Mondays are reserved for student letters.  This student writes from Latin America.


In the past year, in Peru, has come forward the debate about gay marriage. It has produced a lot of talking and writing on both sides. My teachers have given their opinions too. They think that the idea of family can change.  I think they’re wrong.   There is a difference between calling a thing family and a thing being a family.

What I’d like to ask is whether you think the family can change. If it can’t change, why do many people seem to think otherwise?  But if it can change, then is there any reason to not allow same-sex couple to marry or to adopt children?


Certainly people in different times and places may hold different ideas about the family; even in our own time people hold different ideas about it.  But not all of these ideas are equally correspondent with the requirements of our nature.  So if the question “Can the idea of the family change?” is taken to mean “Can people hold different opinions about the family?” then the answer is “yes,” but if it is taken to mean “Can the natural laws of family life change?” then the answer is “no.”

On the other hand, the natural laws of family life do not require that all families do everything in exactly the same way.  There are a thousand possibilities of melody, but the principles of harmony that make melody different from noise are the same for all of them.  There are a many kinds of individual personality, but the principles of virtue that make a good person different from a bad one are the same for all of them.  And there are many kinds of happy family, but the underlying principles of sound family order are the same for all of them.

The thing we overlook is that one of these principles is faithful, heterosexual monogamy.

To illustrate, let’s first compare monogamy with polygamy.  Unlike monogamy, polygamy undermines what natural law thinkers call the unitive and procreative goods – the very goods that marriage is all about.  The unitive good is weakened because if the man does not give himself to his wife exclusively, then neither can he give himself to her totally.  It is further weakened because it tends to put women in the position of servants or chattel and breeds jealousy among a man’s various wives.  The procreative good is weakened because the relation between the children and their father is attenuated, and because the children of different wives are likely to be in competition for the affection of their father.  I might add that polygamy is also socially unjust and undermines solidarity among the classes.  If rich men have multiple wives, many poor men will be unable to marry at all.

Now let’s compare polygamy with heterosexual promiscuity.  Although polygamy undermines the unitive and procreative goods, at least it does not utterly destroy them.  Promiscuity does.  It destroys the unitive good because the man and woman have no commitment to each other, and it destroys the procreative good because children grow up without fathers -- or with a succession of temporary “fathers” who are not interested in them.

To return to your question, so-called gay marriage also destroys the unitive and procreative good.  That is why it is not really marriage, whatever the law may call it.  The relationship is both intrinsically non-procreative and intrinsically non-complementary.  In other words, by nature two persons of the same sex cannot produce children, and by nature they cannot balance each other.  It may be objected that two persons of the same sex can adopt, but this distorts the order of the family because the child needs both a mother and a father, and the two are not interchangeable.

By the way, when I say that faithful, heterosexual monogamy is a principle of good family life, I don’t mean that every monogamous arrangement of family life works equally well.  For example, children need not only their mothers and fathers, but also their grandmothers and grandfathers; the “nuclear” arrangements of the industrialized countries are not ideal.

You also ask why people disagree about the principles of family life.  There are two reasons.  One is innocent mistakes.  It may be especially difficult to arrive at a sound understanding of happy family life if one has never experienced it, a circumstance which is unfortunately more and more common.  But another reason is self-justification, because unrepented sexual selfishness and other bad motives drive people to make excuses for practices which are really indefensible.  Sometimes people even defend bad practices in which they do not participate, just to make sure that their own lives are not criticized either.

Tomorrow:  A Dialogue on Natural Law, Part 7 of 10