At the beginning of 1999 . . . my wife Cathleen Schine, announced that she no longer wanted to be married to me. She had to leave, she had to get away for a new life, for she had mysteriously changed in her affections . . . I stood there like a rejected petitioner, chewing my innards but unwilling to fight. “I have to go to sleep now.” “But I want to talk.” Talk was the center, we used to talk over everything, endlessly . . . For almost two decades, I had felt that no thought of mine was complete until I had conveyed it to her . . . We spoke every day, we were amiable and affectionate . . . I was in a rage, but I suppressed it. Of what use was anger? I was determined not to become one of those embittered men encountered at work, at a party—men a little too articulate about “women.”
Thus David Denby, movie critic at the New Yorker, describes his reaction to his novelist wife’s leaving him in his brand new and not-particularly-recommended-here book American Sucker. What was it that had “mysteriously changed” in her affections? At least one thing for sure: She was leaving him for a woman. When we examine his response to her announcement, we can say that Mrs. Schine-Denby’s move may have come as a surprise to Mr. Denby, but it is definitely no mystery. It is one individual instance of a species whose “genesis” I will describe here, using the second chapter of the homonymous book, without even needing to refer much to the nineteenth, in the hope that some reader may, by serious reflection on what follows, begin, even if only slowly at first, to flee his moral Decapolis (Manhattan? L.A.? Vermont? Massachusetts? Crawford, Texas?) without looking back—not before, but because, it is too late.
If it was not for help in producing children that a wife was made for the man, then what other help was she made for? If it was to till the earth together with him, then there was as yet no hard toil to need such assistance; and if there had been the need, a male would have made a better help. While if it was expedient that one should be in charge and that the other comply, to avoid a clash of wills disturbing the peace of the household, such an arrangement would have been ensured by one being made first, the other later, especially if the latter were created from the former, as the female was in fact created. The same can be said about companionship, should he grow tired of solitude. How much more agreeably, after all, for conviviality and conversation would two male friends live together on equal terms than man and wife? For these reasons I cannot work out what help a wife would have been made to provide the man with, if you take away the purpose of childbearing.
These are the words of Saint Augustine in the ninth chapter of his On the Literal Meaning of Genesis. They bear careful attention beyond the initial shock they might cause. The real, historical inequality of women to men clearly implied here is, nonetheless, in Augustine’s view, extrinsic to womanhood as such. Indeed, it is later presented as a punishment for the Fall in the third chapter of Genesis. Similarly, a friendly equality between man and woman as between men could never explain their partnership. The relationship of man and woman is based neither on inequality and servitude, nor on simple equality and friendship, but on something which transcends these poles and thus moves freely between them: procreation.
Thus it is that friendship and hierarchy between members of the same sex have always been more unambiguously friendship or hierarchy than when these are found between members of the opposite sex, whose relationship as male and female is defined by its procreative foundation. An army (before the days of little Jessica Lynch) or a monastery (of men or of women) or colleges (before Oberlin) have traditionally exemplified this fact: Where are men and women more clearly under authority, while remaining clearly peers, than in these places?
Our society, for ideological reasons, has chosen to judge all human relationships according to the standard of equality and inequality, even the rapport between the sexes. Thus it was only consistent that the relationship between man and woman would be freed of its original and essential foundation in procreation, a good not precisely measurable by any standard of social equality, since, in a sense, birth and family ties are the natural foundation of any evaluation of equity and inequity within the human race. The development of effective means of contraception and the promotion of abortion gave the impression of solidity to this putting asunder of what God hath joined together. So what could the new, nonprocreative standard of male and female be, if not the friendship that obtains between equals? (We can leave to some of our nation’s Muslim allies the other possible option: servitude.)
Go back and look at David Denby’s words. What do they reveal if not that he felt bound to view his marriage as primarily a friendship? Leave it to the embittered to grouse that it had to do with her being a woman! He had been formed in a milieu that views a man’s expressing rage or shame at being cuckolded—not by another man, but even by a woman—as a tisk-tisk imperfection: as if his marriage was really about being a man and woman after all! Small wonder, then, that his wife might find a more satisfying friendship with a woman, one with whom her equality was less ambiguous. So what is wrong with that? Is that not the case for millions of men and women whose best friends are not their spouses but members of their own sex? Nothing and yes indeed, but this friendship ended their marriage. It claimed to take its place.
