Polyamory: An Attack on the Sanctity of Marriage
Sister Lucia, one of the three Fatima visionaries, famously told Cardinal Carlo Caffarra that the “final battle” between the kingdom of God and Satan would be over marriage and the family.
We should not be surprised, then, that marriage has come under so many assaults in recent decades. This includes the explosion of no-fault divorce, the increase in cohabitation and collapse in marriage rates, and the incursions of contraception, pornography, rampant infidelity and so-called same-sex “marriage.”
However, a recent article in The Atlantic has confirmed a growing suspicion of mine about the sudden explosion of a new attack on marriage or, at least, an old attack in a new form.
“The chattering class has a new fixation: polyamory,” begins the article. “What began as a trickle of discourse a few years ago … has become a veritable flood.” Indeed, in just the past few weeks, readers of major newspapers have been treated to a series of articles clearly seeking to normalize the practice of so-called “polyamory,” i.e., the practice of “open relationships” in which couples, married or otherwise, agree to allow one another to pursue sexual liaisons with other partners.
One recent article in the New York Times, for instance, approvingly describes the efforts of a 50-year-old mom of two, Molly, to “find” herself through a “big sexual adventure,” which includes pursuing numerous sexual relationships with other men, to which her husband purportedly consents.
Meanwhile, the author of another article in Business Insider claims that practicing polyamory somehow “made my family stronger.” In a recent article in the New York Post, a woman claims that only by living with her husband and a boyfriend can she afford a home. Another article in The Guardian wonders whether polyamory is “more fun” than seeking one partner to settle down with. While yet another recent article in New York Magazine explores, at great length, why polyamory has become so “popular.”
“Marriage has been drafty lately,” states the New York Magazine article, pointing to numerous recent books and TV shows featuring polyamory as some part of the plot. “Everywhere you turn, the door couples close behind them when they enter the sanctum of matrimony is being left ajar.”
The Superficiality of Polyamory
Of course, it’s no great secret why polyamory has become so “popular.” After all, the allure of sexual novelty is as old as the hills.
For Christians, this has always been understood as one of the unfortunate effects of Original Sin, and something to be resisted, not normalized, and encouraged. This was done by teaching and cultivating personal virtue, as well as actively safeguarding the many social practices and values that direct men and women to choose sexual exclusivity and maturity within the institution of marriage.
The reasons for this are myriad. There are, of course, the innumerable social benefits to a society built upon permanent, exclusive marriages. After all, men and women who are married are far less likely to suffer from all sort of social ills, including serious poverty. That goes for their children too, who are significantly less likely to suffer poverty, mental illness, and incarceration than children who grow up in fractured homes.
However, there are also the personal and spiritual benefits of sexual control and exclusivity. Despite all the breathy promises of the modern preachers of so-called sexual “freedom,” the common experience of the human race is that the pursuit of endless novelty is one of the most effective ways to be miserable.
One of the great paradoxes of the sexual revolution is that while the sexual revolutionaries have preached sexual promiscuity as the path towards sexual fulfillment, studies consistently find that the married enjoy the highest rates of sexual satisfaction. Even in terms of its own priorities (i.e., maximizing sexual pleasure), then, the sexual revolution has failed.
And that’s without taking into account the many, and often far-more-important priorities that have motivated the Christian defense of marriage in the first place: i.e., the maximization of the personal, physical, emotional, spiritual and social welfare not just of a husband and wife, but also their children and the wider community and nation to which they belong. On all of these counts, stable, faithful, exclusive marriages score far above any of the fashionable alternatives, such as the grossly misnamed “polyamory.”
The Failure of Love
Etymologically, polyamory means “many loves.”
But in reading the various descriptions of “polyamory” in the recent articles on the subject, it is clear that polyamory has very little to do with “amory” (i.e., love), and much more to do with “poly” (i.e., many). Indeed, while one might be tempted to think that polyamory is just a fancy new word for “polygamy,” in reality what is clear is that polyamory is a peculiarly modern, and even more debased sexual “lifestyle” than polygamy.
In the case of polygamy, at least there is an effort to maintain a certain façade of the exclusivity and stability of marriage, albeit with multiple “wives.” However, in so-called “polyamory,” the so-called partners seem simply to trade one partner for another, as if they were exchanging a pair of socks, in an endless chase for novelty and thrills. The various novel partners are merely treated as means that are valued so long as they are exciting and serve the restless search for “self-fulfillment,” but which are abandoned the minute they no longer intrigue or provide sufficient pleasure.
Take, for instance, the article about “Molly” in the New York Times. The article is sordid (and thus I do not recommend reading it). But, even more revealing, is that it is deeply sad. Molly comes across as utterly unmoored from any basic sense of self-worth or decency. Disturbingly, she seems utterly heedless of the well-being of her children (who both accidentally, to their horror, discovered her sexual relationships with other men when they were in their early teens).
