The National Catholic Review

I am grateful for Stephen J. Pope’s careful reading of my essay and glad to have the opportunity to reply. His basic claim, it seems to me, is that a specifically sexual kind of friendship, not procreation nor friendship as such, is the feature that defines marriage. Marriage is “about a romantic and sexual relationship that joins two people in a lifelong and exclusive bond,” and same-sex marriage is “about intimate, caring, interpersonal love.” This love cannot be shared “with more than one beloved.” Hence exclusiveness as well as justice argue against the possibility of multiple partners in marriage.

Pope frequently quotes and criticizes my phrase, “exchange of sex,” comparing it to the old “manualist” phrase, “conjugal debt.” I should point out, however, that I did not use the term in my own voice. In a feeble imitation of Plato’s Crito, I put the phrase into the mouth of the laws as they explain to me why my uncle and I cannot get married. Laws are notoriously impersonal and insensitive to the nuances of human emotion, and the crassness of the phrase was meant to suggest that. This is how it would look to the laws, which deal with rights and not personal commitments. The irony seems to have been missed. It would be impossible, in fact, for the laws to verify whether or not the people who want to get married do have a caring and interpersonal love. The laws must take their word for it; and if they do so, why should they not take the word of people who have motivations other than sexual for their friendship? Why not let them get married too? Other kinds of relationships can be caring, special and lasting, and the sexual relationship can prove to be quite changeable.

Pope says that my emphasis on the primacy of procreation reverts to “an earlier preconciliar ethic.” I would consider that a compliment, and I would phrase it differently. For one thing, the preconciliar ethic is the one we have now; human nature does not change. Also, I do not think that the Second Vatican Council marked such a radical turning point in the history of the church. It was not, to adapt a phrase of T. S. Eliot, the still point of the turning church. It did not cancel what went before. It was one council among many and needs to be interpreted in the light of the overall tradition of the church, including the earlier councils. Along another line, he says my view resembles that of “some members of the magisterium and their intellectual collaborators.” This phrase suggests that the magisterium can be divided; it is being taken sociologically. But the magisterium is the church as teacher, and if it is divided there is no magisterium any longer. It becomes a source of opinions, not authoritative teaching.

I would differ with the way Pope sees the relationship between the procreative end of marriage and the friendship between spouses. I do not claim that the former is “dominant,” as though they were in competition or were merely added to one another. I do claim that it is more fundamental, and that it makes the friendship of the spouses different from other kinds of friendship. My position is not particularly Thomistic; it represents the way people generally think outside of modernity. I think his essay is not clear on what an end and a definition are.

Pope observes that society now recognizes a great variety of relationships outside of marriage, that more children are being raised outside of marriage and that people across cultures “engage in an enormous amount of nonprocreative sex.” Of course they do; it’s going on all the time. But we do not take our moral bearings from social facts; unless we are Machiavellians, we take them from the way things ought to be, which is the way they are in their natures—ends are ontologically prior to our purposes. He also seems to imply that sexual activity that contradicts its own nature can be made good if it is done to express personal love, but this would imply that our wills can change the moral character of bodily actions. It is like saying that intemperance could become good if done at a congenial dinner. There is something gnostic about this claim.

I concede that I should have spoken not only about the procreation but also about the education of children as the specifying feature of marriage. I used the term “procreation” to include both, but I should have made the second aspect explicit. Still, the upbringing of children also argues for marriage between a man and a woman, since children need the complementarity of the father and mother. I think Pope unfairly reduces my use of “procreative” to a merely biological level, to make his argument easier (“as if human beings are like fish”). He does concede that marriage “in general provides a more nurturing, reliable framework for raising children than do the alternatives,” and I would add that this is not by accident but by nature.

A few more random comments. I think “conjugal debt” is not a bad term for the obligations spouses have to each other in justice as well as devotion. Also, Pope criticizes the modern appeal to technology for “answers to serious moral problems,” but the problem is not with technology; it is with modern autonomy, the belief that I (or we) can determine what is good or bad. That is, our purposes are thought to override any putative ends in us and in things. And I really do not think the laws will be able to distinguish between same-sex marriage and polygamy and polyandry; some people might find great love and commitment in such communities, and who are we to tell them they cannot do so? Many cultures in human history have embraced polygamy, and some still do.

Msgr. Robert Sokolowski is a professor of philosophy at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.

Comments

Patrick J. Nugent | 12/15/2004 - 8:44pm
It always tickles me to read what celibate clergy have to say about marriage. And when they make the precarious dive into sex in marriage, their comments are more intriguing.

The absolute lack of experiential knowledge leaves them to discussing the subject as an intellectual adventure. As such they leave little to benefit the real world of married people, or people who wish to marry.

So it is with Msgr. Sokolowski’s consideration of same sex marriage. It is intellectual sport without value to people who would consider the real life consequences. It makes no pastoral contribution.

