”The laws of our land are catching up to the fundamental truth that millions of Americans hold in our hearts: when all Americans are treated as equal, no matter who they are or whom they love, we are all more free.” —President Barack Obama, June 26, 2013
”I will tell you that I don’t believe in gay marriage . . . .” —Sen. Barack Obama, March 2, 2008
Yesterday’s Supreme Court decisions regarding the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California’s Proposition 8 should have come as no surprise to anyone. The handwriting was on the wall as far back as 2004, when Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives sponsored a bill that would have removed cases involving DOMA and state laws defining marriage from consideration by the federal courts. Article III, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution grants Congress the power to determine the limits of the jurisdiction of the U.S. Supreme Court (and, by extension, all federal courts), and the George W. Bush administration had endorsed similar legislation that removed cases involving the Pledge of Allegiance and the detention of suspected terrorists at Guantanomo Bay from consideration by the federal courts.
Karl Rove, however, was convinced that initiatives defining marriage, on the ballot in several battleground states that fall, would increase voter turnout to the benefit of President Bush and other Republican candidates. The Republican-sponsored bill, on the other hand, might have decreased turnout, by convincing voters that the question of “gay marriage” had been addressed at the federal level. No one would go to the polls just to save the Pledge of Allegiance, so the Pledge could be protected from attacks in the federal courts. But protecting marriage? That was a different matter.
The Bush administration refused to endorse the bill. And yesterday’s decision gutting DOMA, authored by a Republican appointee to the Supreme Court, was the delayed but inevitable outcome.
In the wake of a major political defeat, the strong temptation is to double down, to pour all of our resources into further political battles. But the war over marriage, like the war over abortion, is at heart not a political battle but a cultural one. If we are to win it, we will not do so through legislation, because, for defenders of traditional culture, legislation is always at best a rear-guard action. By the time we found it necessary to pass laws defining and defending an institution that extends all the way back to the Garden of Eden, it was already too late for those laws to do anything more than to buy us a few years’ reprieve.
Of course, rear-guard actions are often necessary. And in this case in particular, we need to buy ourselves some time. But time to do what?
Time to shift the battleground in the war on marriage from the realm of politics to the realm of culture. Time for Christians to take to heart once again the words of the Psalmist: “Put not your trust in princes; in the sons of men, in whom there is no salvation.” Because even the best of politicians, wanting to win office or to remain in it once he gets there, is constantly tempted to see which way the wind is blowing. And the wind in the United States—even among many self-identified Catholics, like Justice Anthony Kennedy, the author of the DOMA decision—is in favor of a moral revolution that is striking at the very foundation of civilization: the family.
We can win the war on marriage on the battleground of culture, because a society built on a concept of marriage-that-is-not-marriage cannot long endure. But to shift the battleground, the Church must take the lead—and not the Church generically, but the Catholic Church specifically.
In the United States, only the Catholic Church has both the proper understanding of marriage and the moral authority to stand up against the political powers that have tried to arrogate to themselves the authority to redefine reality, to declare that the sky is green and the grass is blue. Only the Catholic Church has the wherewithal to say that the state has forfeited its right to say what marriage is, and what it is not.
How can the Church do so? Merely lecturing the state on the proper definition of marriage has not worked, and it will not work in the future. Speaking truth to power does not work when power hasn’t even the slightest interest in the truth. In Barack Obama’s America, marriage is merely a word, and words can be redefined at will—as indeed they must be, when they run up against the iron laws of “fairness” and “equality.”
Despite what President Obama thinks, however, any redefinition of marriage that includes sodomitic relationships is not a “fundamental truth.” As Pope Francis said of legislation to redefine marriage in Argentina, its author is the Father of Lies. And any state that wields the sword in defense of lies has forfeited its right to use that sword.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, reacting to the DOMA decision, declared that “The Court got it wrong,” and “The federal government ought to respect the truth that marriage is the union of one man and one woman, even where states fail to do so. The preservation of liberty and justice requires that all laws, federal and state, respect the truth, including the truth about marriage.” But after this promising start, with its oughts and requires and truths, the USCCB goes on to call for further “public debate,” and for the Court’s decisions to be “reviewed and their implications further clarified.”
This isn’t the language that is needed. This isn’t the kind of action that will shift the battleground to one where the Church can win, and win decisively.
So what kind of action would? How about this: The bishops could tell the state to go to hell (which is where it is headed anyway). From now on, Catholics in the United States will be required, as always, to comply with the Church’s conditions for marriage, but the Church in the United States will no longer require, as She does now, that a man and a woman seeking to be married in the Catholic Church receive a marriage license from the state. If a couple wants to do so, for tax purposes or for other legal advantages, they will be free to do so; but the Church will no longer regard such a license as necessary, much less as having any moral weight. Marriage within the Church will be divorced entirely from what the state deems to be marriage.
Such an action would shift the battleground immediately. It would encourage other Christian denominations to take a stand, one way or the other. It would force “cultural Catholics,” like Justice Kennedy, to decide where their loyalty lies: with the Church and the truths that She upholds, or with the state and its degraded and degrading culture. And it would erect an impregnable barrier against the assault that everyone knows is just over the horizon: the attempt of the state to force the Church to perform the impossible, to marry a man to a man and a woman to a woman.
“How religious institutions define and consecrate marriage has always been up to those institutions,” President Obama declared after yesterday’s ruling. “Nothing about this decision—which applies only to civil marriages—changes that.” The bishops of the United States should take him at his word. If President Obama sees “civil marriage” and marriage as “define[d] and consecrate[d]” by the Church as two different things, the Church should treat them as such. The very act of doing so would deny legitimacy to “civil marriage” and preserve and protect true marriage better than any law or Supreme Court decision ever could.