When I did a search for Professor Robert P. George, Ryan Anderson, and Sherif Girgis’ recent essay “What is Marriage?” for the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, I couldn’t help but notice the Google advertisements that appeared on my sidebar. The first touted “Gay Marriage in D.C.” The second offered guidance on how to “Become a Marriage Therapist.” The third, and most disconcerting, advertised for “Beautiful Russian Girls Seeking Marriage in USA.”
Philosophy, politics, shrinks, and mail-order brides. One webpage, one topic, four extraordinarily different approaches; a cacophonic illustration of how garbled society’s understanding of marriage has truly become.
George, Anderson, and Girgis’ 42-page essay is more than the latest weigh-in on the conversation about marriage and the proper legal contours that should surround it. It goes beyond a mere argument against legalizing same-sex marriage. It is a gem. It’s like a pocket constitution on marriage. It’s marriage for dummies and smarties.
The piece begins by lifting the discussion of marriage out of the confines of one particular religion, ideology, or political point of view. The introduction makes sure to point out that “no one religion invented marriage,” but rather that it is “the type of social practice whose basic contours can be discerned by our common human reason, whatever our religious background.” (All code for: natural law reasoning lies ahead.)
The authors divide the debate over marriage in America into two camps: those that adhere to the “conjugal” view and those that adopt the “revisionist” position. The conjugal view holds that marriage can only be understood as a “comprehensive union of spouses” with a “special link to children,” renewed through “organic bodily union,” that is marked by “norms of permanence, monogamy, and exclusivity.” By contrast, revisionists (and proponents of gay marriage) argue that marriage is “an essentially emotional union that has no principled connection to organic bodily union and the bearing and rearing of children.” Or as E.J. Graff puts it, “the ever after stand for sexual choice, for cutting the link between sex and diapers.”
The article covers everything from racism to polygamy, and to attempt to recreate every argument would take more than the 42 pages it took its ambitious authors. Most interesting, however, is the way the piece dances around, but never mentions explicitly, one particularly relevant and volatile topic: contraception.
The piece defines “organic bodily union” as a lynchpin element of the conjugal view of marriage, which the authors argue is the only correct understand of marriage and also the only one which can maintain the social good.
The authors reason that organic bodily union is integral to a proper understanding of marriage because “the body is a real part of the person, not just his costume, vehicle, or property.” This notion is common ground for the most radical feminist and the most conservative religious adherent.
The authors continue to say:
Our organs – our heart and stomach, for example – are parts of one body because they are coordinated, along with other parts, for a common biological purpose of the whole: our biological life. It follows that for two individuals to unite organically, and thus bodily, their bodies must be coordinated for some biological purpose of the whole.
They rightly point out that individual adults are “naturally incomplete with respect to one biological function: sexual reproduction.” They continue to argue that “bodily union involves mutual coordination toward a bodily good – which is realized only through coitus. And this union occurs even when conception, the bodily good toward which sexual intercourse as a biological function is oriented, does not occur.”
In other words, it isn’t enough that the parts fit. They have to be oriented towards something greater than the whole they form when united, to be truly “organic” and “unitive.”
And then the buried whammy: “organic bodily unity is achieved when a man and woman coordinate to perform an act of the kind that causes conception.”
Translation? Sex without contraception. A buried, but explosive, little zinger. Because sex with contraception, by nature thwarts conception. And hence the cutting of cord between “sex and diapers.”
The problem is, according to the authors, when you cut that cord, everything starts to unravel. But for all the emphasis on defining organic bodily union, they stop just shy of the topic, without even the slightest clarification in the footnotes. Perhaps this is because the topic is so “third rail” to most, it would likely derail the entire piece. Yet they are like the bull fighter who hasn’t fully dropped the cloak and gone in for the kill, the real societal jugular: the Pill. But they’re in the ring and tease at the question.
The Abrahamic religions by and large adopt the conjugal view of marriage and have done so since their relative inceptions, again confirming the authors’ claim that no religion necessarily invented the institution of marriage. With the exceptions of some extreme and non-representative strains that adopt bigamy, the three faiths look similar with respect to marriage.
But do they agree on contraception?
In the lengthy history of these religions, contraception is an extremely new moral challenge. But if we accept the authors’ premise that not just any sex is marital sex, and work backwards with them to understand exactly what type of sex is marital sex, we arrive at a rather interesting question: what about contracepted sex?
George, Anderson, and Girgis’ article is clearly not a treatise on contraception. And while it is a masterpiece of logical reasoning on a topic that is of profound cultural importance, now and in the future, it leaves one wanting a second volume, a ‘What is Marriage Part II: Contraception.’
In a culture where a simple Google search for an article about marriage turns up mail-order brides as a result, the faithful cannot afford to overlook any question that relates to what marriage truly is.