At the beginning of the New Year, 2013, a law is being proposed in the General Assembly to change the legal definition of marriage in Illinois to accommodate those of the same sex who wish to “marry” one another. In this discussion, the Church will be portrayed as “anti-gay,” which is a difficult position to be in, particularly when families and the Church herself love those of their members who are same-sex oriented. What’s at stake in this legislative proposal and in the Church’s teaching on marriage?
Basically, the nature of marriage is not a religious question. Marriage comes to us from nature. Christ sanctifies marriage as a sacrament for the baptized, giving it significance beyond its natural reality; the State protects marriage because it is essential to family and to the common good of society. But neither Church nor State invented marriage, and neither can change its nature.
Nature and Nature’s God, to use the expression in the Declaration of Independence of our country, give the human species two mutually complementary sexes, able to transmit life through what the law has hitherto recognized as a marital union. Consummated sexual relations between a man and a woman are ideally based on mutual love and must always be based on mutual consent, if they are genuinely human actions. But no matter how strong a friendship or deep a love between persons of the same sex might be, it is physically impossible for two men, or two women, to consummate a marital union. Even in civil law, non-consummation of a marriage is reason for annulment.
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Sexual relations between a man and a woman are naturally and necessarily different from sexual relations between same-sex partners. This truth is part of the common sense of the human race. It was true before the existence of either Church or State, and it will continue to be true when there is no State of Illinois and no United States of America. A proposal to change this truth about marriage in civil law is less a threat to religion than it is an affront to human reason and the common good of society. It means we are all to pretend to accept something we know is physically impossible. The Legislature might just as well repeal the law of gravity.
What is, then, at stake in this proposed legislation? What is certainly at stake is the natural relationship between parents and children. Children, even if they are loved and raised by those who are not their biological parents, want to know who their parents are, who are their natural family. The fascination with genealogical tables and the opening of adoption records are evidence of this desire to find oneself in a biological succession of generations. No honest “study” has disproved what we all know. Stable marriage between a husband and wife has safeguarded their children, surrounding them with familial love and creating the secure foundation for human flourishing. This natural desire, already weakened in a seemingly more and more promiscuous society, will no longer be privileged in civil law. It will be no more “normal” than any other “family” arrangement. If the nature of marriage is destroyed in civil law, the natural family goes with it.
As well, those who know the difference between marriage and same-sex arrangements will be regarded as bigots. This is where the religious question does come into play. Including “religious freedom” in the title of the proposed law recognizes that religious teaching based on natural truths will now be considered evidence of illegal discrimination and will be punishable by law. The title of the law is ironic if not disingenuous. Those who know that marriage is a union between a man and a woman for the sake of family will carry a social opprobrium that will make them unwelcome on most university faculties and on the editorial boards of major newspapers. They will be excluded from the entertainment industry. Their children and grandchildren will be taught in the government schools that their parents are unenlightened, the equivalent of misguided racists. Laws teach; they express accepted social values and most people go along with societal trends, even when majority opinion espouses immoral causes.
The legalization of abortion is a good example of how an immoral procedure that kills babies in their mother’s womb is first permitted legally in limited circumstances as a necessary evil and then moves in forty years to become a condition of human freedom, necessary to be preserved at all costs, an essential part of “reproductive health care.” We are on the same trajectory with marriage. Model laws creating same-sex unions as civil marriage have been part of legal education for decades. The media have engaged in a campaign on this issue for almost as long a time, desensitizing people to accept as normal something that had previously been recognized as problematic. We are at the end of a tremendous propaganda effort by those secure in their conviction that they are at the cutting edge of human development. But what we’re seeing is not particularly new. Two thousand years ago, the Church was born in a society with the values now being advanced as necessary for a fair society today.
Why this law? Since all the strictly legal consequences of natural marriage are already given to same-sex partners in civil unions, what is now at stake in this question for some homosexually oriented people is self-respect and full societal acceptance of their sexual activities. Because fair-minded people cannot approve of hatred or disdain of others, “same-sex marriage” becomes for many a well-intentioned and good-hearted response to help others be happy. But marriage is a public commitment with a responsibility that involves more than the personal happiness of two adults. Inventing “civil rights” that contradict natural rights does not solve a problem of personal unhappiness.
Some religious people have framed their acceptance of this proposed law as an exemplification of compassion, justice and inclusion. As attitudes, these sentiments have been used to justify everything from eugenics to euthanasia. If religion is to be more than sentiment, the moral content of these words has to be filled in from the truths of what human reason understands and God has revealed. Same-sex unions are incompatible with the teaching that has kept the Church united to her Lord for two thousand years.
The Catholic Church in this Archdiocese has consistently condemned violence or hatred of homosexually oriented men and women. Good pastoral practice encourages families to accept their children, no matter their sexual orientation, and not break relationships with them. The Archdiocese offers Mass and other spiritual help to those who live their homosexuality anonymously (Courage groups) and also to those who want to be publicly part of the gay community (AGLO, which celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary this year). People live out their sexual identity in different fashions, but the Church consistently offers the means to live chastely in all circumstances, as the love of God both obliges and makes possible.
Finally, what is at stake in this proposed legislation was the subject of a few sentences in our Holy Father’s recent end of year address to his co-workers in Rome. Citing the Chief Rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim, who recently spoke to the impact of the “philosophy of gender” as it affects proposed marriage laws in France, Pope Benedict commented: “The manipulation of nature, which we deplore today where our environment is concerned, now becomes man’s fundamental choice where he himself is concerned. From now on there is only the abstract human being, who chooses for himself what his nature is to be. Man and woman in their created state as complementary versions of what it means to be human are disputed. But if there is no pre-ordained duality of man and women in creation, then neither is the family any longer a reality established by creation. Likewise, the child has lost the place he had occupied hitherto and the dignity pertaining to him. Rabbi Bernheim shows that now, perforce, from being a subject of right, the child has become an object to which people have a right and which they have a right to obtain. When the freedom to be creative becomes the freedom to create oneself, then necessarily the Maker himself is denied and ultimately man too is stripped of his dignity as a creature of God, as the image of God at the core of his being. The defense of the family is about man himself. And it becomes clear that when God is denied, human dignity also disappears. Whoever defends God is defending man.”
That is what’s at stake now. Despite the seeming inevitability of “same-sex marriage” legislation, each responsible citizen should consider what he or she must now do, as a lame duck legislature, many of whose members are no longer accountable to their constituents, prepares to make a decision that will have enormous consequences for everyone. God bless you.
This column first appeared in the January 6, 2013 – January 19, 2013 edition of Catholic New World, the Newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago.