essentially universal human institution?

So far, I haven't seen a particularly lucid answer on these questions from advocates of same-sex "marriage." Here is what I take to be some fairly typical thoughts regarding marriage from a non-Catholic friend of mine who advocates same-sex marriage:

"The institution of marriage is always in flux. At times it has been about property, or about forming alliances, or about respectability and appearances (as often is behind when LGBT people enter heterosexual marriages). Currently, I think, society sees it more in terms of companionship, love, mutual attraction, mutual care for one another, and, yes, often procreation."

What is wrong with this accounting? To begin with, it doesn't say what marriage is — only how society "currently" sees it.

For another thing, it doesn't say what business of civil society's it is from whom we seek companionship, love, mutual attraction, mutual care for one another or even procreation.

Thirdly, it doesn't account for the socio-anthropological consistency of marriage as the enduring union of a man and a woman. (Incidentally, marriage is always the union of one man and one woman — even in polygamous societies. Polygamy means multiple marriages, not singular marriage with multiple partners. For instance, Jacob was married to Leah and Jacob was married to Rachel; they were not all three of them married to one another.)

At any rate, I can't see that anything like a sufficient explanation or basis for marriage as a human universal can be found in causes like companionship, love, mutual attraction and mutual care. In fact, it isn't even immediately clear to me that companionship or mutual care have historically been the special provenance of marriage. Husbands and wives as well as the unmarried have always sought these out in larger social contexts, often (not exclusively) men in the context of male society and women in the context of female society. In some societies, husbands and wives haven't particularly looked to one another for companionship at all. And of course mutual attraction neither needs, nor is limited to, marriage — which, again, raises the question why we have marriage, why it takes the shape it does, and what it is for.

Part and parcel with this question of what marriage is is the larger question of what sex is.

You might think that the nature of an activity so universal, not only among humans but throughout the animal kingdom, would seem to be too obvious to require much complicated expounding. On the other hand, we humans are different from other animals, and in our case sex isn't merely about biology or procreation.

However, it is one thing to say that sex isn't merely procreative, and another to say that it need not be in any way about procreation at all, as much modern thought does today. Again, I think my non-Catholic friend is pretty typical in this regard:

"You may not like this phrasing, but we have moved above the biological/procreative aspect of sex. As such we can treat it as something other than procreative … because we are using sex for another purpose that need not include procreation."

What shall we say to this? 

Here is one answer: Eating isn't "limited to" nourishment; we can eat food because it tastes good, for various social reasons, out of habit, for comfort, or perhaps in the context of some ritual, such as a seder or the Eucharist, among other possible reasons. In that sense, one might possibly say that we have "moved above the biological/nutritive aspect of eating."

Even so, it remains the case that that, any time one puts nutritive material in one's mouth and chew it up and swallow it, whatever else one may be doing, one are engaging your body's digestive powers. To interfere with the integrity of that process by bingeing and purging is an abuse of the body and of the act of eating. You can't say "Eating isn't limited to the biological — we have moved above the nutritive — so there's no harm actually excluding the nutritive by bingeing and purging." There is.

Something similar can be said about sex.

It is true that sex isn't limited to procreation; people engage in sex because it is pleasurable or fun, out of physical or emotional passion, to express or renew intimacy, to celebrate their marital union, among other possible reasons. In that sense, one might possibly say that we have "moved above the biological/procreative aspect of sex."

Even so, it remains the case that that any time a man engages in behavior that results in emitting seed, whatever else he may be doing, he is engaging his body's procreative powers. No amount of high-minded (or gnostic-verging) emphasis on other factors can justify bracketing and excluding that aspect.

To put it another way: It is true that sex isn't "limited to" procreation in the sense that it can and should be about other things in addition to procreation — but not in the sense that it can be about these other things rather than procreation, and therefore we can deliberately exclude procreation through contraceptive or homoerotic acts.

