Starting off our discussions for 2013 is an excerpt from Jean Porter’s essay ‘The Natural Law and Innovative Forms of Marriage: A Reconsideration’ originally published in The Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics in December 2010. Those interested in this theme may also be interested in two of the Digby Stuart Research Centre’s research seminars later this term. Details are available here.
Like the scholastics, we are living through a period of rapid social change and corresponding institutional breakdown and reformation, including extensive and far-reaching changes in the practice of marriage. Like them, again, we are confronted with the twofold need to understand these changes and to direct and regulate them through social and legal mechanisms. How might the scholastics’ complex account of the purposes of sex and marriage serve to illuminate our own efforts to address these issues? Let me try to answer this question by setting out, in what will admittedly be a brief and preliminary way, what a natural law analysis of marriage might look like today.
This analysis begins at the same point as the scholastics did – namely, that whatever else we may want to say, we should recognize that both the sexual function and the conventions of marriage serve the purpose of procreation, broadly construed to include the education and socialization of children as well as their physical reproduction. Admittedly, this kind of appeal raises a host of philosophical issues that would need to be addressed in more detail than I can attempt here. Nonetheless, unless we discount the fact that we are mammals and complex social primates, it is difficult to see how a plausible analysis of sexuality and marriage could fail to take account of the role that these play in the human reproductive process. What is more, I would argue that a theological commitment to the goodness of creation implies that we as Christians have a particular stake in affirming the value of procreation and giving this value a central place in the interpretations and practices surrounding sex and marriage.
At the same time, however, this line of analysis leaves open the possibility that the institution of marriage can also serve other purposes, legitimate and worthy of promotion so long as they do not undermine the orientation of the institution towards procreation, comprehensively considered to include the extended processes of education and socialization. Indeed, it would be surprising if such a centrally important institution, shaped by a complex history and responsive to diverse social exigencies, did not serve a wide range of purposes both for individual participants and for the community as a whole. To a very considerable extent, these purposes will be recognizably analogous to those informing medieval marriage – to provide for the decent regulation and expression of sexual desire and to sustain a network of social relations. In addition, and as one expression of the latter purpose, marriage provides a framework for establishing claims for mutual support, personal and financial, and for securing society’s recognition of these claims – by enforcing demands for care and sustenance, recognizing that each spouse has a primary right to make health-care decisions for the other, and the like. Finally, marriage serves what many today would regard as a centrally important function of providing a framework for the public expression and support of interpersonal love. Continue reading