The authority of reason in defense of marriage, pt 1 Print
Heroes for Life
Thursday, Sep. 26, 2013 -- 12:00 AM

Heroes for Life by Lillian Quinones

This article is the first in a four-part series offered as a primer for Catholics on the authority of reason in the defense of marriage. The series is based on author Lillian Quinones’ interviews with Professor Robert P. George of Princeton University.

Author’s note: The need for knowledgeable and articulate Catholics to defend the family as the foundation of society is dire. I am honored to feature Robert P. George, who is hailed by the New York Times as the “country’s most influential Christian thinker.” His clear and concise arguments motivate us to defend traditional marriage courageously and confidently for, as he demonstrates in this article, reason is our strongest weapon.

— Lillian Quinones is a 2013 graduate of St. Ambrose Academy in Madison. She is a freshman at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Mich.

Robert P. George
Robert P. George
Meet Professor Robert P. George
A graduate of Swarthmore College and Harvard Law School, he also received a master’s degree in theology from Harvard and a doctorate in philosophy of law from Oxford University. He is the author of Conscience and Its Enemies, In Defense of Natural Law, Making Men Moral: Civil Liberties and Public Morality, and The Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion and Morality in Crisis, and is the co-author of Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, Body-Self Dualism in Contemporary Ethics and Politics, and What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense. His scholarly articles and reviews have appeared in many journals. Professor George is a drafter of the “Manhattan Declaration,” a manifesto signed by Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical believers that “promised resistance to the point of civil disobedience against any legislation that might implicate their churches or charities in abortion, embryo-destructive research, or same-sex marriage.” Professor Robert P. George, a devout Catholic, holds Princeton University’s celebrated McCormick Chair in Jurisprudence and is the chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. He is the founding director of the James Madison Program at Princeton and has served on the President’s Council on Bioethics and the United States Commission on Civil Rights. He is a former Judicial Fellow at the Supreme Court of the United States, where he received the Justice Tom C. Clark Award.

As a natural-law theorist, what is the greatest defense of marriage that can be understood by non-believers and believers alike?

Historically and rightly, marriage has been understood to be the institution that brings together man and woman as husband and wife, to be father and mother to any children born of their union.

The most important social role of marriage is to give children the inestimable blessing of being brought up in the committed bond of mother and father, ideally the loving bond of the biological progenitors of the kids. For children naturally want to know and to be known by, and to love and be loved by, the people who brought them into existence, their parents.

Marriage as a societal institution maximizes the chances that children will indeed know and be loved by their biological parents. If it were not for the fact that human beings reproduce sexually, if humans reproduced in some other way, no one would have ever come up with the idea of marriage as a civil institution. Marriage is linked in a very foundational way to procreation and the rearing of children.

Marriage as a product of culture

If a child is born anywhere in the entire world, it’s a pretty good bet that there will be a woman, the mother of the child, somewhere nearby. Nature makes sure that happens.

The real question is will the father of that child be there to support that mother and to play his essential role in providing that child with the distinctive care of the father. There is no guarantee that the father will not have disappeared by the time the infant is born.

If the father is still around when babies are born, that is something that is produced not by nature, but by culture. So what do we call the institution that makes it the case that most children have a father in their lives? We call that institution marriage.

Now that’s not denying that marriage is “natural” in some other sense — it is natural and even pre-political and it could exist even apart from political society. For men and women have an intelligible reason to marry. Quite independently of its social role of marriage, men and women as spouses realize an aspect of their fulfillment as human beings by entering jointly into a relationship that is naturally ordered to procreation and would be fulfilled by having and rearing children together.

Even if a man and woman enter a relationship of that type but cannot have a baby, they can still enter into a relationship exactly as I described it — one that is naturally ordered to procreation and having and rearing children together.

And that relationship is intrinsically good as it is a constitutive aspect of the well-being and fulfillment of the spouses. And in that sense, marriage is a natural institution and a human good, not merely a social construction.

Good citizens — product of marriage

There is no reason that the state would have an interest in marriage (any more than it has an interest in baptisms, bar mitzvahs, ordinary friends, or other things that the state doesn’t make laws about) but for the crucial role of marriage in the enterprise of child-rearing.

Every society has a profound interest in making sure that children are brought up well; that they’re cared for physically, emotionally, psychologically, morally, and spiritually, and that the fundamental values of decency, honor, integrity, and so forth, that are necessary for good citizens, are transmitted to the children.

But no institution can do that even remotely as well as the institution of the marriage-based family when it’s healthy and functioning. That’s why the state is rightly involved in marriage — it recognizes marriages, distinguishes them from non-marital relationships, and regulates them in a variety of ways.

I have made no reference to religion or theology, and without appealing to any authority, other than the authority of reason itself. To understand what marriage is, its fundamental social role, you don’t need anything other than reason.

Certainly the meaning and importance of marriage is illuminated by faith and by the teachings of religious authorities. But we don’t need religion to understand the most basic and fundamental truths: marriage is a union of two people, not three or more in “polyamorous” sexual ensembles; marriage is a relationship pledged to permanence, not a mere contract or a term of months or years, or “for as long as love lasts.”

And marriage is a bond uniting a man and woman in a relationship ordered to procreation — even in cases in which, per accidens, having children is not possible.

Next in the series: Learning from the French and Pope Francis.