Real marriage and kinship

For those of you who haven’t seen it, the article on gay marriage by John Milbank (Mr. Radical Orthodoxy) is pretty good:

During the course of recent debates in the British Parliament over the proposed legalisation of gay marriage, it has gradually become apparent that the proposal itself is impossible. For legislators have recognised that it would be intolerable to define gay marriage in terms equivalent to “consummation,” or to permit “adultery” as legitimate ground for gay divorce….Why, then, should Christians worry, if this is all just a matter of terminology? Can we not live with differing definitions of marriage? …This may, indeed, be the direction that the churches now need to take. However, the graver fear surrounding the new legislation is that secular thought will not so readily let go of the demand for absolutely equal rights based on identical definitions. In that case, we face an altogether more drastic prospect. Not only would “marriage” have been redefined so as to include gay marriage, it would inevitably be redefined even for heterosexual people in homosexual terms. Thus “consummation” and “adultery” would cease to be seen as having any relevance to the binding and loosing of straight unions…

Secondly, it would end the public legal recognition of a social reality defined in terms of the natural link between sex and procreation. In direct consequence, the natural children of heterosexual couples would then be only legally their children if the state decided that they might be legally “adopted” by them.

And this, I argue, reveals what is really at issue here. There was no demand for “gay marriage” and this has nothing to do with gay rights. Instead, it is a strategic move in the modern state’s drive to assume direct control over the reproduction of the population, bypassing our interpersonal encounters. This is not about natural justice, but the desire on the part of biopolitical tyranny to destroy marriage and the family as the most fundamental mediating social institution.

Heterosexual exchange and reproduction has always been the very “grammar” of social relating as such. The abandonment of this grammar would thus imply a society no longer primarily constituted by extended kinship, but rather by state control and merely monetary exchange and reproduction…

It is for this reason that practices of surrogate motherhood and sperm-donation (as distinct from the artificial assistance of a personal sexual union) should be rejected. For the biopolitical rupture which they invite is revealed by the irresolvable impasse to which they give rise. Increasingly, children resulting from anonymous artificial insemination are rightly demanding to know who their natural parents are, for they know that, in part, we indeed are our biology.

Set aside for the moment that heterosexual divorce is as great an abomination as gay marriage, and you’ll agree that Milbank ably makes two key points.  First, gay marriage does affect straight marriage by forcing straights to radically impoverish their understanding of their own unions.  Second, this is an attack by the state on a rival social structure, the kinship group.

Next, Milbank realizes where his logic is leading him and tries to draw back:

From this it follows that we should not re-define birth as essentially artificial and disconnected from the sexual act – which by no means implies that each and every sexual act must be open to the possibility of procreation…

Perish the thought.

By the way, the discussion we had here earlier on paternity testing got my thinking about what marriage really means from a purely legal standpoint.  Here is what I came up with:

Marriage is an agreement that party A (the husband) should automatically be recognized as the father of any children born to party B (the wife), “automatically” meaning that once the marriage is contracted, neither party may refuse to acknowledge A’s paternal rights and duties to any children subsequently born to B.

There is much more to marriage, of course, but it’s all built on top of this.  The point of marriage is to legally establish fatherhood.  Once this is explicit, it is quite obvious that 1) marriage is heterosexual (such a contract would still be meaningful for an infertile heterosexual couple, but not a homosexual one); 2) a woman can have no more than one husband (since having more than one father would negate the essential paternal authority of all of them); 3) women may not divorce and remarry (because otherwise fatherhood would depend on the mother’s subsequent will, in violation of the contract).  Again, everything else is on top of this.  Love is the reason to make this contract, but it is not the essence of the contract itself.  This contract is a fitting metaphor for the union of Christ with His Church, but only because it already has a nature fixed apart from theological considerations to make the metaphor apt.

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4 thoughts on “Real marriage and kinship

  1. The point of marriage is to legally establish fatherhood. Once this is explicit, it is quite obvious that 1) marriage is heterosexual (such a contract would still be meaningful for an infertile heterosexual couple, but not a homosexual one); 2) a woman can have no more than one husband (since having more than one father would negate the essential paternal authority of all of them); 3) women may not divorce and remarry (because otherwise fatherhood would depend on the mother’s subsequent will, in violation of the contract).

    This is true, and it shows that gay marriage won’t be what destroys marriage, but more that we destroyed marriage and opened the doors for gays to argue it should apply to them as well. Not that long ago marriage was our foundational philosophy of family formation. Marriage (getting married and staying married) was the universally accepted way for a woman to ensure investment from the father of her children. Over the past decades we have moved from a marriage based concept of the family to a child support based view of the family (while leaving the façade of marriage in place for decoration). In the US the first step of this was to make it law of the land that mothers of illegitimate children could go after the biological father for child support. This occurred with two US Supreme Court cases, Levy v. Louisiana in 1968 (391 U.S. 68) and Gomez v. Perez (409 U.S. 535) in 1973. Prior to this we had bastardy laws but this was a patchwork at the state level and there was (as the name implies) a strong social stigma in place for this method of family formation. Roughly simultaneously marriage was then gutted with the institution of no fault divorce and an incredible bias towards granting custody to the wife. Marriage no longer grants a man “ownership” of his children, and it no longer is required for women to secure the financial resources of the father. The problem is no one noticed because there was some delay between gutting marriage and starting to see the wheels come off. Now nearly everyone sees the child support model as moral, and they don’t connect our 40% out of wedlock birth rates and 50% divorce rates with the changes which occurred in the 60s and 70s.

  2. Pingback: These Are A Few Of My Favorite Things | Passionate Christian Marriage

  3. Pingback: Marriage | Thoughts from a Minimalist Christian

  4. Pingback: The (Secular) Problem With Gay Marriage | Intellectual Imperialism

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