This is the second of an eight-part series on marriage, summarizing Girgis, Anderson and George from their book What is Marriage? Which I agree with on all the essentials.
So what then, is marriage? I can’t encapsulate any better than Girgis and company: “Marriage is a comprehensive union of persons.” Let’s talk about what this means. It consists of three basic features: unifying activity, unifying goods, and unifying commitment. Put another way, first it unites two people in their minds and bodies, second it unites them with respect to procreation, family and it’s broad domestic sharing, and third it unites them permanently and exclusively. Let’s consider each of these in turn.
First, being united in mind and body. Any union of two people must include bodily union to be comprehensive. If it did not it would leave out a basic part of each person’s being. A man and woman hypothetically building an exclusive relationship based on deep conversation have not married, for example–marriage requires more. Marriage requires exclusivity with respect to sex. Why is sex so irreplaceable as a component of marriage? Let’s use an analogy. Something about our organs–heart, stomach, lungs, etc–makes them one body, but what? It’s not that they’re just close together, a pile of rocks are close together but they’re not one mineral substance. It’s not their shared genetic code, identical twins have essentially one code but not one body. What makes for unity is common action, in other words activity toward common ends. They are part of a greater whole and work together, they act as one toward one end that encompasses all. The parts of a body are naturally incomplete when apart, naturally greater than their sum when together. For two individuals to unite organically, their bodies must coordinate toward a common biological end of the whole that they form together. In coitus, and there alone, a man and a woman’s bodies participate by virtue of their sexual complementarity in a coordination that has the biological purpose of reproduction–a function that neither can perform alone. Here the whole is the couple; the single biological good, their reproduction. This union occurs whether conception results or not; it is the coordination toward the end that makes the union. Sex has long been called the generative act. If sex is a free and loving expression of the spouses’ commitment, then it is also a marital act. In other words, the marital act involves the most distinctively marital behavior chosen for distinctively marital reasons: to make spousal love concrete, to unite as spouses do, to extend their union of hearts and minds onto the bodily plane. This is key, as two men, two women, and larger groups cannot achieve organic bodily union: there is no bodily good or function toward which their bodes can coordinate. Only bodily coordination toward reproduction, then, gives rise to organic bodily union.
Second, comprehensive unifying goods: procreation and domestic life. Marriage calls for the wide-ranging cooperation of a shared domestic life, for it is uniquely ordered to having and rearing children. The term “shared domestic life” means more than two freshman roommates figuring out how to live together over winter break. Spouses unite the whole of their selves, and the demands of marriage are shaped by those of parenting. So marriage requires coordination of the whole of the spouses’ lives, as well as some positive cooperation in the major dimensions of human development, which are the major dimensions of child development also. However, just deciding to raise children is not enough to make you married. Three monks who commit to caring for an orphan do not thereby marry, nor is child-rearing necessary for being spouses. This is why our law for century after century has treated sex, not adoption or birth or conception, as the event that consummates a marriage, and has recognized the marriages of infertile couples. The idea is not that the relationship of marriage and the comprehensive good of rearing children always go together, it’s that like a ball and socket, they fit together. Family life specially enriches marriage, and marriage is especially apt for family life, which shapes it. To sum it up, marriage is ordered to family life because the act by which spouses make love also makes new life; one and the same act both seals a marriage and brings forth children. Relationships of two men, two women, or more than two cannot be marriages because they lack this inherent link to procreation. This is why in the common-law tradition only sex has been recognized as consummating a marriage. Sex is coordination toward reproduction, regardless of the spouses’ beliefs about conception. Marriage unites spouses in mind and body, and is ordered to producing not just one or another human value but a whole new person, a new center of value. So it inherently calls for the broad sharing of life that would be needed for helping new human beings develop their capacities for pursuing every basic kind of value. As I will demonstrate in the next two articles, according to the best available sociological evidence children fare best overall when reared by their wedded biological parents. Not only does child rearing deepen and extend a marriage, children also benefit from marriage.
Third, comprehensive commitment: permanence and exclusivity. Let’s review the preceding facts, namely marriage involves acts that unite spouses comprehensively, and it unites them in a comprehensive range of good. Because of both of these marriage alone requires comprehensive commitment, whatever the spouses’ preferences. For friendship you must be committed to his or her good and to the friendship itself. It need not be formal or very extensive. However a union of spouses in mind and body, ordered to having and rearing children in the context of life sharing, marriage both makes sense of permanent and exclusive commitment, and requires it to get off the ground. The point is that while people in other bonds may wish for and live out permanent sexual exclusivity, only marriage objectively requires it if it is to be realized fully. The norms of marriage create the stability and harmony suitable for rearing children. Both sociology and common sense agree that such stability is undermined by divorce. The connection between marriage and children therefore reinforces the reasons spouses have to stay together and faithful for life. The revisionist view of marriage, in contrast, where bodily union and orientation to family life and broad domestic sharing are at best optional, means so are permanence and exclusivity. If marriage is, as the revisionist must believe, essentially an emotional union, then sexual exclusivity is hard to explain. After all, sex is just one of many activities that bring vulnerability and tenderness, and some partners may desire deeper and longer-lasting emotional union with each other if their relationship were sexually open. However the conjugal view distinguishes marriage by a certain type of cooperation, defined by certain common goals: bodily union and its natural fulfillment in children and family life.
To summarize and repeat the main points of this article. Any definition of marriage must explain what makes the marital relationship different from others. Romantic love is not enough. First, true marriage unites persons in their bodies as well as their minds. Spouses unite bodily only by sex, which is ordered toward the good of bringing new human life into the world. Second, spouses cooperate in other areas of life in the broad domestic sharing uniquely suitable for fostering the all-around development of new human beings. Third, in view of marriage’s comprehensiveness, it inherently calls for comprehensive commitment: permanence (until death) and exclusivity (monogamy). To reiterate, marriage involves a bodily as well as mental union of spouses, a special link to children and domestic life, and permanent and exclusive commitment. All three elements constitute the conjugal view.