The Marriage Debate: Discussing the Important Issues

MarriageIn the currently raging debate on homosexuality, there is a lot of spilled ink and emotional strife from multiple sides of the fence that are engaging these important issues. I say “multiple” because I do not think the issue is reducible to merely the Left and the Right, the Revisionists and the Progressives, or what have you. Quite frankly, the Right is disagreeing with the Right and the Left is disagreeing with the Left. As notable journalist Andrew Sullivan (himself a homosexual) wrote, “There are as many politics of homosexuality as there words for it, and not all of them contain reason” (Sullivan 19). In this article I simply wish to address only two key positions on this debate that are very particular with respect to their sociological as well as philosophical approach (among other elements).

On the one hand, you have what has been called the “personalist” position (or conjugal view); containing its most famed formulation in Karol Wojtyla’s Love and Responsibility which argues for a personalistic defense of traditional norms and draws upon the moral philosophical/theological thought of Thomas Aquinas (1224/5-1274). As Alexander Pruss has written, “A dominant methodological approach has been to distance oneself from biological considerations, such as those connected with reproduction, and to focus on us as persons instead, looking at the interaction between our subjectivity and our sexuality, and focusing on human dignity and not to trample on the autonomy of others” (Pruss 2). This is largely the approach of Wojtyla, and I offer a brief defense of this view in my article Marriage: A Personalist Defense over at Hellenistic Christendom.

On the other hand, you have what has been called the “revisionist” position, which in my opinion has its best defense in philosopher John Corvino’s essay in Debating Same-Sex Marriage. According to Robert P. George’s essay with Ryan Anderson and Sherif Girgis, the revisionist view can be defined as follows:

Marriage is the union of two people (whether of the same sex or of opposite sexes) who commit to romantically loving and caring for each other and to sharing the burdens and benefits of domestic life. It is essentially a union of hearts and minds, enhanced by whatever forms of sexual intimacy both partner find agreeable. The state should recognize and regulate marriage because it has an interest in stable romantic partnerships and in the concrete needs of spouses and any children they may choose to rear (George, Anderson, Girgis 2010: 246).

As Corvino put it, “The phrase ‘same-sex marriage’ suggests the creation of a new institution rather than the expansion of an existing one, which (they argue, and I agree) is the better way to understand our goal: recognition, not redefinition. Gay men and lesbians don’t want something new, a ‘special right’: they want marriage” (Corvino 6). In the following sections I wish to offer expounded arguments for both positions and their criticisms. However, I should confess from the beginning that this not an exercise in sexual ethics, but rather a survey of two marital positions that are testable through philosophical methods (though, of course, they are not without their biological considerations).

In the article however, I will be addressing some arguments from advocates of the traditional marriage position from figures like Robert George, Ryan Anderson, John Finnis, and others, who have been considered to hold a position known as the “new natural law position.” This position rests on the view that marriage is a “comprehensive union” (George, Girgis, Anderson 23) and contains what are known as “basic goods” (Corvino 34). There is a respective distinction between this “new natural law” and the “old” one. As Phillip E. Johnson explains:

At one time the Catholic natural law philosophy of Thomas Aquinas and his followers dominated European thinking, but its metaphysical foundations were undermined as science replaced Aristotelian teleology and Catholic theology with a materialist worldview that considers only efficient causes. The project of [the new natural law theorists] is to save natural law by reestablishing it on a secular foundation that does not appeal directly to those metaphysical claims that modern science rejects as outdated (Johnson 1999).

Though there are  defenders of this view to look into (Finnis 2011, George 2001), I will not be expounding on the metaphysical aspect of the argument. The Conjugal view of Girgis, George and Anderson are now to where I turn.

The Conjugal View

The conjugal view of marriage can be understood as “the union of a man and a woman who make a permanent and exclusive commitment to each other of the type that is naturally (inherently) fulfilled by rearing children together. The spouses seal (consummate) and renew their union by conjugal acts – acts that constitute the behavioral part of the process of reproduction, thus uniting them as a reproductive unit” (Girgis, George, Anderson 246). Maggie Gallagher takes a more simpler approach towards  the “sexual union” aspect of the definition and rather says:

Marriage is intrinsically a sexual union of husband and wife, because these are the only unions that can make new life and connect those children in love to their co-creators, their mother and their father (Gallagher 95).

