Taking Back Marriage

The only thing surprising about the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5–4 decision requiring all 50 states and the District of Columbia to perform gay “marriages,” and to recognize such unions contracted in other states, is that it took so long. The writing was on the wall 11 years ago, when the Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and the George W. Bush administration refused to get behind a bill in the House of Representatives that would have removed cases challenging state marriage laws from consideration by the federal courts. There was an election to win in 2004, and the threat of gay “marriage” (like the continual promise to curtail abortion) was a great way to turn out social conservatives to vote for Republican candidates. By the time President Bush was reelected, the first cases to force states to recognize gay “marriages” contracted in other states had been filed in federal court. As I predicted in the January 2005 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, short-term political gain has led to long-term cultural pain.

Fast-forward nine years, and we were discussing on this very website an earlier 5–4 decision (United States v. Windsor) on gay “marriage.” Also written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Reagan appointee and a putative Catholic, that decision gutted the Defense of Marriage Act and paved the legal way to the outcome in Obergefell v. Hodges, released on June 26—just in time for the “gay pride” celebrations held around the country on June 28.

In my article for Crisis in 2013, I proposed a way forward for defenders of marriage that many commenters thought too radical. (When I had proposed it earlier in both Chronicles and on the Catholicism site for About.com, a significant number of readers had reacted the same way.) The Catholic Church in the United States, I argued, should divorce (no pun intended) marriage within the Church entirely from what the state deems to be marriage.

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The chief opposition to my proposal arose from the fact that, at the time, many still clung to the hope that a political solution was possible. After all, only three states—Maine, Maryland, and Washington—had legalized gay “marriage” through popular vote; all the rest of the states where gay “marriage” was legal had had it imposed by state or federal courts.

As I warned back then, that optimism has proved misguided. There are no political solutions to cultural problems, and at its heart, the attempted redefinition of marriage is a cultural problem. Restore the culture, and politics will follow. And no institution in the world is better positioned to restore the culture than the Catholic Church.

In the wake of the latest decision, more people are independently arriving at a version of my proposal, but I am also seeing, particularly among Catholics, calls for digging in for a long political fight, with explicit comparisons to the pro-life movement that developed in the wake of Roe v. Wade.

Yet, 42 years on, the pro-life movement is a near-perfect example of why attempting to find cultural solutions to cultural problems is more effective in the long run than trying to find political ones. At the national level, abortion plays a role in virtually every election, but even when the presumed party of life controls both houses of Congress and the presidency (as the Republicans did from 2001 through 2005), no real effort is made to advance the pro-life cause. Indeed, the opposite is too often true; in his first term, George W. Bush approved by executive order federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, something that the pro-abortion Democrat Bill Clinton hadn’t done.

Meanwhile, at the local level, hundreds of abortuaries have been prayed out of business, and hundreds of thousands of babies have been saved through the efforts of vast networks of crisis-pregnancy centers, which make a real difference in the lives of the mothers and fathers of those children by welcoming them into the culture of life.

A more significant objection to my proposal was the fear that it would mean that the Church would not be living up to her mission to preach the truth to all men. Sacramental marriage—the union of two baptized Christians—is not the only type of marriage with which the Church must be concerned. As the chief exponent of natural law, she has a witness to bear regarding natural marriage as well—and that truth cannot be confined only to baptized Catholics. When I proposed that the Church no longer require those who wish to be married within the Church to seek a marriage license from the state, it appeared to some (admittedly, not unreasonably) that I was ceding natural marriage to the state.

What I had in mind, however, was the separation of both sacramental marriage and natural marriage from what President Obama calls “civil marriage”—that is, those state-licensed unions whose definition depends neither on natural law nor on history and tradition but on Justice Kennedy’s specious reasoning. The Church could and should continue to teach about natural marriage as well as sacramental marriage, and perhaps she might even consider expanding her practice of performing purely natural marriages beyond the limited case where a baptized Catholic wishes to marry a non-Christian. A pragmatic willingness to perform natural marriages for those who cannot be sacramentally married in the Church but who want no part of “civil marriage,” as defined by Justice Kennedy and President Obama, would itself be a potentially productive tool for evangelization, just as the Church’s consistent pro-life witness has led to many conversions since Roe v. Wade.

For the Christian, of course, evangelization is the ultimate solution to cultural problems. And evangelization is not the calling simply of popes and bishops, priests and deacons, but of all Christians. Each of us needs to gain a better understanding of the Church’s teaching on both natural and sacramental marriage, so that we can explain it to others, within the context of natural law and the Gospel. Given the abysmal state of catechesis within the Church for several decades now, the hierarchy will need to lead the way, and that will require our bishops and priests to quit worrying so much about the possibility of causing “offense” (which in secular terms means simply “saying something that someone else doesn’t want to hear”) and start worrying more about philosophical and theological clarity. But parents need to play their God-given role as well. The sheer number of practicing Catholics of my generation (I am 47) and younger who have embraced the attempted redefinition of marriage bears witness not only to the failure of our shepherds to teach their flocks well but of mothers and fathers both to teach the truth about marriage and to live it in their own lives. The embrace of contraception and pornography, the easy recourse to divorce, and the pursuit of wealth and “self-fulfillment” at the expense of spouse and children all speak louder than any platitudes parents may utter about the necessity and beauty of marriage.

Obergefell v. Hodges was not the end of the assault on marriage; it is much closer to the beginning. Every argument that Justice Kennedy made for gay “marriage” applies equally to polygamous relationships and even to incestuous ones. (This is not hyperbole or paranoia; read his opinion, and try to find a single argument that does not apply.) In the wake of the decision, numerous proponents of gay “marriage” have simultaneously claimed that churches will never be required to perform gay “marriages” and argued that there’s no reason why they shouldn’t perform them; that in itself is evidence that those who, like the Catholic Church, refuse to do so will find themselves sooner rather than later tarred with the brush of hate, and perhaps only shortly after that actively persecuted for defending the truth.

While it seems on the surface that those who have fought for “marriage equality” have done so primarily at the ballot box and through the courts, the reality is that they triumphed on June 26 because for decades they have been reshaping the culture. We defenders of marriage have been the ones who have largely confined our efforts to the political arena, but it’s not too late to make up for our mistake. We have two tools at hand that the other side does not: truth and grace. It’s time to begin acting like we believe in both.

Editor’s note: The image above titled “The Village Wedding” was painted by Sir Samuel Luke Fildes.

  • Scott P. Richert

    Scott P. Richert is publisher for Our Sunday Visitor and Editor at Large for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

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