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Why the French--of all people--resist the redefinition of marriage

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 17, 2013

Would you ever have suspected that France would be the Western country where popular opposition to the redefinition of marriage finally coalesced?

The momentum toward legal recognition of same-sex unions continues in France, despite the demonstration that drew nearly 1 million people onto the streets of Paris last Sunday. The government is committed to the change, and the defenders of traditional marriage, although they are numerous and vocal, remain in the minority in opinion polls. Still that massive demonstration was unlike anything we have seen in the US, in Britain, or in any of the European countries that have been swept up in the trend to approve homosexual partnerships. Perhaps more important, the strong opposition has forced the French public to take a more serious look at the question, and recognize the complications that arise from legal acceptance of same-sex unions.

Why has the same sort of popular opposition never formed in other societies? Why in France?

A generation ago the idea of same-sex marriage would have been unthinkable. Even a decade ago it still seemed politically impossible. (Recall that Barack Obama, during his first presidential campaign, announced that he did not support the redefinition of marriage.) Yet now there is an air of inevitability about the question, at least in the Western world. One European country after another, and one American state after another, have made the move.

There are several reasons, I believe, for the astonishing success of this campaign:

  1. Having adopted the dogmatic position that there can be no objective standards of morality, the postmodern world (that is to say, Western Europe and North America) has lost the ability to debate moral issues intelligently. Pope Benedict XVI has diagnosed this problem repeatedly, as did Blessed John Paul II before him. If there are no inherent truths about human nature, no clear norms by which behavior can be judged, then each individual is free to invent his own standards of behavior, and indeed his own understanding of reality. The result is not an increase in individual freedom, but a sort of Hobbesian chaos that paves the way for the imposition of greater government authority. Thus in the current case, if a society can no longer agree on the meaning of marriage, government will step in with its own definition.
  2. The near-universal acceptance of contraception, by severing the natural link between sex and procreation, kicked one leg out from under the argument for legal protection of the marriage covenant. Since time immemorial society had accorded special legal privileges to marriage, because it was the institution in which children were begotten and raised. (To be sure there were always some childless marriages, but they were understood to be the exceptions rather than the norm; the laws were established for marriages to establish families.) Once the Western world came to assume that the marital act is merely an expression of intimacy between two people, it became more difficult to explain why the privileges associated with marriage should not also be accord to those who prefer a different form of lovemaking.
  3. Then the advent of “no-fault” divorce, ushering in an era of serial monogamy, kicked out the other leg. We as a society no longer presume that a marriage will last a lifetime. Statistically speaking, any given union is as likely to collapse as to endure. Marriage has come to be seen as a partnership, undertaken for the mutual benefit of the spouses; if and when the benefits are no longer available, the partnership is dissolved. (If the marital partnership were designed for the benefit of children, divorce would surely be rare.) Since homosexual couples can obviously establish the same sort of mutually beneficial living arrangements, it is again difficult to justify a legal distinction between heterosexual and homosexual couples.
  4. Homosexual activists have been remarkably successful in intimidating their political opponents. A politician who opposes same-sex marriage can expect gay-rights lobbies to give powerful support to his next electoral opponent. An academic researcher who questions the success of same-sex parenting will be hounded by charges of scholarly misconduct. A corporation that donates to organizations supporting traditional marriage will face a boycott. Even a private individual who signs a petition opposing a change in marriage laws may receive threatening phone calls. Public opposition to same-sex marriage exacts a cost—at a bare minimum, being vilified as a “homophobe”—that many people are unwilling to pay.
  5. Finally the Western world is tired of debates about morality, especially sexual morality. We have been arguing about the “pelvic issues” for more than half a century now, and the movement of public attitudes has been all in one direction. The advocates of the sexual revolution are experienced, confident, energetic, audacious. Defenders of traditional morality are exhausted and dispirited.

But all these considerations apply in France at least as much as in the US. Indeed France—the country in which a former head of state could be buried from a Catholic cathedral, with his wife and his mistress in the front pews, and no one showing the slightest discomfort with the arrangements--seems to epitomize the moral fatigue of the West. So why is the French opposition to same-sex marriage so much stronger than anything we have seen elsewhere in Europe or North America? Why has the public opposition come not only from Catholic prelates and defenders of traditional morality, but even from avowed homosexuals, who make the compelling point that they are not the same as heterosexual people?

Could it be because the French—while they are as exhausted as we all are by debates about sexuality—are always ready for an energetic debate about language and the meaning of words?

Unlike Americans, who revel in the use of slang and in the changing patterns of words’ connotations, the French expect a level of precision in their language. For nearly four centuries the Academie Francaise has been issuing authoritative rulings on the meaning of words. The French understand that a change in the meaning of a word can mean a change in the way people think and act; it is a step that should not be taken lightly. The word “marriage” has a meaning, and the French instinctively realize that if that meaning is altered, the institution itself is changed.

French proponents of same sex marriage insist that they are simply opening up the institution to homosexual couples. “Marriage for all” is their slogan. But marriage has always been open to all. A homosexual man has the same legal right as a heterosexual man to enter into a marriage—which, over the centuries, has always been understood to mean a union between a man and a woman. The government does not ask prospective spouses to demonstrate that they are sexually attracted to each other before issuing a marriage license. The state only observes what is obvious—the gender of the two partners—before determining that a legal marriage is possible.

The real debate, in France and elsewhere, has never been about whether everyone should have the right to marry. The important debate has always been about what marriage is. Words have meanings. The French, of all peoples, understand that.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Jan. 21, 2013 12:04 AM ET USA

    This is brilliant.

  • Posted by: FredC - Jan. 20, 2013 10:04 AM ET USA

    I think divorce and re-marriage is better termed "serial polygamy" rather than your "serial monogamy."

  • Posted by: - Jan. 17, 2013 4:49 PM ET USA

    Phil, as a show of support to our courageous french brethern, why don't u edit this piece so that "the state only observes what is obvious--the SEX of the 2 partners. . . ." I'm sure the Academie Francaise would appreciate it, too.