State of the unions

What is the significance of the New York Times’s decision (September 1) to include "public celebrations of commitment by gay and lesbian couples" in its Sunday "Weddings" pages? For many, the question is Why did it take the Times so long to acknowledge this social reality? For others, the decision was a predictable extension of the antitraditionalist, even libertarian moral biases evident on the paper’s editorial pages and thinly disguised in its coverage of culture, politics, and the arts. The Times has made little secret of the fact that it considers the full civic enfranchisement of homosexual people, as homosexual people, among the most pressing civil rights issues.

News of the Times’s decision was greeted with élan by Rebecca Mead on the "Comment" pages of the New Yorker (September 2). "The Times’s same-sex wedding announcements will be the supreme expression of the contemporary ideal of marriage as a grand, individualistic romance detached from society’s strictures-the ideal to which contemporary Americans are wedded, for better or worse," she wrote. "Gay marriage is the ultimate celebration of individualism." In the modern age, the "religious regulation of marriage has dwindled into benign ceremonial irrelevance," Mead added, as has the idea that marriage is indispensable for the rearing of children.

It is possible to trace this evolution in the ideal of marriage-from rigid social contract to a vehicle for individual self-fulfillment-to the Reformation, where personal choice and romantic love first began to replace more community-bound and aristocratic justifications for marriage. It was not a development the Catholic Church readily acceded to. Indeed, it was not until the last century that Catholicism officially recognized that the "unitive" dimension of marriage had equal moral and theological status with the procreative. Trying to balance the two is the real difficulty.

Once the primacy of individual choice and experience is recognized, traditional strictures about the fixed meaning of marriage are hard to sustain. Historian Eamon Duffy has recently written of the collapse of the "moral pattern imposed by the church (slowly and with enormous difficulty) on European sexual behavior and family structure." Duffy urges the church to develop a "modus vivendi with these apparently inexorable social trends." In that light, perhaps extending the blessings and disciplines of civil marriage to same-sex couples would satisfy important concerns about justice and fairness.

Some hesitation persists, however. It is hard to imagine, for example, how any social institution designed to encourage mutual well-being can flourish if conceived as "a grand, individualistic romance detached from society’s strictures." It is especially difficult to imagine a secure place for children in such arrangements. At least traditionally, marriage has been an institution, a social practice, that shapes us toward ends not necessarily of our own choosing. This often proves an experience uniquely capable of revealing us to ourselves as we truly are. In short, it is an institution subordinate to the duties and privileges of caring for others, especially children. It seems unlikely that a triumphant "individualism," à la Ms. Mead, will prove a more reliable guide to sexual or personal fulfillment for homosexual or heterosexual couples.

Published in the 2002-09-27 issue: 
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