A simple (grammatical) reason why “gay marriage” is a threat to REAL marriage

Tony made this comment to a recent post:

I agree Catherine. It seems to me that David has made an argument for marriage but not against gay marriage and has not shown how it is a threat to heterosexual marriage.

Surely the biggest threat (by a country mile) to marriage is divorce and yet the church is not putting comparative pressure on the governments to get rid of divorce.

My year 4 teacher told me that grammar is important. As usual with such matters, you realise this only when you become older.

As the title to the great book on grammar “Eats shoots and leaves” (or, variously, “Eats, shoots, and leaves”) makes clear, grammar is the key to meaning, and meaning is how we attempt to understand the objective world around us.

Until very, very, very recently, the noun “marriage” had only one meaning, even if it existed in various different types (eg. monogamous, polygamous, secular, sacramental, common law, legal, unconsumated, etc. etc.). The various possible adjectives that you could place before the word did not alter the essential meaning of the word: which was a contract between a man and a woman to enter into a life-long relationship of committment to one another as a legal unity. As the adjective “polygamous” suggests, there have been disagreements throughout the centuries on whether a man could make at any one time this contract with more than one woman, but it should be noted that this question did not impinge upon the meaning of the noun marriage as such.

But recently – very, very, very recently – someone tried sticking the word “gay” (meaning “homosexual”, rather than “joyous”) in front of the noun “marriage”. Unlike all the other adjectives suggested above, this adjective does more than qualify the noun, it alters the meaning of the noun itself. In order still to make sense, the noun “marriage” has to be altered. No longer can it mean a contract between a man and woman, now it must be altered to mean “a contract between two persons (gender unspecified)”.

Okay, you say, what’s the problem with that? How does that threaten your marriage?

It “threatens” my “marriage”, because it changes the meaning of the word “marriage”. It changes the nature of the legal relationship of committment into which I entered with my wife. It is not just a case of a different “kind” of marriage – for instance a polygamous marriage or a non-sacramental marriage. Putting the adjective “gay” in front of the noun “marriage” actually requires an essential alteration to the meaning of that noun.

To answer Tony’s objection regarding the threat of divorce, I would say that the high rates of divorce might well be a concern for society and may show that many marriages are in significant difficulty. It may also show that one part of the definition of marriage is a bit wobbly today (the “for life” bit). Nevertheless, viewing it simply from the meaning of the noun “marriage” as given above, I would say the very fact that a legal “divorce” is required to end a marriage contract in fact actually upholds the essential meaning of the noun “marriage” as a “for life” contract.

[Please note: I haven’t used any religious arguments in this post.]

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to A simple (grammatical) reason why “gay marriage” is a threat to REAL marriage

  1. Paul G says:

    Hi David, isn’t your argument from social tradition, if not from religious tradition? I don’t think this will work in practice, and I’m pretty sure PM Gillard is about to break her pre-election commitment to oppose gay marriage, in the same way as she has just done for the carbon tax (both for the same reason, to protect her left flank).

    It seems to me that once you reduce marriage to be a “declaration of love”, rather than a sacrament and the foundation of a family, redefinitions of marriage are inevitable, on the basis of the One Commandment that is popularly accepted these days, namely fairness.

    By the way, there is an interesting case running in Canada at the moment:
    http://tinyurl.com/46tbc6x
    According to this, there is a breakaway sect of Mormons, called the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints which still practices polygamy in BC. This had been ignored for a long time, but recently, the Attorney General, Wally Oppal, arrested two of the leaders and charged them with polygamy. The judge threw the case out, but it is still being pursued.
    Some Muslims in Canada are following this case with interest. My guess is that there are more people in the world interested in polygamous marriage than are interested in gay marriage.

    • Schütz says:

      Just a note: real marriage does not have to be “sacramental”. That is a special kind of marriage between baptised Christians.

