Yesterday’s installment of Public Discourse features an intriguing essay by Professor Gerard Bradley on why marriage law depends upon the procreation of children. Bradley highlights from the outset the impossibility of neutrality by the government on this issue, a shot across the bow at Rawlsian theories of public policy.

Bradley then turns to the heart of his argument, which he states this way:

The most important moral truth about the family is the radical equality and mutuality at the heart of family relationships, which relationships have an unbreakable foundation in the way children come to be within marriage. When the spouses’ marital acts bear the fruit of children, the children are perceptively called (in law) “issue of the marriage.” For children embody in a unique way their parents’ union. Just as the married couple is often referred to as two-in-one-flesh, so too each of their children is the two-of-them-in-the-one-flesh. Each child just is their union, extended into time and space, and thus into human history and into the whole human community. The parents can see in each of their children an unsurpassable reflection of them as a unity, that is, of their identity not as Jack and Joan but as the two-of-them-as-one flesh—literally.

Bradley makes the opposite move of Professor George’s piece in the recent First Things by making children intrinsic to the meaning of marriage–at least from a legal standpoint.  Bradley’s proposal pushes these relationships into the identity of the children, a move that is potentially problematic.   Children grow up, it seems, to be something more than the image of their parents union and establish identities separate from those of their parents–at least currently.  Bradley’s metaphysic perhaps offers support for the sort of localism that the Front Porcher’s (and Chesterton!) so love.

But Professor Bradley states that children just “are” the union and then goes on to call them an “unsurpassable reflection of [the parents] as a unity.”   This gap between the reflection of the unity and the union itself distended through space and time is enormous, and while the latter concept softens the idea of the former, I wonder whether in doing so it gives away more than he intends.

I am curious, though, to hear responses by our readers on the essay, especially in light of the interesting discussion we have had in the comments on Professor George’s piece.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. Bradley proposes to offer a rational (and legal) argument to discriminate against same-sex couples who would like to be legally married but his is not much of a legal argument.

    At least George’s piece tried to provide an explanation of how marriage is a procreative relationship instead of just taking it for granted. It did not persuade me but I think it was a good effort.

    Again, the question of those whose marriages do not produce children is raised. The childless marriage cannot have the “radical equality” that children embody so what is to be made of its legal status?

    Bradley states that “the most important moral truth about the family is the radical equality and mutuality at the heart of family relationships, which relationships have an unbreakable foundation in the way children come to be within marriage.” What precludes unmarried couples with children from possessing this moral truth in their familial relationships?

    “If marriage can be shown—coherently, reasonably—to be a procreative relationship, then same-sex couples cannot marry.” Bradley’s response to his rhetorical question is to state flatly that “for whatever else they can do, no same-sex couple can produce fruit of their union. They cannot bring into being children of their own.” End of argument.

    Let’s say that two lesbians are legally married (in Iowa, say) and decide to adopt a child together, whom they both love equally and regard as expression of their shared love and now-familial identity. Cannot the “matrix of familial equality, mutuality, and common identity is the wellspring and ground of love, duty, loyalty, care-giving—the whole moral culture of family life” be present? No mention of biology there but the issue is raised. His mention of a “biological common core” is only followed by a series of examples of familial relationships, which are apparently weaker with adopted children or those born out of wedlock.

    In one of his more-legal points, Bradley says that “the factor of equality of marital friendship” is why polygamy is illegal but it does not follow that marriage is procreative, although children can be considered the embodiment of the equal contribution made by each heterosexual parent in producing the child.

    Regarding the law, children may be the issue of the marriage and the embodiment of the parents’ union, but the capacity (or potential ability) to procreate is not a necessary condition for marriage, as Bradley suggests.


  2. *as Bradley’s line of reasoning suggests.


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *