Thursday, February 10, 2011

On "Traditional" Marriage

Writer Eve Tushnet questions using the word "traditional" as a reason for defending holy matrimony. (Via Maggie Gallagher) I think she makes some good points, saying:
Two things have happened to contemporary marriage which all but compel traditionalist rhetoric in a non-traditionalist culture. First, one of marriage’s core purposes has been suppressed in public discourse. Marriage developed in major part to regulate sex between men and women—to regulate it not solely within marriage but before marriage. The idea that marriage as an institution should regulate whether the unmarried have sex used to be obvious. It’s not that everyone actually abstained, as the bawdy songs show! But the cultural expectation was that premarital chastity could be demanded, defended, held up as social necessity and religious virtue, and its opposite punished (as in the sadder bawdy songs) or wryly rejected (as in the funnier ones).

Ten minutes’ conversation with people in their teens or twenties, anywhere from Main Street to Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, will make clear that the exact opposite of this perspective is now as obvious as the older one used to be. Premarital sex is not only practiced but assumed, and often valorized. (You should live together before marriage; don’t be stupid!)
We can debate whether this deregulation has been good for the elite, for the underclass, for men, for women, for children, etc., but I’m not here to ask who lost the sexual revolution. I’m pointing out that when a core purpose of a tradition is still acknowledged in public debate, people don’t defend the tradition for tradition’s sake. They defend it because it serves the core purpose. This approach to tradition is inadequate, for reasons I tried to draw out in my first post, but it’s an obvious rhetorical approach in a pluralist society.

Secondly, the competing authorities that used to combine to make marriage compelling have now been discredited or pitted against one another. Church and state once agreed here, even when they fought elsewhere. Yet the very idea of something simultaneously sacred and legal is now suspect—almost unintelligible, which is one reason so many people I talk to think that the optimal solution to the gay-marriage debate would be for the government to “get out of marriage,” but they think that just isn’t practical.
When a tradition is justified by its support from a beloved authority, people don’t defend the tradition for tradition’s sake. They defend it because it comes from and flows back toward the authority.
The honor and beauty that accumulated around marriage over millennia of liturgy, folk culture, and pain and grace still attract us; yet the necessities, the suffering that marriage sometimes could transform into sacrifice, are often no longer intelligible. So we fall back on a language which is all assumption and allusion. The only word we have left for marriage is “traditional.”


MadMonarchist said...

I've heard the phrase "traditional marriage" used often enough but I don't think I've ever heard anyone defend it just for the sake of being traditional. Usually it is in terms of raising children -when it is defended at all anymore.

Like many I've become resigned to the fact that marriage will effectively become irrelevant, it will become so relative as to have no single meaning at all anymore. I am completely against such a thing, but it seems that even among the conservative / traditional / Church -going etc crowd that no one really wants to take a stand on this issue. No one want to say that the behavior at issue is wrong, always has been and always will be, and no one wants to be the discriminatory bad guy anymore.

This will be an issue, I sadly think, decided almost totally by the inactivity of one side for fear of being unpopular.

elena maria vidal said...

MM, I think that there will always be people who defend marriage, as long as there is a Catholic Church, anyway, which will be until the end of time, as Our Lord promised. The way I see it, marriage is between a man and a woman, period. It is of divine origin. It is an institution so bound up in the very fibers of creation that it exceeds all tradition. Rather, it is the basis and foundation for any traditions that we have.

MadMonarchist said...

That is true, but even in the Catholic Church I'm sure you notice what the acceptance of co-habitation, easy divorce etc have had. I will name no names but where I live having an annulment is simply a matter of money and everyone knows it. The law gives you a divorce and the Church is expected to follow along.

Think of it like this: how many people really take Church teaching as authoritative? There are so many churches that even if some brave bishop actually wags a finger at someone they simply go to another church where their behavior is accepted. In the same way, if marriage can be between anyone, for any reason, for any length of time between any gender or any number of consenting adults the real, legitimate marriages will still be there but like the Church itself will be considered just one more option.

And, it is just my opinion, that this is because the traditional crowd, even the Catholic Church to a large extent, has decided to take a totally defensive strategy, trying to defend 1man1woman marriage without criticizing the behavior on the other side. They are still calling good "good" but no one wants to call evil "evil". And as a famous Frenchman once said, 'The only logical end to defensive warfare is surrender'

elena maria vidal said...

MM, you are correct in that we are where we are because not a strong enough stance was taken by the Church on the local level towards people who have been living in sin, as well as about contraception and the easy annulments. The teachings of the Church have not been taught in many places for over a generation. Too many wishy-washy bishops not to mention those clergy who told everybody that they were "okay."