Should government be in the marriage-recognition business? Some libertarians and conservatives say no. They argue that marriage is a private contract. Consequently, the state ought not to be involved with it. Of course all sort of private contracts involve the state, but many libertarians and conservatives reject government involvement in these areas of contract, too, so they have no difficulty adding marriage to the list.
As a private arrangement without government licensing, marriage would, on this view, not entangle the citizenry through their government in the messy business of same-sex marriage. Some libertarians and conservatives even go so far as to argue that it would be unjustly discriminatory for government to endorse one view of marriage (one man/one woman) over another (same-sex marriage or polygamous marriage). Many, if not most, libertarians and conservatives who argue this way claim to be traditional Christians, who uphold on religious and (they would say) private grounds marriage between one man and one woman.
Those libertarians and conservatives who argue in favor of so-called privatization of marriage do not adequately consider a key point regarding it: the public interest in government encouraging couples who engage in procreative kinds of acts publically and legally to commit themselves exclusively and permanently to one another and, by implication, to their offspring, should they have any. The legal institution of marriage encourages such commitment between sexually-active heterosexual couples.
Why does government have a stake in this? Because it has a stake in encouraging the parents to provide a stable, loving, committed relationship as the morally best environment for raising children. Government has a stake in encouraging couples together to raise their children and to provide examples for their children of parental relationship. Children, after all, are the future of the state. They provide the foundation for society’s future success or failure, so government has an interest in encourage certain behaviors in relation to children and in discouraging others.
Of course, proponents of same-sex marriage will argue that many couples who have children don’t marry and many who marry don’t have children, either by choice or by circumstance. Thus, child rearing shouldn’t be involved in the rationale for state recognition of marriage. Such an objection misses the point. Even when a couple chooses not to have or cannot have children, the state’s publicly and legally recognizing their heterosexual, committed relationship as marriage reinforces marriage as a procreative, child-rearing institution in general. The state says that marriage between a man and a woman is important because from such relationships children are brought into being, even if in this particular marriage that will not happen, whether by choice or circumstance.
Proponents of same-sex marriage will also argue that children reared by same-sex couples do just as well as those reared by heterosexual couples. Needless to say, some opponents of same-sex marriage dispute the claims, depending as those claims do on what we mean by “just as well”. But regardless of the arguments back-and-forth on the point, a crucial issue is whether children have a right to a father and a mother, regardless of whether on sociological grounds we think children raised in same-sex relations to “just as well”. Yes, there can be desperate circumstances where children have no father-mother options, where a single parent or a heterosexual couple not a child’s biological parents must raise a child. But these are unfortunate situations that ought not to be taken as the ideal. Adoptive children have a right to a father and a mother, as much as children who are not adopted. Where that literally cannot happen, it cannot happen. But that doesn’t mean children should be adopted into situations even less like the natural family—for example, situations with two mothers or two fathers—than adoption by a father and mother who aren’t a child’s biological parents.
Even so, that’s the adoption debate, not the marriage debate. Of course a lot more could be said by way of arguments for marriage and against so-called same-sex marriage. Here, though, I would like to call attention to the Catholic Church’s view of the state’s obligation regarding marriage. For Catholics, the Church’s teaching is no mere suggestion to keep in mind as one thinks about the pros and cons of government recognition of same-sex marriage or even of whether government should be involved at all in the marriage recognition business. Catholics are obliged to form their consciences according to the Church’s teaching and act consistent with it, including in their political lives.
According to the Second Vatican Council, “Public authority should regard it as a sacred duty to recognize, protect and promote [marriage and family’s] authentic nature, to shield public morality, and to favor the prosperity of home life” (Gaudium et Spes , no. 52).
Some Catholics may dismiss that statement as a prudential judgment by Church leaders, rather than a binding principle. Since Catholics may generally disagree in matters of prudential judgment, so the argument goes, they may agree or disagree about government’s role in recognizing the authentic nature of marriage and family. Not that these Catholics would themselves approve of same-sex marriage. They just think it’s a prudential matter whether or not the state legally recognizes unions as marriage. They favor a more libertarian approach.
But Gaudium et Spes no. 52 does not say that whether or not government protects and promotes marriage is a prudential matter. It states that public authority has “a sacred duty to recognize, protect, and promote the authentic nature of marriage and family life”. A sacred duty entails more than a prudential option. This is a fundamental principle, which Catholics are obliged to accept.
As the push for same-sex marriage intensifies, watch for more libertarian and so-called conservative politicians to look for ways to accommodate it. The informed Catholic will be alert to government’s responsibility—its sacred duty—not simply to uphold some broadly-defined relationship called marriage but “to recognize, protect, and promote the authentic nature” of marriage and family life. The authentic nature of marriage is the union of one man and one woman, not same-sex marriage. It is that definition Catholics are morally obliged to work to maintain in law, not simply in private practice. Catholics should accept no legal substitutes, especially not same-sex substitutes or marriage as a mere “private union” justified in the name of “freedom”.