In that sense, we have "moved above" the biological/procreative aspect only in the sense that a skyscraper building crew "moves above" the foundation as they proceed to build each floor upon the previous one. Each floor nevertheless builds upon and relies directly upon the foundation. The view from the observation deck may be glorious; the foundation remains foundational. Sex is what it is.

More to come.

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{ 24 comments }

nn489 December 11, 2008 at 2:49 pm

I like where this is going.
Along the lines of deciding what marriage is, we should note that despite the warm fuzzy feeling the word “marriage” gives us, the legal benefits that come with marriage are not benign when considered entirely in the abstract. Basically, those benefits represent bribes (e.g., tax breaks) and other legal inducements by the government in an attempt to get people to live their lives a certain way. And of course, those come at the cost of other people in society, who have to pay for the bribes or suffer comparative legal disadvantages.
In other words, it’s only a good idea to attachment the legal benefits of marriage to ways of life that we think it’s good for people to lead. Otherwise, we’re just arbitrarily favoring people who prefer one kind of relationship over people who prefer others. Not only is that unfair, but there’s absolutely no reason why people should want to pay for it.

nn489 December 11, 2008 at 2:54 pm

I left off my “ergo:”
Ergo, anyone who wants to retain opposite-sex marriage is obliged to explain why heterosexual monogamy is better (for the broader society) than other kinds of relationships, in such a way that we want to encourage people to live in monogamous hetersexual relationships. Anyone who thinks we should additionally have same-sex marriage, with legal characteristics identical to the traditional kind, has to explain not only (1) why same-sex monogamy is better than other kinds of relationships in such a way that we should subsidize it, but also (2) how it provides benefits (to society) of a kind that justify subsidizing it at exactly the same level as heterosexual marriage.

itals off December 11, 2008 at 2:58 pm

StubbleSpark December 11, 2008 at 3:24 pm

The current increase in morality and scriptural-related commentary on the topic can be blamed on the end game of the past election where the majority leaned liberal in choosing their leaders yet soundly voted with tradition as concerns same-sex marriage. It was a sound defeat and the lobby now has to change their strategy. Whereas before their goal was to enforce their will through the government in a Big-Brother-esque display of power over constitutional rights, now the fight must move into a more sincere battle for minds and hearts.
Seeing as the propaganda machine has pretty much played all the cards in their deck (does anyone really want to see another Brokeback Mountain, for example?) the current scenario has Biblical “experts” utilizing their numerous connections in mass media to advocate how perfectly logical and morally acceptable their views really are. The sad thing is, however, that none of their arguments are even remotely sound. Each of them merely states their conclusion as their premise thus committing the error of begging the question. One of the questions begged has already been raised above: what is marriage? Does anyone seriously think they can create a good argument by arbitrarily redefining the “purpose” of marriage for all people over all the centuries? There are still other questions that are begged.
-How does the mere transposition of humanity’s place in the timeline to 2008 make homosexuality morally acceptable while still retaining the integrity of religious injunctions against covetousness and murder for example? What reason do we have to obey these other religious injunctions in 2009 or 2010?
-If homosexual marriage is moral to the point of being sanctioned by the Bible, why does it not appear in the history of our civilization (or any civilization, for that matter)?
-If homosexuals can “marry” what about father-daughter, father-son, mother-daughter, mother-son, or other inter-family “marriages”? On what grounds would such a union be prevented once those “out-dated” moral injunctions have been arbitrarily stricken because they are “out of step” with the times, popular culture?
The reason people voted against allowing a small minority of people from imposing their views on the rest of the country is because they can see this movement for what it is: an attack on religion. We are still allowed, by the grace of God and the will of the American people, the freedom to believe that certain sexual acts carry with them the mark of sin. But if those ballot initiatives had gone the other way, our cherished freedoms would have suffered. If government went to war with Christianity in an overwhelmingly Christian nation, then no religion would have been safe.
And because all faiths are in unison on this issue, we owe it to all believers everywhere to protect our rights from government infringement. Now the battle has moved into the arena of the secular papacy (MSNBC) and the fight will be held on our turf.

