Note: This series is based on a talk given by staff of the US bishops’ Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage at a conference for Catholic marriage and family life ministers in July 2013. It is divided into five sections.
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What do you say that marriage is? The need for a comprehensive vision
The Supreme Court’s DOMA decision made clear that the marriage debate consists of two competing, mutually exclusive visions of marriage. Justice Alito made this point in his dissent. He wrote, “By asking the Court to strike down DOMA…[the plaintiff is] really seeking to have the Court resolve a debate between two competing views of marriage” (p. 13, Alito dissent).
Often we hear that the marriage debate is not about redefining marriage; it’s about expanding marriage. But consider the way in which the Court describes marriage (although it doesn’t come right out with a clear, comprehensive definition; that is not its focus). Marriage is the “legal acknowledgement of the intimate relationship between two people” (p. 20). Marriage happens when two people “affirm their commitment to one another” (p. 14). It grants persons “a status of equality” (p. 14) and “a dignity and status of immense import” (p. 18), allowing them to “live with pride in themselves and their union” (p. 14).
Reading through the majority opinion, one could be excused for thinking that marriage’s purpose is to validate adults’ feelings for one another, and to make sure they feel that their relationship is “worthy” and not “second-class” (terms also used by the Court: pp. 25, 22). Indeed, the word “dignity” is used eight times in the majority opinion. Gender, of course, has no rational connection with this.
In contrast, the definition of marriage held by Catholics and many others has everything to do with gender and sexual difference because at its heart is the one-flesh bond of husband and wife, a union open to the gift of life (see FAQ #3).
These two views of marriage – which have been called by various names, such as “revisionist” or “genderless” versus “natural” or “conjugal” – are not compatible. Either marriage has at its heart a one-flesh communion made possible by the presence of a husband and a wife, or it doesn’t. To “expand” marriage is really to flatten it – to reduce it to the state’s recognition of adults’ romantic relationships.
Tip number two: present as comprehensive vision of marriage as possible. It’s no secret that the push to redefine marriage to include two persons of the same sex is just the latest assault on marriage. Contraception, divorce, and cohabitation have each contributed to erode marriage’s meaning. We need to reclaim not just the truth that marriage takes a man and a woman – we need to reclaim all of the truths about marriage, that it is open to life, faithful, indissoluble, and at its heart a complete gift of one’s self, time, body, possessions, and so on, to one’s spouse.
Presenting the fullness of marriage provides a counter to the alternative view of marriage that has gained such traction. And it also provides a way for everyone, in whatever ministry or situation they are in, to help rebuild marriage. For example, NFP teachers can help people see the fruitfulness of marriage; those who help to heal struggling marriages can help people see marriage’s indissolubility; married persons can witness to marriage by living it faithfully, and so forth.
We must be clear that neutrality is not an option. We have been given by our Church such a beautiful, comprehensive vision of marriage, and we should look for every opportunity to proclaim it.
Please visit www.marriageuniqueforareason.org for more resources on promoting and defending marriage, including videos, study guides, FAQs, and more. This site is a project of the USCCB Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org