Among those who seek to defend the traditional, conjugal conception of marriage and its unique place of honor in civic life, it has become customary to argue that the only reason the state is in the marriage business is because of procreation. The state has no interest in the love that people share with one another, which is a private matter. Its only interest is in the offspring that married couples produce, because these children will go on to form the future citizenry. The intrinsic procreative potential of a conjugal union gives that union a public dimension it would otherwise lack, and it is only because homosexual relationships are not procreative-type relationships – because they do not advance a “legitimate state interest” – that marriage laws distinguish between opposite-sex and same-sex couples; or so the argument goes.
In itself, there is nothing religious about this argument, but it has been widely adopted by Christians who oppose gay marriage, especially by those involved in grassroots political campaigning. It is easy to appreciate why. Not only is it simple to explain, but above all its appeal to a purely formal concept of “public interest” avoids having to make moral arguments against homosexuality which are increasingly less likely to receive a hearing in contemporary culture.
Ironically, the claim that the polis has no legitimate interest in our love lives is a claim just as frequently heard from advocates of gay marriage. Their argument is that, since it is a private matter who we fall in love with, public authorities should not discriminate by recognizing some forms of committed relationship between consenting adults but not others.
Regardless of who is employing the argument and in what way, in my opinion the claim that love is a purely private good is false, and I would like to suggest three reasons why Christians who seek to uphold the importance of the conjugal conception of marriage should recognize the importance of conjugal love as a public good.
Firstly, there is a basic argument from public utility. Insofar as the polis has an interest in the procreation of children, this interest cannot be limited solely to the physical generation of offspring but must also extend to their formation as well-rounded human persons. The polis has an interest in ensuring that it will be continued through the coming into existence of future generations of citizens; that is true. But the perpetuation of human society through time requires not just people, but good people.
It is important to stress that the transcendent character of human freedom means that no-one is determined by their family background. Whatever suffering someone may have experienced in early life – abandonment, abuse, or anything else – each and every person is capable of living a fulfilled moral life. Nevertheless, society has an interest in ensuring, as far as it is capable of doing, that children receive the best possible start in life. This consists not merely in being born with all of one’s limbs intact, but in being born into – and raised within – the bosom of a warm, loving family.
Ironically, many Christians who make use of the argument that the only legitimate state interest in marriage is in its procreative capacity also tend to be political conservatives who emphasize the importance of patriotism as a civic virtue. But how on earth is a child supposed to grow up to love their country – their extended family – if they haven’t known love in the home from an early age? Civic virtue requires that we sacrifice something of ourselves for the sake of the common good, and sacrifice – as the example of Christ reminds us – is the fruit of love. The family is not a mere baby factory for the state, but a school of love for future citizens of the polis, and it is no exaggeration to claim that the moral health of a nation largely stands or falls on the quality of love shown in the family.
Secondly, the claim that love is not a public good is thoroughly materialistic, and can only be substantiated by appeal to a horrendously truncated concept of human personhood. The polis does not exist solely (or even primarily) for the accumulation of material goods; not even for the material good of perpetuating its own physical existence. The polis exists simply because humans are social animals and it is only in community that we are capable of flourishing. The goal of the polis, then, is human flourishing. But to limit the concept of flourishing to the satisfaction of our needs for nutrition, hydration, shelter, and physical reproduction, is to subtract everything from the human person that makes him human, leaving only the animal substratum. Among human needs, love is the first. People who are loved are capable of enduring severe material deprivation, whilst those who are materially wealthy but lack love, live unbearably miserable lives. Quite simply, a human civilization without love is not a human civilization at all; it is just a pack of intelligent animals.
Thirdly and finally, there is a theological objection. Whether or not we think it helpful to argue from a religious standpoint in the contemporary public square, at the very least there must be an internal coherence between what we believe as Christians and what we profess in the political arena. Theologically speaking, love is a human good of the highest order, and this applies in an especial way to conjugal love, the love between husband and wife. As Pope John Paul II so beautifully explained in his now-famous series of Wednesday addresses known as the “Theology of the Body,” human spousal love is a sign which points to the ultimate reality of our vocation to be espoused to God. Genuine conjugal love is of course always open to welcoming into the world the gift of human life, but it nevertheless has its own value because it signifies the final end toward which each and every person is ordered: a union of love.
None of this detracts in any way from a robust defense of traditional marriage. To argue that love is an important public good is not the same as arguing that all forms of love ought to be treated identically, or that society ought to honor any relationship between two consenting adults simply because its participants happen to claim that it is a union of love. Conjugal love, which is heterosexual by definition, has an overriding public value and to defend it as a public good is by definition to defend the public goodness of marriage because conjugal love simply is what marriage consists in; period. Every person – even those who go on to enter same-sex unions or to campaign for their public recognition – relies on conjugal love, because human society flourishes most abundantly in all its possible dimensions when each and every person is conceived by conjugal love, born, and nurtured in the warm glow of the love that husband and wife share with one another; a love which radiates out toward their children and eventually to the wider community – to the polis.