Sunday, June 08, 2014

"Redefining Marriage"

I was listening to a radio program called Catholic Answers the other day while driving.  They dedicated the entire show to discussing their opposition to same-sex marriage, repeatedly railing against the "redefinition of marriage."  This is perhaps the most disingenuous statement I hear from those who oppose same-sex marriage: that to allow it is to "redefine marriage."

I find the use of this term "redefining marriage" to be disingenuous for three reasons:

1.  To extend or expand something is not to "redefine" it.  There is a restaurant here in town that serves awesome pancakes.  They recently added the option for gluten-free pancakes to their menu.  In doing so, they did not "redefine" pancakes.  They simply added on to their definition of what constitutes a pancake in order make pancakes available to more people.  Traditional pancakes are in no way endangered or diminished.

2.  Even if we accept the term "redefine marriage," any cursory investigation of history and sociology will show that cultures have continuously "redefined" marriage.  For example, polygamy is not the norm in our culture, whereas it has been the norm in other cultures, including the culture of the ancient Hebrews.  One can make a pretty good case that polygamy is a form of "biblical" marriage, as far as the Hebrew scriptures are concerned.  Yet by the time of Jesus, the culture had become more urbanized and Hellenized and, as a result, marriage had been "redefined" and monogamy was the norm (though polygamy, such as Levirite marriage, was still practiced).  But the monogamous marriage practiced in ancient times was markedly different from the monogamous marriage practiced in 20th and 21st century America.  Marriages in the past were typically entered into by teenagers as a result of matches negotiated by their parents, often for socio-economic purposes.  It was not unusual for the bride and groom to barely know each other prior to their wedding.  This is still the case in some cultures.  The norm in our Western culture of a young adult couple dating, falling in love and choosing to wed is a "redefinition" of "traditional" marriage.

3.  Marriage in our culture exists on two levels:  Civil and religious.  Those who wed can choose the civil ratification of their commitment but opt out of the religious validation of that contract.  This means that for any given marriage there could be two definitions: the legal and the religious.  In some cases, such as legal marriages that are not recognized as valid by the Catholic church due to one of the partner's prior marriage not being annulled, these two definitions don't sync up.  Conversely, I know of situations where folks (such as elderly widows and widowers) have entered into "common law" cohabitation but did not get legally married because to do so would cause them to lose benefits (such as pensions) upon which they depend--and yet these committed unions were blessed by their churches as marriages. 

The current sea change in Western culture has to do with extending civil marriage to same-sex couples.  It does not force a "redefinition" upon the current interpretation of marriage held by conservative religious organizations.  Further, history shows that the parameters of the religious definition of marriage have continuously evolved and adapted based on cultural conditions.

Now, I'm going to go eat some pancakes...


Anonymous JimA said...

Crisp. Excellent.

3:05 PM  

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