Robert Spaemann on “Gay Marriage”

Anyone who reads Retrievals with some regularity knows that I post translations of the works of the Catholic philosopher Robert Spaemann with some regularity. So far I have posted some of his articles on abortion, genetic manipulation, circumcision, and nuclear power. But according to the statistics for my blog, people occasionally visit it after Google search for “robert spaemann gay marriage.” I thought I should oblige them.

I don’t have a personal translation of anything Spaemann has written on “gay marriage,” but he does make some brief remarks on the subject in one of his books that has already been translated, Persons. The remarks occur in the course of a discussion of the phenomenon of promising–marriage being, of course, a promise of great importance. On p. 228, however, he turns to the more particular issue of the distinction between friendship and marriage:

“Yet not every friendship is a marriage. It is not essential for friendship that there should be a lifelong sharing of destinies. The specific unity of the marriage partnership is expressed in the New Testament by the saying that ‘the two shall become one flesh.’ The lifelong horizon of this partnership and the fact that the couple form a legal person, is all of a piece with the sexual difference and natural complementarity of the two persons that goes with it. Their relationship includes sexual intercourse with its a priori ordering towards the objectification of the union in children that belong to them both. Being father and mother to one and the same child means objectively a lifelong relation between a man and a woman, and it lies a prior in the child’s interest that the relationship should have a form matching the personal identity of their common child. The distinctive character of the marriage vow is only conceivable on the basis of the specific complementarity of persons of opposite sex, on which the handing on of human life and the continuance of the human race rely. If personhood consists in having a human nature, it consists of necessity in having either a male or a female nature, which is to say, a nature with its own ordering towards a person of the other sex. The person as such is not endowed with a sex. Its relations are simply to other persons. But this specific and exclusive bond, formed by exchange of promises as a new and permanent union without room for substitution, builds on the sexual relation of two partners of opposite sex. Persons of the same sex can feel erotically attracted to each other. But their sexual relation remains their ‘private affair.’ It lasts for as long as each wants it to last. It does not create an objective and new unity. The two do not become ‘one flesh.'” (trans. Oliver O’Donovan)

That was a long paragraph, so allow me to briefly unpack it. The key comes right there near the end: what sets marriage apart is the possibility of the creation of an “objective” unity as opposed to a “subjective” unity. A subjective unity would be the solidarity that gets created within any friendship, the love of the friends for one another–whether it has an erotic basis or not. But as Spaemann point out, the lifelong “friendship” that is a marriage has an additional possibility beyond the creation of a private, subjective solidarity: children.

9 lbs. 10 oz. of objectivity

9 lbs. 10 oz. of objectivity

Children, as any parent knows, are anything but subjective. Rather, children are objective, public, bigger than the personal feelings of the couple involved. The union that results in children is made permanent, for better or worse. Even if one gets divorced, one’s ex-husband will always be the father of one’s child, or one’s ex-wife will always be the mother of one’s children. Nothing can change that fact.

Spaemann does not belabor the point here with additional legal argumentation. This is, after all, just a small point of analysis within a chapter of a book, and he wrote all this well before the “gay marriage” issue became so pressing in America. But the passage remains useful in drawing attention to the reality that is at stake in the debate. The proponents of “same sex marriage” frame the issue as one of civil rights. The denial of this right is alleged to be akin to racism and all other forms of prejudice. But there can be no right to something fictitious. A same-sex union is not the same reality as a marriage. The demand that it be recognized as such is really just a demand for cooperation in a lie about the way things are.

I would leave off with a “good luck with all that,” but we know this will affect all of us in America. The full reality of marriage has already been wounded by legalized divorce and legalized contraception. The increasing legal establishment of “gay marriage” will be a further wound to marriage, which is the same as saying that it will be a further wound to the family, which is the same as saying that it will be a further wound to society. All the more reason to store up treasure in heaven.

