The Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges cries out for commentary, and there are many more able persons than I providing just that. I won’t try to speak to the decision itself, or even to its consequences. What I would like to talk about is its antecedents: how did we get here? To those of you who study theology (perhaps at St. Joseph’s College!), I want to affirm what you are doing and show how the supposedly abstract ideas we think about actually have enormous power to shape the world for good or ill.
The key to the marriage debate, it seems to me, is the choice between two options: either marriage is a reality to which we conform ourselves, or it is a name for something that we change to fit our desires. Marriage either changes us, or we change it. Guess which one is more comfortable?
The first option is usually called “realism.” The philosophy lying beneath the second option is called “nominalism.” To oversimplify, nominalism holds that reality is disconnected from what happens in our minds. We have concepts or ideas, but those concepts don’t necessarily line up with the real world. So when we name something—say, a minivan—what we are really doing is sorting out our own thoughts about transportation, not naming something that really is beyond our mind. For the nominalist, there is a disconnect between the reality between his ears and the reality of the rest of the world. “Nominalism” comes from the Latin word for names. For the nominalist, names don’t signify something real in the world. We can play with names, make them into what we want. There is no reality tying us down.
That might all seem very abstract, until we apply it to our culture. Then we see that we are all nominalists, unless we work really hard not to be.
Let’s apply these categories to the marriage debate. If marriage is not a “mere” name but is a reality, then our task is to understand that reality and act accordingly. (This is a receptive approach to the world, if you like.) Even prescinding from what Scripture says, the history of human society demonstrates that marriage is the pair-bonding relationship between a man and a woman that facilitates the best environment for raising children. Its features are fidelity, exclusivity, and totality. It is, as the Code of Canon Law says, a partnership of the whole of life oriented to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of children.
This orientation toward children is, by the way, why governments have ever cared about marriage. The government does not and should not care about your intimate friendships. You don’t have to get a friendship license. You don’t need to appear before a justice of the peace to swear your commitment to your best friend. And this is a good thing. The government is not in the love-and-friendship business. It is very much in the looking-out-for-the-future business, which is why it has cared about marriage, because kids flourish when their biological parents are committed to each other and to them.
If, conversely, “marriage” is just a name that we tack onto intimate relationships, then it is elastic and can be stretched to accommodate all kinds of relationships. Why stop at two people? Marriage is just a name for indicating “the relationships which we value.” It’s a governmental seal of approval. Without it, our relationships aren’t just not-marriage; they are actually, positively demeaned. If marriage is desirable, and people desire it, they should have it. A double-tall latte is desirable; if people desire it, they should be able to have it, and if they can’t, it’s discrimination.
What may or may not apply to consumerist choices cannot apply to relationships, though. Plenty of people can’t marry: my six kids, for example. They don’t have the prerequisites to marry (such as psychological and sexual maturity). It’s not discrimination to tell my kids they can’t marry; it’s simply a realization that “marriage” is not an empty name signifying nothing but rather a reality that you either can or cannot fit into. It’s certainly not a condemnation or judgment of my kids. I can’t be a basketball center (I’m 4’11” and most certainly cannot jump). While this has caused fleeting moments of discomfort—stupid gym class!—it is not a matter of discrimination, but of reality.
Now, let me be clear: I don’t believe Justice Anthony Kennedy posted a status update along the lines of: “Just confirmed my nominalism in the Obergefell majority decision! ‘Like’ it if you reject metaphysical realism too!” Nominalism is generally not a consciously chosen lifestyle option. It’s just the default mode. But it’s not healthy. As I have argued elsewhere, it’s better to live in reality, even when it requires me to change, than to try to construct reality to fit me.
Angela Franks teach theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.