You keep using that word… I do not think it means what you think it means.

One of the central difficulties which the Church faces in responding to Obergefell is that what most Americans understand marriage to be today is at odds with the historic understanding of marriage, both within and outside Christianity, and hence a substantial renewal of the culture’s understanding of marriage is required.

Here’s the thing: both sides in the (yes, ongoing) debate keep using the word marriage, but I don’t think that it means what they think it means…

I subscribe to the magazine Touchstone — “A Journal of Mere Christianity” — and several years ago I read one of the most penetrating, clarifying articles on the state of marriage in American society I’ve come across. Entitled “Phony Matrimony,” I’ve seen similar points made elsewhere, but the insight with which the author of the piece — Christopher Oleson — made his points struck me in a way other similar analysis have not.

Like many others Oleson notes that what passes for marriage in the minds of most Americans is something very different from the conception held just a few generations ago. Like others, Oleson notes that at the heart of the traditional conception of marriage is pro-creation: at a fundamental level, marriage is oriented and structured towards childbearing, even if pro-creation never in fact occurs. And it is because of this intrinsic purpose that marriage is utterly indissoluble. Again, this itself is nothing new: the Catholic Church, for instance, has long taught that the purpose of marital love is for the union of the spouses and the pro-creation of children, and it is from both that the indissolubility of marriage flows.

What struck me about Oleson’s analysis isn’t so much his view of the nature of authentic marriage — again, he largely echoes what others have said — but rather his diagnosis of the conception of marriage which is most commonly held today in our country. Oleson argues that what passes for marriage in this country is more aptly described as “contractually formalized couplehood”. He writes, “We have maintained the term ‘marriage’ as an esteemed and protected word, but what that word once signified has lost its public existence within our culture.” And he proceeds to systematically make his case, first laying out the nature of authentic marriage, then turning to this contractual couplehood which so many of us mistakenly understand as marriage. Noting that the latter is considerably different from the former, Oleson writes,

Whether you’re chatting with Bobos at the nearest Starbucks, listening to conservative talk-show hosts, or attending a wedding at a local Evangelical church, there is a discernable near-unanimity regarding marriage that underlies the public disputes over who can enter into it.

What are these core assumptions that are commonly embraced by mainstream American society, both conservative and liberal? The most commonly recognized ingredients of a marriage are a man and a woman who are in love with each other and want to be with each other for the rest of their lives. They seek a public recognition of that love and commitment. There need be no doubt that most of the time there is complete sincerity on both sides about wanting to make a life-long run of it “till death do us part.”

He then proceeds to point to two other cultural assumptions which place contemporary marriage radically at odds with the more authentic version thereof:

The first is that children are commonly thought to be an attractive but supplementary add-on to a marital relationship. In other words, the intention to have children is not seen as of the essence of what it means for two people to be getting married. Children are considered accidental and posterior to the union.

“Yes, of course we eventually want children. But we’ll decide about all that later.” Or “Having children at some time is attractive to us, but we haven’t made any final decisions about it.” Or simply, “We’re not sure whether or not we want children.” None of these sentiments raises so much as an eyebrow in our society because marriage and the intention to have children are taken to be quite distinct decisions in our cultural outlook.

He then turns to the second constitutive element of traditional marriage, and its status in contemporary conceptions of marriage:

The second cultural assumption has to do with the intentionality with which a couple enters the marital union. Assuredly, they want to be together for life, but if you press deeply enough, you will discover that almost everyone still allows for the (remote and undesired) possibility that, should things not work out, another marriage to a different spouse is still theoretically possible. In other words, there are certain conditions attached to the union. Should the unthinkable happen and one or both of the spouses become miserable with little prospect of amelioration, divorce and re-marriage would be acceptable.

Even if one does not envision this happening to himself, still it is generally taken as a given that others should be able to find a new spouse who, this time, will make them happy. In other words, American society does not regard marriage as an indissoluble relationship. It is a revocable contract and ultimately may be dissolved and then entered into with a new party.

It is true that in almost all circles of American society, there is still a strong sense of the propriety and desirability of lifelong marriage. But the actual belief and frequent practice of mainstream American culture, conservative and liberal alike, is that a “do over” is always possible. Pick a conservative Evangelical church at random out of the phone book. Go visit it, observe its practices, and you will see that it re-marries members of its flock, sometimes repeatedly, albeit recognizing the painful “failure” that resulted in the divorce of the previous and supposedly “Christian” marriage. I’m not saying that this is unfailingly the case. It is only overwhelmingly the case.

