Forty years ago, most Americans considered homosexual activity an abomination and homosexual marriage an impossibility. Now a wide range of U.S. and Canadian citizens are debating whether homosexual marriage may be an idea whose time has come. Appropriately, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has entered the discussion, arguing against recognition of same-sex unions (see “Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons,” Origins, August 14, 2003).

In this essay, I want to explore how something unthinkable only a few decades ago has already been legalized in more than a dozen countries. For the record, I am not arguing for homosexual marriages. Frankly, my early life in the pre–Vatican II church, my Jesuit training, and my study of Thomistic philosophy strongly bias me toward what I will call the essentialist mindset. Thus, I prefer clear and distinct ideas, and I lean toward the view that anything less than the best is not good enough. I usually find the Vatican’s moral positions to be intelligently argued. Because of my background, I am predisposed to agree with the church’s approach to homosexual unions. Still, as a priest, I have learned that human life is messy and that the best is often the enemy of the good. That is why over the ages priests have supplemented normative ethics with a “pastoral approach.” At times, that approach has gradually become the norm.

The essentialist mindset that grounds the CDF position clearly defines the nature of sex; from this, it draws unambiguous conclusions about what marriage is and which sexual acts are morally right or wrong. Contrast that to what I will call the postmodern mindset, which relies on categories with fuzzy boundaries and on fallible human wisdom to deal with the ever-changing mix of reality. The first mindset inhabits the realm of the textbook; the second wanders/wonders in the realm of the morning newspaper. Justice Antonin Scalia, in his dissent against the recent Supreme Court decision invalidating Texas’s sodomy laws, noted that, while the law does better with strictly logical thinking, daily life often does better without it.

For the essentialist, the “universe” is well ordered, and there are clear distinctions that must be preserved. In particular, God created the institution of marriage, and so its terms are not open to human modification. Sexual activity is either natural and good, or unnatural and evil. In Scripture, it is abhorrent to God that a woman would wear a man’s clothes. Similarly, it is abhorrent for a man to lie with another man as with woman. In the well-ordered cosmos of Thomas Aquinas, offenses against our biological sexuality are direct offenses against God. For the subsequent tradition, all sexual sins, no matter how small, are judged “objective mortal sins” because they attack God’s design for the survival of the human race.

To the postmodern mind, our categories are more or less adequate; they are mental groupings of things for pragmatic purposes. Hence the postmodern mind sees similarities between homosexual and heterosexual unions. By contrast, the CDF sees no connection whatsoever: “There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.” To the essentialist, moral evaluations of sexual acts tend to black or white, but to the postmodern mind they are varied in hue and value.

In the fragmented “pluriverse” (to use William James’s term) of the postmodern mind, the world is not well ordered, so we (not God or the cosmic order) must decide, always provisionally, which practices and institutions help us live with one another and flourish. At times, we must submit to the limits of our embodied existence and at other times transcend them. For example, we cannot fly, but we can take an airplane. Biological nature is not definitive.

According to the CDF, homosexual unions deserve strong and unequivocal condemnation because they violate human nature and the common good. According to a postmodern mindset, homosexual unions should perhaps be sanctioned so that homosexual persons too can develop their humanity and make a contribution to society. While the essentialist mind of the CDF says that it is wrong to use principles of respect or nondiscrimination to protect what is in fact immoral, the postmodern mind demands respect for the sexual differences in people.

“Marriage” as traditionally defined means that a man and a woman join their lives sexually and bear children. So simple. But history shows that marriage has always been complicated when it comes to real people living in diverse cultures and ages. Such variations incline the postmodern mind to consider expanding the institution of marriage to include one more variation, namely, the union of two persons of the same sex.

I will consider six overlapping criteria commonly used for deciding what is or is not a “marriage”: (1) male-female differences; (2) reproduction; (3) “unnatural” sex; (4) institutional recognition; (5) purposes of marriage; and (6) parenting. I hope that these considerations will help overcome the mutual incomprehension that divides the essentialist and the postmodern positions.



