I’ve been watching the same-sex marriage debate for quite some time, and I have decided that most of the arguments from both sides are confused and confusing. I have resisted saying this publically because I couldn’t put my finger on what the problem was, but now I have a theory:
There are two completely different things that we call “marriage”, and we are getting them mixed up.
The first thing, which I call “legal marriage” is the definition in law of a status that two people can be in.
The second thing, which I call “ontological marriage” (from the Greek “ontos”, “being”), is this big idea of what being married “really is” – it is the “essence”, or “core nature” of marriage.
These are two different things that often do not line up. If the government decided tomorrow that my wife and I were no longer legally married, that would not stop us from actually being husband and wife. Equally, a couple might have completely ended their relationship, but the government still has them as “married” until they file the right paperwork.
In a perfect world, the definition of marriage should match the ontological nature of marriage. The problem is that two groups of people have two understandings of what the ontological nature of marriage is, and both are trying to force the legal definition to match their understanding.
The problem will reside as long as the one word is used to describe the two things. Whatever happens in the law, the legal definition of marriage will match one group’s ontological understanding, and “exclude” the other’s.
Because both sides hear a change of the legal definition as an attack on the ontological nature, they will both fight the legal battle extremely aggressively – both are defending an understanding of the ontological nature of marriage that they hold to be very important.
A side issue, but still very important, is the concern that religious groups have that a new legal definition of marriage would force them to recognise and administer that change within their services. Again, the problem is that what the church (mosque, synagogue, temple etc) does is celebrate their understanding of the ontological reality of marriage. They do not want to participate in a legal marriage that they do not believe matches the ontological reality – and they do not want to be sued for refusing to do so (recent events in the US and Ireland have highlighted this possibility).
For as long as both concepts use the same word, they will constantly be mixed up with each other. I don’t think there is an easy solution, and I don’t think there is an easy way out of the acrimony coming from both sides.
Perhaps a solution would be if the legal definition found a new word: delete “marriage” from the law books, and make everyone a “civil union”. Then each community and sub-community can celebrate marriages which may or may not be recognised as civil unions for governmental and legal purposes.
There is no doubt that it is good if the legal definition matches the ontological reality, but if it doesn’t, then we can still rejoice in the ontological reality. However, while society is divided on what that that reality is, the legal definition will be powerfully divisive.