COVER STORY Is 'same-sex marriage' a square peg in a round hole?
by Kevin Donnelly
News Weekly, June 20, 2015
The idea of marriage between a man and a woman has been weakened in the past 50 years, giving rise to many problems.
Now, the vote in Ireland has intensified debates in Australia about redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships, and there’s no doubt that Parliament will deal with at the issue sooner rather than later.
Debates about same-sex marriage must be seen in the broader context of marriage as one of society’s most enduring and beneficial institutions. Since the dawn of time and in all societies, cultures and major religions, marriage involving a heterosexual relationship has been pre-eminent.
At the Vatican in October 2014, the Catholic Church held a synod on the family in which Pope Francis called on the assembly of bishops to discuss the institution of marriage within the Church. The synod’s final report discusses the many challenges faced by families and the increasing pressure on matrimony as one of the key sacraments of the Church.
There’s no doubt that traditional ideas about the nature of marriage and its place in Western cultures are changing dramatically.
Before the cultural revolution of the late 1960s it was socially and morally unacceptable for men and women to cohabit unless they were married, and divorce was considered a last resort.
The cultural revolution, epitomised by hippies and flower power, the anti-war movement and the mantra “make love, not war”, undermined the status quo in institutions such as marriage. Books such as The Female Eunuch, by Germaine Greer, argued that marriage was a form of oppression, and some feminists described marriage as a form of sexual exploitation and enslavement.
In Australia in 1975, the institution of marriage was also weakened by the introduction of no-fault divorce by the Whitlam Labor government, which made it far easier to break the bonds of matrimony.
Propaganda at school
The way marriage is treated in the school curriculum provides additional evidence that conservative ideas about marriage (involving a man and a women in a sacred and lasting relationship with the purpose of having children) are under siege.
Primary school children are taught that marriage can involve a man and a woman or two people of the same sex and that it is wrong to judge either type of union as preferable.
As a result of changing social mores and no-fault divorce, fewer people have married and divorce rates have increased. It is also true that the rise of single-parent families and the absence of biological fathers have coincided with increased rates of child abuse.
Evidence that the benefits of being freed from a supposedly old-fashioned and inflexible definition of marriage have failed to materialise is detailed in the book Maybe “I Do”: Modern Marriage and the Pursuit of Happiness, by Australian Minister for Defence Kevin Andrews.
Andrews there argues for the position: “A healthy, stable and happy marriage is an optimal relationship for the psychological, emotional and physical wellbeing of adults and children.”
What’s to be done? The first step is to acknowledge that same-sex couples are already fully protected under the law. These couples share all the protections offered by marriage in areas such as superannuation, sharing property and other legal and financial arrangements.
Second, we need to evaluate the impact changes in the definition of marriage are having on families and society. If redefining the institution of marriage is counter-productive, the facts must be revealed.
Third, the school curriculum should no longer adopt a morally relativistic approach to what constitutes marriage and students should not be indoctrinated with cultural-left views about gender and sexuality.
Religious leaders and institutions also need to stress the sanctity of marriage and the moral obligation it places on all those involved. In a narcissistic culture consumed by what is transitory, marriage is symbolised by a higher sense of purpose and deeper commitment between a man and a woman.
As Pope Francis has observed: “Marriage now tends to be viewed as a form of mere emotional satisfaction that can be constructed in any way or modified at will. But the indispensable contribution of marriage to society transcends the feelings and momentary needs of the couple.”
Finally, it has to be realised that defining marriage as between same-sex couples involves what in philosophy is known as a category mistake – an error in which something is incorrectly presented as belonging to a particular category, or mistakenly claiming that opposing things belong to the same category. In the same way it is impossible to describe night as day or day as night, it is impossible to define marriage as anything but the life-long union of a women and a man for the purposes of having and rearing children.
No amount of legislation or referenda will alter the fact that while same-sex couples can share love and companionship, their relationship bears no resemblance to marriage.
Dr Kevin Donnelly is a senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University and director of the Education Standards Institute. This article was first published in The Age on June 1.