Faith seeking Understanding December 11, 2008 at 4:06 pm

Clearly put SDG. I know this is only part one. However, these issues puzzle me:
1. any time a man engages in behavior that results in emitting seed, whatever else he may be doing, he is engaging his body’s procreative powers. This would seem to place moral restrictions on male-female, male-male and solo-male activities but not female-female or solo-female ones.
2. Consider the case of an unmarried female who is post-menopausal ie does not have any reproductive faculties or potential. Can she marry an unmarried male? Is an intrinsically “sterile marriage” possible for them?. Is their sexual union as intrinsically sterile as that between two males?.
3. A possible analogy with eating may be a hypothetical case involving the inability to derive any nourishment via normal ingestion, with nourishment being provided ‘artificially’ intravenously. Assuming it was not physically harmful, is eating (for pleasure, companionship or ritual) completely decoupled from nourishment, permissible? (BTW this is only an analogy which I don’t want to press it too far).

SDG December 11, 2008 at 4:40 pm

Faith seeking Understanding: Thanks, good questions. Yes, I will be addressing the issues you mention.

bklyn catholic December 11, 2008 at 7:22 pm

I like where this is going, but I am anticipating a leap of logic that should be kept in mind.
Sex and eating are biological functions. Marriage is an institution; God-made, but articulated by man. I hope you think of making your argument in a way that non-believers would be able to understand and not allow them to simply state that your analogy is not consistent.
Also, if sex is about procreation +, and eating is about nourishment +, they have roots in survival as individuals and as humanity. We need to eat to sustain our lives; we need to procreate to sustain the life of humanity. I would be interested in seeing how you address the fundamental need of marriage, as defined between a man and a woman, in this context.
In any case, even if you don’t address my ideas here, I’m looking forward to your next post. I enjoy how you think and approach these often difficult questions.
God bless,
bklyn catholic

M. L. Martin December 11, 2008 at 7:42 pm

Faith Seeking Understanding, some thoughts in regard to your second point.
We must distinguish between an act that cannot fulfill its purpose by nature of an accidental and unintended disruption, an act that cannot fulfill its purpose by nature of an accidental but willed disruption, and an act that cannot fulfill its purpose by the nature of the act itself.
As Steven has pointed out, the sexual act is fundamentally ordered to procreation. As he continues, acts that deliberately exclude procreation by a willed disruption (contraception) seek to thwart the purpose of the sexual act. Acts that by their very nature cannot result in procreation are likewise disordered.
However, in the case of a woman who cannot conceive, there is neither the will to thwart conception, nor is there anything in the nature of the sexual act between her and her husband that could not produce children. The fault lies not in the will, nor in the nature of the act, but in what are commonly called ‘accidental’ factors. By miracle or advances in medicine, it would be possible for her to conceive–but the only way in which a homogenital act could result in conception would require such a change that it would fundamentally no longer be a homogenital act. Similarly, a man who is sterile but able to consummate the marital act is capable of lawfully marrying.

Haley December 11, 2008 at 8:36 pm

StubbleSpark,
I think that your first two arguments are sound, I have a problem with your third. I really dislike slippery slope arguments. I think that they are usually a logical fallacy and often distract from the real issue at hand. I believe that individual people and societies at large are capable of making extremely fine distinctions between moral and amoral, legal and illegal actions. The vast majority of people are extremely uncomfortable with the idea of incest, probably for evolutionary reasons. You have absolutely no proof that because the United States legalizes gay marriage, that people will *ever* agree that incestuous relationships are okay.
Even though I’m not really in favor of gay marriage, I think that it’s highly unlikely that it would cause a major (or even minor) shift in opinion about incest. One thing doesn’t always lead to another.
-Haley

Brian Walden December 12, 2008 at 7:58 am

My question is only slightly related to this topic, but I’ve had it in my head for a week or two. If it’s not appropriate here, just ignore me. We consider marriages valid unless proven otherwise. So does that mean that a Catholic who marries without permission of his bishop is validly married unless he seeks an annulment? Or does the valid unless proven otherwise rule only apply to the internal dispositions of the spouses – for example we can’t know if one person secretly doesn’t intend to fulfill their vows, but we can know publicly at the ceremony whether a Catholic has permission to marry?

