In Defense of Marriage

Why natural law arguments for marriage—while very important—are not enough

H. L. Mencken—satirist, progressive, pseudo-misogynist, provocateur—wrote 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 bond.       

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 wife. 

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 speech.”

Back to the Future—Genesis Revisited    

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 Persons—the love that is the Third Person—does 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 marriage

In What Is Marriage? Man and Woman—A 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-charging—they 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 new—life’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 flummoxing—I 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, paradoxical—therein, 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 marriage—no 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.

Proclamation—An analogy

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 generations.”

From which testimony will we get more converts? I think the latter.

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 get-go. 

— 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, government-style.

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About John S. Hamlon 9 Articles
John S. Hamlon taught religion, philosophy, physics, and chemistry at the high school level prior to teaching undergraduate and graduate courses on the Catholic Catechism, marriage, and Christian ethics. He continues to teach theology/philosophy courses for adults at Easter's Faith Formation Center, Sacramento, CA. He has an MA in theology from the University of San Francisco and did doctoral work in systematic theology at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley. He was the associate director of the St. Ignatius Institute, University of San Francisco from 1994 to 2001. Prior to that, he was the program director for national and international conferences on NFP, marriage, and family at St. John’s University, Collegeville, MN. He’s the author of A Call to Families: A Commentary and Study Guide for Familiaris Consortio.