The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops recently issued a letter entitled “Marriage and the Supreme Court.” This bulletin insert, to be distributed nationwide, is nothing particularly earth-shaking. It describes the two cases presently before the court, and provides information on what people can do to advocate for marriage as defined by Christian Tradition.
Of course this letter did not go unnoticed–in response, Mary Elizabeth Williams has written her own piece forSalon. “Is the Catholic Church even trying to make sense on marriage equality?” attempts to point out the flaws in Catholic thought on marriage, sexuality, and parenthood. Ms. Williams’ essay is short and to-the-point, and her point is this: the Catholic Church is inconsistent and irrelevant when it comes to the definition of marriage.
As much as I might like to, it is not my intention here to correct all of the falsehoods and half-truths in this article, or plead a passionate defense of the bishops faithfully and humbly serving Christ’s Church. (Though I will briefly say that yes, the Bible does include examples of bigamy–but I’m not entirely sure what that has to do with God’s design for marriage, as set forth in the opening chapters of Genesis and held by the Catholic Church from its inception.) What I do hope to touch on, instead, is one claim in particular that Williams makes.
And don’t repeat the flat-out vicious untruth that “Redefining marriage in the law says many false things: women — mothers — are dispensable; men — fathers — are dispensable; what adults want trumps what a child deserves and has a basic right to.” Because I have to tell you, that’s what grasping at straws looks like.
Proponents of civil unions regularly snicker at the “dispensable” argument used by some in defending marriage as being between one man and one woman. They point out (more or less rightly) that their respective same-sex unions have virtually no effect on my marriage or yours, or on how I raise my children. They also (rightly) express the sad reality that marriages are plagued by divorce, abuse, and adultery all on their own–that we heterosexuals are plenty self-destructive and therefore a much bigger threat to ourselves than gay or lesbian couples are to us. And, they’ll get no argument from me on those points. I agree. (Although I will say that certain components of the civil union bills do have the potential to affect Catholic organizations and businesses, but that’s another topic for another time.)
But it’s a bit of a straw-man argument, because no one is saying that motherhood and fatherhood actually become irrelevant when civil unions become legal. That is simply preposterous–Colorado just passed a historic civil unions bill, and last time I checked, I’m still raising my eight children. And judging by how often my two-month-old needs to nurse, I am still very much relevant. So no, Catholics are not afraid of something bad transpiring the moment same-sex couples are granted marriage licenses by the state.
When Catholics discuss the danger of motherhood/fatherhood being rendered dispensable, they are instead saying that womanhood and manhood are always relevant. And that marriage is a defined, God-breathed institution that has been present from the creation of the world. They are saying that it very much matters that a child have a mother and a father. They are appealing to natural law and to the right order of things: the procreation of children requires a man and a woman, does it not? And God created male and female and told them to be fruitful and multiply, did He not?
Of course I suspect Williams’ article was written from a place of frustration and emotion. And I get that, because people very much do see the issue as one of equality–if marriage itself has no objective meaning or definition, and is merely left to the very subjective idea of “love”, then why should only one type of relationship be recognized by the state? It’s a sensitive subject and you won’t ever hear me wondering why people are so very passionate about it. The author has also possibly never known a bishop or priest personally, or taken the time to understand just where Catholics are coming from. Maybe it’s too painful or frustrating to delve into. And again, I understand. But it’s a shame, because the truth is that the historic Christian position on marriage, children and the human person is liberating. It is clear and, dare I say, logical. It is rooted in creation and also in natural law. And while there are certainly inconsistencies in how people live this out, the design itself is cohesive and straightforward.
It makes sense.
There are three things that I believe Christians ought to do in the face of the sort of skepticism and outright criticism typified by Williams’ article. The first is to joyfully live out your vocation as the woman or man God created you to be. There is always going to be something beautiful and winsome about healthy relationship, new life, and living in light of the dignity given you by God Himself. If you are married, embrace your role as husband or wife, mother or father. If you are not, embrace that instead. Either way, love Jesus, love others, be a living witness to the world of God’s plan for humanity. Be humble. Seek holiness. Simply exist as a testimony to the beauty inherent in living in proper relationship with God.
Second, we must take the time to understand for ourselves why we profess that marriage can only exist between a man and a woman. Because the average person on the street (or on Facebook) doesn’t know. They assume we simply hate people different from ourselves, or that we have some arbitrary reason for wanting to prohibit some percentage of the population from achieving happiness. Read the Bible, read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, invest some time in reading some encyclicals. Make it a habit to read Pope Francis’ weekly addresses. Become familiar with what marriage and human sexuality are. An entire world is hurting for this knowledge that our very Church holds dear.
And finally, prayer is a must. Pray for those far from God, pray for those distrustful of the Church, pray for those struggling with their respective sexuality. Pray that hearts won’t be hardened towards Jesus on account of attractions or lifestyle. Pray for the lonely and the hurting and also for the comfortable and the happy. Pray for young people, period. Pray that men and women may avoid or escape the snare of pornography. Pray that your own heart will remain soft towards people who believe or live or speak differently than you. We are all, after all, people. Made in the image of a loving God.
Regardless what the culture says or does, there is no need to be fearful or distraught. Because ultimately? The Catholic Church doesn’t have to “try to make sense” when it comes to marriage equality. Holy Matrimony is a gift, a treasure, and a Sacrament that is ordered towards a healthy and whole society. It brings forth and nourishes life, and is a catalyst for holiness and virtue. So we need only point to God’s perfect plan for creation from the beginning of time, and allow the Holy Spirit to do the rest.