Steven Greydanus December 12, 2008 at 8:13 am

So does that mean that a Catholic who marries without permission of his bishop is validly married unless he seeks an annulment?

I’m not sure I understand the question. Do Catholics typically need episcopal permission to marry? Or are you referring to Catholics who attempt marriage outside canonical form? And I presume you mean “is presumed validly married unless he seeks an annulment,” since seeking an annulment can’t make a valid marriage invalid!
AFAIK, the presumption of validity would not extend to a marriage that is known to be subject to a clear impediment — such as a previous marriage that might or might not be valid. In principle, it could be that the first marriage is invalid and the second marriage valid, but the presumption of law would be that the first marriage is valid until shown otherwise, and by implication the presumption would be that the second marriage is invalid until it can be established that there is no impediment.
Likewise, a marriage involving at least one Catholic that lacks canonical form where there is no permission to do so would not enjoy the presumption of validity — on the contrary.

The Masked Chicken December 12, 2008 at 11:10 am

Dear SDG,
I think I know where you are going with this argument and I don’t want to jump ahead, but all animals or plants both eats and procreates. I can see someone making an argument based on the differences (animal soul vs. rational soul) between man and other animals that there are differences that make man not simply a natural animal, but something transcending the category and thus, not simply subject to the laws of animal nature, as ingestion and procreation are. The argument is easily defeased, but I hope you explicitly cover that when you get to where I think you are going.
If you are going someplace else, I will bring up these arguments more explicitly, in that case.
The Purposely Vague Chicken

Donna Lewis December 12, 2008 at 11:13 am

>Polygamy means multiple marriages, not singular >marriage with multiple partners. For instance, Jacob >was married to Leah and Jacob was married to Rachel; >they were not all three of them married to one >another.)
No, the latter is polyamory, and, while it is far less common than polygyny, it is growing in popularity. Historically, I believe that there was an experimental community, back in 19th century America, which was somewhat polyamorous- all of the men were considered to be married to all of the women, and vice versa. It fell apart rather quickly.

SDG December 12, 2008 at 11:53 am

No, the latter is polyamory, and, while it is far less common than polygyny, it is growing in popularity.

Just to clarify, this appears to be a concurring “No” rather than a dissenting “No,” yes?

Historically, I believe that there was an experimental community, back in 19th century America, which was somewhat polyamorous- all of the men were considered to be married to all of the women, and vice versa. It fell apart rather quickly.

Yes, when I describe marriage as a socio-anthropological constant, I obviously mean marriage as an enduring institution in stable societies.

Paul December 12, 2008 at 8:40 pm

I am looking forward to the forthcoming. This was an excellent read.
And the foundation must not simply ‘be there’. It too must be enjoyed – or that is, positively held with awe and reverence. There’s always a greater mystery we called to regard, and give ourselves to.

Brian Walden December 13, 2008 at 6:41 pm

“Or are you referring to Catholics who attempt marriage outside canonical form?”
SDG, that’s what I meant and you answered my question

