(Note: This piece was originally published in the blog, “. . . the hell with it” in which I guest-blogged in response to an article by ‘Johnny Peters” as part of a debate on the Church, the state, and marriage You can read both articles and the following commentary/debate here.)
In this piece, I will argue that the state should in fact recognize and promote marriage, as taught by the Church, and that the law should recognize the true definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman.
Contrary to our gracious hostess’s statement on this blog, I could care less whether or not the state has a vested interest in recognizing marriage between one man and one woman. Rather, I believe that society–that all of us–have a vested interest in marriage being thus correctly recognized by the law. In accord with the consistent social teaching of the Church, the state has a duty to promote the common good, whether it happens to benefit those in power or not.
While Mr. Peters has given us a rousing libertarian rant against various abuses of power by the state, from Mayor Bloomberg’s War on Soda-pop to Prohibition, he fails to adequately address Catholic social teaching on the proper relationship of the law to marriage.
As Catholics, our primary concern should not be with what Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Barrack Obama, NOM, the ACLU, or any other politician or political lobby has to say about this issue. Rather, we should be concerned with what Jesus Christ’s One Holy Catholic Apostolic Church has to say about it.
The Church’s teaching on legal recognition of marriage, and on homosexual “civil unions” is not arcane or esoteric, but is pretty straightforward and direct, and can be easily read by all in this 2003 document written by a certain Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in the office of Prefect of the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith: “Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons.”
There isn’t space here to go into this entire document in depth, but I strongly recommend that every Catholic with an interest in this debate read the entire document. Cardinal Ratzinger’s learning, wisdom, and holiness far exceeds my own, and it is best to read it in his own words. However, I will quote the document’s conclusion here:
The Church teaches that respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behavior or to legal recognition of homosexual unions. The common good requires that laws recognize, promote and protect marriage as the basis of the family, the primary unit of society. Legal recognition of homosexual unions or placing them on the same level as marriage would mean not only the approval of deviant behavior, with the consequence of making it a model in present-day society, but would also obscure basic values which belong to the common inheritance of humanity. The Church cannot fail to defend these values, for the good of men and women and for the good of society itself.
Many Catholics today decry state recognition of marriage as “giving the state power over a sacrament,” and talk as though this is similar to the state deciding who should be baptized, or allowed to receive Holy Communion.
While the Church has in fact elevated Catholic marriage to a sacrament, marriage is in fact an institution of the natural law, and is a good in the natural order. Marriage between a man and a woman simply provides the best situation for the procreation and raising of children, and is the most fundamental unit of human society. As such, it is in everyone’s interest to promote and support it, as the Church recognizes. Study after study confirms that it is best for children that they be raised in stable homes with both a mother and a father, and our society is currently suffering from the effects of fatherless homes and broken homes associated with the decline of marriage.
Thus, marriage between man and woman is not only a religious concern, but rather a good essential to the proper functioning of society, which deserves to be supported by law and government, just as the law should support such goods as human life and property rights.
While much more could be said about the above-cited CDF document, two main points are relevant to this particular debate.
First, law-makers have a duty to ensure that the law “recognize, promote, and protect marriage.”
While there can certainly be legitimate debate about how the law should best do this, this is obviously contrary to the law not recognizing marriage at all, as Mr. Peters proposes. If the law does not even recognize marriage in the first place, then it follows that it can do nothing to promote or protect it.
Secondly, it is wrong to give legal recognition to homosexual unions, and “place them on the same level as marriage.”
While Mr. Peters claims to be opposed to state recognition of homosexual unions, this is exactly what his proposal to “get the state out of marriage” would in fact entail. If legal recognition of the marriage contract were scrapped, as Mr. Peters proposes, and replaced entirely with contracts by private attorney, then the state would indeed place homosexual unions and marriage on the same level. (And I hardly think it beneficial to married couples if, after getting married, they have to make a separate visit with a lawyer simply to receive any legal recognition as being related to one another.)
A marriage between a man and a woman, in Mr. Peters’ brilliant proposal, would receive exactly the same legal recognition as a private contract between two or more cohabiting homosexuals, or any other grouping of persons having nothing to do with marriage. Such a move would utterly fail to promote and protect marriage in any way, but would utterly devalue it, as to make marriage legally meaningless.
