Tue Feb 5, 2013 - 2:05 pm EST
From divorce to same-sex marriage: G.K. Chesterton’s prophetic defense of marriage
I have previously pointed out in this space that G.K. Chesterton prophetically defended marriage and the family as the foundational institution of our society against all the present attacks and degradations of it. I am now going to point it out again. With last year’s loss in Minnesota on a constitutional amendment defending marriage, and the hundreds of thousands supporting traditional marriage in France today, the importance of this topic is something that we cannot possibly emphasize too much. And when we have at our disposal Chesterton’s incisive articulation of the truth, we should pick up this sword and swing it.
Chesterton anticipates the attack on marriage and even predicts: “the next great heresy will be an attack on morality, especially sexual morality.” Likewise, he says there will be a “fanatical hatred of morality, especially of Christian morality,” and it will be difficult even to discuss morality because immorality will purposely be made muddled and indefinite. “The heretics who defend sexual manias will never admit that they are anything but chaste.” He rightly says we have “passed the point of uncovering shame: and can only uncover shamelessness.”
Even though he sees to what end the road leads in the ongoing attack on marriage, it is useful to revisit his arguments against original attacks against marriage, at the place where it was one hundred years ago. The big issue at that time was divorce. We need to be reminded of what he said for two reasons. The first is that divorce is still a scourge on our society. The second is that all Chesterton’s arguments against divorce work equally well as arguments against same-sex marriage.
Though divorce was already legal in Protestant England and Protestant America, it still carried the air of scandal, and it was very difficult and expensive to obtain. In the early 20th century, however, there began a movement to make divorce laws more lenient and make divorce relatively easy. The secular pressure moved into the churches, and, starting with the Anglican Church, eventually all the Protestant denominations went from prohibiting or punishing divorce to accepting divorce as an embarrassment (and, incidentally, contraception as a right). Only the Catholic Church held the line against divorce (and contraception).
Along the way, the rest of the world lost the ability to define marriage.
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But just as it was beginning, we hear Chesterton saying, “There are those who say they want divorce in the second place without ever asking themselves if they want marriage in the first place. So let us begin by asking what marriage is. It is a promise. More than that, it is a vow.” There is a purpose to this vow. It keeps two people together in a bond of trust and safety which is going to be needed to protect the obvious outcome of the union of these two people: children.
Marriage is not created with a piece of paper. It is created with a vow. It is a vow unlike any other human vow, for as Chesterton says, “there is no stroke of the pen which creates real bodies and souls.”
Divorce, of course, damages those “real body and souls” that are born into a marriage.
But the world, says Chesterton, does not want to discuss any of this. Besides not wanting to examine the nature of a vow, it does not want to consider the family. If marriage is a struggle, the world wants to escape from it. It then portrays marriage as something awful – drudgery, a prison. And so it redefines the vow as something that can simply be reset. But this is merely an excuse to be immoral. The new and opposite attack on marriage is to redefine it as something perverse, which is simply a different excuse to be immoral. In either case, the attempt to redefine marriage is actually an attempt to redefine sin. The world outside of the Church and outside of the family suffers from the morbid weakness of giving in to selfish and disordered desires, and wants “to sacrifice the normal to the abnormal.”
Chesterton says the people who do this are detached, disgruntled and drifting. They are always making the excuse to alter what is common and corporate and traditional and popular. And the alteration is always worse. This revolt against the family is utterly unnatural, a revolt against nature itself and the natural attraction between father and mother, the natural attraction that creates a child. Chesterton says, “There is no dispute about the purpose of Nature in creating such an attraction.” (Thus, same-sex attraction cannot be considered natural because there is no natural purpose for such an attraction.)
It is interesting to note that there was pressure to liberalize divorce at the very same time there was pressure to institute Prohibition (another unnatural act). Chesterton says there were those who disapproved of the wine at the wedding at Cana in Galilee, but also those who disapproved of the wedding. They are “prejudiced against the earthly elements more than the heavenly elements. It is not the supernatural that disgusts them, so much as the natural. And those of us who have seen all the normal rules and relations of humanity uprooted by random speculators, as if they were abnormal abuses and almost accidents, will understand why men have sought for something divine if they wished to preserve anything human. They will know why common sense, cast out from some academy of fads and fashions, has age after age sought refuge in the high sanity of a sacrament.”
Yes, marriage fulfills natural law, but it is also a sacrament. Those who attack the sacrament are attacking God. Divorce and re-marriage is an attack on the sacrament. Same-sex marriage is an attack on the sacrament. Chesterton warns, “The obvious effect of frivolous divorce will be frivolous marriage” So, he could also say that the effect of same-sex marriage will be frivolous marriage.
Perhaps the most prophetic and most profound insight that Chesterton offers in regards to divorce that could also be applied to same-sex marriage is this: “Two different standards will appear in ordinary morality, and even in ordinary society. Instead of the old social distinction between those who are married and those who are unmarried, there will be a distinction between those who are married and those who are really married.”