      • Paul G says:

        I’m interested in this. For example, how do Australian Aborigines traditionally understand marriage? And Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims etc? Don’t they all in some sense see marriage as sacramental and the basis for families and for forming the next generation of children? Do any of them see marriage as mainly an expression of love between 2 people, and not much else?

        • Schütz says:

          We can’t talk of “sacramental” marriage in other cultures and religions, Paul (and Tony, listening in). It is true that other cultures regard marriage as sacred (rather than purely secular), but the term “sacramental” can only apply within the Christian community. It is “sacramental” because marriage between baptised Christians is an embodied sign of the relationship between Christ and his Church. This terminology therefore clearly cannot apply outside the Church.

      • jules says:

        Excellent David , you explained that very well. Great post.

  2. Tony says:

    Cutting to the chase …

    It “threatens” my “marriage”, because it changes the meaning of the word “marriage”.

    How so? What is the actual threat to your marriage?

    It changes the nature of the legal relationship of committment into which I entered with my wife. It is not just a case of a different “kind” of marriage – for instance a polygamous marriage or a non-sacramental marriage. Putting the adjective “gay” in front of the noun “marriage” actually requires an essential alteration to the meaning of that noun.

    Your legal relationship stays the same. The nature of the legal relationship between heterosexuals remains the same.

    For example, and keeping it legal, I buy a property from another man in a time and place where only men could buy and sell property. For that society, it is taken for granted that such transactions are only done by men.

    The law changes and women can buy and sell property.

    The transaction that I had with that man doesn’t change, I still own the property, and I can still buy property from other men. It’s not a legal threat to me because the meaning has changed.

    Another example:

    I effectively became a citizen of this country at my birth. Unless something drastic happens or I choose to renounce it, it is something I have for life. At the time of my birth it was understood, culturally and legally, that the meaning of citizenship excluded indigenous Australians.

    That changes in the 60s and indigenous Australians are included in the meaning ‘citizen’.

    Is that a threat to my citizenship because that was gained before the meaning changed? Is it a threat to the citizenship of future non-indigenous Australians?

    In both cases, rather than being a ‘threat’, such changes in meaning open up the law to others who were unable to participate.

    • Gareth says:

      Tony: How so? What is the actual threat to your marriage?

      Gareth: Didn’t David just explain this??

      • Schütz says:

        Yes, I rather thought I did.

        You mention property issues. Traditionally, legal marriage protected two main areas: property and procreation (the latter being related to the former because of the question of inheritance).

        Well, if we consider the factor of procreation, “gay marriage” changes the meaning of marriage in this regard too. Clearly, gay marriages are sterile marriages – unless there is intervention from a person of another sex from outside the marriage. Since “gay spouses” are insisting on their right to “have children” and since this is not possible without the intervention of a third party, the “to the exclusion of all others” part of marriage is fundamentally altered.

        That’s for starters. I could go on. I don’t think it necessary.

        • Tony says:

          Again David, you explain how gay marriage might have a different meaning, but not how that changed meaning is a threat to heterosexual marriage.

          And, as an aside, just as heterosexuals can bring children from a previous marriage into a new marriage, so can homosexuals.

          But it’s really that notion of ‘threat’ that I don’t understand.

          • Schütz says:

            Oh dear. There are times, Tony, when I think you are just pretending to be thick to make life difficult for me.

            To spell it out once more: the meaning of the word is what is at issue. The same word (“marriage”) is being used to describe the legal relationship between me and my wife (a “hetero” relationship) and between Adam and Steve (a “gay” relationship). For this single word to have meaning in both applications, the meaing of the word “marriage” must undergo an alteration. The term “hetero marriage” or “traditional marriage” now means what once the word “marriage” simply meant on its own. The word “marriage” has thus been shorne of a crucial defining factor which now requires the additon of a qualifier to make its meaning clear. In essence, the meaing of the word has been changed. Hence it is a threat to the meaning of the word “marriage” which (and God help me I wish I didn’t have to say this but this only demonstrates that the meaning of the word is being mucked around with) means (or once meant) “heterosexual marriage”. There. Please don’t play dumb, Tony. You are an intelligent person.

            • Tony says:

              Oh dear. There are times, Tony, when I think you are just pretending to be thick to make life difficult for me.

              There are many ways I could respond to that observation, all have no bearing on the issue and some will offend your own table manners.

              Cutting to the chase again:

              In essence, the meaing of the word has been changed.

              You’ll note, I hope, that I haven’t disputed that.

              Hence it is a threat …

              That is the jump in logic that I don’t understand.

              If you think I don’t understand it because I’m being ‘thick’ (deliberately or otherwise) or that I’m trying to make your life difficult then I suppose that’s the view you take of so many people, inside and outside the church, who don’t find this notion convincing.

              It’s pretty clear that society in general is moving towards a different ‘meaning’ of marriage. The US is evidence of this and smart money has Julia Gillard actually changing if only to ‘protect her left flank’, as one contributor here put it. We may be a cynical as we like about this movement, but it does reflect that people aren’t convinced about such ‘threat’ arguments as yours.

              … to the meaning of the word “marriage” which means (or once meant) “heterosexual marriage”. There.

              Again, you demonstrate a change in meaning, but not how that is a threat. I’ve demonstrated, by way of example, two changes in ‘meaning’ and shown that they are, at worst, not a threat and, at best, better than the old meaning.

              Please don’t play dumb, Tony. You are an intelligent person.

              And I have directed no such personal observations towards you. I don’t quite understand how you can post such things in the context of your own call for ‘table manners’.

            • Schütz says:

              Please don’t play dumb, Tony. You are an intelligent person.

              That was a backhanded compliment, Tony.

            • Tony says:

              Would it be like me saying, ‘Don’t play the ad hominem card, David, your grasp on logic is much better than that’?

  3. Tony Bartel says:

    “It’s pretty clear that society in general is moving towards a different ‘meaning’ of marriage. The US is evidence of this …”

    To my knowledge, every time the issue of “gay marriage” has been put to a popular vote in the US it has failed.

    It is the Courts that have generally driven this in America. American society in general is not so keen. As shown in Iowa where the Supreme Court rules that gay marriage must be allowed and the judges were recalled by voters at the next election.

    • Tony says:

      I still think the proposition is generally true, Tony, even if not a uniform or linear progression. This WIKI article sets it out pretty well.

      • Gareth says:

        and I take it as a good Catholic you are doing something about this abomination?

        • Tony says:

          It’s early, I know, but I’ll invoke the GNTA-SN filter.

          • Gareth says:

            That is well-mannered of you, but it would have helped if the point of your Wiki posting was obvious to begin with or if as Catholics there is actually something we can actually do about it.

            Hence there is not much point to it.

            The host may set the rules, but I come to the table believing that what is about to be shared – there would be somesort of general consensus amongst Catholics (e.g. there would be a consensus amongst Catholics at a Catholic discussion board on a conversation about sexual immortality for one example is just that).

            To not have a standard otherwise simply frustrates people and leads to a re-invention of the wheel.

  4. An Liaig says:

    I would like to point out something else which relates to the treat of gay marriage. Words have a meaning because they point to something real. Marriage as a word has meaning because it points to a human reality, a reality that underpins all human society. Changing the word or giving it a new meaning dosesn’t change the reality the word once pointed to, it just removes societie’s ability to talk about that reality. The reality of marriage will not be altered in any way by changes in the law, it will only mean that Australian law no longer reflects human reality. There lies the threat. Society will no longer be able to talk about, protect and promote marriage in the proper sense because it will no longer have a word for it. Young couples will be prevented from enertering into marriage, something that had happened to a considerable extent already, because they will not know the language to speak of it. Words and their meaning are important.

    • Schütz says:

      Yes, this is a natural corollary of my thesis. I agree entirely. Tony, take note: THIS IS A THREAT.

