In last month's First Things, Robert P. George had some great observations on the connection of small government to the strength of the traditional family:
I understand why someone would consider this idea [privatizing marriage], but it strikes me as a bad one. There is a reason that all cultures treat marriage as a matter of public concern and even recognize it in law and regulate it. The family is the fundamental unit of society. Governments rely on families to produce something that governments need—but, on their own, they could not possibly produce: upright, decent people who make honest, law-abiding, public-spirited citizens. And marriage is the indispensable foundation of the family. Although all marriages in all cultures have their imperfections, children flourish in an environment where they benefit from the love and care of both mother and father, and from the committed and exclusive love of their parents for each other.
Anyone who believes in limited government should strongly back government support for the family. Does this sound paradoxical? In the absence of a strong marriage culture, families fail to form, and when they do form they are often unstable. Absentee fathers become a serious problem, out-of-wedlock births are common, and a train of social pathologies follows. With families failing to perform their health, education, and welfare functions, the demand for government grows, whether in the form of greater policing or as a provider of other social services. Bureaucracies must be created, and they inexorably expand—indeed they become powerful lobbyists for their own preservation and expansion. Everyone suffers, with the poorest and most vulnerable suffering most.
As I've quoted here before, Fulton Sheen puts it this way, "If parents surrender responsibility to their children, the state will take up the slack. State power is the effect of the breakdown of family authority. Mothers more than politicians are the preservers of freedom and democracy."
At the basis of disagreement over marriage are radically disparate conceptions of what it means to be a human person.
Everyone agrees that marriage, whatever else it is or does, is a relationship in which persons are united. But what are persons? And how is it possible for two or more of them to unite? According to the view implicit in sexual-liberationist ideology, the person is understood as the conscious and desiring aspect of the self. The person, thus understood, inhabits a body, but the body is regarded (if often only implicitly) as a subpersonal part of the human being—rather than part of the personal reality of the human being whose body it is. The body is viewed as serving the interests of the conscious and desiring aspect of the self by functioning as an instrument by which the individual produces or otherwise participates in satisfactions and other desirable experiences and realizes various objectives and goals.
So, then, how should we understand what marriage is? Marriage, considered not as a mere legal convention or cultural artifact, is a one-flesh communion of persons that is consummated and actualized by acts that are procreative in type, whether or not they are procreative in effect. It is an intrinsic human good, and, precisely as such, it provides a more than merely instrumental reason for choice and action.
It goes without saying that sexual acts outside normal, heterosexual intercourse are not "procreative in type."
In truly marital acts, the desire for pleasure and even for offspring are integrated with and, in an important sense, subordinated to the central and defining good of one-flesh unity. The integration of subordinate goals with the marital good ensures that such acts effect no practical dualism that separates the body from the conscious and desiring aspect of the self and treats the body as a mere instrument for the production of pleasure, the generation of offspring, or any other extrinsic goal.
Marriage is not merely instrumental to procreation, but exists as a good in itself, which is why a couple need not have offspring to be truly considered married: "Western matrimonial law has traditionally and universally understood marriage as consummated by acts fulfilling the behavioral conditions of procreation, whether or not the nonbehavioral conditions of procreation happen to obtain."
Professor George concludes that we need a national resolution to this crisis to preserve the conjugal conception of marriage.
Robert P. George, "Law and Moral Purpose," First Things 179 (January 2008), 22-29. [subscription required for access]