Melanie McDonagh

The case against gay marriage

The case against gay marriage
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Last night, we posted Douglas Murray's conservative argument in favour of same-sex marriage. Here's the opposite view:

Consultations are, for the prudent, an exercise you only engage in when you’re quite sure of the outcome. I’m not sure, then, that Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, is entirely wise to go all out in galvanising the Catholic community into action against the Government’s plans to legalise gay marriage. As the Daily Telegraph reports today, he is issuing a letter to be read out in churches on Sunday to urge congregations to participate in the Coalition’s consultation exercise on the proposal — against.

Two can play at consultations, and the very notion that the Catholic Church is mobilising against the plans will itself stimulate the organised gay lobby to greater efforts on the other side. Bluntly, gay activists could probably run rings round almost any Catholic — or Christian — lobby on this question. Only a fifth of the notional five million Catholics in Britain can be bothered to attend mass in any event. Of those that do, not all will necessarily be on the church’s side. The death of Lord St John of Fawsley, whom I loved and who would have been rather horrified at the notion of gay marriage, is a salutary reminder that Catholics, too, can be gay.

However, I don’t think that the Archbishop really had any choice on this one. He can’t do other than to uphold the Church’s teaching on marriage. And what his letter, co-signed by the Archbishop of Southwark, makes clear is that this is not a religious question at all. It’s about human nature, or what Catholics would call natural law.

Ironically, the Telegraph’s online consultation on this question sums up the Archbishop’s problem. It asks readers to opine on the issue, and the options offered on the no side are as follows: ‘No — it would be too offensive for many religious people’ and ‘No — and I think that even civil partnerships go too far’. Which leaves me in a bit of a dilemma. My objections to gay marriage are based on respect for the inherent nature of marriage, not the religious conception of a sacrament. (My own marriage, for reasons I won’t bore you with, is valid but not sacramental.) But I support civil partnerships on the basis that they do away with inequity. Previously, if one member of a gay partnership died, the other had to pay inheritance tax on their property, even though their relationship was pretty well conjugal. Really, I can’t tick either box. In other words, objection to gay marriage isn’t about religion at all and the letter that the bishops are sending to Catholic churches does, to do them credit, make that clear.

It’s all to do with the nature of marriage. And that is, a natural institution providing the optimal situation for raising children. It’s vulgarly biological, marriage — a state for bringing up children in. And that’s how it’s been for almost all of human history. Even in ancient Greece, which practically invented homosexuality — alright, it was especially about the Socratic master-pupil relationship — reserved marriage for men and women, for the conceiving and bearing of children. And it’s that fundamental character of marriage which makes it essentially heterosexual. It’s to do with the complementarity of the sexes. Men and women fulfil different roles when it comes to the rearing of their offspring, and even in an atypical family like my own, in which I’m the sole breadwinner, those complementary roles make sense. Children relate differently to mothers and fathers; they pick up cues about how the sexes work, even children who go on to become gay. And departing from that biological foundation for marriage is a radically new departure.

Obviously, there are infertile normal marriages, which are no less valid and exemplary for that. The most perfect Catholic marriage I know is involuntarily childless. Some people marry post-menopause, and their marriages aren’t second class, just exceptional. But these are the exceptions to the norm. The Anglican marriage service, which gives an excellent account of the purposes of marriage, talks about the mutual comfort that the couple give to each other and the function of the institution as an outlet for sexual urges, as well as for the raising of children. But those purposes, in heterosexual marriage, complement the basic utility of the thing. They are meant to accompany the essential role of marriage in raising children, not become an alternative for it.

Of course, homosexual relationships share important aspects of heterosexual marriage, though the element of permanence may not be quite what it is in conventional marriage because children — the reason so many people stay in unsatisfactory marriages — are absent from the equation. Plainly gay partnerships can be committed and loving, and civil partnerships recognise the commitment. And on the margins, post-IVF, gay men can now father children by surrogate mothers and raise them with their own partners, and gay women can use surrogate gametes to do the same. But that parental relationship is always going to have something absent at its heart, the complementarity of the sexes, which means that sons and daughters learn about gender from how it’s lived out in their own family. And a relationship cannot be a marriage, as traditionally and everywhere understood, where children cannot naturally be part of the equation.

What I’m saying, and what the bishops are saying, is that marriage is child-centred, even though children may be involuntarily absent from good marriages. We cut that anchor at our peril. For the optimal environment for raising children you need a stable environment with parents of either gender. And even in a reluctantly childless marriage, the complementarily of the sexes, the very fact of sexual difference, gives the institution its nature, its charge. To say as much isn’t to advance a religious argument. It’s to work from nature, from history, from human experience. The very definition of a marriage is a union between a man and a woman. Let’s leave it like that.