According to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the CDF, the human spirit knows with “certainty that marriage exists solely between a man and a woman.” This claim presupposes that men and women are relevantly different. Few things seem more obvious. Yet most people have found it difficult to say what, apart from reproductive capacity, is essentially different in women and men. Some women can do almost anything most men can do, and vice versa. Few men could beat Annika Sorenstam in a round of golf or run Hewlett Packard better than Carly Fiorina. These days, tough-minded wives go to the law office, and gentle husbands stay home to nurture their children. Since we find it so hard to say what the psychological and spiritual differences are between men and women, we also find it hard to say why, on the all-important interpersonal level, the marriage covenant of a man and a woman is significantly different from a covenant between, say, two women.

This lack of decisive difference is significant because most American marriages are primarily whole-life unions of persons and only secondarily genital unions. The poet John Milton, arguing against the idea that adultery is the only grounds for divorce, perceptively wrote that such a restriction perversely implies that sexual intercourse is the core of a marriage. Rather, the complementary way spouses play, argue, and work together is more significant than the way they have sex together. In fact, sexual intercourse ordinarily serves the function of bonding the couple far more than the function of procreation. Since gays can live and sexually bond well with one another, it is hard for postmodern thought to understand why bodily differences legitimate one kind of union but forbid another.

Further, the boundary between males and females has become even more obscure because some people feel they are men trapped in female bodies, and vice versa. I recently listened to a woman complain about a male relative who had become a woman. (She did not complain about the sex change, but rather that this guy, who used to be “ugly as sin,” became “drop-dead gorgeous.”) I asked myself what moral criteria should be used to decide, first before and then after the surgery, whether he/she should look for a man or a woman to marry.



The standard reason for insisting on one man and one woman in a marriage is, of course, that they fulfill one another reproductively. Based on that difference, the CDF argues that homosexual unions cannot be marriages since they cannot produce children. What could be clearer?

Twenty-five years after the birth of the first test-tube baby, matters are not so clear. Reproductive technology has become so widely accepted that many states require insurance companies to pay for it. Indeed, reproductive medicine has forced us to reevaluate our notion of parenthood. Four different persons may contribute sperm, egg, womb, and gestation in the conception and birth of a child. Embryo splitting and recombination make tracing our origins even more difficult. Adoptive parents quite rightly claim to be real parents. In this context, homosexual parenthood looks less anomalous to the postmodern mind.

The official Catholic position says children should be conceived through sexual intercourse by married couples. The postmodern challenge is not that this position is unreasonable. Rather, the question is why is this the only moral way to have children? My point is not to approve all the variations created by reproductive technology and adoption. Rather, I am trying to explain why the changes of the past twenty years have led the “fuzzy logic” of the postmodern mind to consider sanctioning homosexual families. Whether we as a society should rethink how we have children is a separate question.


Nature of Sexual Acts

For the essentialist mind, sex by its very nature requires that the right male organ engage the right female organ in the right manner under the right circumstances and for the right reasons. Anything else is unnatural and therefore immoral.

It is doubtful that most heterosexual married people confine themselves within such limits. Husbands and wives engage in sexual activities such as kissing, fondling, showering together, cunnilingus, fellatio, masturbation, even anal intercourse. Some engage in these acts not just as foreplay, but often as sexual acts chosen for mutual enjoyment. Today, many consider these “unnatural” acts to be within the broad pale of what is acceptable, and so they are hard-pressed to insist that such acts are wrong for homosexual partners.

Actually, the essentialist tradition has long had trouble naming which sexual acts are truly “natural.” For Augustine and Aquinas, sexual acts when procreation cannot occur are more sexually “unnatural” than sex with a prostitute when it can. We now know that most sexual acts, including those within marriage, are infertile. By one reading of Humanae vitae, “natural” now means something like “not deliberately closed by human intervention to the possibility of procreation.” Of course, the same might, tongue-in-cheek, be said of homosexual sex. When, after Vatican II, Catholics began to connect sexual activity more strongly with expressing love than with making babies, it became harder to see how homosexual acts are completely different from heterosexual acts.


