Recently both President Obama and members of the Supreme Court gave support to the argument that the very idea that marriage is only between a man and a woman—central to the Judeo-Christian belief about marriage, as well as every culture on this planet up until recently—manifests hatred and bigotry toward people with same-sex attractions. Writing the majority opinion for the Supreme Court’s decision in US v. Windsor last month, Justice Anthony Kennedy claimed that the legislators who passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996—which defined for purposes of the federal government that marriage is only between a man and a woman—must have intended to “demean” and “injure” same-sex couples, and to “humiliate” any children that they were raising. The next day President Obama echoed these sentiments. DOMA, he said, “was discrimination enshrined in law. It treated loving, committed gay and lesbian couples as a separate and lesser class of people.”
This strident campaign to redefine marriage will only become more intense in the next few years. Catholics will be increasingly labeled as bigots and hate mongers. And so we will face a choice: will we be bullied by such accusations, and remain silent about what our faith and reason tell us, or will we learn how clearly to articulate and defend marriage in the public square?
The marriage of Christians is both a Sacrament and a natural community; it does not cease to be a natural union because it also involves a Sacrament. For that reason, Catholics cannot ignore our culture’s errors about marriage. To answer the charge of bigotry we must be able to explain what marriage is and why it is a man-woman relationship.
The state does not create marriage. Marriage is a specific type of relationship or community, having its own structure, and would exist whether the state made any pronouncements about it or not. Marriage exists in every culture–and the path toward marriage is similar across cultures: a young man and woman fall in love and long to be one with each other. The two spend time together, talk, play games, share meals, and so on. They eventually desire to be one with each other bodily–that is, sexually. They desire this sexual union not merely for gratification, but to embody their love and personal communion.
But of course they also see that because this sexual act (or acts) may lead to children, and unites them as one body, it is appropriate only as part of a more encompassing and enduring personal union. So they realize it would be very good for them to commit themselves to each other to form a stable union, a union that would be naturally extended by enlarging into family.
This type of relationship is fundamentally different from two others, despite some similarities. It is distinct from cohabitation with sex but no intrinsic orientation to children. Couples in such relationships may decide at some point to marry, but are not yet married. And marriage is distinct from an alliance formed directly for the purpose of raising children. Two elderly sisters, for example, might agree to cooperate to raise their nieces or nephews after their parents die in a tragic accident—but they would not be married.
Marriage is a multi-leveled union. The spouses become united in body as well as emotionally and spiritually. In sexual intercourse the man and the woman become one body, becoming the single subject of a single biological function, related to each other somewhat the way the various organs—heart, lungs and arteries for example—are parts of a single organism. (This point is taught in Scripture—“the man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife, and the two become one flesh,” but can also be shown by reason and accepted by anyone whether he or she has faith or not.)
At the same time, marriage is intrinsically oriented to conceiving and rearing children—not as a mere means in relation to an end—since the union of the spouses is good in itself and a sufficient reason to marry—but to the natural unfolding and fruition of their union. Their conceiving and rearing children together fulfills the spouses precisely as a union of complementary persons, and thus is not an extrinsic end or goal.
Given the basic idea of what marriage is, it is easy to see that it can exist only between a man and a woman. Whatever the intensity of their emotional bond, same-sex partners are simply unable to form together the kind of union marriage is. In order to marry, a couple must be able, in principle, to form a real organic union—not just an emotional and spiritual union. And the couple must be able to form the kind of communion that would be naturally fulfilled by conceiving and rearing children together.
Same-sex partners can do neither of these things. The sexual acts that persons of the same sex can perform on each other do not make them organically one, and so cannot establish the bodily foundation for the multi-leveled union that marriage is. (A mere geometrical union—say, sticking one’s finger in a person’s ear—does not unite persons biologically.) Nor can same-sex partners form the kind of union that would be fulfilled by conceiving and rearing children together. Of course same-sex partners can form sexual arrangements (not real organic unions), and can also cooperate in child-rearing (as can other couples or other groups), but the one relationship is distinct and not inherently linked to the other.
It is often objected that marriage cannot be intrinsically oriented to procreation because people who are unable to procreate can still get married. However, this objection supposes that the only way marriage can be linked to procreation is as a mere means toward an end. But this is not true. The marital union of the spouses is both good in itself and intrinsically oriented to procreation: the union between the spouses is in itself fulfilling for the spouses, but the full unfolding of marital unity includes conceiving and rearing children. And so couples who cannot have children can still marry—they can form the bodily, emotional and spiritual union of the kind that would be fulfilled by conceiving children even if in fact their union does not reach that fruition. But same-sex partners cannot marry since they cannot form that kind of union.
One might also object that even if marriage is a distinct type of relationship it will do no harm for the state to place in the same category marriages and stable same-sex relationships. On this view redefining marriage is no big deal. But marriage is a distinct way in which men and women are fulfilled, a distinct basic human good, similar in this respect to health or knowledge of truth. Suppose our culture obscured the nature of health. This would be harmful in that it would make it more difficult for people to pursue and attain health. Likewise, if the state redefines marriage it will obscure what marriage really is. The idea will be re-enforced that marriage is not a natural community with an objective structure, bodily, emotional and spiritual union, whose fruition is the procreation and education of children, but instead, an emotional union whose contours are very much up for grabs and which exists solely for the well-being or gratification of adults.
Moreover, up until now it has been widely recognized that the state has no public interest in romantic relationships as such. Marriage is the only institution that unites fathers and mothers to each other and to their children, and that is why state has an interest in and should promote marriage. But changing the definition would send the message that a child does not need both a mother and a father, that in particular fathers are dispensable.
Thus, it is not unjust discrimination or bigotry, to hold that same-sex couples cannot marry.