And so on, leading to the inexorable conclusion: “When a modern American couple, oblivious as they are to the procreative and indissoluble nature of the marital covenant, goes to the altar or courthouse and commits to living together for life, they are not actually getting married in the original sense of that word. They are entering into a contractually formalized ‘couplehood.’”

To be honest, I can understand the frustration of supporters of same sex marriage in today’s debates — and hence their joy at Obergefell — and Oleson puts it almost perfectly: “What is the rational difference, after all, between a heterosexual couple who marry with no intention of having children, engage solely in non-procreative sexual activity, and regard their union as dissolvable, on the one hand, and a same-sex couple who marry with no intention of having children, engage solely in non-procreative sexual activity and regard their union as dissolvable?” There is none. If marriage consists of very strong feelings for another, together with some sort of non-procreative sexual relationship and a commitment to stay together, then there is no rational case to be made in opposition to same sex marriage. The obvious problem is that this is exactly what many Americans — most of whom are Christians — believe marriage is!

The renewal of traditional marriage in our country has a longer way to go than many of its supporters probably realize.

What about you? Which sense of marriage do you more commonly identify with, and why?

5 thoughts on “You keep using that word… I do not think it means what you think it means.”

  1. Chris,

    I have been saying for years the worst argument against SSM was it would diminish or change marriage. Heterosexuals had already done that- “We love each other lets get married” and “we don’t love each other lets get divorced.” We talked about the “breakdown of the family” in context of the harm it was doing in society without ever talking about the cause- two people were abdicating their obligation to build a home for their offspring and society in turn giving them a pass because the two people aren’t “happy.”

    Do you realize how many moments in my marriage Mary made me miserable/angry/unhappy/bored and I didn’t love her? Consciously it might be as many moments as she made me happy and I loved her. Moments on both sides are irrelevant to being married. I made a free choice for life to join into one. Period.

    Unless two people accept that reality, they aren’t entering into traditional marriage but just its current faux marriage based on a preponderance of MOMENTS and when it changes, it is to end.

    Love as a feeling is also faux love. Love is a choice requiring dedication of one’s will and intellect in cooperation with Grace and the Source of infinite will and intellect. So long as we don’t understand Love correctly, we can’t expect people to understand marriage correctly.

    By the way Chris, in case you didn’t know this, I am not a perfect husband, Mary isn’t a perfect wife and my marriage isn’t perfect. However, when I gaze upon my marriage and its fruits, it not only transcends the man-made pyramids, it also transcends the God-made Grand Canyon.

    The ultimate folly is society would abhor harm to a pyramid but actually celebrates the end of a marriage because the preponderance of moments has shifted.


  2. Yesterday I listened to the Diocesan Theologian on Catholic radio talking about SSM and other pertinent ideas that led up to it. He echoes what you said about our attitude concerning regular marriage as having been changed. The reason is because of artificial contraception. What happened is that the focus was no longer on the OTHER but on SELF. How am I going to be free? How am I going to be in control of my reproduction? Which really is a slap in the face at God’s good earth and accepting of the Lord’s plan for the earth. The new encyclical prioritizes our Common Home and what our actions are in that Home. So in effect, we are snubbing our noses at God. We become our own gods.

    Of course contraception was already eagerly awaited even before the pill. So the stage was set. We had Margaret Sanger advocating getting rid of the least desirables in our midst and no one, not even the Church, raised a ruckus concerning the issues of the day as you are trying to raise here on your blog and how a Christian is supposed to look at the world around us. Technically our attitudes go back further than that but that isn’t necessarily the message you’re trying to talk about here.


  3. I should add that the Popes may have addressed some of these issues but not so that main stream people in the pew knew much about them.


  4. Troy, I’m glad you made the “love is not a feeling” point… early on you mentioned those moments in which you didn’t love her, and that was going to be my reply: you might not *like* her at times, but you’ve *chosen* to love her even then.

    Jeanne, yes, contraception but also no-fault divorce… I don’t think we can neglect the impact of either of them on the common understanding of marriage.

    Thanks to both of you for commenting!


  5. Chris,

    No-fault divorce (or even the lack of obligation to fight through “faults”) and contraception are just different sides of the same coin- “me before we/me before He”.

    Also, thanks for pointing out my early shortening my comment. It should have read “when I felt I didn’t love her” and not “I didn’t love her.” Every time I stop and think about it, I realize I love her even though I don’t “feel the love” at the moment. Don’t want to sleep on the couch in the basement or the dog kennel out back!!!!!


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