The Importance of Proper Definition

I have been in a discussion lately regarding marriage, and the reaction to the State of New York’s decision to start calling same sex relationships “marriages.” One of my interlocutors thought that when I had distinguished between valid marriages and invalid marriages, I was saying that all non-Catholic marriages were invalid (and how unfair that would be). This was obviously not the case, and I will explain it below. Another was having a similar difficulty. Both were confused about the distinction yet validity of religious marriages and non religious marriages, and they were confused about the idea that marriage means more that simply a “boyfriend and girlfriend telling the state of their love.” The discussion stemmed from a response to an article, which included the above statement and claimed that by redefining marriage to include same sex couples, the state effectively undefined marriage, and that there is a great loss in this.
Photo courtesy of Isela Maria Photography 
First, let’s get things straight. God is involved in all marriages, whether the vows are expressed in a religious setting or not. When my wife and I exchanged our vows in the traditional Catholic wedding Mass, God was (and is) involved in our marriage. When a non-Christian man and woman go to the justice of the peace and get married, God is involved in that marriage too. The only time God does not unite a couple in marriage is when a marriage is prevented by some impediment from coming about. This is discussed below.

Marriage is a thing into which the couple enters, not something the state created for couples to enter. What the state chooses to recognize as “marriage” has no effect as to whether the couple is, in reality, married or not. The state could call anything a marriage, but that doesn’t bring a marriage into existence. Similarly, the state could legally call an apple an “orange,” but that doesn’t make the apple an orange. Would such a redefinition preclude the orange from being an orange? No. Does such a redefinition remove the state’s distinction between apples and oranges? Yes. Is something lost? Yes, it becomes harder for the average person to truly understand what an orange is, as distinct from what an apple is.
Photo found here
Particularly with regard to the question about the distinction of Catholic marriages: There are two different levels of marriage: natural and sacramental. If a marriage is valid, it is always at least a natural marriage. My marriage is a natural marriage. The marriage between a non-Christian man and woman would also be a natural marriage. Both of those marriages are valid marriages. The particular Christian extra is that marriages between baptized persons are also sacramental–that is, they cause grace in the lives of the couple (a discussion for another time). My marriage is not only natural, but it is also supernatural (sacramental). The catch, with respect to our conversation, is that it takes certain requirements for a marriage to be valid (for various reasons, generally revolving around the fundamental definition that marriage is a full gift of self to the each other) including, but not limited to:
  • Marriage can only come about between two people – a full gift of self can only be given to one person, otherwise it is a divided gift. (This rules out polyamory.) This statement also requires that the parties be humans–animals plants and inanimate things are unable to consciously choose to give themselves, so they cannot enter marriage. (A man could not marry his cow.)
  • Marriage can only come about between willing people – it is not a gift of self at all if the persons are unwilling. (Shotgun weddings are generally invalid–even though the state would recognize them.) Here is it helpful to note that even arranged marriages are entered into willingly (only the bride and groom don’t get to choose the person to whom they give themselves), so they are completely valid.
  • In order to be willing, a man and a woman need to know the covenant to which they’re vowing themselves. You can’t totally agree to give yourself fully to another person for the rest of your life without a minimal understanding of what that really means. This area is greatly effected in our society. With the continual redefinition/undefinition of marriage, it becomes harder and harder for couples to know what marriage truly is, so it is harder for them to fully give themselves to each other.
  • If either the man, the woman, or both is/are a Catholic, the wedding must take place according to the rules of the Catholic Church (in a Catholic church, by a Catholic priest/deacon, they must intend to raise their children as Catholics, and they must conform to all of the other requirements for marriage). Catholics are not free to get married on the beach, in the forest, in a mansion, or elsewhere. Doing so fails to bring about a marriage. They are not married. They can always have their marriage convalidated by the Church, so that it becomes real, but they remain unmarried otherwise (even if the state considers them married).
  • Marriage can only come about between people who are able to give themselves – the mentally retarded, the insane, and similar others lack the capacity to truly choose to give themselves to another person for as long as they both shall live. This lack of the ability to give themselves prevents those people from entering a state of self-gift. (The drunk are also not able to give themselves at the time, so drunken Vegas weddings are generally not valid–even if the state recognizes them. This couple could always convalidate their marriage later.)
  • The couple must be able to consummate their marriage at least once – if the couple is unable to complete the marital act, they cannot consummate (“bring to perfection”) their gift of self to each other. A man who cannot become erect cannot consummate a marriage. I have heard of cases of women who are unable to receive a man–they would be unable to consummate a marriage. The marriage must be consummated by at least one marital act. The marital act does not need to be a fertile act, but it needs to be the KIND of act that would be fertile. The marital act is the act by which a man and woman would normally generate children (the man must climax within the woman’s vagina–wether or not they are fertile). If the couple is unable to perform this function, they cannot consummate the marriage, so they are unable to give themselves fully to each other. (*As an aside, when a couple forcibly removes their fertility from this act–through contraception, etc.–they change the act which they are performing, reserving themselves from giving a full gift and failing to perform the marital act, so a contracepted act wouldn’t consummate a marriage.*)  This act doesn’t need to generate children, but it must be the same act by which children would normally be generated. That being said, obviously a man cannot climax within another man’s vagina (because the other man has no vagina). Men cannot FULLY give themselves (fertility and all) to men. The same goes for women–they cannot FULLY give themselves (fertility and all) to women. Same sex couples cannot enter into a real marriage. No matter what the state calls their relationship, same sex couples lack the ability to enter the reality of what marriage is because they lack the fundamental elements (one man and one woman).