Even stranger is her apparent heedlessness of her own well-being. She confesses that the complex emotional and physical gymnastics through which she and her husband put themselves while recklessly pursuing sexual relationships with other people left her feeling “exhausted” and consumed with jealousy. As one Amazon reviewer of Molly’s book wrote, “Throughout the book, often Molly is crying or feeling like she’s having a nervous breakdown. I kept thinking, if this is positive ‘self growth’ or ‘self actualization,’ polyamory/open marriage is very rough route to take.”
One of the best measures of the maturity of an individual (as well as a society) is the extent to which that individual (or society) is able to see beyond superficialities to access the deeper, subtler, often-hidden meanings of things. Above all, those who are truly wise are those who have learned to see beneath the superficial allure of sin, and to recognize that the brilliant plumage of temptation hides a bitter, and even fatal poison.
Molly and her ilk, however — all the restless, seeking, promiscuous men and women of the post-sexual revolution era — seem as little more than lost children, when compared to those men and women who have successfully cultivated a deep, meaningful, self-sacrificial, faithful marriage, which has served as the foundation for building a family that will endure across generations.
What has this celebrated fad of “polyamory” to do with an authentic love that finds its deepest freedom not in the puerile pursuit of sexual novelty, but in sacrificing self for the sake of the good of the beloved? This is the great wisdom that is encapsulated and protected in the Church’s rich teaching on marriage, the teaching for which She is so often roundly mocked by our culture, but of which our culture stands so desperately in need: It is in self-denial that we find joy! It is in self-gift that we find self-fulfillment! It is in choosing freely to bind ourselves to something good that we find authentic freedom!
Chesterton and Cardinal Sarah on Love
This notion that authentic freedom is found in freely embracing relationships of love that, by their very nature bind the lovers to one another in an exclusive relationship, is at the heart of one of the most insightful chapters in Cardinal Sarah’s profound book The Day is Now Far Spent.
As Cardinal Sarah writes in the chapter entitled “Hatred of Man,”
In order to establish a solid life in this world, we must connect with others. Our freedom is made, not so much in order to say a frightened, suspicious No to others, as to say Yes to them, to commit ourselves to lasting bonds of trust and love. The archetype of this contract is marriage, through which one man and one woman, accepting their profound nature as sexed beings, realize that they need one another and choose to give themselves to each other forever. It is significant that modern man has become almost incapable of a total commitment. He is literally paralyzed by fear of this prospect, which involves confidence in himself and in the other.
One of the most famous treatments of this idea is found in G.K. Chesterton’s essay “A Defense of Rash Vows.” I would encourage you to read the essay in full.
As Chesterton writes,
The revolt against vows has been carried in our day even to the extent of a revolt against the typical vow of marriage. It is most amusing to listen to the opponents of marriage on this subject. They appear to imagine that the ideal of constancy was a yoke mysteriously imposed on mankind by the devil, instead of being, as it is, a yoke consistently imposed by all lovers on themselves. They have invented a phrase, a phrase that is a black and white contradiction in two words — ‘free-love’ — as if a lover ever had been, or ever could be, free. It is the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word.
Chesterton’s point, in other words, is the same as Cardinal Sarah’s. Man, indeed, is created free, in the sense that he has the freedom to choose one course of action over another. However, the purpose of freedom is not to remain in a perpetual state of non-choosing, free of all commitments and obligations, but rather to freely choose to commit oneself by choosing relationships of love!
Modern humans, on the other hand, seem to think that the point of freedom is to remain suspended permanently in a state of indecision and non-action: to float pointlessly about, with no sense of direction, no purpose. Only in this way does modern man think that he can protect his freedom.
However, while the modern chattering class may go on and on about “polyamory,” the true lover does not want many “lovers.” The true lover yearns to bind him or herself to the one beloved, and in so choosing to experience the greater freedom of allowing this one love to flourish, deepen and grow, thus revealing depths of joy and meaning that the lover would never choose if he remained distant and aloof, flitting about superficially from one “partner” to another.
Love is jealous. Love is exclusive. As Chesterton writes, “Modern sages offer to the lover, with an ill-favoured grin, the largest liberties and the fullest irresponsibility; but they do not respect him as the old Church respected him; they do not write his oath upon the heavens, as the record of his highest moment. They give him every liberty except the liberty to sell his liberty, which is the only one that he wants.”
Against this high standard of love, enshrined and protected in the Church’s teaching on marriage, so-called “polyamory” has all the appearance of a childish past-time. It is but one more of the devil’s attacks on marriage, all of which predictably promise to bring greater pleasure, happiness, and self-fulfillment, and which instead produce only bitterness, anxiety, hatred, division, sadness, and (as in the case of abortion) death.
As Christians, we must resist this childish allure of sin. We must defend the dignity of marriage and the family, the domestic church, which is not only the training ground of saints, but also the bedrock of a functioning, healthy society.
As president of Human Life International, Fr. Boquet is a leading expert on the international pro-life and family movement, having journeyed to nearly 90 countries on pro-life missions over the last decade. Father Boquet works with pro-life and family leaders in 116 counties that partner with HLI to proclaim and advance the Gospel of Life. Read his full bio here.