      • Tony says:

        THIS IS A THREAT

        I know that it is generally accepted that all-caps is like shouting, David, but I’m not convinced by the argument.

        Specifically:

        The reality of marriage will not be altered in any way by changes in the law, it will only mean that Australian law no longer reflects human reality.

        Human reality? Not sure what that’s supposed to mean.

        There lies the threat. Society will no longer be able to talk about, protect and promote marriage in the proper sense because it will no longer have a word for it.

        What? Of course it will! I’ll still be able to talk about being married to my wife and I’ll still be able to talk to my children about marriage. There may be specific contexts in which you may want to elaborate, but I can’t see that as any problem at all let alone a threat.

        Young couples will be prevented from enertering into marriage, something that had happened to a considerable extent already, because they will not know the language to speak of it.

        Prevented? Sorry An, that’s just preposterous.

  5. Louise says:

    I am astonished that anyone could defend the notion of “gay marriage” which I refer to as gaymarriage, to distinguish it from marriage, as per David’s post. I mean really, why do we care about two men or two women being able to enter a life-long union? Gays make up mere 1% or 2% of the population and some very tiny proportion of these wish to make a “life-long” committment. We want to redefine marriage for the sake of some tiny minority?

    Also, I would say that since we cannot know in advance how gaymarriage might affect marriage, we should not go down that path b/c the consequences could be very bad. The onus is on gay activists to prove to us that there will be no detrimental effects.

    • Tony says:

      Also, I would say that since we cannot know in advance how gaymarriage might affect marriage, we should not go down that path b/c the consequences could be very bad. The onus is on gay activists to prove to us that there will be no detrimental effects.

      That would be like me saying you robbed my house and it’s up to you prove you didn’t.

  6. An Liaig says:

    If gays can marry then you will need a new word to talk about marriage to your wife etc. because in social and legal terms the word marriage will not longer mean what it once did. That marriage, properly understood, is a fundamental component of a healthy human society is self evident. It is a significant threat to the wellbeing of society as a whole, and to those who seek to live the original reality, that in social and legal terms we will no longer have the language to talk of such a fundamental reality. Simple. If you do not have the language to engage with something you are prevented from doing so – not by law but by force of circumstance. Marriage is under threat, at least in part, because the meaning of the word has been changed. If marriage is under threat then the health of society is under threat.

    • Tony says:

      If gays can marry then you will need a new word to talk about marriage to your wife etc. because in social and legal terms the word marriage will not longer mean what it once did.

      Of course it will. It will mean that and more. ‘Citizenship’ means the same to me and my wife and my father and his (late) grandfather, even though it’s meaning has been extended.

      That marriage, properly understood, is a fundamental component of a healthy human society is self evident.

      I’m not sure that it is (self evident, that is). Some societies, operated and still operate with a different model of relationship.

      It is a significant threat to the wellbeing of society as a whole, and to those who seek to live the original reality …

      Original reality? Polygamy was an ‘original reality’, wasn’t it? There are a number of references to it in the OT.

      … that in social and legal terms we will no longer have the language to talk of such a fundamental reality. Simple.

      You state it as if it were self evident. I don’t think so.

      If you do not have the language to engage with something you are prevented from doing so – not by law but by force of circumstance. Marriage is under threat, at least in part, because the meaning of the word has been changed. If marriage is under threat then the health of society is under threat.

      I think you draw conclusions from a flawed premise.

  7. An Liaig says:

    I was going to refrain from further comment on the grounds that i have already said what I had to say. I will, however, make one small further comment. Tony’s analogy of citizenship is flawed ina very interesting way. It doesn’t apply because citizenship is an artifical legal construct. It is has no meaning or existance beyound what the law says. It is also a recent invention in human history – like money. Marriage is not like that and this goes to the heart of the threat argument. These laws seek to change marriage from a human reality to an artifical legal construct.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *