Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Marriage Amendment

By Don Conroy

In November, the voters of Minnesota will be faced with a proposed amendment to the state constitution that, if passed, will restrict legal marriage in Minnesota to one man and one woman. The proposed amendment raises a number of interesting questions regarding the history, the meaning, and the purpose of marriage as an institution in human society. Of even more significance perhaps is this question – what would be the religious, social, and personal consequences of excluding a significant percent of our adult citizens from the advantages of legal marriage?

Marriage, like any other human institution, evolves. Its shape has depended on its geographic location and its historic moment. What constituted the presence of the marriage bond in Europe was not agreed on until The Gratian Decretals, c.1140. This bond was considered a sacrament, a sacred symbol between Christ and The People Of God, The Church, and thus indissoluble. This understanding of marriage was questioned by the Reformers of the 16th century, and divorce became a social reality in Europe.

The Industrial Revolution introduced another dimension as central to marriage; namely, a decline in the roles of the extended family network and the spread of "the conjugal system", a primary emphasis on the nuclear family unit of parents and their children.

In a very recent study, The Social Conquest Of Earth, Edward O. Wilson, the Nobel Laureate evolutionary biologist, raises these questions: which living species have spread throughout the whole of the earth, and what is the most important characteristic they have in common? He concludes that those species that have spread are a handful of insects, ants, bees, termites, et al. and humans. For all these species, the single most important common characteristic is their need for a safe and comfortable nest. For humans, this nest is the family.

Wilson's explanation for this conclusion is that these species have a genetic mutation that leads to what he calls "eusocial evolution", natural selection of groups as opposed to individual natural selection that restricts the species to procreation and protection of the nest. Group selection, which he refers to as a "general theory of inclusive fitness" allows for expansion and broader emigration and more complexity in the species. Eusocial evolved species require diversity in the social structure of the organization to function well. The precursors of today's humans, those species that did not survive to the present, did not develop the eusocial characteristic and were rendered extinct by the more developed species.

The safe and comfortable nest for humans is the family, and its marital component is and has been varied. The classic study Social Structure by George Murdock, published in 1949, pointed out that 193 out of 243 societies, the sample of his study, were polygamous. It was only 67 years prior to his study that polygamy was declared illegal in the U.S. by the Edmonds Act of 1882. In today's Western world, there are three meanings attributed to marriage by sociologists; the sacred, the social, and the personal. "At present, therefore, there is lack of uniform opinion as to the basic meaning of marriage." (The American Family, Ruth Cavan). The purposes of marriage are varied and cover a range from accomplishing religious values and supporting social order to providing personal happiness.

Today we confront another development in our understanding of family, the inclusion of same-sex couples in our social, personal, but not necessarily religious definition of marriage. What consequence, if any, would the inclusion of same-sex couples have on the family structure? Would the meaning of family, our safe, comfortable and developing nest, be significantly altered or even lost, as has been claimed (Nienstadt's "letter to the priests")? What would be the religious, social, and personal consequences of excluding a significant percent of our adult citizens from the advantages of legal marriage? These are the questions Minnesota voters face as they go to the polls in November to vote on the proposed amendment.

Donald R. Conroy, PHD, retired psychologist and marriage and family therapist, is a member of the newly formed Council of the Baptized, a collegial voice for Catholics in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Formerly a Catholic priest ordained in 1955, Don is married to Mary K., with three grown and married children and seven grandchildren.


  1. Thanks, Don, for this distinction between the need for family that doesn't change and the historically changing laws of civil marriage. Conflating the biology of procreation, the family container for the raising of children, and the various functions of civil marriage law is causing a lot of pain in the real world. Careless reasoning has real life consequences.

  2. Honest to God, PCV must be the best blog in the world, not # 2. What a terrific piece, Don.

    Chuck Pilon

  3. The good news is that this issue has already been decided by the emerging younger generations, who overwhelmingly support and accept the gay community.

    With each year that passes there will be ever more of these younger folks, and ever fewer older people of my age, and the tide will keep steadily turning in the right direction.

    I've seen it argued that these younger people will become more conservative as they age. While this may be true on some issues, on the gay rights question both the WWII generation and their children the baby boomers became on average more accepting of the gay community as they aged.

    A key factor in this positive development has been the courage of gays coming out, standing up, and showing us that we are already in relationship with gays, and have nothing to fear by embracing the gay community as full equals.

    The article was very well articulated reason, but suffers from the assumption that reason is the coin of the realm on this issue. I'm afraid people don't oppose gay marriage for carefully considered intellectual reasons, though they may have persuaded themselves this is the case.

    The most devout Catholic in our family is also the most openly gay in our family, and has been in a committed relationship for over 40 years.

    Some of our friends on the other side of this issue will meet Catholics like this and have their hearts changed.

    For the rest of our friends, we need only smile, be patient, and wait. The end to a very long journey is just ahead, in the life times of those now young.

    1. The sociologists Berger and Luckman point out in their writings on the sociology of knowledge that our understanding of ideas is socially based not based on reading books. My attempt to address this subject from a historical/evolutionary outline was intended as a correction.

  4. While we are patiently smiling, Phil, some people are suffering the indignity of having their personal sexual identity the subject of a ballot initiative by fellow citizens, even their religious leaders, who would deny them equal protection of the law. Enough said?

  5. Hi again Paula,

    Why should our dignity be dependent on what people who are still stuck in an earlier bigoted era?

    Why are those pushing the ballot initiative qualified to be the yardstick by which any of us measure ourselves???

    Yes, the gay community should fight for full legal equality with everybody else, and we should support them in this, I agree 100%.

    What I'm suggesting is that the gay community need not go begging hat in hand to ignorant Bishops or an ignorant initiative supporting public, begging for approval.

    Anyone who is suffering indignity in this case is doing it to themselves.

    This is actually good news, because it means those suffering indignity are empowered to end it now, and don't have to wait for anybody else to make it happen.

    I do realize this is probably an unpopular message, but it's also key to a personal identity liberation that's more important than even legal liberation.

    Be Catholic, be gay, be married anyway you can, and be proud, that's my message.

    And go ahead and do it now. Why wait until the ignorant among us finally get a clue or die off etc?

    I'm only declining a notion that we should empower the Bishops and bigots by making their ignorant views the focus of our attention. Religious leaders only have the power that we ourselves hand them. If we believe the Bishops are exerting poor leadership, let's stop sending them money?

    Yes, vote against the initiative, definitely. Vote for fully legal and equal gay marriage, yes,definitely.

    But then our gay friends might forget the ignorant, and get back to being Catholic, gay, married and proud. Loud and proud if they wish!

    Gay or not, we get respect when we respect ourselves, live decent lives, and don't really care that much what other people think of us.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Phil, let me give your message back to you: You seem to feel resistance to what people are doing on this blog. You have admonished us for talking with an uncollaborative archbishop, using reason when emotion is more effective, and arguing in opposition to the marriage amendment. If it strikes you that these activities are wasted time and effort, then to be consistent, shouldn’t you just turn to the issues you consider important and not waste time and effort telling us not to waste time and effort? Surely you see that admonishing oppressed people not to feel oppressed and not to talk about it, especially if you are not of the oppressed class, is not going to be effective in helping them rise above the oppression? Your intention might be to call us to a higher purpose, but what looks to you like unnecessary and unproductive complaining, may be for us the process we have to go through to come to your enlightened position. Though I think that admonition is not helpful, I continue to think that reasoning is and will always welcome reasoning about the subject under discussion. I speak for myself only, of course.

  8. Hi again Paula,

    Oh darn, I just spent 30 minutes carefully responding to each of your points in detail, and when I hit submit button the browser crashed and ate the whole thing. Oh well...

    We agree completely on the legal issues, as I've tried to share a number of times.

    Where we may have a different perspective is in concerning ourselves with the judgments of people whose own actions demonstrate they are not qualified to serve as judges.

    As for reasoning and dialog, it takes two to tango.

    I'm just trying to be realistic in commenting that those who support the initiative are doing so from ignorance and fear, not from reason. As best I can tell, they aren't very interested in dialog with you.

    If we wish to connect with them on the channel they are actually listening to, we might propose a fake ballot initiative that seeks to prevent Catholics from marrying other Catholics.

    This might remind everyone that whenever we deny our neighbors a right, we put our own rights in jeopardy as well. Catholics have been discriminated against often in history, so you'd think we might have learned that one by now.

    Please understand that questioning everything was the nature of my Catholic upbringing, and it's just what I do, everywhere I go. I hope that you are not offended, but are just challenging me back, which is fully welcomed here.

    Here we go, trying again...