Family is no mere sociological construct, so we must stop treating it like one. It is how people live and thrive. It is natural. It carries with it certain obligations and duties. It is not malleable, no matter how hard those bent on re-defining the institution try to make it so
The past couple of months have witnessed two extraordinary events in the history of Western moral culture. First, the United States Supreme Court ruled in a five-four decision that the right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples under the United States Constitution. The states are now required by judicial fiat to license marriages between two people of the same sex. The second is really a series of events, namely the exposure of Planned Parenthood. The practice of abortion, and the most (in)famous company practising it, have been laid bare on YouTube. These two events represent major moral flashpoints for Western society. It may seem coincidental that these crisis points have been reached almost simultaneously. However, it is hardly surprising that these two events are unfolding at the same point in history, as they share a common root.
At the root of the Obergefell v Hodges decision and the very existence of Planned Parenthood is a neglect of, and reversal in, the Western understanding of the concept of family. While there are, undoubtedly, other factors at play in these crises, the neglect of the idea of family is an important one that must be brought into the discussion. The family is here taken to be the organic community developed through and around a marriage. It usually, though not always, involves a man and a woman in marital union and their offspring. Therefore, it includes not only a married couple, but also their children. This does not exclude infertile or childless marriages from using the label of “family”; it merely requires the natural possibility of children as an outworking of a marriage. It also does not exclude single-parent households. These are families, but they are incomplete in the natural and organic sense. Just as in the childless marriage, in a single-parent family there is a component missing in the structure family.
The concept of family has a long history in the Western tradition. It was traditionally considered to represent social, economic and spiritual stability. The family relation is the “seedbed of society”, as the Calvinist jurisprudential thinker Johannes Althusius put it, and is the foundation of nurture and duty to one’s neighbour. The family, grounded in the covenant of marriage, is an organic and natural institution that provides a secure and natural context for human flourishing. Even members of a family or household who are not blood relations with the other members are participants in the institution (adopted children are an obvious example of this). The idea of, and reverence for, the institution of family lies behind the West’s social, political and moral order.
And yet, gay marriage and abortion exist in part because of a radical shift in Western understandings of the idea of family. There have, indeed, been some changes in our understanding of family for the better. Some negative elements of what is commonly known as “patriarchy” have been removed. However, in the process some more negative shifts have occurred. Formerly, the family was considered an institution with embedded relationships, hierarchies, duties and obligations. It still is that, but Western society has forgotten, through sins of both omission and commission, that family is not to be shaped to our liking. Family is not a space for voluntarism, where autonomous individuals can simply mould duties and obligations to their own liking. And yet that is precisely how we treat it. Obergefell and Planned Parenthood are but symptoms of this fundamental problem. The Obergefell ruling represents a seismic shift in the understanding of one component of family: marriage. Planned Parenthood represents a radical misconception of the other component: procreation and children. Consider the two issues in question.
Marriage has morphed (if that were even possible) from the most natural and organic of social institutions into something unrecognisable. It was previously a covenantal union, inviolable except in the most extreme of circumstances such as abandonment or adultery. In the West, marriage was sacred. The commitments were made before both man and God, the one who created marriage. A natural and almost inevitable part of this sacred union was the procreation of children. These children were born into a covenantal family which, in theory at least, was a safe and stable environment. Marriage meant family almost by default.
Marriage is now a voluntaristic exercise in self-fulfilment. As Alastair Roberts wrote in a recent Theopolis Institute article, “The family is now often closer to a privatized and sentimental environment for independent careerists who share similar patterns of consumption.” Here Roberts illustrates how the norms of marriage are now free to be moulded and shaped according to the values and aspirations of the marriage partners. Consider the widespread practice of no-fault divorce as representative of this. To the extent that the marriage no longer fulfils the needs and wishes of either or both of the spouses, there is no reason to continue the marriage. If one party in the marriage has had enough of the other, experiences boredom, “falls out of love”, or can’t handle the perceived pressure any more, separation is close at hand. Divorce allows parties to relinquish most obligations inherent in a marriage, including the obligations of companionship, protection, provision and sexual fidelity. It also has implications for same-sex marriage. If the norms of marriage are free to be entirely shaped by the partners, why not let two men marry?
Reinforcing this latter point is the fact that children also become an optional extra under the new view of marriage. Sex within marriage is not expressly linked to the potential for procreation any more, in large part because of the widespread use of birth control. To be sure, the purpose of marriage is more than sex, and the purpose of sex extends much further than mere procreation. Still, it remains the case that marriage is now very often detached from procreation because sex within marriage is frequently not a potentially procreative act. This makes sex within marriage just one of a number of possible ways of getting erotic pleasure. It, too, has become a voluntaristic exercise in self-fulfilment. If children are no longer considered a logical and natural extension of marriage, why not let two women marry? Same-sex marriage is in part plausible because deliberately childless marriages are a legitimate and not uncommon decision. It is the concept of family that is at the centre of the issue.
If children are not at least a theoretically possible outcome, married sex is just that: sex and nothing more. Sex within and without marriage now seems essentially the same because of the divorcing of procreation from sex within marriage. As a result, marriage is merely one potential setting for sexual fulfilment. Non-marital sex has become another acceptable setting for sexual intercourse, and potentially includes sex with partners of the same gender. In that context, where sex is divorced from childbearing and childrearing, gay marriage is plausible.
The voluntary childlessness that is prevalent in contemporary marriages leads to the second issue in question. Planned Parenthood could only exist in a world that has rejected the necessary link between marriage, sex and procreation. Abortion on demand is only plausible when erotic love is unhinged from children. Both married and unmarried people seek abortions. The conception of a child is unwanted in a variety of circumstances, but one common theme ties them together: the desire for sex without children. However, abortion is living (and dying) proof of the link between sex and children. Every abortion is a rejection of this intrinsic link. It is as though the “patient” and “doctor” quickly dispose of the “specimen” before anyone notices the reality of family that lies before them.
As a society we no longer intend sex to be linked to family and to children. So when an unintended consequence makes an appearance in the form of a baby, we act as if something unnatural has happened. It is as though sex were only meant for our pleasure and not for anything else. However, sex is unavoidably linked to family, no matter how many times Planned Parenthood attempt to sever the tie on behalf of the rest of us. Planned Parenthood is only operating because we’ve bought the lie that sex and family are not natural bedfellows.
The link between Obergefell and the Planned Parenthood controversy is the family—in particular, the death of the traditional Western conception of family. Marriages no longer necessarily produce children. Children are no longer necessary products of sex, but only an optional by-product. The old idea of family is dead in the West. These two events are evidence of its termination. In order to make a plausible defence of the traditional conceptions of sanctity of life and marriage, the centrality of the family must be recaptured.
Family is not just a sociological construct, so we must stop treating it like one. It is how the world actually is; it is how people live and thrive. It is natural. It carries with it certain obligations and duties. It is not malleable, no matter how hard we try to make it so. Yet we see all round us symptoms of family being treated as a voluntaristic institution. It is no wonder that we kill the unborn and farm out their remains. It is no wonder that many Western nations now allow two men, or two women, to marry. It is no wonder, when it is patently obvious that we have forgotten what the family is and why it matters. This development is alarming and, in the light the de-facto dissolution of the family, the future of the West looks bleak indeed.
Simon P. Kennedy is a husband and father who lives in Brisbane. He contributes regularly to the Calvinist International, a forum for research, ressourcement, and renewal of Christian wisdom. He is also pursuing a PhD in the history of political thought.