Under the Christian definition of marriage, aren’t infertile couples prohibited?

Questions and AnswersCategory: Don't worry about the category.Under the Christian definition of marriage, aren’t infertile couples prohibited?
John asked 5 years ago

Mr. Gilson, 
I understand that under the Christian definition of marriage, marital union is understood as intrinsically ordered towards the production of new life. Because a same-sex couple doesn’t have the ability to produce their own child, their union cannot actually be a marriage. 
But doesn’t this also pose a problem for infertile couples? After all, they cannot participate in the production of new life either. So if your definition is to be consistently applied, wouldn’t that mean that infertile heterosexual couples would have to be restricted from marriage too? 

5 Answers
Tom Gilson Staff answered 5 years ago

No. First of all, under a Christian view of marriage there is hardly any infertile couple anywhere who knows before their wedding that they are infertile. These things are discovered over the course of months or years. It would be far more than silly — and worse than intrusive — for the government to require couples to prove they’re fertile in order to get married! So as a policy that makes 0.0% sense.

There are exceptional cases, of course. Some young couples know they’re infertile when they marry because of known medical conditions. Some people marry when they get older. Still it would be intrusive even then for the government to require couples to certify their fertility before the get their marriage licenses. They meet the basic non-intrusive condition for being married, as far as fertility goes: they are male and female.

If marriage is intended to be the institution that produces and nurtures the next generation (and it is), then male-and-female is the kind of relationship that meets qualifies for that intention. Same-sex relationships aren’t.

Social policy is never a finely tuned instrument. It always has exceptions. What you’re talking about are special-case exceptions to a general rule, and social policy needs to be flexible enough to allow for those kinds of things, so as not to get the government inquiring deeply into a couple’s medical records and etc. It is not, however, intrusive for the government to treat a same-sex couple as infertile.
(Note that this isn’t the only reason for marriage to be man-woman. I’ve addressed a narrow part of the overall reasoning, the part that you asked about. There’s more in Critical Conversations.)

Tom Gilson Staff answered 5 years ago

The question was about the Christian definition of marriage. It wasn’t a request for suggestions for competing views. So let’s keep it on topic, please.

Note that this is not an argument forum.

And I know from other times and places we’ve interacted, Bob, that you really like to argue against almost anything Christian. This forum has a specific purpose: understanding a Christian and natural-law view on marriage and morality. Not for fighting it. Thanks for recognizing and understanding that.

Tom Gilson Staff answered 5 years ago

There’s another answer I need to add to Bob’s question. Note how he shifted gears, first from what marital union is “ordered toward” (“intrinsically ordered towards the production of new life”) to a specific infertile couple’s situation, to gay marriage.

A specific couple’s case cannot change the essential purpose toward which marriage is ordered, and which gay marriage cannot be ordered toward.

Suppose a knowingly infertile couple, male and female, get married. Their marriage is still the kind of marriage that reflects and coincides with the kind of marriage that fulfills marriage’s entire purpose. It is a man-woman marriage. It is an exception within the class of properly ordered man-woman marriage, sure. But gay marriage is an entire new class, not just a mere exception.

Tom Gilson Staff answered 5 years ago

Someone sent this by email. It’s another very helpful answer. I’ve edited it slightly.

Where infertile couples are concerned, we are talking about a difference of “degree” rather than “type”. A couple that is merely infertile is still able to participate in bodily union even though children will not be produced. A couple that is by nature “impotent” — their inability to conceive is not an effect of accident, infirmity, or age, but inherent to the very nature of the union regardless of all other factors — on the other hand cannot ever really consummate the marriage because they can never participate in the kind of comprehensive bodily union that is of the same “type” as that which is characteristic of fertile couples. Historically this has been recognized as the dividing line.
By analogy, suppose that the essence of playing team sports is to win against the other team. We might have a team which is composed of very poor players who will not be able to win a game. This is analogous to the infertile couple. Even though they cannot win, that inability is a difference of degree rather than of type. Now suppose that we have a group which isn’t even ordered towards chance of winning, but is intrinsically ordered in such a way that they aren’t about trying to win the game at all. (maybe the cheerleaders or the parents on the sidelines?). They are not a “team” in the sense that the players on the field are. To suggest that we “out of inclusiveness include them in the label “teams”” is to redefine the nature and purpose of what it means to be a sports “team” to begin with.
The analogy needs a little work I know but I thought that you might like my input since I don’t think I noticed that element fully in your reply.

Tom Gilson Staff replied 5 years ago

My own comment on this is that it’s true and valid but likely to be confusing to people who think everything is fluid and changeable. This answer assumes that there is a kind of thing that marriage is. Many people think that marriage is always becoming, not that there is something that it inherently is. They’ll have trouble tracking with this answer.

There are good reasons to believe there is something that marriage is, rather than that it is always becoming, always fluid, always open to change. Explaining those reasons would take a long time and close attention to deeply held worldview commitments. That’s a project for another time and place.

For here, suffice it to say that although some people might think it’s based on unfamiliar assumptions, this email correspondent’s answer is a good one, for reasons I’d be glad to explain in another place and at another time. I might write up those reasons as a Stream article later today. If so it could be several days before it’s posted publicly.

Tom Gilson Staff answered 5 years ago

This is a Q&A page for Christian parents and other Christians who have questions. Someone forgot and tried to make it an argument forum, a place for atheists and skeptics to disagree.

Disagreements are certain to come. To try to resolve them here would defeat this page’s purpose.