This post is a continuation of a discussion begun with Where the Division Lies. As this is part of an ongoing discussion, I would like to ask commenters to attempt to cleave to the main point of each post and allow the argument to unfold. A number of comments on the first post actually anticipated issues to be addressed in this one; as well as bringing up important questions that I hope to address subsequently.
In this post I will respond to the assertion that the purpose of sexuality is procreation. This assertion is well-summarized by a leading member of the reasserter community, in a comment on the earlier post:
The reasserting position is that sex is specifically given for the purpose of furthering the ends of marriage: procreative, uniative, and reflective. One of those ends cannot be separated in such a way as to stand exclusive of the others and form a proper basis for the introduction of sex outside of the other three. All three are essential to marriage. And sex is specifically given as a function of them.
I intend to demonstrate that not only is procreation not essential to marriage, but that its relationship to sexuality is not absolute; that it can be (and is) separated from other ends, which in themselves can and do form a proper basis for a sexual relationship within marriage.
Ways and means and blessings
Before entering into the specifics, I want to address the language of “purpose” and “function” or “ends.” In general, although this language has a place in the tradition, it seems to me to reflect an overly utilitarian ethic focused on results. I would prefer to follow another aspect of the Christian tradition that refers to the “goods” of marriage. In a virtue ethic, sexuality is not simply a function, or the use of a person (or two persons’ use of each other) towards some purposed end or goal, but an act growing out of the love between persons that is open to the good that may be imparted. Self-giving love, rather than self-asserting need, provides the basis for the action which grows out of the love, and which is a blessing in itself apart from any result.
In addition, “purpose” in this context implies an a priori assumption, a social or theological one at that. There is a difference even between a purpose and a function. Purpose sees sexuality not merely for what it does and how it does it, but as a naturally or divinely intended “plan for humanity” — depending upon one’s worldview of a secular personified Nature or theological divine intent. It is important, therefore, to be aware of this subtext in the secular and sacred tradition before proceeding. (I am not challenging the notion that sexuality has a purpose in the natural world or in God’s plan; I merely flag that this is a second order question, which I will address at the proper point in the discussion.)
Defining the goods
Avoiding both “purpose” and “function” at the outset, let me say that most people (including those outside the faith) would agree that human sexuality appears to have two principle goods, procreation and the union. (The “reflective” good, in which marriage serves as an image for the relationship between Christ and the Church, or God and Israel, is solely theological. I will address union and reflection in subsequent posts; as well as a “cause” or end of marriage that has dropped both from this reasserter’s list and from the preface to the Episcopal marriage liturgy: marriage as a remedy for fornication, for those who lack the gift of celibacy.)
In regarding procreation and union, the church has (until fairly recent times) traditionally emphasized the former over the latter, but it appears that such an emphasis is not well supported by Scripture, reason, or even other elements of the tradition. In this and succeeding posts I hope to sketch out a number of points concerning the various goods of sexuality, and consequently, of marriage.
In the process I will demonstrate that procreation is neither essential to marriage, nor the principle good of human sexuality. I use the word human intentionally, in order to highlight the fact that sex and sexuality are not unique to human beings. We share our being members of a species predominantly male or female, and our capacity to reproduce sexually, with most animals and many plants. It has been observed in the past that expending theological energy on the mere existence of the sexes and the capacity to reproduce — which is part of our animal nature — shifts the focus away from what makes us truly human, as well as serving as locus for the image of God in human form: our capacity to love and to reason.
The witness of nature
No one would claim that sex has nothing to do with procreation; rather it is obvious that the existence of male and female in many species of animals and plants is a part of the natural process by which life is perpetuated. It is not, of course, the only means of such propagation, and many forms of life, even some vertebrates, reproduce without making use of sexual differentiation or sexual intercourse.
However, when it comes to human beings, it is trivial to observe that the existence of male and female, and their exercise of the capacity for sexual intercourse, is intimately connected with procreation. The natural law tradition takes this as given; but that is, in part, why this tradition is of little use in the present discussion, as it begs the question: it assumes as a premise the very matter under discussion; that is: that procreation is the primary purpose for or good of sex.
The difficulties with ends-based natural law arguments in this regard, which are advanced against birth control as much as against same-sexuality, in particular those that focus narrowly on the mechanics of sexual intercourse, are well summarized by The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics.
