Sheridan contra Aquinas

In what has to be one of the most bizarre entries in the debate over marriage redefinition, Greg Sheridan in ‘Yes to same-sex marriage and to religious freedom’The Australian, (Sept 6, 2017) enlist Aquinas and Augustine in an amateurish attempt to add authority to what is a terribly incoherent argument for redefining marriage.

The idea of marriage as a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman has lost social consensus and is honoured more in the breach than the practice. Therefore it is not reas­on­able for the state to enforce this ideal.

This appears to be arguing either (i) that marriage has given way to some other type of relationship, or (ii) that the social conditions under which we live have made marriage far harder to successfully undertake. But setting that aside just for the moment, either of these does not justify the conclusion that it is unreasonable for the state to enforuce the ideal. The state does not ‘enforce’ any such thing. It merely recognizes such a relationship as marriage. Further, the point of this plebiscite is to actually determine what the social consensus is regarding marriage. So, if you believed that marriage is, at the very least, a relationship between the sexes, wouldn’t you actually be out there in the public sphere making the case for marriage so understood? This would certainly be the case if you believed this to be true, and there are statements to this effect in the article,

I do take Christian teaching about marriage and the purpose of life very seriously. I believe Christianity to be true and to be overwhelmingly beneficial for society. I am not asking the Christian churches to change their doctrines,

then why would he be writing an article stating that he is going to vote Yes? Very curious. Moreover, what ‘social consensus’ is there among homosexuals regarding ‘life-long’ same-sex unions given the drastically larger rates of promiscuity within same-sex unions compared with opposite-sex unions. So much so that there is very little expectation among same-sex unions of monogamy when compared to the overwhelming expectation among opposite-sex unions. (See footnotes 306 and 308 respectively of Alvare’s paper.)

Once the law accepts that gay couples can adopt children, then the overwhelming priority in the whole question is the welfare of the children. All children benefit from their parents being as committed to each other, and to them, as possible. Legal marriage helps the children of gay couples as it does the children of heterosexual couples.

This is the problem with ad hoc accommodations. You make an accommodation that allows a gay person to adopt a child, in a situation where their partner was, say, the actual parent of the said child, but who has recently died, because there in fact was a prior substantive relationship between the gay person and the child, and this is then developed into a reason to allow any gay person to adopt any child even where there was no prior relationship. Finally, this is then used as a justification to redefine marriage on the grounds that a gay couple may adopt a child, even though the point of marriage is solidify the relationship between the spouses and any potential children conceived naturally through the marital act, not between an adoptee and his / her prospective adopted parent/s, which is achieved by the adoption itself. This also flies in the face of the repeated claim by the Yes case that marriage has nothing to do with children.

I am not asking the Christian churches to change their doctrines. But they need to win adherence to their doctrine, in this case, through persuasion and example, not through the law.

Surely that is precisely what the proponents of the No case are doing via the plebiscite. Still, the claim that the No case is engaged in what amounts to coercion by defending the existing definition of marriage is ludicrous. How could it be any more ‘coercive’ than legislating the definition the Yes case is proposing that still limits marriage as to number even though its own premises provide it no grounds for doing so.

Aquinas wrote, for example, that regular state law must “leave certain things unpunished on account of the condition of those who are imperfect, and who would be deprived of many advantages, if all sins were strictly ­forbidden and punishments appointed for them”.

Similarly, Aquinas asserted that regular law could not “exact perfect virtue from man, for such virtue belongs to few and cannot be found in so great a number of people as human law has to ­direct”.

Aquinas generally held the view that it was not reasonable to legislate all the obligations of believers on non-believers. In reaching these conclusions, he was influenced by the equally great Saint Augustine, the 4th century theologian and bishop. He too came to the conclusion that attempting to criminalise prostitution would make society ungovernable.

Yes, yes, quite, but what does any of this have to do with retaining the existing definition of marriage? Currently, same-sex unions are only not recognized as marriages, but they are not illegal. As Sheridan noted in the article, they attract the same rights and duties as de facto relationships. The only relevance this reference to Aquinas and Augustine would have relies on same-sex unions being illegal, which they are not. Had they been illegal, he could have, by analogy, argued that just as Aquinas thought that prostitution was immoral but should not be illegal, so too those who think of same-sex unions as immoral, might nevertheless arrive at the prudential judgment that enforcing such a law would likely led to greater moral evil (via invasion of privacy, etc.) than disapproving but not prohibiting. But this circumstance simply does not exist.

The Christian churches argue, with all the weight of tradition and history, that it is of the essence of marriage that it involves a man and a woman. That is certainly a respectable view and it deserves to be heard with respect.

But the churches are not making a merely traditional or historical claim. They are claiming that marriage is a relationship between the sexes because the chief natural end of marriage is the birth and rearing of children. And that this is reflected, anthropologically, across all cultures and periods; namely, that the preeminent institution charged with this end involves a man and a woman who are the natural parents of these children. So, the implication that this is a peculiarly Christian or Western interpretation of marriage, or simply an interpretation that is dated, is simply false. You don’t have to take the word of a Catholic manualist like Michael Cronin, you could just read the work of Aristotle, or Musonius Rufus, or even a positivist like Edvard Westermarck.

It is not a view that any longer expresses a social consensus.

That is precisely what is in dispute currently, but so what anyway. The Church, Aristotle, Westermarck, et al. are either right about marriage, or they are wrong. What role does ‘social consensus’ actually play in determining what is marriage? Neither the Yes case or No case can coherently appeal to a ‘social consensus’ because that is precisely what is lacking at the moment.

I don’t think this invalidates the Yes case but it does reinforce that this move could herald a significant assault on religious freedom.

Oddly enough, I think even that argues for voting Yes — the best chance of ensuring religious freedom will come if this change occurs under the Turnbull government and the government simultaneously strengthens its pitifully weak legal protections.

And why should we imagine that no government would subsequently amend this legislation to the detriment of religious or conscientious objection? There is simply no reason to believe that a redefinition of marriage would not cultivate an strong aversion against those that continue to oppose the new definition of marriage and in turn attract the active enmity of those that have supported it and yet not attracted the acceptance and deference they expected from such a change in the law.

In summary, Sheridan has provided no convincing reason to redefine marriage, or to judge that any such change would not have a serious impact either on the institution itself, or its defenders.




  1. Not Trampis

    I am of course totally against same sex marriage however the horse bolted on marriage as a respectable institution when in 1974 the ever dreadful Lionel Murphy gave us fault free divorce.

    IMHO it was after that adultery and fornication became things you boasted about and was not ashamed about.

  2. Real Deal

    Thanks DB, good article from a Catholic perspective. Sheridan is a major disappointment on gay marriage. I suspect he can’t stand the social embarrassment of conservative views around friends and colleagues and has altered his views to appear reasonable. I am a conservative Protestant who will continue to uphold historical marriage. Though I accept the above poster’s view about Lionel Murphy and the marriage act. The seeds for this push were sown in the mid 70s sadly.

  3. Eddystone

    Yes, well said DB. The Sheridan article follows one by Janet Albrechtsen yesterday, claiming to make the conservative case for a Yes vote, although she did no such thing, making, if anything, a libertarian case for redefining marriage to allow almost any type of intimate grouping or relationship to be labelled as “marriage” if those involved so wished.

    1. dover_beach (Post author)

      I will try and read it soon, Eddystone. I believe it makes a Millian case of SS’M’.

  4. Gab

    This is a keeper! Great work, Dover.


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