We stand at a critical juncture in America. The future of marriage, the family and society hang precariously in a balance. At the present moment the United States Supreme Court is considering challenges to state and federal laws that define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Not many years ago the prospect of marriage redefinition would have seemed unimaginable.
Riding the wave of powerful cultural forces driven by the media, it is remarkable how swiftly the tide of public opinion has changed on a matter of such fundamental importance as marriage. There is no structure in society more worthy of protection than marriage and the family. Marriage is a personal relationship, but with a public significance. It is for this reason that the state has always maintained an interest in regulating and preserving marriage. It has been concerned not only with the good of the spouses, but especially with what is good for the children born of marriage.
But the state is not the ultimate arbiter of marriage. Marriage comes from the hand of God who fashioned both male and female in the divine image (Gen. 1:27). A man “leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body” (Gen 2:24). God blesses the man and woman and commands them to “be fertile and multiply” (Gen 1:28). This is God’s plan for marriage. By their mutual gift of self, husband and wife cooperate with God in bringing children to life and caring for them. Several years ago the United States Catholic Bishops wrote, “Marriage is a basic human and social institution. Though it has been regulated by civil laws and church laws, it did not originate either from the church or the state, but from God. Therefore, neither church nor state can alter the basic meaning and structure of marriage.”
What then is marriage? As understood in the Judeo-Christian tradition and reflecting the natural law, marriage is the faithful, exclusive, lifelong union of a man and a woman joined in an intimate communion of life and love. In and through their complementarity spouses join themselves completely to each other and to the wondrous responsibility of bringing children into the world and caring for them. Marriage is a good that benefits not only the spouses, but the children born of marriage as well as the common good of society.
Already the slogan “marriage equality” has worked its way into the common lexicon of political speech. This is a brilliant marketing strategy, as was the aphorism “pro-choice.” Who is against choice? Who is against equality? But it is not about choice or equality, is it? There are deeper issues involved that are being masked by such pleasing slogans. The phrase “marriage equality” already begs the question. It presumes that there is more than one kind of marriage. Same-sex unions and marriage are not the same. They cannot be equal. Attempts to redefine marriage so as to make other relationships equivalent to it devalue the uniqueness of marriage and weakens it. Any weakening of this basic social institution, by whatever means, has already exacted too high a cost for children, for families and for society.
The current marriage redefinition arguments focus exclusively on the needs of adults and their fulfillment. It views marriage as a privatized relationship not oriented toward children or connected with the community. By contrast, the natural structure of human sexuality makes man and woman complementary partners for the transmission of human life. The permanent and exclusive commitment of marriage is the only worthy context for conjugal love which God created in order to serve the transmission of human life, provide for the wellbeing of children and, at the same time, deepen the union between husband and wife. It holds together in reverence the love-giving and life-giving dimensions which are constitutive of marriage.
But isn’t the defense of traditional marriage bigoted and unfair? To uphold God’s plan for marriage is not to attack the dignity of homosexual persons. Homosexual persons, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church are to be “accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity” (2358). Homosexual persons should never be the victims of unjust discrimination. Maintaining the traditional definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman is not discriminatory. Marriage and same-sex unions are essentially different realities. Simply changing the labels does not alter that reality. The Catholic Church and Sacred Scripture have always regarded sexual activity outside of marriage as immoral and contrary to God’s law: fornication, adultery and homosexual acts, included. Prescinding from this fundamental moral concern for the sake of making this point, there are other ways that states have chosen to extend benefits to same-sex couples without attempting a redefinition of the basic social institution of marriage.
The apparent rush to redefine marriage ought to raise red flags regarding potential consequences for a further erosion of religious liberty as well. Already Catholic Charities agencies in several states have been forced to withdraw from offering adoption services because they could not place children with homosexual couples without violating their religious beliefs.
The attempt to redefine marriage is to build a structure on sand. It cannot stand. It will collapse. And God only knows what other basic goods of society, such as religious liberty, may be brought down with it.