It is one thing to say that the natural function of the eye is to see. But even bodily organs can and do serve several functions. And if one asks of the body as a whole what its function is, the answer is much less clear. Even less clear is the answer to questions such as “What is the function of a human life?” or “What is the function of sexuality in a human life?” The way one might try to answer these questions seems quite unlike the way one might try to answer questions about the function(s) of the endocrine glands or the heart in the human body. The notion of “function” at this point becomes much more a matter of moral assessment than a scientific inquiry. (“Natural Law,” 413)
Given that caveat, from an objective standpoint the following observations are telling, even in light of a functional or ends-based viewpoint:
- Procreation is not simultaneous with intercourse, which in humans is not the planting of a seed (as the pre-modern world imagined it) but the placement of millions of sperm in a place where they are capable of eventually reaching a single ovum, at which point one of them may fertilize it
- Intercourse does not always lead to procreation. Women, unlike the females of most mammals, do not have an estrus cycle, which in many other species limits sexual behavior to times of fertility; thus there is a completely natural separation between capacity to have sexual relations and the capacity to procreate
- Procreation can take place entirely apart from intercourse (through artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization); and, perhaps needless to say, apart from marriage
- Intercourse can take place when procreation is impossible or avoided: in addition to the lack of estrus, human beings can engage in intercourse when some other cause (intended or incidental) prevents conception
- From a sociological perspective, in looking at the question of “the function of sexuality in a human life” is is clear that sexuality has major social implications apart from procreation; and has taken many forms in many cultures
At the same time, it is fair to notice the fact (which reasserters occasionally raise in such discussions) that every human being who ever lived is the result of sexual congress between a man and a woman. This, however, in addition to overlooking conception via artificial means or in vitro, neglects an exception significant to the religious question; which brings me to the witness of Scripture.
The witness of Scripture
The most important conception in human history, that of Jesus Christ himself, took place apart from sexual intercourse between a man and a woman. This is, naturally, an article of faith and revelation, not reason. However, we are presented with this theological fact and reason can seek to understand what God may have intended by it. That God should choose this means of entering upon the human scene should give pause to those who wish to make more out of heterosexuality in the scheme of salvation than is actually evidenced in Scripture. As I will demonstrate below, this choice on God’s part is best seen as a reflection of the teaching of Jesus on the new Creation, which is not simply a recapitulation of the old, but the beginning of something truly new.
Back to the beginning
But let us for a moment return to that beginning, to the Book of Genesis, which is naturally often cited in discussions of human sexuality. It is important firstly to note the obvious fact that Genesis contains two creation accounts, and they are not harmonious in numerous details. This has not prevented people merging the two accounts in various ways. Jesus himself performed such a midrash, though with a significant omission.
However, it appears best to treat the two accounts with some care in distinguishing the concerns each expresses. It is immediately apparent that Genesis 1 refers to procreation (both animal and human), while Genesis 2 focuses on the good of companionship and unity, which I will address at greater length in a succeeding post. This alone indicates to some extent the way in which these two goods can be discussed apart from each other.
Many reasserters seem to think that Genesis offers the best argument against same-sex relationships, and regularly return to it in discussions of the subject. However, the fact that Genesis presents us with the creation of male and female as ordered towards procreation does not in itself automatically indicate or even imply a prohibition on same-sex relationships, any more than the pre-scientific discussion of the origin of the world, or the structure of the cosmos, need automatically rule out the learnings of physics or cosmology.
Moreover, the divine establishment of X does not in itself imply a negative assessment of Y, in particular if X and Y can be shown both to belong to a larger category, and have more in common than in contrast. Part of our problem in the present discussions is our tendency to see heterosexuality and homosexuality as somehow opposed to each other, or mutually exclusive, rather than as (admittedly differing) expressions of one overriding reality — the human capacity to love.
Beginnings and ends
In addition, Genesis 1 is a creation account, an account intended to explain the origin of certain things. As such, it is quite natural that — as with many other creation stories the world over — it should recount the creation of the sexes. Procreation — a function of the sexes both in animals and in humans (as Genesis 1 states explicitly) — is intended to fill the world with living things. But this is, after all, the first word on sexuality, not the last. This is the genesis of the world, not its intended end. The scriptural testimony may begin in a Garden, but it ends in a City, where the only marriage is that of the Lamb and his Bride, the Holy City itself. The goal and eternal plan of God is not mere restoration or recapitulation, but redemption and transfiguration.
This leads to an issue sometimes raised by reasserters, who envision salvation in terms of a return to or restoration of the prelapsarian world. However, although Genesis 1 includes a commandment to procreation, Scripture does not indicate this being acted upon until after the fall, in Genesis 4. Procreation, in the second creation account, is postlapsarian.
The Christian vision thus portrays the life of the resurrection as prelapsarian only in this sense, as pre-sexual, a world in which there is no more “male and female” — by which Paul (Gal 3:28) is speaking less of an eschatological disappearance of gender, than of an end to the marriage relationship based on sexual distinction. As with the other distinctions (ethnic and social), Paul points to the restoration of equality and mutuality rather than of domination and exclusion.
