Dale Ahlquist


From divorce to same-sex marriage: G.K. Chesterton’s prophetic defense of marriage

Dale Ahlquist

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.”

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Medicine and morality

Dale Ahlquist

I recently had the privilege of giving a talk at a medical school. I was invited because the sponsor wanted to give the medical students something other than medicine. In an age of increased specialization, there is a danger of real narrowness. This is especially true in medicine. Apparently young doctors have to be reminded that patients, after all, are human beings, and not just a series of symptoms.

While modern medicine is not quite ready to admit that it needs religion to be complete, it has realized a need for something beyond itself. The matters of life and death always point to ultimate questions, but even the everyday treatment of human beings and all their various ailments has profound implications. And while medicine seems ever to expand its capabilities with new cures and admitted marvels, it still suffers from constantly shrinking in its philosophical perspective. It answers more and more small questions, and fewer big questions. It trips itself with the deliberate use of scientific-sounding words for things that are not scientific. For instance, we hear the term “biomedical ethics” when what is really meant is another much more uncomfortable and fully-loaded word. The word is morality.

But we don’t want to talk about morality. Morality has to do with good and evil. Good and evil are theological terms. That is, to be meaningful at all, they have to be judged by an eternal and unchanging and universal standard, for if the standard is temporal and subject to change, then there is no standard. It is like having a ruler that keeps changing lengths. If there is no standard, then there is no way even to maintain that medicine is good, because in a completely relativistic universe, it could just as well be argued that curing sick patients is a great disservice because it is to leave them alive in a meaningless existence.

Fortunately, normal people believe that medicine is moral, and that healing people is a good thing. And yet, we still shy away from the moral issues. As Chesterton says, we do not argue about what things we call evil, we argue about what evils we call excusable.

And we are afraid to bring up religion at all, because we are afraid it might lead to an argument.

But arguing is good. Arguing is a way to put our ideas to the test, and see how they stand up. We cannot get around the fact that every question is a theological question. Which means that every medical question has a theological implication. If a religion is true, then that truth affects everything, that truth is relevant to everything.

If, for instance, Christianity is true, nothing is irrelevant to the central truth of Christianity: the Incarnation. If God became flesh, then the flesh is sacred. It means the human body is a sacred vessel, not only because each body holds a human soul, but because one of these bodies once held God himself. It gives a deeper meaning to what blood is, because it was God’s own blood that was shed for our sins. It gives a deeper meaning to what the heart is, because it was God’s own heart that was broken in an act of love for his creation. It gives a deeper meaning to what the lungs are, because it was God’s own lungs that gave up God’s own spirit. It gives a deeper meaning to what the womb is, because God himself was a baby inside a human mother, which makes every womb not only a special place of creation, but a sacred place, a place not to be violated. 

In a world littered with fragmented thinking, where the virtues are at war with each other, Christianity is a complete thing, and its completeness is summed up in the two great commandments, the two commandments that can never be separated from each other. Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself. And when you combine the glory of God with the Dignity of Man you get something called the Incarnation, and all truth flows from that combination, but you if you subtract either the glory of God or the dignity of Man, you get neither.

We have seen the elevation of the secondary things and the temporal things over the primary and the permanent things. But even those secondary things have become questionable. Because we have such doubt about ultimate and eternal things, we have seen an erosion in everything else. As Chesterton says, “The secularists have not wrecked divine things; but the secularists have wrecked secular things, if that is any comfort to them. The Titans did not scale heaven; but they laid waste the world.”

There is a reason why Christ is called the Great Physician. Other physicians would do “well” to find out what it is.

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