Legal Status

The CDF quite rightly observes that civil law grants institutional recognition to marriage because the succession of generations is a matter of public interest. By this logic, childless heterosexual marriages do not deserve legal recognition. Nevertheless, the church and society have decided that even childless heterosexual marriages are “close enough” to receive important legal benefits and protections. On the other side, some homosexual couples now seek legal recognition precisely to bring legitimacy and stability to their children. Faced with this mix, in 1998 the Vermont Supreme Court decided that gay couples deserve, if not the name “marriage,” at least the same privileges.

There are many other functions that current marriages fill: interpersonal commitment, permanence, sexual exclusivity, economic rights. Prima facie, these benefits seem to be as good for homosexual persons as they are for heterosexual persons, and thus they seem to warrant equivalent public recognition.

The CDF quite rightly argues against an understanding of marriage that is too broad. Still, the church itself has always had difficulty naming the necessary features of not only getting married but, more important, of being married. At least some legally married people lack one or more features—they may not live together, not have sexual relations, not have children, not have only one partner, etc. Indeed, the church says that two (civilly divorced) separated persons are still married even though they may have nothing in common except bad memories.

On the other hand, the postmodernist’s aversion to exclusive definitions makes it difficult to decide what might count as marriage. If marriage is described, as some do, as an “intimate and lasting human relationship,” then a daughter who commits herself to care for her aging mother could marry her. As a consequence, postmodern minds are divided. Some are open to homosexual marriage as just another variation on an evolving institution. Others find a middle ground in “registered partnerships.” Still others think that gay unions “cross the line” and at best deserve only tolerance.



It would be easier to decide whether there is such a thing as “gay marriage” if one could establish the “purposes” of marriage. Unfortunately, over the centuries there has been considerable waffling on this issue. For Augustine and most of the Catholic tradition, the primary purpose of marriage was to have children. John Chrysostom, in his “Homily on Marriage,” writes that the primary purpose of marriage was not children but the avoidance of fornication. For many contemporary theologians, the purpose of marriage is to form a covenant of love expressible through sexual intercourse.

Consider the following: Three couples want to get married. The first couple say they don’t like one another, but want to bear children. The second say they feel guilty about having sex and want to legitimate it. The third couple love one another and want to share their lives together but, for reasons of their genes, will not bring any children into the world. Although each of these cases isolates one of the standard purposes of marriage, most American Catholics likely would refuse the first couple, strongly discourage the second, and affirm the third. A homosexual union fits the second and third cases.



Finally, who should raise children? The CDF’s answer is clear: Children should be raised by their biological parents. Ratzinger writes that it is a gravely immoral act of violence to bring a child into an arrangement where either a father or a mother is missing.

This judgment seems overly restrictive. Historically, wealthy families have “farmed out” their children’s care to wet nurses, nannies, other families, or boarding schools. Through divorce, death, or adoption, single parenting is common and viable. The key question is what kinds of parents will negatively affect the child. To Ratzinger, homosexual parenting creates unjustifiable obstacles to a child’s development. In the experience of many other people, homosexual parenting gives love and life to those who otherwise would not have these treasures.

Thus, sincere dialogue about the nature of marriage is necessary, within minds and between persons. Otherwise, the clear logic of the CDF will not correspond to the reality experienced by the postmodern mind. And the latter’s experience of “reasonableness” will be thought by the CDF to be just sloppy thinking.

Historically, marriage has often been changed by cultural shifts. Some adaptations, such as the requirement that rapists marry their victims, now seem quite inadequate. Others, such as the requirement of a love covenant, now seem quite proper. It remains to be seen whether homosexual unions will deform or develop that most central institution we call marriage.


Related: Legalize Same-Sex Marriage, by Paul J. Griffiths

Edward Vacek, SJ, holds the Stephen Duffy Chair in Catholic Theology at Loyola University, New Orleans.

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Published in the 2003-10-24 issue: View Contents
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