This harmonizes well with Jesus’ description of the resurrection life as prelapsarian only in this narrow sense: a world in which “they do not marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die any more” (Luke 20:35-36); that is, there is no more need for “male and female” to “be fruitful and multiply” and “fill the earth and subdue it.” For the old earth will have passed away, and all will be new. Procreation will be no more — but love will endure for ever.
A change in the law
It is notable that Jesus’ midrash of Genesis 1 and 2 in response to challenges on divorce (Matt 19:4-5; Mk 10:6-9) omits the reference to procreation — he passes directly from “God made them male and female” to “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” Omitting any reference to procreation, his emphasis is on the unitive aspect, and its permanence through the grace of fidelity. (Those who attempt to pitch Jesus’ teaching here as a condemnation of same-sex relationships, rather than as Jesus intended it in response to the question on divorce, are doing justice neither to their position nor to Scripture.) I will return to this passage in my discussion of the unitive good of marriage — the one which Jesus emphasized.
However, Jesus’ rejection of the divorce statute of the Mosaic Law (given by Moses but attributed to God in the Torah) brings me to another significant change in attitude towards procreation in the teaching of Christ.
The Rabbis regarded the commandment to be fruitful and multiply as applying to all people; as the first commandment given to humanity. Thus celibacy was held in low esteem or even contempt in mainstream Rabbinic Judaism, even to the extent of being considered a serious moral failing.
No man may abstain from keeping the law Be fruitful and multiply, unless he already has children: according to the School of Shammai, two sons; according to the School of Hillel, a son and a daughter, for it is written, Male and female created he them. (Mishnah Yebamoth 6.6)
So important was the commandment to be fruitful and multiply that the biblical law mandated a special form of marriage which would otherwise have constituted incest by affinity (Deut 25:5-6) in order to provide for continuation of a family line ended by death before fulfillment of the divine command. For the same reason, biblical law also allowed for polygamy, and the historical accounts attest to its employment to that end. One of these incidents, however, also shows the importance of the unitive aspect of sexuality, apart from procreation: as Elkanah comforted his barren wife Hannah with the words, “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” (1 Sam 1:8) The fact that the story of Hannah was later typologically parsed by Saint Luke in reference to Mary and the birth of Christ casts even greater significance on this episode from early Jewish history.
However, more importantly, and perhaps related to the contrary teaching of Jesus, so important was the duty to procreate that the Rabbis enjoined divorce should a man find his wife to be infertile after ten years of marriage. (M Yebamoth 6.6) In a prescientific world, of course, failure to bear a child was most often seen as the woman’s fault, as women were held to be “fertile soil” for the growth of the male “seed.” Even given that, the Mishnah allows a woman so divorced an additional 10 years with another husband just in case the fault lies with the man.
Jesus overturns this traditional understanding and emphasis upon procreation; and this may relate to and reflect the larger Divine intent in his own Incarnation apart from sexual intercourse. Whatever the source of his teaching, beginning with God’s act in the Incarnation, and contrary to the main stream of Rabbinic thought and Jewish culture, Jesus approves and commends celibacy (Matt 19:12); as does Saint Paul (1 Cor 7:7-8).
Celibacy is, of course, a radical option, as both Jesus and Paul recognize — it is a charismatic gift of which not all are capable, but it is also an eschatological sign, a symbol for the new world in which there is no marriage.
This brings me, incidentally, to another argument often advanced against same-sexuality: that if everyone “practiced” it it would be the end of humanity. I raise this argument here because it is also true that if everyone practiced celibacy that would also be the end of humanity — though no one apart from an Orthodox Rabbi would thereby suggest celibacy was morally wrong. The distinctly “unorthodox” Saint Paul, in his only extended discussion of marriage cited above, actually did suggest that he wished everyone were celibate as he was — though this may be regarded as a rhetorical flourish rather than as an actual intention, since he goes on to tolerate marriage in the meanwhile, even as he advises against it. (1 Cor 7:28-31)
The witness of tradition
Finally, I turn to the testimony of the church’s tradition. Although relatively recent in the body of tradition, it is helpful to start with the preface to the marriage liturgy in our Book of Common Prayer. This exhortation states the issue rather clearly, both in demoting procreation to third place among the “causes” for which marriage was instituted (as articulated in the 1662 Prayer Book’s preface), and in adding the important proviso “when it is God’s will” in recognition of the fact that not all marriages will result in procreation.
It also note once again the disappearance of the 1662 Prayer Book’s second “cause” — missing both from the comment by the reasserter and from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer: marriage as a remedy for sin and the avoidance of fornication, that those who “have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled.” As this is one of the biblical ends of marriage (as elucidated by Saint Paul in 1 Cor 7:8-9) its omission is surprising. I will address this additional “cause” in a subsequent post.
