The Innocence of Common Sense and the Deconstruction of Marriage

The world needs to hear the deep, life-giving, theological resonance of God’s plan for marriage and family

Recently, Archbishop Cordileone of San Francisco, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage, gave an address at the March for Marriage in Washington, D.C. He focused on the common sense argument that all children deserve mothers and fathers. First, though, he effused peace and well-being: “We love you (the opposition)… and want you to be happy… we don’t hate you… we want to be your friends… try to understand our position, as we will try to do the same for you.” Those disarming, unfeigned words reminded me of Herman Melville’s classic tale of innocence, Billy Budd. Melville describes British-frigate sailor Budd as “Adam presumably might have been ere the urbane Serpent wriggled himself in his company.” In other words, Adam before the fall.

Billy Budd sees everything through a perfectly smooth lens, neither convex nor concave. For him, reality has no laminated layers, therefore, no distortions. He wishes everyone well. He cannot recognize evil, even at nose-length. To his shipmates, he is, at once, astonishing and endearing. Such uprightness and transparency, as we know, attracts subterfuge and darkness. Therein lies the story.

Archbishop Cordileone has a depth and charism that the character Budd does not have. And the archbishop understands, far better than most, the Catholic vision of marriage and family. In his talk, I craned to hear something of that depth, something beyond the natural premises (as important as they are) that connect marriage to children, and children to marriage. I wanted to hear a couple of lines designed for those who believe in God, lines that had a memorable ring and some theological content. For instance: “Man becomes an image of God not so much in the moment of solitude as in the moment of communion [marriage]” (TOB, 9.3). But the talk was woven, beginning to end, with a natural warp and woof.

Marriage has an inner truth with two parts: first, in terms of self-gift, marriage reflects the internal life of the Trinity; second, married love is procreative precisely because it images creative love. The world, including marriage, comes from a divine choice to make divine love as visible as possible; children come from the choice to make spousal love as visible as possible. The reality of marriage flows from God to us, then from the unitive to the procreative, not the other way around. Marriage is the earthly paradigm of how God’s love works. So marriage, by its very nature, has a supernatural source and ring.

Archbishop Cordileone summed up his argument in a quotable declaration: “marriage matters to kids.” He could not have been more right. Indeed, all children, given the advantage of hindsight and a magic wand, would choose to live with their respective biological mothers and fathers if said parents were capable of loving each other and them. But the opposition knows the conditional argument all too well: What if the child is an orphan or has been given up for adoption and the only parental opportunity for him or her is a same-sex couple? And if that child were adopted by that couple, wouldn’t the child want the same-sex parents to be “married”?

About the time the archbishop was addressing the March for Marriage crowd, Supreme Court Justice Kennedy was juxtaposing two sociological time-lines: “We have five years of information [on same-sex unions] to weigh against 2,000 years of history [of traditional marriage].” Then the other judicial shoe drops: “On the other hand, there is an immediate legal injury, or what could be a legal injury, and that’s the voice of these children. There are some 40,000 children in California … that live with same-sex parents, and they want their parents to have full recognition and full status (my emphasis). The voice of those children is important in this case, don’t you think?”

Justice Kennedy has just turned Archbishop Cordileone’s argument against itself, without breaking a sweat. It matters little that the archbishop’s reasoning stems from human experience gleaned over several millennia and from myriad cultures, whereas Justice Kennedy’s fundamental worry is built on a false assumption, namely, that the children in question would choose the status quo rather than choose a mother and a father, given the option. (See Robert Lopez’s poignant and personal testimony, “Justice Kennedy’s 40,000 Children”.) In a live debate, Kennedy would win the compassion vote, even among the majority of Catholics, because it is about the supposed suffering of identifiable children who supposedly exist right now.

The dilemma: A common sense proposition is, by its nature, so transparent, so “a given,” that the one who lives with such clarity wonders how there could be any push-back at all. Is it not crystal clear that every child comes from, and therefore deserves, a father and a mother? How could anyone not see that? When, instead, one hears the argument that gay couples deserve to be married for their children’s sake, one can only scratch one’s head. Is there not an adage about the folly of reversing horse and cart?

But clearly, at the public-discourse trough, jostling for position is the norm. It is often the sharpness of one’s elbows, rather than the acuity of one’s forebrain, that propels one to the front. Perhaps if America had more minds like Billy Budd’s, common-sense premises and conclusions would hold more sway.

Archbishop Cordileone must love and tell the truth—that is his calling, as is ours. But, because he is persona Christi at a level to which few humans are summoned and elected, his solicitude for those who oppose the Catholic vision of marriage is to the fore, and under a microscope. If he is able to take the wraps off at all, his message will, at once, reveal the uncomfortable truth and spotlight the inherent dignity of the persons facing him. The exchange between Jesus and the woman-at-the-well revisited, time and again.

Still, for the vanguard peering out over No-Man’s Land, it is good to know who and what is coming. To be clear, the opposing forces to traditional marriage do not care whether we love them. They have no inclination whatsoever to enter into good-faith dialogue. In their planned deconstruction of marriage, the more their tools of choice—subterfuge and obscurity—are mistaken by us as forthrightness and transparency, the faster the demolition. Verily, nothing would delight them more than for us to give them credence—a place, even if symbolic, at the summit table. When that happens, if it has not already, all the seating at the table will soon be theirs.

Speaking on a panel at the Sydney Writer’s Festival (2012), lesbian activist/journalist Masha Gessen provided her enthusiastic LGBT audience with a searing, no-blinks gaze into the future:

It’s a no-brainer that we should have the right to marry, but I also think equally that it’s a no-brainer that the institution of marriage should not exist. That causes my brain some trouble. And part of why it causes me trouble is because fighting for gay marriage generally involves lying about what we are going to do with marriage when we get there—because we lie that the institution of marriage is not going to change, and that is a lie.

The institution of marriage is going to change, and it should change. And again, I don’t think it should exist. And I don’t like taking part in creating fictions about my life. That’s sort of not what I had in mind when I came out thirty years ago. I have three kids who have five parents, more or less, and I don’t see why they shouldn’t have five parents legally….

[After my divorce] I met my new partner, and she had just had a baby, and that baby’s biological father is my brother, and my daughter’s biological father is a man who lives in Russia, and my adopted son also considers him his father. So the five parents break down into two groups of three…. And really, I would like to live in a legal system that is capable of reflecting that reality. And I don’t think that’s compatible with the institution of marriage (The Global Dispatch, April 29, 2013).

All that said and unearthed, I am all for, and for all, arguments supporting traditional marriage: theological, philosophical, psychological, sociological—the gamut. The situation determines the type, depth, and breadth of the arguments chosen. But I would urge bishops to teach and preach with authority about the Catholic vision of marriage and family, regardless of whether they think anyone in the audience may understand that vision. After proclaiming the reality of marriage in the clearest and deepest possible terms, they can then bolster that reality with as many natural underpinnings as they desire.

The Billy Budds of the world are usually hung from the yardarms, at times, literally. If a Catholic prelate is to hang—in the figurative sense—for teaching the truth about marriage, the words for which he is being sentenced, however much forged in innocence and good-will, should have more than a natural peal. The world, not to mention the partially faith-deaf Catholic, needs to hear the deep, life-giving, theological resonance of God’s plan for marriage and family.

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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.