One of our sons is gay. It is now accepted that gay and lesbian persons are born gay or lesbian. It is not his choice of a “lifestyle”. Nor is his sexual orientation a result of poor parenting on our part. It’s who he is. It’s how God gave him to be.

We want our son to be happy. We want him to have all that life can give to contribute to his happiness - including a covenanted spouse. It is unimportant that Msgr. Sokolowski makes light of his happiness and his fullness of life in a loving relationship, in favor of intellectual orthodoxy.

Moreover, we want him and a spouse to enjoy all that belonging to our Church provides. We want them to belong to our Catholic family, regardless that spiritless intellectuals object.

Marilyn M. Kramer | 12/2/2004 - 10:43am
Msgr. Robert Sokolowski's response "The Primacy of Procreation" (12/6) to Stephen J. Pope's comments on the marital relationship suggests that the Monsignor did not fully hear what Mr. Pope was saying. Perhaps he would have if he had been trained to interpret the Genesis creation stories as parables that reveal significant facts about our wourld and ourselves.

Suppose he recognized that the first creation story described the creation of the natural world including humans with the reproductive roles we have in common with the rest of nature which are designed to ensure the survival of the species? Or had recognized that the second creation parable described the creation of humankind as different from the rest of nature? With the intellectual capability to name the animals. Relational beings with an intense, overwhelming need to unite in loving relationships throughout our lifetimes. With a relational sexuality that is fulfilled within a spousal relationship -- a relationship Paul taught is an enduring mutually committed loving sexual relationship that is in some way like Jesus' relationship with believers. Paul found this likeness a mystery. But today, many of us have learned from our collecctive experience that within a spousal relationship, loving sex acts play a vital role in forging, nourishing, strengthening, and sustaining the emotional bond that constitutes the relationship -- just as Jesus' relationship with beleievers is an emotional, not a physical, bond. This bonding process in the spousal relationship has a natural life and rhythm of its own apart from the reproductive cycle. It has a God-given value of its own apart from procreation

If Msgr. Sokolowski could have seen all this, perhaps he would have heard more clearly what Mr. Pope and myriad others have been saying about the spousal relationship since Humanae Vitae.

Patrick J. Nugent | 12/15/2004 - 8:44pm
It always tickles me to read what celibate clergy have to say about marriage. And when they make the precarious dive into sex in marriage, their comments are more intriguing.

The absolute lack of experiential knowledge leaves them to discussing the subject as an intellectual adventure. As such they leave little to benefit the real world of married people, or people who wish to marry.

So it is with Msgr. Sokolowski’s consideration of same sex marriage. It is intellectual sport without value to people who would consider the real life consequences. It makes no pastoral contribution.

One of our sons is gay. It is now accepted that gay and lesbian persons are born gay or lesbian. It is not his choice of a “lifestyle”. Nor is his sexual orientation a result of poor parenting on our part. It’s who he is. It’s how God gave him to be.

We want our son to be happy. We want him to have all that life can give to contribute to his happiness - including a covenanted spouse. It is unimportant that Msgr. Sokolowski makes light of his happiness and his fullness of life in a loving relationship, in favor of intellectual orthodoxy.

Moreover, we want him and a spouse to enjoy all that belonging to our Church provides. We want them to belong to our Catholic family, regardless that spiritless intellectuals object.

Marilyn M. Kramer | 12/2/2004 - 10:43am
Msgr. Robert Sokolowski's response "The Primacy of Procreation" (12/6) to Stephen J. Pope's comments on the marital relationship suggests that the Monsignor did not fully hear what Mr. Pope was saying. Perhaps he would have if he had been trained to interpret the Genesis creation stories as parables that reveal significant facts about our wourld and ourselves.

Suppose he recognized that the first creation story described the creation of the natural world including humans with the reproductive roles we have in common with the rest of nature which are designed to ensure the survival of the species? Or had recognized that the second creation parable described the creation of humankind as different from the rest of nature? With the intellectual capability to name the animals. Relational beings with an intense, overwhelming need to unite in loving relationships throughout our lifetimes. With a relational sexuality that is fulfilled within a spousal relationship -- a relationship Paul taught is an enduring mutually committed loving sexual relationship that is in some way like Jesus' relationship with believers. Paul found this likeness a mystery. But today, many of us have learned from our collecctive experience that within a spousal relationship, loving sex acts play a vital role in forging, nourishing, strengthening, and sustaining the emotional bond that constitutes the relationship -- just as Jesus' relationship with beleievers is an emotional, not a physical, bond. This bonding process in the spousal relationship has a natural life and rhythm of its own apart from the reproductive cycle. It has a God-given value of its own apart from procreation

If Msgr. Sokolowski could have seen all this, perhaps he would have heard more clearly what Mr. Pope and myriad others have been saying about the spousal relationship since Humanae Vitae.