Volume > Issue > Same-Sex "Marriage" & the Totalitarian Notion of Civil Authority

Same-Sex “Marriage” & the Totalitarian Notion of Civil Authority


By William Newton | July-August 2013
William Newton is Associate Professor of Theology and Chair of Faculty at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Austrian Program. He is also Visiting Professor at the International Theological Institute in Trumau, Austria, and Associate Member of Faculty at Maryvale Institute in Birmingham, United Kingdom. Dr. Newton has published in various international journals on matters of social teaching, bioethics, and marriage and family issues. He lives in Austria with his wife Claire and their five children.

Ed. Note: On June 4 Britain’s House of Lords voted 390 to 148 to back a bill that would enable same-sex couples to get married in both civil and religious ceremonies in the United Kingdom. Such a law would also allow couples who had previously entered into a civil partnership to convert their relationship to a marriage. Churches would be able to “opt in” if they consent to offering same-sex-marriage services. The bill will now go through further readings in Parliament and must be approved by Queen Elizabeth II in order to become the law.

When Lynne Featherstone, the Junior Home Office Minister, announced in March 2012 the intention of the British government to introduce into Parliament a bill to legalize same-sex marriage, she laid out how the anticipated debate might be conducted. She said that, by way of a consultation process, everyone was welcome to air his own opinion on the issue. It did not matter whether a person was in favor of the reform or opposed to it, as long as all agree that the state has the power to pass such a law.

Now, it seems to me that this is precisely where the misconception over the whole matter begins. The fact is that the state simply does not have that power. In essence, the debate about same-sex marriage is characterized not only by widespread confusion over the nature of marriage; it is also marked by confusion over the nature of the state and civil power.

Putting the Cart Before the Horse

The family built upon marriage, and not upon the individual, is the basic unit of society. In fact, each family is a miniature society — analogous to a miniature state — out of which the larger political community is constructed. This is more than a theory; it is an historical fact: A country like Scotland is built upon the MacDonalds, the MacIntyres, the Robertsons, and so on.

As G.K. Chesterton pointed out in The Superstition of Divorce, it is no coincidence that totalitarian regimes typically seek to weaken both the Church and marriage. The reason is precisely because both of these institutions claim to be independent societies with their own constitutions. Since they exist within the same territory as the state, from the perspective of a tyrant, they obstruct the extension of his own absolute authority.

Now, if the family built upon marriage is the building block out of which the state is formed, the family is antecedent to the state. This means that the state can have no power over the constitution of marriage any more than the European Union has power over the constitution of its member states, as if the EU had the power to change Britain from a constitutional monarchy into a republic! But the legislation currently going through the British Parliament that seeks to redefine marriage denies this very fact: The state is proposing to change the constitution of that society — the family — out of which it is itself constructed and from which its own existence flows.

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