I’m happy to continue the “thinking out loud” about Catholics and same-sex marriage begun by Brad Birzer on these pages last night, even though –having thought about each of these issues at length– I consider my thoughts about them each very settled.
I welcome in the comments, of course, any reader who wants to disagree or agree by adding supporting evidence, arguments, and/or citations from Church teaching to my answers!
Brad begins by asking: “First, as Catholics, why do we really care–at a philosophical and theological level–what a government, be it legitimately elected or not, thinks about the issue of marriage?”
We have to care about what government defines as civil marriage because marriage is a pre-political institution that supports the common good of society. As George Weigel wrote in NRO this week, same-sex marriage represents a “vast expansion of state power.”
Why? Because it is only through power that government can decide it has the competence to redefine what it has no right to redefine – in this case, natural marriage. We see the same bad fruits of this trend when government decided it has the competence to decide when human rights begin – Roe v. Wade decides the law can determine when a human being has the right to life (at the moment of its first breath outside its mother’s womb). And we know what havoc this unjust decision has caused.
Therefore, government actually becomes more involved in curtailing the freedom of human beings and more damaging to the common good when it “expands” the institution of marriage to same-sex partners. Furthermore, law helps to shape culture and embedded within the idea of same-sex marriage is the idea that children have no right to a mother and father. Thus we can see again how redefining marriage redefines-out other basic human rights and makes human flourishing more difficult for a society to attain.
I could go on to add more arguments but I’ll end with this: same-sex marriage poses immediate harmful consequences to the religious liberty of all people who believe marriage is between one man and one woman. The comparison gay activists draw between the civil rights movement and their movement to redefine marriage is not accidental: if the government determines that the motivations of Christian to oppose same-sex marriage is actually akin to the racism which motivated some people to oppose interracial marriage … our Christian beliefs about marriage and family will be treated the same way we treat racists in this country, with all the penalties and harassment government and culture can bring to bear on individuals who hold beliefs contrary to what the law plainly says.
On this point I would refer readers to the numerous examples of this trend now happening in European countries and Canada where same-sex marriage has been legalized. Christians are coming under attack not because the same-sex marriage laws there are written poorly, but because they are written well to achieve the goal of marginalizing anyone who disagrees with what the law says.
Second, as Roman Catholics, should we spend our time worrying about issues such as same-sex marriage when other issues–such as the continuing issue of abortion, or the fact we now are waging three simultaneous wars (none with the consent of the one war-making branch under the Constitution–Congress). These issues are matters of life and death, and we continue each at our own peril as a culture and as a people.
I firmly belief that Catholics must learn to walk and chew gum at the same time. I totally believe in fighting to promote and defend the rights of the unborn. Others take seriously the Christian prerogative to hold our government accountable when it comes to either establishing the just cause for the fights we are waging, or putting an end to them swiftly.
But at the same time there are good reasons why the Church places its teachings about human dignity and family in the center of its social thought: 1) all other rights flow from our fundamental right to life and dignity which originates in our identity as being made in the image of God and 2) all human beings come into this world as part not only of the human family – but from our immediate family – the parents who conceived us and are called to care for us in love.
For the Church, the family, not the isolated individual, is the fundamental unit of society. The family is the essential mediating pre-political institution which simultaneously connects individuals in love to one another and rebuffs the attempts of the state to consume us into an impersonal collective. For that reason, the Church says Catholics are called to defend the natural family and oppose in the strongest terms all efforts to undermine it. I believe same-sex is such a grave threat.
Third, shouldn’t the real response come from the priests, rather than the laypersons? A priest can, with certainty, deny the sacraments to someone involved in a situation acting counter to the spiritual health of the person, the couple, or the community.
Actually, I would argue just the reverse: because government and politics are the proper domain of the lay person it is part of the essential duty of lay Catholics to actively promote the complete vision of man –and the unique role of the natural family– in the public square, and that includes politics. Priests and bishops, of course, have their own responsibilities to see that the teachings of Christ are proclaimed – for thereby Christ acting through his ordained ministers continues to reveal man to himself.
More can obviously be done by priests, bishops and lay people to defend the natural family and marriage in law and culture, but all of us have the duty to do so because all of us are called to be light to the world.
In other words, what sort of light are we Catholics shining if we can’t even stand up for the good things God has given us in marital love fulfilled in family and children?