Marriage, by its nature, is ordered to the procreation and education of children. Not every marriage will generate children, but marriage requires the KIND of people who would normally be able to give themselves to each other so fully that their self-giving love MIGHT produce another life. (An infertile man and woman may marry each other because they are the KIND of relationship that is necessary.) Anything else is not a marriage. The state may call it a “marriage,” but that’s like the state calling an apple an “orange”–it doesn’t make it so.
To the next point: is anything lost by this altered definition of marriage? Yes, but the loss is subtle (great, but subtle). Over the last century, we have seen a great breakdown in the family unit. This has been caused by a societal watering-down of the understanding of what it means to “be married” and to “be a family.” Much of this has been because of the disassociation of marriage and the marital act. Instead of the marital act being looked at as the fullest gift of husband and wife to each other possible, society has slowly turned it into a mere pleasure act. To be sure, there is much pleasure involved, and that is good, but sexual intercourse purely for pleasure robs it of such self-giving properties. It becomes a form of using the other person for mutual pleasure–even if consensual, it fails to be a true gift. When society treats the marital act as though it’s just a pleasure time, why should it treat marriage like it’s anything special? Problems like adultery have been troubling mankind for practically as long as history records, but should they be considered acceptable? No! We know people shouldn’t cheat on their spouses. Our society, however, has slowly started to brush that problem (and others) under the carpet.
Widespread contraception was one of the first big falls. First, it removed the telltale sign of infidelity–another woman’s pregnancy–but it also dissociated the marital act from being open to generate children, which only stoked the burning fires of lust (sexual intercourse for pleasure instead of pleasure as a part of marital self-gift). This split between marriage and the marital act also gives any man who views women as sexual objects further leeway to treat them as such. It also greatly increases the temptation for men who otherwise wouldn’t treat women as objects to treat them as such–and vice versa. The same can be said for abortion, which became the fail-safe for contracepting couples. Preventing and killing babies from such illicit relationships made it easier for the relationships to occur, and they became more common, more mainstream–such relationships are even lauded in television shows. All of this erodes at the definition of marriage–they are both the sign of a lower view of marriage and contributors to lowering it further.
As our society’s view of marriage lowered, divorce became more prevalent, and to make this easier, lawmakers created “no-fault” divorce, which only further lowered the view of marriage. Not only is marriage separated from the marital act in society’s eyes, but they now look at marriage as a relationship of convenience. While stating, “until death do we part,” people are often really thinking, “as long as I feel good and he/she meets all my needs, but if things turn sour, we’ll just get a divorce.”
Adultery and fornication both went rampant, exploding in the 1960s and 70s. These vices which have historically been seen as evil, were now being seen as not only acceptable, but “freeing.” This libertine “freedom” (which is really just a license to indulge in lust, and become enslaved to one’s passions) has led to a further deterioration of society’s view of the family. As contraception became more available and society’s general view of marriage lowered, the increase of divorce, teen pregnancy, out of wedlock pregnancy, single families, spousal abuse, etc. skyrocketed. The more a society deviates in its understanding from what marriage really is (1 man and 1 woman, committed to giving themselves to each other for a deepening love, for generation and education of any children they might be given as the building block of society, for as long as they are alive), the more prevalent marital evils (divorce, teen pregnancy, infidelity, abuse, etc.) will be in that society.
Has something been lost? Yes. Our society no longer knows what marriage really is, so it will seemingly label anything it wishes a “marriage.” (What is the next apple to be called an “orange?” It looks most likely that the polyamorous crowd will be the next to push their agenda, but I assume they will wait and push the gay agenda first to first try to more fully establish the same sex crowd and lessen the understanding of marriage further before trying to add more partners). With same sex relationships now being called “marriages” by some state governments, it is a further erosion of the real definition of marriage, which will result in a further increase of our society’s marital ills. Unfortunately, people often only live up to the minimum expectation you give them, and as you keep expecting less and less from marriages, they will keep giving themselves less and less to a relationship that requires to give themselves fully. Marriage and family are the building block of society. Our society will not thrive on a faulty foundation–in fact, it is nearly guaranteed to get worse. As we keep lowering our society’s expectations of marriage, we will continue to see worse rates of marital and social evils in our country.
There is a silver lining. Individuals can resist. People can come to learn the real definition of marriage and try to live up to the higher standard to which truly married couples are called. They can raise children who understand marriage and plan to fully give themselves (for life) into a marriage (if God so calls them to that state someday). That’s what my family is doing, and we are not alone. We are just one couple among millions who understand what marriage really is, and we have pledged to live up to that calling, and to teach our children to live up to that calling.
Lastly, and perhaps, most importantly, we can pray. We can pray that God helps us to understand marriage even more deeply, and we can pray for mercy for any time we have offended the truth of marriage, and for mercy on others who have committed offenses against the truth of marriage. We can also pray for mercy on us as a country, for the country’s offenses against the truth of marriage.

“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

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