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Ross Douthat’s defense of Lifelong Heterosexual Monogamy (LHM) in today’s New York Times is judged by Andrew Sullivan to be “Ross is at his most Catholic.” I’d say just the opposite–if “most Catholic” has anything to do with the church’s embrace of natural law argumentation. For the latter holds that one-man-one-woman marriage is written into human nature, and Douthat denies it.
What we think of as “traditional marriage” is not universal. The
default family arrangement in many cultures, modern as well as ancient,
has been polygamy, not monogamy. The default mode of child-rearing is
often communal, rather than two parents nurturing their biological
Nor is lifelong heterosexual monogamy obviously natural in the way that
most Americans understand the term. If “natural” is defined to mean
“congruent with our biological instincts,” it’s arguably one of the more
unnatural arrangements imaginable.
Douthat’s view is that, to the contrary, LHM “is a particularly Western understanding, derived from Jewish and Christian
beliefs about the order of creation, and supplemented by later ideas
about romantic love, the rights of children, and the equality of the
sexes.” One might also add “heritability of property” to the mix but never mind, the point is that, according to Douthat, it’s a culturally constructed social institution that is, if anything, at odds with human nature.
Douthat doesn’t want to get rid of the sucker. He thinks it’s
“one of the great ideas of Western civilization.” I think it’s a pretty
good idea too–I just don’t believe the yoking of two spouses has got to be connected to their
theoretical ability to make a baby. I happened to
hear the news of Judge Walker’s decision while celebrating the marriage
of Larry and Scott in an old barn in Cooperstown, NY. There were three
United Church of Christ ministers on hand to preside and a large crowd
of pretty sober Connecticut Congregationalists, most of them
heterosexual by the looks of the pairings. The music–straight from the
Glimmerglass Opera House–featured selections from Handel and
Mendelssohn. Jesus’ name was invoked. To see this union as some kind of
rejection of Judeo-Christian values would have struck a
non-Judeo-Christian as bizarre.
But OK, Douthat is entitled to think that LHM
is still worth honoring, and still worth striving to preserve. And
preserving it ultimately requires some public acknowledgment that
heterosexual unions and gay relationships are different: similar in
emotional commitment, but distinct both in their challenges and their
But based on Judge Walker’s logic–which suggests that any such
distinction is bigoted and un-American–I don’t think a society that
declares gay marriage to be a fundamental right will be capable of even
entertaining this idea.
The place to do the honors, publicly enough, is in Douthat’s own Catholic
church, and in such other religious institutions as choose to preserve
procreative LHM as the good old culturally constructed institution it
is–including by proscribing divorce and contraceptive technology to their members. In society at large, marriage (like divorce and birth
control) will be a fundamental right (that’s marriage, Ross, not gay
marriage), to be enjoyed by all would-be adult spouses, regardless of how the
genders are paired.