Marriage Takes a Beating

Traditional marriage has been taking quite a beating ever since the U.S. Supreme Court, in its Windsor case handed down in June 2013, ruled that same-sex unions must be considered true marriages wherever they have been legally enacted as such, whether by legislative action, court action, or referendum. Since then it has been rapidly and steadily downhill for traditional marriage, both with regard to public opinion, and with regard to the number of states where the conjugal union of a man and a woman is no longer the exclusive form of what marriage has always been understood to be.

Even though the justices in their ruling invalidating parts of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) specifically said that their ruling was to be considered limited—and nobody really knows how the high court will ultimately rule in the matter—it nevertheless seemed to be obvious to many on-lookers that there was now a 5 to 4 majority on the high court prepared to recognize so-called same-sex marriages where they had been legally enacted. Federal judges in various states thus quickly drew what they thought was the logical conclusion from the Windsor case and began to throw out existing laws restricting marriage to unions contracted between a man and a woman.

Just because gay marriage had not been enacted in some states did not deter these judges from seeing to it that it would now have to be enacted! They proceeded to throw out state marriage laws in no less than 13 straight cases, and lawsuits to the same effect are currently pending in nearly every other state where traditional marriage still holds sway. An unusual aspect of the whole situation has been that the attorneys general in a number of these states have simply declined to defend the laws in their states—as they are required by their offices to do.

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In late May, 2014, Oregon and Pennsylvania became the 18th and 19th states where prohibitions of anything except true opposite-sex marriages were invalidated by judicial action. At the same time, a recent Gallup poll revealed that 55 percent of Americans now favor considering these same-sex unions as marriages, and among younger people the favorable rate goes up as high as 80 percent.

Quite suddenly, then, the demise of traditional marriage as the only legally sanctioned form of the institution now seems to have become virtually a foregone conclusion. The rapidity and extent with which what once had been universally taken for granted now seemed to have gotten turned on its head was surely unprecedented.

To characterize this turn as disconcerting for upholders of traditional marriage would be a considerable understatement. Until recently, support for traditional marriage had been widespread, solid, and growing, as witness the number of states that had enacted laws or even constitutional amendments limiting marriage to unions between a man and a woman. And at the time, these measures generally had strong support in public opinion. It was this on-going process shoring up traditional marriage that got rudely interrupted by the Windsor decision.

In no way, though, did Windsor provide any convincing facts or arguments showing that same-sex liaisons were marriages. The majority opinion, written by chameleon Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, did not deign even to consider the persuasive and indeed compelling arguments developed and expounded by defenders of traditional marriage to the effect that marriage is necessarily a complementary union of a male and a female ordered to the possible procreation of children and the formation of a natural human family.

But Justice Kennedy simply by-passed this argument and made no mention of it. He blandly declared instead that unnatural same-sex relationships which are necessarily sterile were nevertheless indeed marriages, offering no sort of reason or argument for this novel, indeed revolutionary, conclusion. Even while ignoring and leaving aside essential elements of marriage (sexual complementarity, ability to conceive new life), he nevertheless effectively did redefine marriage as far as the law is concerned.

And this is the redefinition that is henceforth likely to be enshrined in our law and practice generally—at least until enough Americans wake up to what is being perversely wrought here and find the courage to work to reverse it (as the former unwise constitutional amendment that once banned alcoholic beverages eventually got reversed).

Meanwhile, it is worth asking how we ever came to this pass. How did the organized homosexual rights movement ever manage to bring about such a stunning reversal in both law and practice? And in public opinion? And in so short a period of time?

All this was brought about in significant part because the organized homosexual rights movement proved able to enlist successfully in its cause the media, Hollywood, many courts, many legislatures, the universities, the professions, big business, and even some of the churches. Pretty hard to lose with that line-up behind you! But the basic question still remains: how did the organized homosexual rights movement manage to line up all of them in favor of its dubious cause?

The principal way in which the proponents of marriage redefinition succeeded in getting their cause accepted—and championed—by so many of society’s principal elements was by getting this cause of theirs identified with the civil rights revolution in American life. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed any discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, or sex. Later enactments added age and disability. The basic idea was that there was henceforth no longer to be any sort of discrimination. It was more than an idea; it quickly became a moral imperative.

And thus, just as American society officially and collectively found it to be gravely unjust to deny certain of the rights and privileges of citizenship to blacks on account of their race or color, so it came to seem equally unjust, once the question was posed, to deny persons of the same sex the right to marry (each other).