Pantheist Christian December 13, 2008 at 11:43 pm

The crux of the Catholic position often misunderstood is not found in etymology, sociology or materialist anthropology but in anthropology properly speaking, i.e. in human ontology. Though the Vatican has condemned even civil unions, I suspect that just as with religious pluralism, the Church will move forward to an ethic of pragmatic tolerance when it comes to civil unions. Whether these civil unions are termed “marriage” is just as Bernanke has said previously with respect to the economic condition prior to its meeting the classic definition of a recession, of “absolutely no consequence.” The issue must be centered around what rights and what approbation society should or should not accord due to ontological and moral deficiencies in homosexual unions. What term these collective rights or approbative recognition is given by society or statutory language is of absolutely no consequence. In statutory language and definition, Puerto Rico is often termed a State out of convenience when passing laws that apply uniformally to both States and Puerto Rico and other possessions. That is of no consequence. What would be of consequence is if Puerto Rico were actually recognized as a member of the Union, whether that be termed “statehood” or some neologism — or if Puerto Rico were given voting rights not proper to a non-State, that would be of consequence as well.
The analogy of sex and consumption is misguided. There are many things that can be consumed that are of no nutritive nor hydrative value. Some persons enjoy eating a little salt all by itself, which assuming that no salt deficiency was present, would not be of any nutritive value. Some persons may enjoy eating a little citric acid all by itself, which again has no nutritive or hydrative value. Doing so is not a sin. Tasting things for the sake of pleasure apart from nutrition and hydration in these and any other case is not inherently sinful as such and nutrition and hydration do not take place in the case of salt (ordinarily) and citric acid when consumed alone. Some foods are arguable of a net negative nutritive-hydrative value, but it is no sin to consume them. There need not be any subordination of the good of taste to the good of nutrition or hydration in the tasting of things. There need only be proper temperance.
I quibble also with the specific angle the analogy took with respect to vommitting. Deliberate vommitting is not inherently sinful. In some situations, voluntarily induced vommitting is medically therapeutic. What makes vommitting sinful ordinarily is not the inherent character of vommitting, but the warped intention of the vomitter in missing the mark with respect to care of his body. I don’t know who started this vommitting analogy, but its provenance is not magisterial as far as I am aware.
The key to seeing if one has a good self-understanding and articulation of the magisterium’s position, is if one could hypothetically articulate it without using the word “marriage” at all. If one can’t, then one has at least to some extent mistaken defending the ontological with defending the terminological. Terminology can change. Ontology cannot and it is a correct understanding of the ontological that needs illumination not the aptness of terminology, whatever merit that aptness may have on sociolinguistic grounds or on pragmatic grounds.
The Vatican permits both the ideal of a Catholic State and the ideal of a secular society whereas previously it maintained that all States had the obligation to be officially Catholic in principle. I hope that a similar diversity is extended to the realm of natural law for the ideal of natural law society rests on its transparency to the citizens, something which clearly is not present given the many disagreements on natural law. In any event, the way to resolve such disagreements would not be in court decisions nor in referendums nor in legislative acts, but in the politics of consensus, i.e. of ethical discourse and persuasion in the public square. Victory if sought should be achieved through discourse in the public square, not democratic, or worse, court sprung, impositions, be it on the minority or majority. The instinct of fighting to resolve political differences by ballot and judicial fiat must be replaced by the instinct of engaging in a true meeting of the minds with each citizen in principle given an equal voice in the political discourse — not the political power struggle, but the political discourse.

labrialumn December 15, 2008 at 9:18 pm

What marriage -is- is a blood covenant which by the very nature of such things, can only be broken by death of one of the covenanted pair. What marriage -is- is a mysterion or sacramentum of the relationship between Christ and the Church. Which is why homosexuality is such a blasphemy and abomination, and why divorce and remarriage also tells a lie about Jesus.
Too many people have forgotten these things.
As to a man’s ‘seed’. This is emitted not only procreatively but as a function of the body dealing with making so many, including even when defecating without any sexual activity or gratification involved, just as a woman ‘emits’ a ‘seed’ every 28 days or so. The Bible treats them similarly. A man with a seminal emission is ritually unclean until sundown, a woman with her period is ritually unclean for eight days, with no other uncleanness or sin attached to either.
This may be one of those cases where natural law philosophy makes a long sequence of seemingly-logical and ‘fitting’ steps, each building on the previous, but ending up rather far afield from where it started, or from what can be supported from its starting point.