Afterwards, Gallagher suggests that “[m]arital unions are those capable of uniting goods that otherwise tend to fragment, with high social and personal costs: sex, love, caretaking, babies, and mother and fathers” (96). These goods, however, are not a necessary or even beginning prerequisite understanding of marriage imposed by the state. Widely understood, there are marriages that aren’t particularly loving, marriages where the spouses do not have sex, marriages where the spouses are unable to have children, and so forth, and yet these failures still do not entail that marriage as a civil and social institution does not aim to unite these goods.

Where Girgis, George and Anderson discuss organic bodily union, as well as sexual and “mental” union, Gallagher I think nicely comments that these unions systematically separated are based “on deep human realities, which were not created by government and cannot be changed by government fiat” (97). Although Gallagher is not accepting of the “philosophical super structure” that Girgis, George and Anderson offer, she is still advocating a simpler version that still functions within their (Girgis, etc.) traditionalist position.

The Revisionist View

Maggie Gallagher asked John Corvino in an email, “What’s your definition of marriage? If you’re going to use a word, you need a definition of the word” (Corvino 39).  Corvino responded that it won’t be just that easy. For one, it is rather easy to have a functional knowledge of something without being able to articulate it into a definition. Marriage happens to be one of these things. The most notable area to look is the multifaceted nature of marriage: it can be understood as a social institution, a religious sacrament, legal status, and so forth. “It looks different from the spouses’ perspective than it does the outside” (Corvino 40).

However, although marriage can be understood in several ways, is that to say that marriage doesn’t have any necessary conditions to be qualified as a marriage? Not at all. For example, there must at least be two persons and have a conscious understanding that they are married (41). Furthermore, a sexual relationship between the two spouses while permissible is by no means required according to Corvino – a claim that runs contrary to the new natural law theorists. Although other conditions may apply, a few “typical” (but not necessary) conditions may also be:

  1. romantic and sexual involvement,
  2. a shared domicile,
  3. mutual care and concern,
  4. the begetting and rearing of children,
  5. the intention to make the commitment lifelong and exclusive.

Hence, although marriage might be childless, or even on the brink of divorce, they are still nonetheless a marriage. Corvino is arguing that marriage is simply the union of (usually, “at least”) two persons who pursue a lifelong relationship based on love. It is wrong to suppose that marriage is either based on providing for the needs of children or is “merely” based on the emotional love between two adults.


While this isn’t of course an exhaustive presentation of all the views available (let alone of the two even provided), the purpose of why I chose those two particular positions is because (1) the two are important topics on the question as of current and (2) the two are considerable for further and deeper insight into this conversation. If insight was not taken away from this, let it then instead be this: this issue is not meant to be approached with ignorance. While from either side of the debate we can appreciate and even sympathize with the sincerity of each other’s position, it by no means excuses the crucial aspect of the deeper, human truths in the conversation. For the reader, I have only used this brief overview as an impetus for further interest.

Works Cited

Corvino, John, Gallagher, Maggie. Debating Same-Sex Marriage. 2012. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Finnis, John. Natural Law and Natural Rights. 2011. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

George, Robert P. In Defense of Natural Law. 2001. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Girgis, Sherif, George, Robert P., Anderson, Ryan. What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense. 2012. New York, NY: Encounter Books.

Girgis, Sherif, George, Robert P., Anderson, Ryan. “What is Marriage?” 34 Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy. 2010.

Johnson, Phillip E. “In Defense of Natural Law” First Things (November 1999).

Pruss, Alexander. One Body: An Essay in Christian Sexual Ethics. 2013. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press.

Sullivan, Andrew. Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality. 1996. New York: Vintage Books.

Wojtyla, Karol. Love and Responsibility. 1981. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

About Guest Contributor

Steven DunnSteven Dunn is a blogger of Hellenistic Christendom, a blog that is fringed with philosophy and theology. Steven’s critically analyzes philosophical issues with passion and clarity. His desire to explore theological questions with the aim of understanding the centrality of Christ in all marks him as a great Christian philosopher in making.

Steven’s article originally appeared at Hellenistic Christendom.