The fact that the relationship into which these persons of the same sex were proposing to enter was not, in fact, a marriage almost always got lost along the way (or never even got considered, as we saw in Justice Kennedy’s Windsor decision). The important thing was that there was no longer to be any discrimination or denial of “equal rights.” The language of the federal judges who would very soon be engaged in throwing out existing marriage laws typically reflected this same kind of thinking. Some of these judges actually professed an inability to see any reason whatsoever why the privileges accorded to marriages should be confined to opposite-sex partners.

Up to the present day the passage of the U.S. Civil Rights Act in 1965 has almost universally come to be seen in America as the great Moral Victory of the modern era. The idea that any discrimination or denial of equal rights could possibly be allowed or even tolerated today has become quite simply unthinkable. In this climate, by successfully equating the cause of so-called gay rights with equal rights generally, the advocates of gay marriage have been able to make their case almost without even having to argue it. Simply by stating that they wished to “marry” and regularize their relationships before the law, same-sex couples have succeeded in gaining almost automatic social approval. The importance of civil rights, the modern imperative of equality, and the contemporary horror of any discrimination have all conspired to insure that gay marriage is now seen as one of those famous “ideas whose time has come.”

We might once have thought that such a radical change in what marriage was now supposed to be would have given pause at least to some people, for this change had implications that went beyond marital unions as such. For example, legalizing same-sex unions also necessarily entails legalizing—and thus officially normalizing—what used to be considered (and condemned) as sexual deviancy. This is an aspect of the issue that is almost never debated or even mentioned by either the proponents or the opponents of same-sex marriage, and perhaps this is understandable today. Nevertheless, once same-sex marriage does get approved, sexual deviancy necessarily gets approved as well.

In this perspective, same-sex marriage can thus be taken to represent the ultimate victory of the sexual revolution. If sex acts between a man and a man, or a woman and a woman, are okay, then any sex acts between consenting adults must be okay. Yet this remarkable result has been brought about almost without any debate or public discussion of any kind.

It is surely a measure of our current civilizational crisis that sexual deviancy could thus be normalized without any opposition or scarcely even any mention. A Vladimir Putin can speak out about it and deplore it, but we are now long past the time when any of our leaders would ever even think of doing so. We have long since ceased even to try to uphold the traditional personal moral code of the West.

However, this does not mean that we can also just cease to try to uphold the traditional definition of marriage as well. The old personal moral code went by the board gradually and piecemeal. At no point was anyone told that by law—and with possible legal penalties attached in case of failure to conform—society’s new, permissive moral code had to be accepted and adhered to by everybody. The case is different for marriage. We are being told that by law we must henceforth accept as a marriage something that is not a marriage

This, then, is where we are in American society at present. It is not yet an absolute certainty that the U.S. Supreme Court will legalize same-sex unions as true marriages throughout America, as it has already partially done in the Windsor case. But this is the most likely outcome. It is not at all clear, in fact, in what way this outcome could ever possibly be stopped in the present social climate.

What the champions of the Brave New World that will then supposedly be ushered in by according “equality” to all do not sufficiently appreciate, however, is that even if same-sex unions do come to be legally defined as marriages, the issue will still in no way be settled. It cannot be settled in this way for the simple reason that these unnatural unions are not marriages. This is a matter of truth. The Catholic Church, for example, could never accept that same-sex relationships could possibly be considered marriages, and the same thing is no doubt true for many other Christians who are serious about their faith—and not only Christians.

Jubilant over their current string of legal victories, those in favor of marriage redefinition do not seem to understand that what is being set up here is in no way any “settlement” of the contentious marriage issue, but rather it is a new situation of protracted and unending social conflict. The Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which was supposed to have “settled” the equally contentious abortion issue, instead succeeded only in bringing about some 40-plus years of continual agitation and strife, which still goes on today. The legalization of gay marriage is going to produce the same kind of result.

Legalizing gay marriage, in fact, may have an even greater potential for producing social conflict, since, as we are already seeing, treating gay unions as legitimate marriages requires that wedding planners, florists, photographers, bakers, and others who happen to oppose these ersatz relationships must now be legally coerced into supporting them. These incidents will only be increased and multiplied if and when gay marriage is legalized nationwide.

Thus, although traditional marriage in America may at the moment be quite far down, don’t count it out!

(Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.)


  • Kenneth D. Whitehead

    Kenneth D. Whitehead is a former career diplomat who served in Rome and the Middle East and as the chief of the Arabic Service of the Voice of America. For eight years he served as executive vice president of Catholics United for the Faith. He also served as a United States Assistant Secretary of Education during the Reagan Administration. He is the author of The Renewed Church: The Second Vatican Council’s Enduring Teaching about the Church (Sapientia Press, 2009) and, most recently, Affirming Religious Freedom: How Vatican Council II Developed the Church’s Teaching to Meet Today’s Needs (St. Paul’s, 2010).

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