Marriage or Friendship?
Gregory J. Mansour & Robert P. George on Defending Marriage & Not Confusing It with Other Things
No one should be against true friendship, whether friends are of the same sex or opposite sexes. Friendships are good, and they can be very deep and fulfilling. The ideal of friendship as a union of hearts and minds in which each one loves the other’s good as his or her own is beautifully exemplified in the friendship of David and Jonathan: “The soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Sam. 18:1).
Likewise, friendship was hardly absent from the life of our Lord. Jesus taught the value of ultimate sacrifice in terms of friendship (John 15:13); he wept over the death of his dear friend Lazarus (John 11:35); revealed his innermost self to his apostles in order to transform them from servants into friends (John 15:15); brought Peter, James, and John closer to him than the others (Matt. 17:1; Mark 9:2; Luke 9:28); and was closest of all to the “beloved disciple,” who reclined on his chest at the last supper (John 13:23).
Friendship, however, must not be confused with marriage. While friendships are unions of hearts and minds, marriage by its nature unites hearts, minds, and bodies. While friendships come in different degrees and kinds of commitment, marriage calls for a permanent and exclusive commitment as well as sexual complementarity. While friendships can be shaped by a variety of pursuits, marriage is naturally fulfilled by, and provides the best possible context for, the conception, care, and upbringing of children.
A Comprehensive Union
This is by no means to deny that spouses should be friends. But marriage is more than an especially deep friendship. Marriage, unlike ordinary friendship, is a comprehensive union oriented to procreation. Its unique commitment is sealed, embodied, and renewed by conjugal acts—acts of the sort that are in themselves apt for procreation, though, of course, procreation does not always result from them. When children do come, the loving marital bond of husband and wife offers them the distinctive parental contributions, including the gender role modeling, of both a mother and a father, putting the children’s needs first. The possibility of truly conjugal acts, and thus the possibility of marriage itself, depends on the reproductive complementarity of the sexes.
Marriage, as the Church so beautifully teaches us, has both procreative and unitive significance, and these two dimensions of the overall marital good are connected in a profound way. Marriage obviously serves the noble end of handing on the gift of life. At the same time, marriage, including its sexual dimension, is an end in itself; it fulfills spouses even when they cannot conceive a child.
Just as it is wrong to think of marriage in its sexual dimension as a mere recreational activity that can be detached from its procreative meaning, it is an error to suppose that marital relations are valuable only as a means to conceiving and rearing children. Conjugal acts in their openness to new life are honorable and meaningful in themselves because they truly unite husband and wife as “one flesh”—as Jesus, recalling Genesis, teaches us (Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:5; Mark 10:8). When the gift of a child comes of the spouses’ “one flesh” union, it is certainly a cause for great joy. Even when a child is not conceived, however, this union expresses and embodies the marriage as something valuable for its own sake.
No Right to the Impossible
The debate about same-sex “marriage” often refers to a “right to marriage” and an opposition to this “right.” The absence of sexual complementarity makes the marriage of two people of the same sex impossible: they cannot realize the procreative sort of union—including the bodily union—distinctive of marriage. Something that is impossible cannot be “denied” to anyone; nor can anyone have a “right” to it.
Moreover, no one has a right to have the law or the institutions of the state call something other than what it is. Truth itself demands that we recognize as marriages only those unions that truly are marriages. Two persons of the same sex can have a deep friendship; they can support and care for each other very much, but that relationship (whether chaste, as it should be, or unchaste) must be called and treated as what, in truth, it is: a deep friendship, not a marriage.
If two friends, two relatives, or any two persons want to have the state recognize their relationship of mutual care and support for purposes of benefits, medical visits, or inheritance, the state may grant that request by legal contract as long as it does not obscure the truth and purpose of marriage. In other words, as long as the state does not treat non-marital partners as if they were married—for example, by making the existence (or presumption) of a sexual relationship a condition for receiving benefits—it can legitimately honor contracts that facilitate people’s capacities to care for and support each other.
However, marriage is different and has something truly and profoundly valuable to offer society. It is the foundation of the family: the original and best “department of health, education, and welfare.” Nothing is better than the healthy, marriage-based family as the place in which children are loved, cared for, and taught to be productive, creative, upright, and responsible. By recognizing true marriage and supporting it, both law and culture help to ensure that as many children as possible know and are known by, and love and are loved by, the mother and father through whose marital embrace, by the grace of God, they were brought into being, and in whose permanent marital love their greatest security is to be found.
The Duty to Support Marriage
Certainly, unfortunate things happen, and this is also true of problems in marriage. No one can guarantee that every child will have the great benefit of being nurtured and educated by his biological parents in their loving matrimonial bond. That is why, thank God, we have possibilities to help those children for whom what is ideal is not possible. Adoption and foster-parenting are great gifts. They are to be supported and encouraged. May God bless every adoptive and foster parent who provides parental love and support to a child who is in need. They are heroes.
Still, it is our obligation, each one of us, to do all that we can to make the ideal situation available for as many children as possible. And that is why, not only our state and national governments, but all of us as individuals, are under a solemn obligation to support the institution of marriage—true marriage—and to stand against any effort to redefine or undermine it. As individuals, we can support marriage through our daily actions by being faithful spouses or upright single people, and by supporting the marriages of our family members and friends. The Manhattan Declaration states:
Special & Distinct
We need not, and we must not, redefine marriage and reduce it to a form of sexualized romantic friendship. Yet we need not prevent same-sex friends—whether they are chaste, as true love between them demands, or involved with each other in a sexual way—from caring for each other, arranging their finances together, and/or seeing to their practical needs.
However, marriage must always have special recognition, rights, and responsibilities that are distinct from friendships of any type. Otherwise, the blurring of friendship and true marriage will lead to an erosion of marital norms in the public mind and, soon enough, a weakening of these norms in practice. Marriage must be recognized by the formal institutions of law as a special form of human communion that unites one man to one woman faithfully in a profound, personally meaningful, and socially indispensable bond.
Let us then say Yes to marriage; and let us say Yes to friendship; and let us say No to confusing friendship with marriage. •
Robert P. George , a Roman Catholic, is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. His books include In Defense of Natural Law (Oxford University Press) and The Clash of Orthodoxies (ISI Books). He is a Senior Editor of Touchstone.
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“Marriage or Friendship?” first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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