Published in Out In Maine
It may surprise you to know that the Catholic Church teaches that marriage isn’t actually about the two people who are “joined in holy matrimony” on their wedding day.
Nope — it’s about their offspring. This is perhaps some of the common ground the Church has found with theological apostates (evangelical Protestants and Mormons) with which it has allied in the past decade, spending immense amounts of capital — moral, political, and financial — to block the incoming tide of same-sex marriage.
Nevertheless, it’s worth exploring the reasoning behind the Church’s objections to same-sex marriage. Partly this may count as what political operatives call “opposition research” — a Sun Tzu-inspired attempt to truly understand the opponent, the more easily to emerge victorious. But more than that, the Catholic Church has been talking about marriage longer than just about anyone. Its arguments have been ground by the ages, sharpened by insights of thousands of scholars, and honed into a fine edge by experience. Let’s see what that effort has produced.
Appealing to tradition
Brian Souchet, director of the Office for the Protection and Defense of Marriage with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland (which covers the entire state of Maine) opens what will become a nearly two-hour interview by enumerating the social ills that the Church sees in the modern world: high cohabitation without marriage, single parenting, kids without involved fathers, kids born out of wedlock. He calls these all “results of a breakdown in marriage,” by which he means the modern American societal tendency to “ignore the fact as men and women that [marriage is] not just about us men and women.”
In one sense he’s right. Despite Church teachings to the contrary, the divorce rate is as high as ever; couplehood, pregnancy, and childrearing are happening outside married male-female couples all the time.
Beyond the possibly self-evident reason that not everyone believes what the Church teaches, not even all Catholics do, it turns out.
“If the faithful don’t understand the significance of marriage . . . that’s where we need to start,” Souchet says, beginning to lay out the history of the Church’s teachings on marriage. In sum, they are that “love and commitment is necessary but not sufficient” for marriage. What’s required are a man and a woman together permanently, with “openness to bringing new life into the world,” he says.
He correctly observes that Catholic teaching has expressed this view since almost the very beginning, and refers me to Pope Pius XI’s 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii — which itself refers to an 1880 encyclical by Pope Leo XIII, a 1789 letter of Pope Pius VI, the decisions of the 16th-century Council of Trent, and to Saint Augustine’s writings in the fourth and fifth centuries.
The contribution of Souchet’s own employer, Bishop Richard Malone, to this 1600-plus-year history is a pastoral letter entitled “Marriage: Yesterday — Today — Always” in which Malone argues that marriage is defined in the universal “natural law” as between a man and a woman, and expresses concern that people are trying to change that.
“We can look throughout antiquity and see marriage as between a man and a woman,” Souchet says — and he’s right. Here again, though, he — and Catholic doctrine — chooses not to observe the same-sex relationships that were present “throughout antiquity,” though admittedly those couplehoods may have lacked the specific label of “marriage.”
Following the thread
Souchet claims that “the true test” of same-sex marriage is: “Can this new notion of marriage . . . stand up on its own without being forced on people by the law?” Same-sex attractions and relationships have endured and recurred through the ages, despite being outlawed for most of the last two millennia. The answer to his question is “Yes.”
Bishop Malone’s pastoral letter also asserts that marriage has always been about children. He cites as evidence “the writings of the third-century jurist of the Roman Empire, Modestinus, who captured the common understanding of marriage with the following definition: ‘Marriage is the union of a man and a woman, a consortium for the whole of life involving the communication of divine and human rights.’ ” No mention of children there.
Then Malone cherry-picks United Nations proclamations to his advantage. He cites the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to support his claim that children are “meant to have a mother and a father.” (In fact, the Convention mentions only “parents.”)
Malone goes on to claim that marriage “is not a ‘right’ that can be given or denied.” That ignores another UN document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states clearly: “Men and women . . . have the right to marry.” (The Declaration says nothing about same-sex marriage, but its inclusive intent is obvious, since it confers the marriage right “without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion.”)
Malone also formally declares what most people already know — that biological ability to procreate is not, in fact, a precondition for marriage. This is in keeping with longtime Church teachings, but undermines the notion that a marriage can only be between two partners whose sexual intercourse can fertilize an egg. “An infertile couple continues to manifest” the full blessings of marriage, he writes, including being able to care for children by adoption or volunteering.
Why does the Church care this much about marriage? There is a worldly reason in addition to the holy ones, and it’s self-perpetuation of the Church itself. Pope Pius XI makes this clear in Casti Connubii:
“God wishes men to be born not only that they should live and fill the earth, but much more that they may be worshippers of God,” he writes, going on to say that children are “a talent committed to [parents] by God . . . to be restored to God with interest on the day of reckoning.” (It’s worth noting that Casti Connubii also puts the Church squarely in support of a living wage, redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor, and government programs to help the needy.)
Idealism versus realism
Beyond its logical failings, though, the fundamental flaw in the argument espoused by the Church (and Souchet) is that their ideal of marriage is substantially different from how marriage is actually entered into, carried out, and experienced in the world today.
For example, Souchet says, offering a quaint picture unreflective of an America in which even a large majority of Catholic women use some form of birth control, “given enough time, a male-female relationship will produce children.”
Certainly the Church is entitled to teach that its followers adhere to a certain standard, real, ideal, or otherwise — and to deny membership to dissenters.
The problems arise when that standard is applied to civil law. The Church is well aware that this distinction exists, and hasn’t objected though (to choose an example relating to marriage) civil law lets non-Catholics be just as married as Catholics, despite Church teaching to the contrary.
In writing about Church law and civil law, Malone writes that both descend — independently — from what philosophers have long called “natural law,” the unwritten Way Things Actually Are. He says our best clues about what natural law truly is are in Church law and civil law, noting that both have evolved — separately — toward what their respective leaders have come to believe are more perfect reflections of universal truths.
That’s when he gets his wires crossed. While the Church hierarchy gets to set policy in its realm, the people of a democracy are where that system’s power lies.
A reader can almost hear Malone thundering as he winds down his letter: “Those who would attempt to redefine marriage to include or be made analogous with any other kind of human relationship are suggesting that the permanent union of husband and wife, the unique pattern of spousal and familial love, and the generation of new life are now only of relative importance rather than being fundamental to the existence and well-being of society as a whole.”
In reality, society has the power to, and may well in November, decide at the ballot box that there are, in fact, other relationships that are of equal significance to marriages recognized by the Catholic Church.
Souchet argues that such a decision would move Maine law farther away from natural law. So I ask: Did the Church — and civil law — get the natural law wrong?
“We sure had a long time to get it right,” Souchet laughs. He pauses. “If we did, we’ve been getting the natural law wrong for millennia.”