Likewise with Senator Paul’s absurd proclamation (reverently quoted by Mr. Peters) that “There should essentially be no limits to the voluntary definition of marriage.” If there are essentially no limits to the legal definition of marriage, “marriage” becomes essentially meaningless. This “voluntary” redefinition of “marriage” to mean anything and everything you want it to mean, would in reality force the state to recognize as “marriage” not only homosexual “unions,” but any other couplings or groupings of persons (or animals? inanimate objects? Let’s not be limiting!) that one can come up with. In Senator Paul’s brave new world, states would have to legally recognize your “marriage” to your gay lover, or your sister, or your grandmother, or your Rottweiler (or all four if you’re feeling particularly adventurous) No limits, baby!
But, the libertarian opponents of legal marriage will say, so what if the law gives no special status to marriage between man and woman, and places it on equal footing legally with contracts between homosexuals or others? After all, it’s not the place of the law to promote moral values!
But this is where Catholic social teaching differs sharply from secularist libertarian doctrine. The Church has always recognized and taught that it is the responsibility of law and government to promote the common good and natural law morality, rather than oppose it. Thus, “legal recognition of homosexual unions or placing them on the same level as marriage would mean not only the approval of deviant behavior, with the consequence of making it a model in present-day society, but would also obscure basic values which belong to the common inheritance of humanity.”
Laws both reflect and affect the moral values of a society, and people’s ideas of what is right and wrong. The Church teaches that the law has a “teaching” function. If you doubt this notion, consider whether you think it is easier or harder to convince people in our country that abortion is wrong and evil after it has been officially legally enshrined via Roe v. Wade as “a woman’s constitutional right to choose.” Or you might consider whether you think the outlawing of slavery has had any effect on people’s general attitudes toward “the peculiar institution.”
If the law does not recognize and promote marriage, but regards it as having no more value than homosexual shack-ups, it sends the clear message that marriage is of no value.
Now that we’ve shown that the Church teaches that the law must recognize and protect marriage, and that abolishing all legal recognition of marriage is contrary to the Church’s teachings, let’s deal briefly with a couple of Mr. Peter’s objections.
“The Church shouldn’t need permission slips from the state to perform marriages!”
Fair enough. I don’t have a problem with getting rid of state marriage licenses, though I don’t think they’re quite the horrific oppression Mr. Peters apparently thinks they are, given the big scheme of things. The law should still recognize and promote marriage though, and this can be done without marriage licenses – as the law did in fact recognize marriages before state licenses were introduced. I think a written document with the signatures of the spouses would do fine. Just so long as the state only recognizes marriages between a man and a woman, as nothing else is, or ever can be, a marriage.
“Catholic churches will be forced to perform gay marriage ceremonies!”
This is simply a hysterical slippery-slope non-sequitor. This scenario would be a direct violation of the first amendment’s religious liberty clause, which even the most liberal lawyer would have trouble weaseling around. And yes, I realize religious liberty is under attack, but we should stand and defend religious liberty on its own grounds, rather than duck and run by failing to promote and defend marriage. While the law recognizes the right of persons to get married, no one has a “right” to get married in any particular church, synagogue, or mosque. Religious clerics are not forced to marry any (heterosexual) couple in violation of their religious beliefs. Time and energy would be much better spent defending first amendment religious liberty rights, than trying to abolish all legal recognition of marriage.
(Besides, I’m sure the local liberal Episcopalian church would be more than happy to oblige any homosexual couple looking for a quaint and atmospheric location for a “wedding” ceremony that would beat the local Catholic architectural monstrosity hands-down.)
The Church always calls on us to stand up and defend what is right and just, to be a shining light on the hill, rather than run for the cover of darkness at any sign of a tough fight. She doesn’t call on us to stand up for what is right only when we deem it politically expedient or popular, or “on the right side of history.”
The Church continues to exhort Catholics to do all we can to ensure that the state and the law defend and protect all innocent human life, born and preborn. She does this regardless of the fact that the government of our country (and many others) has failed miserably in this regard over the past forty years or so.
In the same way, the Church calls on law-makers to defend and protect the good of marriage. We Catholics should step up our efforts to evangelize society, and take a stand for what is right, rather than declare surrender, and pursue a legal agenda blatantly at odds with the Church’s teaching.