In the second chapter, “Comprehensive Union,” of What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert George define marriage as “a comprehensive union of two persons.”1
It is in those three basic features of any bond— unifying activity, unifying goods, and unifying commitment—that marriage is comprehensive.
First, it unites two people in their most basic dimensions, in their minds and bodies; second, it unites them with respect to procreation, family life, and its broad domestic sharing; and third, it unites them permanently and exclusively.2
These three ways in which marriage unites husband and wife are inherent characteristics of the objective structure of marriage.
While many relationships could be characterized by unity in mind, the authors spend a great deal of time, as they should, explaining the meaning and significance of bodily union between husband and wife. Their discussion is even extended in the one appendix in the book, “Further Reflections On Bodily Union,” in which they answer one of their critics. In these paragraphs in chapter two, they explain how even before egg and sperm are joined in an organic union to form a new human being, the act of sexual intercourse is a bodily organic union, because husband and wife “coordinate toward a common biological end of the whole that they form together.”3
In coitus, and there alone, a man and a woman’s bodies participate by virtue of their sexual complementarity in a coordination that has the biological purpose of reproduction—a function that neither can perform alone. Their coordinated action is, biologically, the first step (the behavioral part) of the reproductive process. By engaging in it, they are united…by coordinating together toward a biological good of the whole that they form together. Here the whole is the couple; the single biological good, their reproduction.
But bodily coordination is possible even when its end is not realize; so for a couple, bodily union occurs in coitus even when conception does not. It is the coordination toward a single end that makes the union; achieving the end would deepen the union but is not necessary for it.
This means that there is something special about the sort of act that causes con- ception: coitus. Our legal and philosophical traditions have, significantly, long termed this act the generative act.4
And the generative act is unique to marriage as I explained in No Longer Two, But One: The Structure of Marriage. We also commonly use the phrase, the conjugal act. All of these terms recognize the truth of the bodily union of husband and wife. Because of this unique union, a man and woman are also united, “with respect to procreation, family life, and it’s broad domestic sharing.”
…marriage is ordered to family life because the act by which spouses make love also makes new life; one and the same act both seals marriage and brings forth children. That is why marriage alone is the loving union of mind and body fulfilled by the procreation—and rearing—of whole new human beings.
Relationships of two men, two women, or more than two, whatever their moral status, cannot be marriages because they lack this inherent link to procreation.5
Obviously sometimes children are reared by those who are not their biological parents. The point is that because husband and wife create a child, rearing children and family life are inherently tied to marriage alone. Our own observations tell us that children thrive best when they grow up with their married biological parents. In Social Science Confirms: Kids Need Married Moms and Dads, Ryan Anderson summarizes a brief submitted to SCOTUS for the March hearings on marriage. The thriving of children under the parenting of their married mom and dad underscores the reality that rearing children and family life are inherently characteristic of marriage:
What we do know, reliably and conclusively, is that married biological moms and dads matter to children. As the brief states:
It is not simply the presence of two parents…but the presence of two biological parents that seems to support children’s development.… Experts have long contended that both mothers and fathers make unique contributions to parenting.
The professors present a great deal of scholarship showing that mothering and fathering are different. The mother plays a critical role in a child’s neural development, communication, sense of security, problem solving, understanding and responding to feelings, and social ties to both friends and family.
The father’s involvement is linked to positive outcomes in education, physical health, and avoidance of juvenile delinquency. Children who “roughhouse with their fathers” learn that certain violent behavior is unacceptable. Fathers encourage exploration and discourage boys from “compensatory masculinity where they reject and denigrate all that is feminine and instead…engag[e] in domineering and violent behavior.”
To recapitulate: marriage involves acts that unite spouses comprehensively, and it unites them in pursuit of a comprehensive range of goods [family life and the rearing of children]. So, third and finally, in virtue of both these facts, marriage alone requires comprehensive commitment, whatever the spouses’ preferences.6
That significant claim reveals how much we have lost in our understanding of marriage. The authors explain that for husband and wife:
…their mind-body union is ordered to the comprehensive good of rearing new members of the human family—their children—an open-ended task calling for the coordination of their whole lives, which in turn requires undivided commitment. Thus, the norms of marriage, a union specially enriched by family life, fittingly create the stability and harmony suitable for rearing children. Sociology and common sense agree such stability is undermined by divorce, which deprives children of an intact biological family, and by infidelity—which betrays and divides one’s attention to spouse and children, often with children from other couplings. The intrinsic connection between marriage and children therefore reinforces the reasons spouses have to stay together and faithful for life.7
Stability, as the authors note, is costly,8 but it is as nothing compared to the price that is paid by adults and especially by children, when we rip apart and sever the characteristics of sexual union, child-rearing and family life, and monogamy and fidelity from marriage.
And He answered and said, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.”Matthew 19:4–6
My posts on the book, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, are more than a book review or report. Because I think the authors brings so much help and clarity to the ongoing debate on marriage, I’m working through their arguments to support or augment your own thinking on marriage. I recommend buying the book and working through it on your own, and I hope these posts spark your interests. If anything is unclear, please let me know. Any misinterpretations of the authors’ intents are obviously my own, and I will correct any that I discover. Previous posts on What Is Marriage? and references for this post are listed below the fold.
- “What Is Marriage?”
- A Marriage Debate At Cross Purposes
- An Overview of the Consequences of Redefining Marriage.
- An Outline of What Is Marriage?
- Redefining Civil Marriage Guts The Rationale For Civil Regulation
- No Longer Two, But One: The Structure of Marriage
Ceramic ornament used on the top of a wedding cake in Birmingham, England in August 1959, Andy Mabbett, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert George, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (Encounter Books, New York NY: 2012) 23, 23, 15, 26, 30, 32–33, 33–34, 34.