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But is it Really Marriage?

Who has a stake in “marriage”? Most of us, because most of us live in society and “marriage” is an institution within society. Even if you believe that “marriage” originates in religion and religion provides it to society, still “marriage” is an institution operating in society and therefore of concern to everyone except hermits.

Jack Sissons, the first judge to serve continuously in Canada’s North, had to decide what marriage is when religious officials in a small remote community sought to remove the children of an “unmarried” Inuit couple because their unmarried state made them unfit to be parents.

His memoir Judge of the Far North (1968) recounts that Sissons did his own research to see whether the couple, who had gone through certain ceremonies within their community, could be considered to be married according to more basic and universal criteria than those of the Anglican Church of Canada.

And here was his answer. The anthropological and social record, he said, showed that marriage was a widespread phenomenon in human history with three essential characteristics.

First, it was a public act of commitment between two people. It had to be done publicly so that it could communicate important messages that are beneficial to the surrounding community.

Second, this public act said that these two people expect to be each other’s exclusive sexual partners. This message is vital in a community. It prevents the conflicts that would arise if individuals trespassed unknowingly into someone else’s sexual territory.

Third, the public act identified these two people as the ones who will nurture any babies born from their sexual activity.

Marriage is doubly beneficial to society. Communities need to know which pairs of people expect to be sleeping together and expect to provide an identity and primary care for the babies they might have. The absence of this knowledge would result in conflict and chaos.

Applying this understanding to the case at hand, Judge Sissons found a traditional ceremony with these three characteristics within the Inuit community. The defendants (1) had made their public commitment to be (2) each other’s sexual partners and (3) partners in caring for their children. This traditional ceremony could therefore be considered to constitute marriage, and therefore a Christian marriage act was unnecessary from the viewpoint of the needs of society. Case dismissed.

There are two highly significant lessons from his judgment for debates about same-sex marriage.

First, marriage should be examined in the first instance as a social institution that provides benefits to society. This is the essential starting-point for discussion. Society does not need to religion in order to think about marriage, but it does well to include the religious viewpoint to gain further values, inspiration, support, clarification and whatever else a specific religion can offer.

Second, the benefits of marriage to society can be spelled out in detail. Sissons identified just two, in terms that applied to the case before him.

Suppose we conduct the exercise again, using Sissons’s methodology but not necessarily his conclusions from more than half a century ago. That is, let us enumerate the benefits that the institution of marriage offers to our society, asking of religions that they add to the discussion but not start it or control it.

First, identifying couples who expect to have exclusive sexual access to each other is still a benefit in 21st century Canadian society. However, we now recognize that sexuality means far more than intercourse. It makes more sense to speak of intimacy that takes many forms.

Even before recognizing the legitimacy of homosexual as well as heterosexual intimacy, some societies (and some religions too, for that matter) took a wide view of sexuality in marriage. Marriage was not limited to people who were likely to procreate.

Marriage could be entered into by couples who did not want to have children, and by women who were incapable of bearing children because of age or other factors. Childless marriages are legitimate in the eyes of society and religions alike.

Second, society still wants to know who will give its children their identity and nurturing.

Several more benefits come to mind.

Married partners take care of each other (and of other relatives too). The sickness part of the traditional vow “in sickness and in health” means caring, not just enduring, when the partner is ill. Society avoids colossal financial burdens thanks to unpaid caring within families – of children, of the elderly, of spouses.

This is why the modern state has supported marriages financially through the income tax system. It’s a bargain. Give couples with children a bit of a tax break, because most of them will provide far more value in time and money on the care of their children.

Give spouses with or without children a bit of support, because most of them will commit far more value in time and money on caring for their elderly parents and other relatives and for each other.

A fourth benefit speaks to the health part of the traditional vow. Good marriages underpin the personal growth and fulfillment of married partners. Often these are the most important interpersonal relationships in people’s lives, the conditions in which they are challenged and supported to achieve their furthest reach of personal authenticity.

Fifth, married partners share property rights and complementary responsibilities – I have a right to a share of my spouse’s property, but I am also answerable for my spouse’s debts.

Thus, via the institution of marriage, society has given itself a social instrument of immense benefit in keeping order in the realm of intimacy, ensuring the identity and care of children, establishing common property rights and responsibilities, marshaling voluntary care for health and other needs, and helping people to fulfill themselves.

Natural procreation arises in connection with the first two benefits more than the rest.

Marriages that unite a woman and a man could involve natural procreation during the woman’s childbearing years. Artificially assisted procreation and adoption can bring children into these and other marriages too. And there will also be many marriages – which have been considered valid by the state and by all religions of which I am aware – where children do not occur.

If procreation is a consideration in only some marriages, and if other marriages can be valid without focusing on procreation, then both types become species of a more general phenomenon – lasting, faithful, generous, caring, intimate, publicly recognized unions of two individuals.

This is the genus.

Does same-sex union fit under this genus as one of its species? Would society benefit from recognizing such unions of same-sex couples as “marriage”?

In my opinion, the answer is yes. While I speak as a married heterosexual male – one wife for forty-nine years, three children – I have no doubt that, with respect to lasting, faithful, generous, caring, intimate, publicly recognized unions of two gays or two lesbians, society benefits from keeping order in the realm of intimacy, assuring the identity and care of children where this occurs, establishing common property interests and responsibilities, marshaling voluntary care for health and other needs, and helping people to fulfill themselves.

And what of religion? Can religions enhance those marriages with further values, inspiration and support? My non-authoritative, hopeful suggestion is yes.

As an active (but not necessarily orthodox) Roman Catholic, I know that the Church can encourage couples to pray for grace and to seek God’s blessing on their lives together; it can encourage the wider congregation to pray for them too. This is a very general benefit that, I imagine, most or all other religions could also provide if they so wished.

The Church provides more specific instruction and inspiration as well. Here is just one example, based on the portion of the Bible that is valued by Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The relationship between God and His Chosen People was often rocky. Over the centuries, there were many occasions when one side or the other felt so betrayed that it wanted to cancel the relationship. But inventiveness and faithful persistence always paid off, and God’s covenant with His people survived.

This covenant-based understanding of relationship – you believe in it, you never give up, you invent a way to repair the damage whether the other person is the skunk or you yourself are the culprit – can inspire married couples of all sorts. It can inspire other types of relationships too, that do not fit under the current understanding of “marriage” but fit the related genus of “covenant relationship.”

Bottom line? Procreative intercourse is not the exclusive hallmark of true marriage. Canadian society has moved to the point that it does not consider homosexuality to be a barrier to couples having a faithful, generous, caring, intimate union. Such unions are now legally, publicly recognized.

Let the individuals involved enjoy the benefits and fulfill the attendant responsibilities. Let the religions in Canada be generous with their blessings.