By Don Conroy
Editor's Note: This article is also published at The Progressive Catholic Voice.
In November, the voters of Minnesota will be faced with a proposed amendment to the state constitution that, if passed, will restrict legal marriage in Minnesota to one man and one woman. The proposed amendment raises a number of interesting questions regarding the history, the meaning, and the purpose of marriage as an institution in human society. Of even more significance perhaps is this question – what would be the religious, social, and personal consequences of excluding a significant percent of our adult citizens from the advantages of legal marriage?
Marriage, like any other human institution, evolves. Its shape has depended on its geographic location and its historic moment. What constituted the presence of the marriage bond in Europe was not agreed on until the Gratian Decretals, c.1140. This bond was considered a sacrament, a sacred symbol between Christ and the People Of God, the Church, and thus indissoluble. This understanding of marriage was questioned by the Reformers of the 16th century, and divorce became a social reality in Europe.
The Industrial Revolution introduced another dimension as central to marriage; namely, a decline in the roles of the extended family network and the spread of "the conjugal system", a primary emphasis on the nuclear family unit of parents and their children.
In a very recent study, The Social Conquest Of Earth, Edward O. Wilson, the Nobel Laureate evolutionary biologist, raises these questions: which living species have spread throughout the whole of the earth, and what is the most important characteristic they have in common? He concludes that those species that have spread are a handful of insects, ants, bees, termites, et al. and humans. For all these species, the single most important common characteristic is their need for a safe and comfortable nest. For humans, this nest is the family.
Wilson's explanation for this conclusion is that these species have a genetic mutation that leads to what he calls "eusocial evolution", natural selection of groups as opposed to individual natural selection that restricts the species to procreation and protection of the nest. Group selection, which he refers to as a "general theory of inclusive fitness" allows for expansion and broader emigration and more complexity in the species. Eusocial evolved species require diversity in the social structure of the organization to function well. The precursors of today's humans, those species that did not survive to the present, did not develop the eusocial characteristic and were rendered extinct by the more developed species.
The safe and comfortable nest for humans is the family, and its marital component is and has been varied. The classic study Social Structure by George Murdock, published in 1949, pointed out that 193 out of 243 societies, the sample of his study, were polygamous. It was only 67 years prior to his study that polygamy was declared illegal in the U.S. by the Edmonds Act of 1882. In today's Western world, there are three meanings attributed to marriage by sociologists; the sacred, the social, and the personal. "At present, therefore, there is lack of uniform opinion as to the basic meaning of marriage." (The American Family, Ruth Cavan). The purposes of marriage are varied and cover a range from accomplishing religious values and supporting social order to providing personal happiness.
Today we confront another development in our understanding of family, the inclusion of same-sex couples in our social, personal, but not necessarily religious definition of marriage. What consequence, if any, would the inclusion of same-sex couples have on the family structure? Would the meaning of family, our safe, comfortable and developing nest, be significantly altered or even lost, as has been claimed (Nienstadt's "letter to the priests")? What would be the religious, social, and personal consequences of excluding a significant percent of our adult citizens from the advantages of legal marriage? These are the questions Minnesota voters face as they go to the polls in November to vote on the proposed amendment.
Donald R. Conroy, PhD, retired psychologist and marriage and family therapist, is a member of the newly formed Council of the Baptized, a collegial voice for Catholics in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Formerly a Catholic priest ordained in 1955, Don is married to Mary K., with three grown and married children and seven grandchildren.