In a lecture to the Law Society in October 2013, Lord Justice Munby said that the accepted sexual mores of the 1960s are as distant to modern Britain as ancient civilisations such as ‘Nineveh or Babylon’. The ‘swinging 60s’ was the decade which saw the widespread availability of the contraceptive pill, and a surge of sexual liberalism which has continued and deepened in our society to this day.
One indication of this has been a steady fall in marriage rates over the last generation, and an increase in the proportion of adults cohabiting. Another has been the introduction of civil partnerships, which was a stepping stone on the way to the acceptance of same-sex marriage. It is this alleged oxymoron which has triggered the comprehensive defence of marriage set out in this book.
The dust cover tells us that the core argument was presented originally as an essay in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy. It was greeted with much discussion – the blurb describes it as, ‘the most formidable defence of the tradition ever written’ – and was expanded into this book, which includes answers to the objections raised to the original essay.
The authors have deliberately eschewed any criticism of homosexuality in itself, and make no appeal to religious authority. The strategy has been to show that traditional marriage possesses specific characteristics which are essential for the flourishing of society and which no other relationship, sexual or not, can match. Moreover, they claim that ascribing to other relationships the dignity of marriage detracts from traditional marriage itself and thereby endangers the institution.
The background to this book is the United States, but little adjustment is needed to apply it to the United Kingdom. The authors are determined to look as widely as possible at all of the arguments which have been used to question the uniqueness of traditional marriage. Their thoroughness is no doubt necessary, but can lead to a repetitiveness which can sometimes make for tedious reading.
I will not rehearse the arguments here since a brief account would be unjust to the meticulous examination which the book provides. But central to the theme is the concept of the intrinsic purposes of marriage. Once this disconnect from purpose has taken place, there can be no logical bar to the widest range of committed relationships, temporary or permanent, as candidates for the title of marriage.
Lest we are tempted to think that recommending this book to Catholics is to preach to the converted, we may care to remember that only about half of our church-going population believe that same-sex marriages should not be allowed.[i] The ‘swinging 60s’ was also the decade in which many of the Catholic laity declined to accept the confirmation of the Church’s ruling on artificial contraception, thus accepting a disconnect between sexual intercourse and conception. Since then the number of Catholic marriages per 1000 of Catholic population has dropped from 11.65 to 2.55. This book addresses us as much as it addresses the wider population.[ii]
The reviewer, Quentin de la Bédoyère, is Science Editor for the Catholic Herald and author of Autonomy and Obedience in the Catholic Church (T&T Clark, 2002).
[ii] http://www.lms.org.uk/resources/statistics-from-the-catholic-directory (spreadsheet available)