Same sex marriage, Religion and Myths of History
We are coming up to a vote on marriage equality which is going to shape how Irish society functions for decades to come. It may well seem a foregone conclusion. But some of the basic issues of history surrounding this debate need to be clarified. One of the arguments which comes up over and over is that marriage is being ‘redefined’ and represents a complete break with the past. In this conception of history, heterosexual, romantic monogamous marriage always existed, and we are straying away from that. But did it always exist?
Marriage has been redefined at multiple points in history. Slaves, the poor, interracial and other couples could not legally wed in various periods until legislation did away with these different rules. Indeed, the sort of affection and ‘love’ people might find in modern marriages was not always a given. Many attitudes of the pre-modern world advocated discipline within a marriage. Plutarch regarded it as ‘disgraceful’ to kiss one’s wife in public, while later Christian theologians were against intimacy between husband and wife as it weakened their devotion to god. Many marriages of this era had more to do with socioeconomic advancement and alliances than with love.
Same sex marriage of sorts –either formal or more informally – have existed at many times in history: Some Roman Emperors like Hadrian probably enjoyed same sex marriages, while ladies amongst the Igbo people of Nigeria had ‘female husbands’. The Chinese, Indians, as well as Mesopotamian and possibly ancient Egyptian monarchs (astounding when one thinks of the attitudes existing in those regions now.) also practised forms of same-sex marriages and/or relationships. There have even been claims that the early Christian church itself was in practice tolerant of same sex marriage, at least early on. Only in the late Roman and Byzantine Empire was same-sex marriage outlawed, while the medieval period saw its total stigmatisation, though these arguments are quite contentious.
But this is not to advertise some wishy-washy version of an LGBT-tolerant past utopia which we should follow to the letter today either. Merely that history is a lot more complicated (and, at times, alien) than either side might care to admit. Precedent is not always the best thing to work off of. Basic studies of historical texts, and anthropological examination of tribal groups worldwide show a wide number of possible outcomes a society might choose to take. The truth was, marriage and the family as an institution has varied based on geography and period in history, and as alluded to above, at times it was thoroughly ghastly by today’s standards.
Many heterosexual marriages in medieval Western Europe were arranged almost from birth, as they are in modern South Asia. Concubinage has been quite acceptable for large sections of the world’s inhabitants for long periods, (slaveowning Southern American states, Europe, The Medieval Islamic Caliphates, post-Columbus South America, etc. –) along with more general polygamy, (China, The Islamic world, etc.) polyandry, (pre-Islamic Mecca) incest (Egypt) and varying other combinations of relationships like 19th-century common-law marriage. It was only in the late 19th century that the more modern idea of romantic love reached the majority of the population, and then only in America and Europe.
Pre-marital sex was very common in ancient Ireland, while Homosexuality probably wasn’t that seriously discriminated against even when the contemporary law tracts bothered to mention it. The structure of the family itself changed repeatedly, from nuclear to extended families and back again, depending on a host of social factors.
It seems to be a basic human psychological impulse to see the past as a decay away from a prior golden age. But in most cases this is not in line with reality. And marriage is no exception. The idea of a primordial, ‘since time immemorial’ ‘natural’ type of monogamous heterosexual romantic marriage is simply not in line with basic historical, anthropological or human facts, even in the most conservative of societies, no matter their self-image.
Anyway, Religions need to adapt themselves to the times they live in. They perform sterling services, especially when ostensibly ‘secular’ (bearing in mind that we are talking in incredibly loose terms) society/government basically fails to provide basic services – for instance the excellent work of brother Kevin down in the Capuchin day centre, which provides meals and medical care for Dublin’s (shamefully) growing homeless population.
They act as the brakes when societies want to take a leap too far – that’s good, if, say, people want to make a massive and (as it turned out for most countries) bad social transformation like Communism without properly examining it in the first place. But the brake system itself cannot determine everything a society does, especially when the evidence generally does not support the dire consequences many same sex marriage opponents maintain.
Any set of rules which is applied to different groups of people must have clear, logical, and evidence-based reasons. This is not to ignore that some feel real concern over the impact of same-sex marriage on children and free speech amongst other things. These issues are for a different article.
The issue that I am concerned with is that I don’t think that many or at least some of the arguments against same sex marriage come down to evidence. They come down to emotion, and the usual combination of ‘Whoaaahh there’ that accompanies any social change, as well as insecurity and a quiet, bizaare sense of ‘infection’ by an ‘other’, if I can put this in very crude terms. The Bible and many Catholic teachings are frequently being used for – or inspiring – this.
But religions have changed their minds many times in history. For instance, priests used not to be celibate, Popes like Leo IX led troops in battle, while in the centuries after his death, the works of Galileo Galilei noting that the Earth moved around the sun were slowly acknowledged, and slavery was both permissible to the early church and later opposed by it.
Change in and of itself is not something always to be feared, or necessarily that unusual in the Christian tradition. This is not altering a core institution unnaturally due to the long-spun argument of political over-correctness. Rather, this is the standard process of the malleable tradition of marriage which has undergone a constant process of redefinition based on current data about what satisfies happiness, equanimity and welfare for all people.