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10 Responses to Robert Spaemann on “Gay Marriage”

  1. Dave Higgins says:

    That certainly supports a limitation on spiritual union. However, there are two very different things described by “marriage” in these debates:

    (1) Religious marriage: a spiritual union;

    (2) Civil marriage: a package of legal rights which a state gives two (or more) persons.

    Much of the debate has been made unnecessarily acrimonious by conflating the two. I suggest the best solution is a greater separation of church from state: make the same package of legal rights available to all as a purely civil act irrespective of the parties sex; make religious marriage purely a sacrament of a church.

    • alexanderschimpf says:

      I wish your civil unions idea would take off, I really do. I think the fact that it has not shows that the debate is not really about legal rights and privileges, at least here in America. Rather, the debate has more to do with the morals-forming pressure of law, a power of law that all sides recognize, for good or ill.

      • Dave Higgins says:

        I see part of the problem as labelling. Heterosexual couples legally united outside of a church have always been called married, whereas those states that do recognise legal homosexual union often call it something different.

        Given that it is the only country I can think of built on explicit separation of church and state, it does puzzle me slightly how tied together they are in US law for practical purposes.

      • alexanderschimpf says:

        But I think that very labelling would be a logical entailment of Spaemann’s point: it is fitting that things that are different be labelled differently.

        Your second point really gets down to another issue underlying the debate, one that is currently above my pay grade: perhaps what the framers meant by a separation of church and state is different from what people generally mean by it now.

      • Dave Higgins says:

        That was what I was saying: but do churches or states give up the word marriage?

      • alexanderschimpf says:

        You are keeping me on my toes with this, and I appreciate it.

        Essentially, my outlook is tragic; neither can give it up. I do not think the Christian churches have the right to give up the word “marriage,” since tradition holds that Christ elevated the union of a man and a woman into a supernatural reality, a sacrament.

        So the easy answer would be to say that the states should give it up and settle on civil unions for everyone. But “marriage” is also a natural reality, prior to its elevation by grace–a natural reality vital to the continuation of the political society given its greater propensity to result in children than other forms of friendship. So it would seem to be in the interests of the state to recognize and promote it.

        So my position, which nobody likes, would be for states to recognize marriages between one man and one woman, and if the voters wish, also civil unions which could benefit from some of the same tax laws, etc. But this still wouldn’t eliminate all the potential for acrimonious disagreement.

      • Dave Higgins says:

        Glad to help.

        Maybe a solution lies in translation: Jesus did not use the word “marriage” or any other modern word as he spoke Aramaic. Possibly using the word from the Dead Sea Scrolls for Christian spiritual union would work.

  2. gotdewy says:

    Reblogged this on Huynhing Attitude and commented:
    A completely new look for me as the “objective” unity of a marital union between a male and a female is presented.

  3. Maura says:

    The argument that always comes up in response to Spaemann’s thoughts here is, of course, “but what about heterosexual married couples who cannot have children?” In that sense procreation is not a “possibility” for them.

    Although I can feel the misunderstanding going on here (children are still a “possibility” because these couples are not engaging in acts that intrinsically exclude conception), I always have trouble articulating it to my friends.

    As you indicate, I think the largest problem has to do with defining our terms. What marriage means to most people has changed over the years, and it’s almost impossible to conduct a rational discussion that gets anywhere if we cannot even agree on the terms we are discussing.

    Jon Jalsevac’s thoughts have been helpful to me here: http://www.crisismagazine.com/2013/why-we-are-losing-the-gay-marriage-debate-and-how-we-can-start-winning

    • alexanderschimpf says:

      Thanks for the link–I will check it out!

      I agree with you on the difficulties in articulating a response to the challenge, but I no longer let it bother me. It takes time, and a whole lot of cooperative work, to work out adequate defenses of our intuitive certainties when they are first challenged. Or to put that more bluntly: you have to be willing to “lose” a lot of arguments before you can start winning.

      I really like Mysteries and Manners, by the way. Keep blogging!

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