Same-sex marriage debate

Does the traditional understanding of marriage as possible only between a man and a woman still have any value?
The Irish Catholic has asked an interdisciplinary team, which includes Prof. Eamonn Conway and Dr Rik Van Nieuwenhove, theologians at Mary Immaculate College University of Limerick, and Mr Patrick Treacy SC of Integritas, to consider and respond to the difficult questions we all face when deciding how to vote in the referendum.
Millions of people across the world hold that the traditional understanding of marriage does have value, particularly when it comes to raising children.

Since the beginning of time, marriage has been founded upon the biological complementarity which allows for the possibility of children. This means that the institution of marriage will be fundamentally altered if we decide that the biological complementarity of a man and a woman is no longer intrinsic, but rather merely incidental, to our understanding of it.

It is fair to say that marriage between man and woman, understood as a faithful, lifelong union in which they ideally raise their own children, has been eroded during the last few decades. The introduction of no-fault divorce, tax individualisation, increased levels of cohabitation, rising levels of divorce, ‘reconstituted families’, lone parent families, have all in their own way contributed to the decline of what is now sometimes referred to as ‘traditional’ marriage, as though it were already an outmoded concept.

Those who oppose same-sex marriage must have the honesty of acknowledging this social reality, and our efforts should not be solely focused on opposing same-sex marriage, but as a society we need to rethink how we can foster a healthy marriage culture.

The referendum, however, proposes to radically redefine marriage in constitutional terms. This constitutional change, if passed, will fundamentally alter our very understanding of marriage. While the legislator has only limited influence over the social realities of modern Ireland, the introduction of same-sex marriage effectively promotes a new ideal of marriage, in which being male or female and father or mother, effectively, become matters of indifference.

Yet there is compelling scientific evidence that ‘non-traditional’ family arrangements (single parents, reconstituted families, etc.) generally result in children being less well-off financially, emotionally, and physically.

What is the evidence specifically in regard to children being raised by same-sex couples? The truth is we do not know. Same-sex marriage is still a major social experiment, and in many instances with the lives of children at the heart of it. The reality is that there are no reliable, long-term studies on this issue – and the lack of reliable data applies to both those studies that claim that there is ‘no difference’, as well as those which claim that children are ‘significantly less well-off’ with gay couples, such as for instance the research conducted by the sociologist Mark Regnerus.

Samples are simply too small, or self-selecting (e.g., the professional, middle-class, liberal, lesbian couple) and not randomly chosen. Gay people raising children is simply too recent a phenomenon to yield reliable scientific data. No nation on earth had legalised same-sex marriage until 13 years ago, and even now only 18 out of 193 nations have done so. (Incidentally, no single nation has adopted single-sex marriage pursuant to a popular vote leading to a change in the constitution of that country. What may potentially happen here in May, if the referendum is passed by a popular vote, is therefore without precedence).

The burden of proof, which lies with those who want change, that is, the proponents of same-sex marriage, has not been discharged yet. It is unlikely, however, that children are as well off with gay parents as with their own biological parents. Remember that gay marriage promotes a notion of marriage in which the biological bond between both parents and children is in principle non-existent. Yet biological bonds matter, as controversies surrounding people who have been adopted and are looking for their biological parents, show. Moreover, same-sex couples can never provide the complementarity in difference that a mother and a father can offer.

Marriage between man and woman who raise their own biological children in a loving environment is the gold-standard, which is in the best interest of children, families, and society. It is quite literally life-giving in every possible sense of the word. To raise children in such an environment is the most precious gift mothers and fathers can bestow on their offspring, and on society as a whole.

There will always be children who, for a variety of reasons, are not able to be raised by their biological parents. As a society, we would wish that this were not the case and would prefer that their mother and father were able to care for them. But as a society, why would we godeliberately and unnecessarily out of the way to create a situation where a child would not be raised by a father and a mother? Do we have the right to create a new marriage norm where children can be conceived to be deliberately raised by someone other than their biological parent? We need to look at this from the perspective of the needs of children, and not just the desires of adults to have children. After all, no one has a right to have a child; a child is a gift, not an entitlement.

It is useful to remember that no matter what our family circumstances are, we are all created by a mother and a father and, while the traditional roles of a ‘mother’ and ‘father’ may have evolved over the years, having a mother and a father is still something that is accepted as being the ideal.  Enshrining the ideal is what a country’s Constitution is all about.

* Prof. Eamonn Conway, Patrick Treacy SC, Dr Rik Van Nieuwenhove