Sleeping Beastly December 16, 2008 at 8:19 am

CT/CW/Charel Weng/pro-choice catholic/Pantheist Christian,
Good to hear from you again.
Haley,
For one thing, StubbleSpark was not making a slippery slope argument. He didn’t say that if we allow gay marriage, we will soon be allowing incestuous marriage. His point was, rather, that the logic behind adding same-sex partnerships to the definition of marriage can also be used to justify incestuous marriages.
For another, it seems to me that this issue has “slippery slope” written all over it. It’s yet another example of Socialists using civil rights as a screen to advance their goals. In this case, the goal is the abolition of the family. Socialists consider the family to be an instrument of oppression, and are generally of the mind that children ought to be raised by society generally, which basically comes down to replacing Mom and Dad and Grandma with state institutions.
There are logical consequences to social decisions. The way we treat marriage now affects the way marriage is viewed a generation from now. If we’ve taught our kids that marriage is a right for any two people who love each other, and that procreation has nothing to do with marriage whatsoever, then really what logical ground do we have to stand on in denying such a right to two siblings or a young woman and her grandfather? The fact that it grosses people out really just shows how prudish we all still are, and how much such misunderstood partners need state protection and the sanction and respectability of legal marriage.

bill912 December 16, 2008 at 9:33 am

“Socialists consider the family to be an instrument of oppression, and are generally of the mind that children ought to be raised by society generally, which basically comes down to replacing Mom and Dad and Grandma with state institutions.”
“Brave New World”, anyone?

Pantheist Christian December 16, 2008 at 5:39 pm

Sleeping Beastly,
As I have experienced in another forum a physical threat based on a post I made concerning my interpretation of the virginity of Mary, I would appreciate it if you did not refer to be me by any purported name or pseudonym. Even though I never posted on that blog under my real full name, someone was able to figure out my identity. I also became the victim of some harassment. I don’t know whether the sentence you addressed to me was sincere. If it was, its context renders it opaque to my heart. May the divine mother, by God’s eternal power, nourish you as we prepare for Christmas.

Sleeping Beastly December 17, 2008 at 10:40 am

PC,
If you were anyone else, I’d suggest you pick a handle and stick with it. (I believe Jimmy’s already requested that people do so.) But the truth is that you can use any handle you like, and your inimitable style will give you away. If I find myself halfway through a thousand-word post full of fifty-dollar words, my eyes glazing over, and the reasoning of the author completely eluding me, I know who I’m reading. I make no promises about keeping your identity secret, but I will try and remember that you prefer being addressed by your most recent handle.
I was sincere about being glad to hear from you again, although I was also amused at your choice of (yet another) handle and your decision to return to a forum you’ve publicly quit at least twice. God bless you too, my friend.

Pantheist Christian. December 17, 2008 at 3:32 pm

Sleeping Beastly,
SDG has told me several times now, including just the other day that I am not in violation of any rules in the way you suggest. I can’t speak to how that may or may not square with a request from someone else that I have no knowledge of.
I don’t think you understood me. By “identity” I mean who I am in real life and my full real name. Perhaps you were under the impression that “Charel Weng” is my full and real name. That is not correct. I know the full and real name of The Masked Chicken, but out of respect for his privacy, I have not and do not presently foresee a circumstance in which I would disclose it. If you did understand me and you somehow do know my full real name, I beg of you to keep it secret. As I have mentioned, on another forum, a conservative Catholic threatened physical harm on me. That he did not know my full real name and my address was the only obstacle in his way. He wasn’t joking either as when prompted he reiterated that he was being serious.
Sleeping Beastly, you may find it “amusing” that I have changed my mind twice, but I frankly find it embarassing. I don’t know whether your intention was to embarass me, but now you at least know that that is its effect. I won’t request that you not embarass me in the future since you seem to have made it clear that you have no inclination to honor any request that I make. I don’t accept your blessing and am afraid that I cannot accept on face value your expression of sincerity.
I remember once you told me that I “p__d” you off. I hope you are not holding a grudge. Take care.

Sleeping Beastly December 17, 2008 at 11:42 pm

PC,
Well, God bless you anyway.

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