Summer 2014

Gay Marriage, Public Reason, and the Common Good

David S. Crawford

“Public reason as it is currently configured in numerous court decisions, acts of legislation, and in political debate generally, in its blindness to communities as natural and integral wholes, effectively conceives all marriages as essentially ‘gay.’”

I. Introduction


An essay linking “gay marriage” and the “common good” via “public reason” invites a predictable pattern of argument: discussions of how marriage has historically contributed to that common good, how the civil recognition of gay unions might challenge this contribution, and how we can prove it within the ambit of secular public discourse, often with an appeal to empirical or statistical evidence of some kind.

That this pattern might be anticipated is understandable. For those of us who think the very meaning of marriage requires that it be between a man and a woman, the evidence and the weight of these sorts of arguments seem almost overwhelming. From ancient times and in all cultures, marriage’s integral relationship with childbearing has made its relevance to the common good obvious. Indeed, refusing marriage, and therefore legitimate children, has been at times considered a kind of crime against society, as can be seen clearly in ancient responses to the early Church’s promotion of virginity or celibacy as possible human vocations. Represented in this ancient outlook is a forward-looking stance. The generations and their ethical formation matter, because the city as a whole matters.

Similar patterns have also characterized Christian thought, although the future that counts most is now eschatological. The Gospel and the tradition of the Church open this future to the civitas Dei. This shift is of course fundamental. Certainly the person is more than his or her familial and civic relations. Creation ex nihilo means that God is both radically transcendent and immanent, that he is, as Augustine put it, closer to us than we are to ourselves. The new family and the new city take absolute precedence, as the advent of consecrated virginity testifies. Indeed, from this perspective, an ambiguity in marital and family life is brought forward: if sexual generation brings new life, it also brings death by communicating original sin. Nevertheless, if God precedes all human relations, he also underlies and supports them. For this reason, human relations are a “real symbol” of personal relations with God. Another implication is this: God’s relationship with humans does not occur as billions of parallel relations with individual persons, but only in the form of a communion of persons, both “vertically” and “horizontally.” Nowhere in created reality is this astonishing truth made more visible than in marriage and the family that is its normal fruit. And this is precisely because in marriage and the family the communion of persons can never be reduced to legal, moral, or chosen commitments, however important these are, but is a set of natural relations, visibly inscribed in the beings of the spouses, their children, and other relatives.


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1. Cf. Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, rev. ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).