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Love and Marriage Go Together Like a Horse and a Carriage—What About Gender? On Pope John Paul II, Marriage, and Homosexuality

According to Catholic doctrine, and as discussed by Pope John Paul II in his text, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, marriage must be defined by two goods: the unitive and the procreative good.  Because marriage is defined by these things, homosexual unions are excluded as marriages, on the grounds that they do not achieve the things necessary to a true marriage.  However, there are many Christian persons who do not believe that this is the true definition of marriage and that marriage may, in fact, include homosexual unions.  In this essay, I shall attempt to summarily describe the Catholic argument for marriage (as presented by Pope John Paul II) and shall then present an alternate definition of marriage, one which is able to include homosexual unions as a form of marriage, and one which, ultimately, I believe many Christian persons would find compelling, although I leave final conclusions to the reader.

I shall start with Pope John Paul II’s depiction of marriage.  It is helpful to begin by attempting to understand a few terms that are key to his argument.  Pope John Paul II often discusses the “procreative good,” or the “procreative meaning of the conjugal act.”  When he says this, he is referring back to that first blessing, that man would “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1.28).  The procreative good of marriage is in the ability, within marriage, to partake in that blessing.  Marriage is a state of “yes,” or complete mutual self-giving and openness.  It is a “yes” to the possibility of new life, a “yes” to the blessing, such that man would bear offspring, and partake in the life-giving process that our Creator offers.  Not only is this a possibility within marriage and the marital act, but it is its very end, its telos.  To put it very simply, according to Pope John Paul II, the procreative good of marriage is in its capacity to partake in the blessing of new life, to “be fruitful and multiply,” and to achieve that end.

When Pope John Paul II refers to the unitive good of marriage, he is discussing something slightly different.  When he speaks of the unitive good, he wishes to remind us of man’s original solitude, and a of God’s declaration that “it is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2.18).  Apart from woman, man is not yet complete, he is not yet perfected[1].  As creatures designed in God’s own image, we were designed for community:  it is a part of what our nature requires, just as it is a part of God’s nature as the Trinity—i.e. the Imago Dei.  According to Pope John Paul II, this end of community seems to be best fulfilled in marriage, where man and woman are joined in a union of a particular sort.  That union is characterized by union of both spirit, body, and mind—and this is crucial.  When these two are combined in man and woman, humanity can become completed in a manner not possible apart from that union.

With this basic understanding of these two key terms, we can now attempt to piece together just why Pope John Paul II would claim that homosexual unions do not qualify as true marriages.  He, along with traditional Catholic doctrine, claims that a homosexual union fails to fulfill these two goods of which we spoke—the procreative and unitive goods—and due to that failure to align with key components of the definition of marriage, cannot rightly be considered marriage.

To begin with, a homosexual union does not fulfill the procreative good, as it is defined by Pope John Paul II.  When two persons of the same sex have intercourse, there is no possibility for life; that is, there is not even a remote possibility that in that intercourse, the pair could partake in the blessing to “be fruitful and multiply.”  Genitalia simply were not made that way—producing offspring requires both a male and a female, and no matter what two people of the same sex desire or how hard they try, they will not be able to conceive children.  This inability is inevitable, and so it is impossible for a same sex pair to fulfill the telos and blessing that is partaking in the creation of new life and the blessing that God has granted humanity in that ability.  It is not possible that a homosexual union could fulfill the procreative good.

Not only is this the case, but Pope John Paul II would also argue that a homosexual union cannot possibly fulfill the unitive good either.  As we have established, the unitive good is a union of spirit, body, and mind.  Pope John Paul II tells us that union cannot be achieved with persons of the same sex, because humanity is completed in neither sex alone, but in both together.  There are characteristics of the nature of woman that are crucial to the nature of humanity [collective] which are not a part of the nature of man—he needs woman for these (and vice versa).  The unitive good cannot be achieved without both sexes.

With these understandings, it becomes clear  why Pope John Paul II would claim that homosexual unions cannot qualify as true marriages.  However, there are  alternate arguments as to what marriage is, under which homosexual unions can be included.  One definition is to say that marriage is simply complete and entire mutual self-gift.  This may seem odd at first, as it seems that Pope John Paul II would undoubtedly include this as part of how the Catholic Church defines marriage, but when we take this claim alone, apart from any talk of goods, there seems to be a very different outcome than that with which we are presented by Pope John Paul II.

Let us consider this definition in more depth.  It seems that such a definition implies several important things.  First, the marriage must be between two persons, for if we are giving to more than one, we cannot give everything.  The self-gift entailed by marriage is comprehensive; it is a gift of every aspect of one’s self, distinct from the self-gift found in friendship or the relationship of parent and child.  Unlike these other sorts of gift of self, the complete and total gift of one’s self cannot be given to multiple persons.

A second implication seems to be that pre-marital sex and the use of contraception would not be permissible, as both then withhold something from your spouse.  You would withhold a potential for reproduction which you might otherwise have the capacity to give.  Additionally, the marriage must be exclusive and dedicated such that it will not be broken or given up on in any sort of divorce or separation—if it were, then it would not be complete self-gift, for one would be withholding commitment despite circumstances or feelings.  We would need to be giving the other all that we have and all that we are, withholding nothing if it is truly marriage.

There is nothing in this that seems to exclude homosexuality.  We would blame a same-sex couple for their inability to procreate no more than we would an infertile couple—they are both still giving all that they have and are, insofar as they are able to.  This definition does not hold against any persons what it is not in their power to do or be.  This definition rejects the claim that a comprehensive union requires both sexes; it says that when complete and total mutual self-gift is present, true union is achieved.  While a more simple argument, this one would satisfy many Christians who do not find the Catholic argument compelling.

However, just as we recognize the potential strengths of such an argument, we must also note where it is weak.  It seems that one could argue that while complete mutual self-gift seems to include homosexuality in theory, it does not in practice.  One might claim that it is not possible for two people of the same sex to give themselves entirely to the other person.  Pope John Paul II would certainly make this claim.  The otherness required for entire self-gift is not present apart from the opposite sex.  A person in favor of the non-Catholic definition might counter with the claim that to say such a thing does not make sense, for if a person gives all that they possibly can to someone, that is surely complete self-gift.  It seems that if we continue to track this proposed argument, it returns to a biological difference which Catholic doctrine would claim is necessary, whereas this alternate definition does not.  Claiming that something is not the case because it does not line up with the very thing we are attempting to prove does not function as a valid argument, and it seems that a stalemate is reached.  When we consider other counterpoints between the sides, the discussion seems to end up here each time.

I propose no solution in one direction or the other and am myself at a loss for a conclusion.  I simply propose what seem to be compelling arguments and valid positions from two different sides and leave these things for the reader to consider, inviting you to join in the difficult conversation that is Christian sexual ethics.


[1]John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, 151