Chesterton and the defense of marriage
A hundred years ago, G.K. Chesterton argued that the greatest danger posed by Big Government is that it undermines the family. It has done this any number of ways, certainly in the obvious form of public education, which has replaced the authority of the family, but also, in many ways the role of the family, the functions of the family.
But now there is a move afoot to get the government to redefine the family, as part of a modern culture that has tried to redefine everything. Words get politicized. Words degenerate. Words and meanings no longer fit each other. The verbal confusion is followed by moral confusion.
The great battle that we are now fighting in this country is the war over the word “marriage.” Unfortunately, we have been losing it for the last two generations. We started losing this war when we were not able to stop the laws that allowed no-fault divorce, or what could be more accurately described as “serial adultery,” the tossing off of an old vow and the rather precarious making of a new one . Chesterton says the only possible result of frivolous divorce will be frivolous marriage.
Chesterton writes very eloquently and extensively about divorce, and exposes its danger to a society. The world promptly ignored his warnings and divorce, which was once a scandal and a shame became something banal and a passing embarrassment. Now an even worse specter has appeared in the land. Could Chesterton have ever imagined that we would be fighting something called same sex marriage?
The answer is Yes.
Chesterton’s references to homosexuality are very subtle, and yet very incisive, as we would expect.
The first references, as one might expect, are to Oscar Wilde, who was very famous when Chesterton was a young man in the 1890’s. Chesterton said that although he himself “never felt the faintest temptation to the particular madness of Wilde,” there is no great virtue in not committing a sin to which you are not tempted. However, it is quite natural to repulsed by such sins. That is the proper reaction to sin.
There is something defiant about the “gay” culture, that revels in what repulses the vast majority of people. But, of course, the word “gay” also has been subject to redefinition, and it seems they could not have chosen a more misleading word. In the book Heretics, Chesterton almost makes a prophecy of the misuse of the word “gay”: He writes of “the very powerful and very desolate philosophy of Oscar Wilde. It is the carpe diem religion; but the carpe diem religion is not the religion of happy people, but of very unhappy people.”
In further discussion of Oscar Wilde and the “decadents,” Chesterton says, again prophetically: “Decadents may like living in a dream which they can alter at any moment to suit themselves, in which they can create causes without creating consequences, in which they can pervert the future or unmake the past. But I think a decent working man of any class, whether he is working at cube roots or cabbage roots, ought to be glad that, as he sows, so shall he surely reap.”
And that is exactly what happened with Oscar Wilde. He reaped what he sowed. Chesterton says that Wilde committed “a monstrous wrong” but suffered “a monstrous revenge.” (He went to jail for sodomy.) “His was a complete life, in that awful sense in which your life and mine are incomplete; since we have not yet paid for our sins. In that sense one might call it a perfect life, as one speaks of a perfect equation; it cancels out. On the one hand we have the healthy horror of the evil; on the other the healthy horror of the punishment.”
But we have lost the sense of healthy horror of evil, and therefore we have done away with the punishment. How did we get to this stage?
Chesterton writes about the “dangerous and rapidly deteriorating passions,” of “natural passions becoming unnatural passions” that occurred at the end of both the Greek and Roman civilizations. We are seeing the same thing in the decline of our own civilization. It has happened, says Chesterton, because “the effect of treating sex as only one innocent natural thing was that every other innocent natural thing became soaked and sodden with sex. For sex cannot be admitted to a mere equality among elementary emotions or experiences like eating and sleeping. The moment sex ceases to be a servant it becomes a tyrant.”
Sex is a servant. It has a very natural function : to make babies. Its beauty is incidental to its purpose. This is how Chesterton says it: “We have no particular reason to suppose that a lily was intended to be beautiful; it was intended for the far nobler purpose of producing other lilies.”
As for marriage, Chesterton says: “Marriage is a fact, an actual human relation like that of motherhood, which has certain habits and loyalties, except for a few monstrous cases where it is turned to torture by insanity or sin.”
“Marriage is a fact.” You cannot change its definition, just as you cannot change the definition of motherhood.
In another very subtle reference to homosexual unions, Chesterton says: “Though a proper Noah’s Ark should contain two specimens of every animal, nobody ever proposed that it should contain two Noahs.”
And as for anyone who supports the very idea of homosexual unions, Chesterton has this to say: “People who hold these views are not a minority but a monstrosity. It is simply another example of the modern and morbid weakness to sacrifice the normal to the abnormal.”