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‘Equal’ Marriage? What is really at stake? A Christian perspective

By Paul Burgess

This week’s debate in the Commons on the Government’s gay marriage bill was notable for a lack of engagement with the real issues at stake and thus missed the point of the argument for marriage. For there are many levels of engagement in this whole matter of whether marriage can be extended to include same sex couples.

On the surface is a debate about social justice: the issue of whether denying gay couples the benefits of an official marital status is essentially discriminatory. These days Western society is increasingly governed by a politically correct human rights notion of equality. It is at this level that the proponents of gay marriage argue.

On another level there is the question of theology, whether about the conclusions of a dogmatic theology based on the interpretation of the revelations of a Faith’s sacred scriptures (tradition), or about the findings of a natural theology based on the studies of nature itself (human experience and scientific discovery). It is at this theological level that the proponents of a traditional concept of marriage argue.

Attached to this theological level are two further areas of debate:

1. The philosophical discussion of the ontological (i.e. essential) nature of marriage. It concerns the issue of its category identification: is the essence of marriage about a heterosexual relationship or merely a sexual relationship?

2. The application of moral theology to the mores (relating to the moral attitudes and customs involved) of marriage. This concerns the morality of homosexual behaviour – to be sharply distinguished from orientation (same-sex attraction).

It should be noted that both these aspects of the subject probe deeper than either of the first two levels above. For while dogmatic theology may quote texts concerning the obligation of Faith adherents to a particular stated code of conduct, and natural theology may quote experiential evidence for its conclusions, it is moral theology that explores the reason for such a code and how the evidence of human experience should be evaluated morally.

It is these two areas, ontological and moral, that were left largely unexamined by the time-constrained debate this week. In other words, little thought was given to the question: “What justification does each side have for the varied understandings they give to ‘marriage?’” No thought whatsoever was given to the question: “What constitutes moral sexual practice and why?” On the scientific level no evidence was provided of the consequences of behaviour that violates such moral principles.

No doubt this was because political correctness nowadays decrees that such a hot potato is not picked up for public debate. Even to question the morality of same-sex practice is to bring down charges of religious bigotry, homophobia and judgemental discrimination. Little wonder there was no engagement with the real issues at stake

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