The replacement of procreation with equality as the foundation of relations between the sexes has required our society to accept homosexuality as legitimate. After all, the foundation and ideal for the relations between members of the same sex is seen as morally the same as the foundation for relations between the sexes: undifferentiated equality and friendship. What is wrong with this? Let the feminist Dame Rebecca West shed some light here for the perplexed reader from her study St. Augustine, a horrible hatchet-job of a book but full of the finest, useful insights, as long as she is not concerned directly with her subject: “[Augustine teaches] in a sentence which with characteristic insight, puts its finger on the real offense of homosexuality, by pointing out that it brings the confusion of passion into the domain where one ought to be able to practice calmly the art of friendship.”
The unhinging of the relationship between man and woman from its procreative framework has led to the sexualization of relationships which ought to remain serenely free of this momentous burden. Onan has slouched all the way to Gomorrah singing, “Get me to the church on time.”
I am not so much concerned here to give a Dr. Dobson argument against “gay marriage” or even homosexual relationships in general. I am asserting a self-evident fact that such relationships, to the extent that they are sexual (if this were not the case, then there would be no issue), are, on the witness of Creation, fictitious, illusory, and, yes, perverted. In the 11th century, St. Peter Damian, in his notorious and devastatingly relevant letter 31 on clerical sodomy, the so-called Book of Gomorrah, made this psychologically and morally trenchant observation:
Tell us, man, what do you seek in another male that you do not find in yourself? What difference in sex, what varied features of the body? . . . For it is the function of the natural appetite that each should seek outside himself what he cannot find within his own capacity. Therefore, if the touch of masculine flesh delights you, lay your hands upon yourself and be assured that whatever you do not find in yourself, you seek in vain in the body of another.
What should one man seek from the body of another man? Only the union of wills, expressed in speech, shared thoughts, expressions of mutual interest. Let us hear the robustly heterosexual Saint Augustine in an often mistranslated passage of his Confessions:
The union of two in one: this is what is loved in friends, and so loved that a man’s conscience must confess his guilt if he does not love one who loves him in return or does not love in return one who loves him, seeking nothing from his body, but the expression of good will.
The natural law requires the love of friendship between members of the same sex. Homosexual relationships, however, are inherently dishonest, in both the Latin and the English senses. They imply a foundation beyond the relationship that is not there. They outrage the simplicity of equality and—unlike the transcendent, procreative relationship of man and woman—have no alternative to friendship but submission. By this description, of course, they differ, it would seem, only aesthetically from the NPR-New Yorker ideal of “heterosexual” marriage, which denies its foundation. And so Mr. Denby and “Ms.” Schine seethe with frustration, while striving to be amicable. Small wonder, then, that not all homosexuals support giving binding, legal status to their “marriages.” Here is the great irony of the “equality of the sexes”: It destroys what natural equality there truly is and denies that there is a basis in human society for the sublimation of inequality into a greater, common good. True marriage has both of these and something even greater.
What is it? The creation of Eve is about procreation, but not only according to the flesh. According to Augustine, in the same ninth chapter of On the Literal Meaning of Genesis, the ecstasy of procreative union has its archetype and final cause in the creature’s ecstatic union with God, for which end, the filling up of the number of the blessed, man and woman bring forth new life:
That ecstasy, which God cast on Adam, to put him into a deep sleep, may rightly be understood as cast upon him precisely in order that he in his mind through ecstasy become as it were a member of the angelic court, and so “enter into the sanctuary of God and understand the last things” (Psalm 73:17). Finally, on waking up full of prophecy so to say when he saw his wife brought to him he immediately burst out with what the apostle holds up to us as a great sacrament: “This is now bone out of my bone and flesh of my flesh, this shall be called woman, since she was taken out of her man: and for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall cleave to his wife and the two shall be one flesh.”
Marriage was, from the beginning, the Great Sacrament of the union of God with mankind, of Christ and His Church, in which new birth there is “neither male nor female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free,” but “they shall all be like the angels in heaven, neither marrying nor giving in marriage.” After all, it was the Bridegroom who said, “I no longer call you servants, but friends because I have revealed to you everything I have heard from my Father.” There is thus a very profound sense in which a certain supernatural equality is the standard for all relationships—that is, the capacity of man’s heart for a marital union with God. This is what led David, son of Jesse, foreshadowing the love of the God Who was procreated from him, to cry out (II Samuel 1):
The beauty of Israel is slain upon thine high places: how are the mighty fallen! . . . How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle! O Jonathan, thou wast slain in thine high places. I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.
May God grant such love to David Denby and his many modern brethren.
This article first appeared in the March 2004 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.