It is perhaps also interesting to note that reference to these causes or ends or goods of marriage were entirely omitted from the marriage liturgy of the Books of Common Prayer from1789 up through 1928 — and only made their reappearance as part of the much-maligned 1979 edition and its immediate trial antecedents. (The 1928 edition did add an optional prayer for the “gift and heritage of children” and their upbringing, but apart from this there is no reference to procreation in the 1928 marriage rite.) Thus the American prayer-book tradition entirely omitted or downplayed any reference to procreation until the current version, where it makes an appearance with the note of its provisionality. (The present form of the Roman Catholic nuptial mass also places the references to progeny in parentheses.)
This is, of course, natural. For the Church, unlike the Jewish tradition described above, never made procreation a necessary end or good of marriage, even when it gave it pride of place in exhorting the bride and groom; and did not allow infertility to stand as an impediment to marriage, or serve as a cause for divorce (unless concealed prior to marriage). Moreover, the Church does not hold marriage to end with menopause, or after hysterectomy or prostatectomy, or any other circumstance rendering one or both of the couple permanently infertile. Thus, while the church has seen “the gift and heritage of children” to be a blessing, it has never regarded it as essential to the institution of marriage.
For the sake of the children
As the preface to the marriage rite in the BCP (1662 and again now in 1979) reminds us, however, sexuality and marriage do often involve the mechanics of conception and birth. But as these texts also show, procreation is the beginning of a process, which includes the care and nurture of children in the knowledge and love of the Lord. In one way this reflects the same direction taken by the whole of Scripture, from Eden to the New Jerusalem, from the biological beginnings to the incarnate and spiritual presence of God in and with the new transfigured human community.
As a practical matter, same-sex couples can fulfill the intention of procreation though in-vitro fertilization, or by adoption. Surely the biblical imagery of adoption (in the New Testament) is at least as powerful — and as grace-filled — as the biblical imagery of birth — and we have the prime example of foster-fatherhood in Saint Joseph himself, the patron of the Universal Church. Surely this fulfillment of the upbringing of otherwise abandoned children in the way of the Lord is a noble task commendable to all people.
Jacob Milgrom has reflected on this in light of the rather different Jewish traditions and law, in his magisterial work on Leviticus, and suggests that adoption is one means for same-sex couples to fulfill this part of the good of procreation. (Milgrom notes that the Levitical prohibition on male homosexuality does not apply to non-Jews, about which I hope to say more in a later series of posts, to address the biblical texts addressing same-sex relations.) Writing to Jewish homosexuals, Milgrom advises that in order to fulfil the “first commandment” they ought to
adopt children. Although adoption was practiced in the ancient world (as attested in Babylonian law), there is no biblical procedure or institution of adoption. As a result the institution of adoption is absent from rabbinic jurisprudence. Yet there are isolated cases of a kind of pseudo-of adoption in the Bible... Adoption is a certainly a possibility today. Lesbian couples have an additional advantage. Not only do they not violate Biblical law, but through artificial insemination each can become the natural mother of her children. (Leviticus 17-22, 1787)
Surely, from a Christian perspective, true religion does not lie in procreation, but in part in caring for orphans. (James 1:27) So in the broader sense in which procreation itself is the beginning of a process, same-sex couples (and infertile mixed sex couples) are capable of fulfilling the “procreative end” or benefitting from this “good” of sexuality even though their own sexual relationship does not produce the children they adopt, nurture, and care for.
I acknowledge that apart from in vitro fertilization only a fertile male and female couple can accomplish the first steps of procreation. But as I have shown, the capacity to procreate is neither essential to marriage nor inseparable from its other goods.
This leaves us with the obvious question: What is it about males and females (apart from the capacity to procreate) that should limit marriage to such couples? Asked another way, What is present in a sterile mixed-sex couple that is lacking in a same-sex couple, apart from the difference in sex? I think the only reasonable answer is, The difference in sex is precisely the issue.
Now, getting to this point after all the forgoing might seem ludicrous, since we know that folks approve of mixed-sex marriage and disapprove of same-sex relationships precisely because of the sex of the couple. The reason I have taken this course, however, is to disprove the rationalization for this restriction on the basis of the capacity to procreate.
So I will in subsequent posts turn to the other goods of marriage (union and representation) to see if these are essential to marriage, or limited to mixed-sex couples. In short, I will address the question of whether there is something essential about men and women, apart from their ability (in some cases) to procreate, that would distinguish their unions from those of same-sex couples.
Tobias Haller BSG
Update: My reflection continues with True Union (1).
Further Update: This post and those that follow, expanded and supplemented with much additional material, form part of Reasonable and Holy, published by Seabury Books and available on order from Church Publishing Incorporated.