June 15, 2006
Spain can boast as being the birthplace of the Jesuits and Opus Dei. And in more recent times, it has spawned the Neo-catechumenal Way as an energetic means of re-evangelization for the whole Church. Yet, from this country with such deep Catholic roots comes one of the most liberal laws about marriage. Last July, the Spanish Parliament tore down the traditional structure of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. It wiped away all legal distinctions between same-sex and heterosexual unions.
Within the United States, the momentum to do the same has been increasing. But not without its setbacks. On the one hand, same-sex couples lined up to be married in Asbury Park, New Jersey; New Paltz, New York; and Portland, Oregon. On the other hand, California’s Supreme Court ruled in a 5 - 2 decision that the more than 4,000 marriages of gays and lesbians in that State are void.
Some argue for the same-sex marriage on the basis of equality. The Declaration on Independence enshrines the fundamental principle that “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” When that statement was made, women did not have the same rights as men, slaves were not free and landholders were favored. Today, so some argue, we understand this basic principle of equality and are now ready to extend it to all without prejudice to sexual orientation.
Some argue for same-sex marriage on the basis of tolerance. Every individual has the right to self-determination. There can be no tyranny of religion or government determining for anyone what is right or wrong for them. Each person has the right to choose his or her own lifestyle. And, as long as someone’s choice brings no harm to others, it merits tolerance.
For some, marriage is simply the socially acceptable way to recognize the choice of an intimate relationship between two individuals. They, therefore, logically argue for same-sex unions. Anything less would be intolerant, prejudiced and discriminatory. Not all agree.
Marriage is a basic institution of society. Religious people who accept the Judaeo-Christian tradition based their understanding of marriage on revelation. The opening pages of Scripture present the human person as a creature of God. In the beginning, “God created man in his own image …male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number’”(Gen 1:27-28). The person as male or female comes from the hands of the creator. And so does marriage itself.
In God’s plan, the permanent, exclusive commitment of a man and woman provides the necessary context where spouses can express their love and cooperate with God in the marvel of procreation. Thus, marriage traces its origins not to the Church nor to the State, but to the very will of God. Its purpose and meaning are already given in the act of creation (Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1639-1640).
Today, however, this is exactly what is being debated. And for a number of underlying reasons. First, individualism. Our age places a high priority on individual fulfillment. Each person has the right to personal happiness as he or she sees fit. Some will argue that same-sex unions allow the individuals to fulfill their need for intimacy according to their own sexual orientation. But marriage, of its very nature, is ordered beyond the individual to the interest of society and the continuance of human life.
Second, science has perfected techniques that separate procreation from the intimate act of conjugal love. Two men enter a relationship and adopt a child. Two women live together and have a baby with the intervention of a male donor. Babies are produced without the genetic history of both parents and sometimes with the service of a surrogate mother. Human life is manufactured in test tubes, in laboratories, outside the marital embrace.
We are facing ethical problems dealing with the rights of children that no other age has had to face. The ideal of a mother and father having their own children and raising them in the context of their own family is being cast aside by the many other choices individuals are making. Yet the ideal still has value and does provide a stable environment where children can grow and mature.
Third, it has become fashionable to denigrate religious views as private matters and to minimize religion’s formative effect on constructing modern society. To complicate matters even more, religious people do not hold to the same views on human sexuality. Therefore, it has become imperative to look to another way of understanding what basis there is, if any, to safeguard marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
In life, there are many types of relationships between individuals. Parents to children. Friends to friends. Spouses to spouses. Lovers to lovers. Each of these relationships has its own structure and meaning. At the heart of the marital relationship is the inherent potential to transmit human life. The very structure of the body is an unambiguous indication that man is ordered to woman and woman to man in order that human life continue from one generation to another. Marriage has been, until today, the uncontested public and legal recognition of this fact.
Marriage has always included something more than mere friendship or romantic love. It has embraced the inherent potential for children. Certainly there have been cases where married couples have not been able to realize that potential. But the very structure of marriage itself has never been redefined on these exceptions.
Same-sex unions are seen as a way of expressing love. But of their very nature, they are not intrinsically ordered to the transmission of human life. This statement in no way makes a judgment on those individuals, but on the union itself. To redefine marriage simply on the basis of intimacy robs the conjugal relationship of the specific structure that separates it from every other type of relationship.
Marriage is defined as that institution that gives public and legal status to “the inherently procreative relationship of opposite sex pair bonding” (Margaret Somerville, A Brief Submitted to The Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, Canada, April 29, 2003). The exclusion of same-sex unions from the notion of marriage is not to discriminate against those who freely enter these unions. Rather, it is to recognize the difference that exists between these partnerships and marriage.
Is the United States going to join countries such as Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands in granting same-sex union legal equivalency to marriage? Or is this country going to opt to honor the inherent distinctions between marriage and any other unions? The choice this country makes will have long-reaching effects in altering our common culture.