A groom and bride hold hands on their wedding day. (CNS file photo/Jon L. Hendricks)
H. L. Menckensatirist, progressive, pseudo-misogynist,
provocateurwrote a book in 1918 called In
Defense of Women. Like an optical
illusion, the title, depending on one’s focal point, can mean defending women
or defending oneself from women. The
irony is the initial hook.
If the executive and judicial branches of the US Government have
their way with traditional marriage, the phrase “in defense of marriage” will
likewise have two possible slants: defending the marital union as designed by
God in the beginning or defending
oneself from marital unions as
designed by federal authority.
The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)
In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act
(DOMA). The general purpose of DOMA was to cement, at the federal level, the
traditional understanding of marriage. Why was that deemed necessary?
The seeds for DOMA were sown in 1993. Hawaii’s Supreme Court had
ruled that limiting marriage to one man and one woman was probably
unconstitutional (Baehr v. Miike). Immediately, there were those who
anticipated trouble down the road. Indeed, they reasoned, if the Hawaiian
legislature were to pass a same-sex marriage (SSM) law, the spores of that law
could drift to other states by way of the Full Fair and Credit Clause of the United States Constitution.
That clause (c. 1789) states that “full faith and credit shall be
given in each state to the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of
every other state.” In short, what is legally binding in one state is legally
binding in other states. If, therefore, a same-sex married couple moved from a
state that sanctioned SSM to one that did not, the new state of residence would
have to recognize the couple’s
Enter DOMA, which says that (1) no state is required to recognize
a same-sex marriage from another state, and (2)
the word “marriage,” for federal and inter-state recognition purposes in the
United States, means a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and
DOMA does not restrict states from passing legislation for or
against same-sex marriage. DOMA does prevent
a same-sex couple who, married in a non-traditional marriage state, wants the
same rights in a traditional marriage state. For the 31 states with constitutional
amendments banning same-sex marriage and for the 11 additional states that
define marriage as between one man and one woman, DOMA is, in effect, an
interstate anti-bullying law.
Recently, a federal appeals court in New York City ruled DOMA
unconstitutional. The US Supreme Court has agreed to look at that ruling, which
focuses only on whether the present federal definition of marriage violates the
equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. If the Supreme Court upholds the
appeals court decision, essentially opening up federal benefits for legally
married same-sex couples, the nose of the camel, as they say, will be in the
tent. When the camel’s body (the full weight of SSM and its agenda) follows,
DOMA will find itself outside the tent. Upshot: a same-sex marriage performed
in one state will have to be recognized by all other states, regardless of how
the other states define marriage.
The Catholic Church in America will then find herself wedged
between the reality of marriage and the federal government’s idea of marriage. The
Church as teacher will continue to proclaim the good news, namely, that
marriage is a unique love-giving and life-giving union between one man and one
woman, and the federal government will begin to proclaim its “good news,” namely, that it deems all such traditional talk “hate
Back to the FutureGenesis
Marriage, in the Catholic view, is neither a social construct nor
an ecclesial invention. It is often described as a natural institution that was
raised to a higher level the day Jesus turned six jars of water into vintage
wine during the wedding at Cana. It is propitious that, regarding the Church’s
vision of marriage, John Paul II has brought us to a new place and a new depth.
In his theology of the body, John Paul II talks about the
sacrament of creation, the apex of which is when God creates man and woman in
his own image and the two become one.
In them and their union, a measure of the internal and invisible mystery of
God’s life and love first becomes visible (TOB 96:6-7).
Since marriage was in the mind of God from the very beginning,
John Paul II concludes that marriage is a primordial sacrament. But he goes
further. In our earth-bound experience, marriage is the paradigm of the total
self-giving love within the Trinity“All that is mine is yours and yours is
mine…” (Jn 17:10).
For some reason, the love between the First and Second Personsthe
love that is the Third Persondoes
not stay put. It brims up and spills over into Creation. For marriage to
reflect Trinitarian life, not just in terms of self-gift, the love between
husband and wife is also meant to brim up and spill over into (possible) new
human life. There is another important truth to ponder here: the communion of
persons formed between husband and wife reflects God more than does the individual husband or wife (TOB 9.3).
