Dr. McLean: Marriage as Defined by Faith and Reason

By Dr. Michael F. McLean
President, Thomas Aquinas College
Remarks from the 2013 Summer Seminar Weekends.


We thank you for your attendance, for your preparation, and for your participation in our conversations.

In light of the cultural and political developments occurring in America today, no one can doubt the timeliness of a consideration of marriage and the family during this Year of Faith. This consideration fits well, too, with the series of seminars we have done over the last few years. In 2010 we considered the natural law — an important starting point for our deliberation about moral questions — and in 2011 we considered conscience, that power within us that applies the natural law to particular moral issues we face in everyday life. Last year, we considered the “soul of America” and, among other things, the important role religion plays in preserving our country’s moral and political commitments. This year we are considering, in light of both the natural and divine laws, a particular moral and political issue of the utmost importance to the well-being of our country and its citizens.

I hope you can see that we are trying to put together our Summer Seminars in an organized way and, although we have not yet decided on a topic, I promise you that next year we will consider something as important and interesting as the topics we have considered since the beginning of our Summer Seminar program in 1990.

This year’s readings — A Doll’s House, by Henrik Ibsen; What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, by Robert P. George, Sherif Girgis, and Ryan T. Anderson; and The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World, an Apostolic Exhortation, by Bl. John Paul II — take markedly different, though not unrelated, looks at the institutions of marriage and family.

When I mentioned to one of our graduates, who happens to be a Dominican priest, that we were reading A Doll’s House in our Summer Seminar this year, he commented that he had first read it in high school and “was really depressed afterward.” I don’t think the play is particularly appropriate for high school students, and there really is something very depressing and disturbing in a story which culminates in Nora’s decision to slam the door on her husband, Torvald, and their children; this, despite the fact that Torvald reminds her of her duties as wife and mother, and indicates his willingness to try to change himself and their marriage for the better.

In many school curricula in our time, A Doll’s House may, in fact, be the first and last word students hear about marriage and the family, which is itself depressing and disturbing. Our purpose in reading the play in conjunction with other writings about marriage is not to leave you depressed and disturbed. Rather it is to experience with you a masterful representation of what looks very much like a “revisionist” marriage, in the words of Mr. George and his colleagues. It is also a representation of what Bl. John Paul II sees as “shadows” for the family today — in his words, “a mistaken theoretical and practical concept of the independence of the spouses in relation to each other … the growing number of divorces … [and] a corruption of the idea and the experience of freedom, conceived not as a capacity for realizing the truth of God’s plan for marriage and the family, but as an autonomous power of self-affirmation, often against others, for one’s own selfish well-being.” A Doll’s House is not our final word about marriage by a long shot, but in providing an image of a certain sort of modern marriage, it makes for a thought-provoking beginning to our weekend’s conversations.

What is Marriage? offers a philosophical account and defense of traditional marriage — what the authors call the “conjugal” view of marriage. “Our argument,” the authors write, “makes no appeal to divine revelation or religious authority … our argument for the structure and value of marriage is philosophical … [and] supported by social science.” According to the “conjugal” view, marriage is a “comprehensive union” of body and mind, a union intrinsically ordered to the procreation of children and to domestic life, and consequently a union characterized by permanence and exclusivity.

“Revisionists,” on the other hand, view marriage as essentially an “emotional union,” with no intrinsic ordering to the begetting or raising of children, a union which need last only as long as the partners, no matter their gender or number, are comfortable with each other. After raising difficulties for the “revisionist” view of marriage, George and his colleagues argue that the “conjugal” view better explains thousands of years of marital tradition and is more conducive to the well-being of the spouses, the children, and society than is the “revisionist” view. They cite compelling social scientific research to support these claims.

Having considered Ibsen’s artistic representation of the “revisionist” view of marriage, and having considered George’s and his colleagues’ robust philosophical defense of the “conjugal” view of marriage, we turn to Bl. John Paul II for a profound theological meditation ordered to revealing what he calls “the complete truth about marriage and its deepest meaning.” Our late Holy Father stresses the need for “conversion of mind and heart” to root out the “negative phenomena” or “shadows” which plague marriage and the family today, emphasizing that this conversion can only take place with the grace of God.

“Man is made in the image of God Who is love,” he continues, “…[so] man’s vocation is to love.” Accordingly, he says, “Marriage is interiorly ordained to fulfillment in Christ,” Who is the perfect embodiment of sacrificial love. Looked at with the eyes of faith, the self-giving love and fidelity characteristic of marriage makes it “an image and symbol of the covenant uniting God and His people … and a real representation of the spousal covenant uniting Christ and His Church.”

Having concluded our consideration of marriage and the family on this edifying note, and recalling Bl. John Paul II’s insistence on “women’s equal dignity and responsibility with men” and his emphasis on the “duties of men within the family,” I think back to Nora and Torvald’s Doll’s House. As an advocate for conjugal marriage, I want to believe that Nora went off and became, in her words, “a reasonable human being;” that Torvald did the same, and that they eventually reunited in what Nora refers to at the end of the play as “real wedlock” — even if she does not yet understand the full import of those words. That is, a wedlock of the sort her friend Mrs. Linde describes where “there is complete understanding between” the spouses. Of course, I know the actual play ends with the slamming door, but I think somebody should write the sequel.

Whether or not things turn out this way for Nora and Torvald, we hope that this has proven to be a stimulating and rewarding weekend for you. We hope that you leave us with greater confidence that the traditional or “conjugal” view of marriage is solidly grounded in both faith and reason, despite the drumbeat to the contrary we hear from politicians, the courts, the media, and popular culture. We thank you again for helping to make this year’s Summer Seminars successful. We very much hope that you will join us again next year.


Posted: August 6, 2013