Marriage, Law, Charity, and Brad’s Missed Left Turn.

Thomas AquinasAbout two weeks ago Brad Birzer wrote a nearly masterful article on the danger of the efforts to re-define marriage in our civil, or human, laws. “Nearly” masterful because after collecting and laying out some great quotes and dystopic visions from noted authors, and seemingly about to make a devastating case for the real dangers to society of redefining marriage he seemingly missed a left turn at Albuquerque and ended up in the wrong place.

The salient paragraphs from the end of Brad’s piece (i.e., the ones that gave me cognitive whiplash):

As Catholics, we would be guilty of the darkest of errors to assume salvation in a state solution.  When it comes to the institution of marriage, the state cannot be an ally.  It can only consume, devour, and replace.  Instead, we, as Catholics, must define marriage within Christianity.  Indeed, we have already done so, but we must recognize and acknowledge our own tradition.
Whatever a state or government says here or there regarding marriage. . .  let them.  A state can only twist, ignore, mock, or manipulate what already exists in the divine and natural laws.  It certainly cannot change them.

The Catholic Church is older than any existing government; it should act accordingly.  And, as Catholics, we should as well.

The first sentence is absolutely correct: we cannot legislate or govern our way to heaven (but, as I get into below, it’s not quite that simple). Happily, nowhere in Catholic tradition do we expect the state to be our salvation.

However the next line mischaracterizes what the state is, then the lines after that build on the error, until by the end we are abdicating our duty to our fellow human persons.

He says, “When it comes to the institution of marriage, the state cannot be an ally.” In so saying he seems to indicate that the state (and here we are speaking of a democratic republic like our own) is an entity unto itself, set at somewhat-irreconcilable odds with the Church, with its own independent life apart from the will of the electorate. While the dictates of the courts and bureaucrats have certainly taken on a life unimagined by the Framers, largely enabled by a legislature and executive only too-willing to expand government while shirking responsibility for unpopular policies, that doesn’t mean the essential core of our government has been lost. We the people, or at lest we the voters, still run the show, ultimately, so what we can make happen, will happen.

Note: abortion is legal nationwide because of a court decision, not a vote of the people. Same-sex “marriage” is legal in various places because of court decisions and a legislative vote, not a vote of the people. In fact, every time the matter comes to a vote of the people, even in deep-blue California, true marriage is upheld as the legal norm.

Polls have indicated that the public support is slipping and that perfect record may falter, but happily neither I nor any other Catholic bases the definition of marriage on a majority vote.

And this is where the crux of my argument against Brad’s position comes in. Brad said, rightly, that the opinions of the state do not affect the definition of true marriage as Christians know it to be—i.e., between one man and one woman. But why is that the case? Without getting into the full explanation including sexual complementarity, exclusivity and mutual self-gift, proper environment in which to raise children, etc. (because all of that is not the point of this post), suffice to say that the true definition of marriage is the one most beneficial for the moral life of each individual, therefore the salvation of his or her soul, and is most beneficial for society at large.

The two points are related, of course. If something is most beneficial for the individual, then it will necessarily be most beneficial for the society made up of individuals.

So then it is in the best interests of the society to promote within itself the policies and standards that are most beneficial for each individual and therefore the society at large.

Societies do this by establishing governments and passing laws.

As Thomas (Aquinas, this time) explains in his “Treatise on Law,” especially the part found in Summa Theologica II.1 q95 a1 and a2 (you can skip the blockquote and go right to my summary below if you’d like),

Man has a natural aptitude for virtue; but the perfection of virtue must be acquired by man by means of some kind of training. Thus we observe that man is helped by industry in his necessities, for instance, in food and clothing. Certain beginnings of these he has from nature, viz. his reason and his hands; but he has not the full complement, as other animals have, to whom nature has given sufficiency of clothing and food. Now it is difficult to see how man could suffice for himself in the matter of this training: since the perfection of virtue consists chiefly in withdrawing man from undue pleasures, to which above all man is inclined, and especially the young, who are more capable of being trained. Consequently a man needs to receive this training from another, whereby to arrive at the perfection of virtue. And as to those young people who are inclined to acts of virtue, by their good natural disposition, or by custom, or rather by the gift of God, paternal training suffices, which is by admonitions. But since some are found to be depraved, and prone to vice, and not easily amenable to words, it was necessary for such to be restrained from evil by force and fear, in order that, at least, they might desist from evil-doing, and leave others in peace, and that they themselves, by being habituated in this way, might be brought to do willingly what hitherto they did from fear, and thus become virtuous. Now this kind of training, which compels through fear of punishment, is the discipline of laws. Therefore in order that man might have peace and virtue, it was necessary for laws to be framed: for, as the Philosopher says (Polit. i, 2), “as man is the most noble of animals if he be perfect in virtue, so is he the lowest of all, if he be severed from law and righteousness”; because man can use his reason to devise means of satisfying his lusts and evil passions, which other animals are unable to do.

To summarize the above: we want to be good, and we naturally do all things because we believe they are the right and good thing to do, but we also have a darkened intellect and are prone to mistake inappropriate pleasures for genuinely good things, so we establish human laws based on that which is truly good—as indicated by the natural and eternal laws—and attach coercion to them so as to dissuade bad behavior and perhaps even train people in virtue.

Any law passed by man which is not rooted in the natural and/or eternal law is contra to the natural and/or eternal law, therefore is an unjust law, and ought to be opposed by all believers.

And beyond that: any failure to promote good laws insofar as we are capable is a failure in charity on the part of believers. If the laws of man, as passed and enforced by governments, do not promote the truths of the natural and/or eternal law, and if we do not work to change this, then we fail to assist our brethren by dissuading bad behavior and encouraging good behavior.

In other words, it is the lowest level of evangelization and training in virtue, but that does not mean it is insignificant or capable of abandonment. And obviously our goal includes having everyone on the same page with regard to moral truth, which can only be achieved through effective evangelization and personal witness, but working to assure that our human laws promote true justice because they are based on natural and/or eternal law is a good and essential start. We owe it to those who ardently and honestly support same-sex “marriage,” and also, if not moreso, to the children growing up in this milieu, to push for laws based in charity and true justice.

Brad was correct that the Catholic Church is older than any existing government. And the institution of marriage precedes the institution of the Catholic Church. But both are the creations of God, one created to fully develop, safeguard, and promote the other, while the other was intended to build up and perpetuate the ultimate purpose of the one. Part of that symbiosis, when the human and societal elements are thrown in, is the life of the Church, through the life of her members, influencing the life of the body politic, so as to help as many people as possible to get to heaven.

Or at least to make that left turn at Albuquerque.

(For more on this same strain by a better writer with more sources, see my friend Emily Stimpson’s fine article over at Our Sunday Visitor)



  • tex

    On a slightly different tangent, what about the Protestants? Many of them fully allow same sex marriages, even some of our closest in the faith. So why is it that our attention is being spent trying to change civil laws when we can’t even convince our fellow brothers and sisters in the faith to change their minds? That’s not even mention our own flock of Catholics, whose divorce rate is right on par with the national average of 50 percent. This seems to me to be an exercise in futility, or a well timed distraction.



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