Gay marriage is an area of current controversy which I have avoided commenting on recently, so far. But I have been tempted out of silence by reading an interesting philosophical perspective on this issue by philosopher and theologian John Milbank: Gay Marriage and the Future of Human Sexuality. This was published in Australia, although Milbank is a professor at the University of Nottingham here in the UK. Thanks to Roger Mugs and Matthew R. Malcolm for the link.
This is an important article giving a profound criticism of the concept of same sex marriage. But it is one which is difficult to summarise. Milbank considers some difficult issues such as whether marriage is fundamentally a religious or a societal institution. He looks at “The logic of homosexuality” and at “Children, kinship and the grammar of society”. Here is how he finishes the latter section:
From this it follows that we should not re-define birth as essentially artificial and disconnected from the sexual act – which by no means implies that each and every sexual act must be open to the possibility of procreation, only that the link in general should not be severed.
The price for this severance is surely the commodification of birth by the market, the quasi-eugenic control of reproduction by the state, and the corruption of the parent-child relation to one of a narcissistic self-projection.
Once the above practices have been rejected, then it follows that a gay relationship cannot qualify as a marriage in terms of its orientation to having children, because the link between an interpersonal and a natural act is entirely crucial to the definition and character of marriage.
The fact that this optimum condition cannot be fulfilled by many valid heterosexual marriages is entirely irrelevant, for they still fulfil through ideal intention this linkage, besides sustaining the union of sexual difference which is the other aspect of marriage’s inherently heterosexual character.
He continues by asking some significant questions:
the Church needs already to face the fact that it is quite likely to lose this debate, even if it should still try to win it. But if it does lose it, then how should it respond?
… it is surely worthwhile for Christians at least to tarry for a while with the more radical secular notion that really the state has no business regulating human sexual relations at all. …
I think that this radical position should be refused, on the grounds that it is desirable that the state give every possible legal and fiscal encouragement to marriage as a key institution of social bonding. And for the same reason Christians cannot remain satisfied with the argument that specifically heterosexual marriage remains possible for them through the agency of the Church.
However, it becomes a useful foil in the event of the universal advent of gay marriage. For then, instead of banging its head against a cognitive brick wall, the proper response of the Church should be to deem marriage under civil law a failed experiment and to resume its sacramental guardianship of marriage as a natural and social condition.
Here we face the question of whether, after the legalisation of gay marriage, the churches and other religious bodies can any longer be considered by the state as legal marriage brokers – as they are today in the UK but not in many other countries like France, where religious people must undergo both a religious and a civil registration.
Milbank seems to come close to an affirmative answer to the latter question, that the church should withdraw from the legal side of marriage. But he draws back from this conclusion, and ultimately offers nothing more than advice for the promotion of “a traditional Church wedding”. Well, one should not expect philosophers to propose public policy, or even church policy. But these are certainly important considerations for those whose task it is to decide and implement such policy.
It seems to me that the only coherent way ahead, in a world which does not fully accept Christian teaching on marriage, is to make a clean distinction between the societal and religious institutions. Indeed this is already the case in very many countries. But currently in English law, and I think in the law of the USA, there is no such legal distinction. It would be a long and difficult journey to disentangle the religious from the secular. But I see it as the direction in which we need to be heading.
For this idea I should thank the late novelist, lawyer and law reformer A.P. Herbert. I remember the TV broadcast of one of his Misleading Cases, probably The Tax on Virtue which was first shown in 1968, based on a 1933 short story. In this story, a man finds that his wife has to pay more tax on her significant income than she would have done if she was unmarried. So to reduce their tax liability the couple get a divorce, then are publicly reconciled and remarried in the Church of England – but conveniently fail to sign the register, so that they are not legally married and can claim separate tax allowances. Herbert certainly knew his English marriage law. But would the church have considered this couple legally married? If so, perhaps there really is already a legal distinction between religious and secular marriage.