Wednesday, 13 March 2013

New video! SPUC International Youth Conference 2013

Booking is now open for the 6th SPUC youth conference 22-24 march 2013.

Please see this link for full details and booking:

It is reccomended that you book ASAP - only 9 days to go.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Is the true nature of marriage self-evident?

As debate rages over the Government’s plans to redefine marriage as a union between two persons either of the same or of the opposite sex, it is becoming increasingly clear that our society no longer possesses a clear definition of marriage. The defenders of traditional marriage hold that marriage is an exclusive lifelong union of two persons of the opposite sex and regard this as something so clearly manifested in human history and so conformable to reason and experience that it is ‘self-evident’; to suggest that ‘marriage’ can be anything else is simply absurd. Those of us who hold this view have however had to contend with the reality that there are those for whom the proposition ‘Marriage can only be a union of one man and one woman’ is not only not self-evident but is in fact scarcely comprehensible. How has our society come to be divided into two such irreconcilable factions, with one group holding as self-evident something which is now incomprehensible to the other? To help answer this question I wish to consider the matter in the light of the philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas. This is primarily a philosophical question and I hope that the following discussion will be of interest to people of all religious backgrounds and none.

St Thomas Aquinas 1225 - 1274

In the Summa Theologica St Thomas defines a self-evident proposition as a statement of which ‘no one can mentally admit the opposite.’ St Thomas gives the example ‘man is an animal’. There are none of us who can mentally admit the proposition that ‘man is a plant’ or that ‘man is a rock.’ Similarly most people historically, and also today, are unable to admit mentally the proposition ‘marriage can be between two men or two women’; it is something that simply cannot be conceived.

So why are there an increasing number of people who can admit this proposition?

St Thomas explains as follows:

A thing can be self-evident in either of two ways: on the one hand, self-evident in itself, though not to us; on the other, self-evident in itself, and to us. A proposition is self-evident because the predicate is included in the essence of the subject, as "Man is an animal," for animal is contained in the essence of man. If, therefore the essence of the predicate and subject be known to all, the proposition will be self-evident to all; as is clear with regard to the first principles of demonstration, the terms of which are common things that no one is ignorant of, such as being and non-being, whole and part, and such like. If, however, there are some to whom the essence of the predicate and subject is unknown, the proposition will be self-evident in itself, but not to those who do not know the meaning of the predicate and subject of the proposition.

Let us work through this difficult passage step by step.

Aquinas is stating:

  1. Something can be ‘self-evident in itself and to us’ - i.e we immediately see that it is self-evident OR it can be ‘self-evident in itself, though not to us’ i.e.-  it is self-evident but it may not be recognised as such in certain circumstances. If then, something which is self-evident cannot always be recognised as such then in what way, we may ask, can it in fact be called self-evident?

  1. St Thomas explains that a proposition is self-evident if ‘the predicate is included in the essence of the subject’.  Let us apply this to the proposition ‘man is an animal’. ‘Man’ is the subject of the sentence and ‘is an animal’ is the predicate. Biologically man falls into the category ‘animal’ because he shares the characteristics that are used when defining animals rather than those which are used to define plants, rocks etc. Therefore it is self-evident, in this context, that man is an animal.

  1. However if a person did not understand what the word ‘animal’ meant in this context they might be able to mentally conceive the opposite. For example, if a person mistakenly thought that the word ‘animal’ as used in this context implied that man did not have an immortal soul they might assert ‘man is not an animal’ and the contrary proposition would not be self-evident to them. It would however remain self-evident in itself because no-one who truly understood the proposition would be able to mentally conceive the opposite.

We can now begin to understand the problem that we face today. The proposition ‘Marriage can only be a union of one man and one woman’ is self-evident in itself but this self-evidence is only realised by those who understand what the word 'marriage' has always traditionally meant in this context. The reality is that the word ‘marriage’ has been used in an incorrect sense in this country and in others for some time, beginning with the introduction of divorce, which undermined the idea that marriage was a lifelong exclusive union, and then furthered by the widespread use of artificial methods of birth control which has done great damage to the understanding that the institution of marriage is intrinsically ordered to the procreation and raising of children.

The consequence of this is that many people now believe that ‘marriage’ merely signifies a contract between two people who wish some kind of formal recognition for their relationship which they conceive as existing primarily for mutual love and support and for the enjoyment of sexual pleasure. The procreation and raising of children is now often considered an optional extra by couples capable of having children (though marriage of course has always taken place in cases where procreation is not possible due to infertility.) When people accept this new understanding of the word ‘marriage’, the most compelling reason to prevent two men or two women entering such a union is no longer effective. The proposition ‘Marriage is a union of one man and one woman’ is no longer self-evident to them because they do not understand what is signified by the word ‘marriage’ as it has always been applied to this natural human phenomenon . Nonetheless the proposition remains, and will always remain, self-evident in itself.

St Thomas’ understanding of self-evidence is helpful to us because it shows us the importance of raising awareness in people of the true meaning of marriage as a lifelong exclusive union ordered towards the procreation and raising of children and the mutual love and support of the spouses. It is only when the true meaning of marriage is fully understood that it will once again become self-evident to all that two men or two women can never enter into the specific kind of union that marriage involves.
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