The illusion of civil marriage

After reading this excellent post by LDSPhilosopher at Millennial Star, I started to draft a comment, but then it became too long for a combox and I decided to post it here.

LDSPhilosopher writes,

[T]hat is precisely why encoding into law provisions for same-sex marriage will make permanent and explicit the companionate view of marriage as the official policy of the state, and leave to [the] ash heaps of history the conjugal view of marriage. … We will have made an all-but-irreversable step in defining the welfare of children entirely out of our definition of marriage. This, to me, dissolves whatever public interest there was in involving government in marriage in the first place, and leaves marriage — as a civil arrangement — without a legitimate state purpose. It becomes just a plain old legal contract, no different in kind from civil unions currently available, and these civil unions simply do not protect children and families the way marriage (as a civil institution) is designed to.

I wonder, though, whether state regulation of marriage came about “for the sake of the children” in the first place. Was a deliberate decision made at some point, that “for the sake of the continuation of the state, we need to make sure children are raised in stable homes”, etc.?

I claim no expertise on the history of marriage, but this Wikipedia article indicates that it was either a private or a Church matter for most of European history, and didn’t fall under the domain of the state until after the Protestant Reformation. This article too indicates that civil marriage was instituted “[o]wing to the influence of the Lutheran view and of the French Revolution….”

The latter article says that divorce “has obtained among practically all peoples, savage and civilized”, and eventually became abolished only in countries that adopted the Catholic religion.

Since Europe was Catholic for most of its Christian history, it seems to me that whatever restrictions on divorce that still existed after the Reformation, were holdovers from when Europe was Catholic. Indeed it’s only when countries abandoned Catholicism as the state religion that divorce became legal in Europe at all. And naturally, it’s only legal divorce which led eventually to no-fault divorce (and thence to the “companionate” view of marriage).

Thus, it appears that state regulation of marriage was a late development. Before then the requirement of permanence was primarily from religious, specifically Christian, motives, i.e. because the Church taught that it was a sacrament resulting in a permanent union and the only context in which morally licit procreative activity might take place.

As the Church lost influence over society, so the sacramental view of marriage declined, and along with it the requirement of permanence. At the same time the notion of sexual activity being licit only within the context of permanent, sacramental marriage has also declined. That these developments have occurred more or less simultaneously is no coincidence.

My point is that the state’s allowing marriage only between opposite sex couples, and divorce only for cause, was never primarily out of a conscious regard for the well-being of children and the continuation of a healthy society, but was due to the influence of the Christian religion over society. As that influence has waned, so has the idea of marriage as a sacred and permanent state directed to procreation and the raising of offspring.

Thus I suspect that there never was a “legitimate state purpose”, or in other words a purely civil motive, in regulating marriage, except insofar as the state had an interest in upholding Christian morals. There is, then, in our current situation no real cause for surprise: having, for the most part, long since officially rejected the influence of Christian (let alone Catholic) teaching over our civil laws, this is precisely the result which should have been expected all along.

The idea that civil society — a democracy no less — officially unguided by Christian revelation, would for long maintain laws requiring citizens to voluntarily forego what they consider to be “happiness” for the sake of sticking with spouses who are no longer “loved”, for the good of their children and for the sake of the long-term stability and health of society, was never more than a pleasant illusion.

3 thoughts on “The illusion of civil marriage

  1. Saintly:

    Thanks for commenting. By the way I have been reading your blog a few times a week for the past month or so, and it’s really great. Your excerpts are just the right length, long enough to get the point across but not so long as to discourage reading during a busy day.

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