The natural law argument for traditional
In What Is Marriage? Man and WomanA Defense,” authors Sherif
Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George argue that abolishing the
traditional view of marriage would (a) weaken the social institution of
marriage, (b) obscure the value of opposite-sex parenting, and (c) threaten
moral and religious freedom. Their explication of those three points, using
common sense and real-life examples, is masterful and most helpful. All traditional
marriage protagonists should have, at the ready, the debating points in What Is Marriage? That said, my caveats are two:
(1) Common-sense arguments find fertile ground in persons who are
naturally curious, open to most topics, and delight in reasoned conversation. By
contrast, those bent on revising the definition of marriage are single-minded
and hard-chargingthey love devising “diversity” gauntlets for all within
reach. The desired end is the person who, regardless of sexual orientation or religious
belief, embraces the homosexual agenda.
Furthermore, whereas natural law proponents understand the
importance of historical development, marriage revisionists seem to see each
day as literally brand newlife’s events come into existence, change shapes,
and evaporate like cumulus clouds. Understanding causes and their long-term
effects are not part of the daily fare. And the notion of paradox seems
downright flummoxingI have yet to meet the progressive who understands Luke
17:33, “Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life
will preserve it.” But marriage is, at its core, paradoxicaltherein, a man and
a woman seek to lose their individual lives to gain a new life of mutual
communion and family community.
To reiterate: Those with whom common-sense reasoning resonates
are inclined to join the natural law choir, if they’re not already members. Those
not able to “compute” such common-sense reasoning are the dug-in opposition. But
what about those who could go either way?
According to a 2011 study, “Catholic Attitudes on Gay and Lesbian
Issues” (Public Religion Research
Institute), 43 percent of American Catholics see
no problem with same-sex marriage; an additional 31 percent lean toward
same-sex civil unions. Allow me to surmise what nearly three-quarters of the
Catholic populace is thinking: If marriage is essentially
a natural institution, why can’t it evolve naturally? Is it because the Church
has put a sacramental stamp on it? Okay, but most of the world doesn’t believe
in that stamp. What about the fact that marriage existed prior to the Church? Finally,
are there not equally good, down-home arguments for same-sex marriage? Such
questions lead to the second caveat.
(2) We need natural law arguments that support traditional
marriageno question. And we have excellent ones in What Is Marriage? But, in my opinion, we need more. We need to
proclaim marriage in such a way that it moves the person in the pew to pause,
ponder, and possibly change.
How many persons interested in the Christian faith would become
converts if we talked sensibly about the Resurrection? Catechist: “Well, what’s
important is that we know that the disciples believed that Christ rose from the
dead. So, we believe that they
believed. We’re carrying on the tradition of knowing that they believed. Whether
Jesus actually did resurrect is not the important thing here.”
Juxtapose that witness with this: “I believe that Christ rose from
the dead. And that’s the reason I’m standing before you. If the Resurrection
did not actually happen, then, quite frankly, I’m wasting your time. Plus, I’ve
wasted most of my life. But Christ did
resurrect; he is the Way, the Truth,
and the Life. That’s what I believe, that’s what Catholics have always
believed, and that’s what the followers of Christ will proclaim to all future
From which testimony will we get more converts? I think the
Proclaiming the mystery of marriage
Over the past four and a half
decades, I’ve given countless classes and talks on marriage and family. I
believe we need to proclaim the good news about marriage, not just anew, but in
a new way. To wit:
Marriage is more than a natural, social
construct with a subsequent, sacramental seal of approval.
Marriage was in God’s mind from the
The visible sign of marriage “in the
beginning,” inasmuch as it is linked to the visible sign of Christ’s spousal
love for the Church, embodies God’s eternal plan of love, making it the
foundation of the whole sacramental order (cf. TOB 95b.7).
Marriage, in terms of the nature of self-gift, reflects the
internal life of the Trinity.
The communion of persons formed by husband
and wife reflects God more than does each spouse individually.
These are new ways of describing a reality that we can no longer
take for granted or view as a second-tier vocation. They connect marriage
directly to God the Creator and to Christ the Bridegroom. In my experience, the
Catholic on the fence is moved more by testimony and witness than by logic.
John Paul II, with his
theology of the body, put marriage center-stage. SSM activists have also put
marriage center-stage. The ensuing drama will determine whether we can continue
to carry the good news of God’s plan for marriage and family with verve and in freedom
. Hopefully, “in defense of
marriage” will not come to mean defending ourselves against marriage,