This past week I have been asked by several of you to explain why the Catholic Church stands in such strong support of the proposed Marriage Amendment which will be on the upcoming May 8 ballot here in NC. The Church’s support for this amendment to our state constitution has been strongly expressed by both Catholic bishops of NC, Bishop Peter Jugis of the Diocese of Charlotte, and Bishop Michael Burbidge of the Diocese of Raleigh.
I have been asked if I could give a “short answer” explanation as to why the bishops are so concerned with this amendment. I will be the first to admit that I often have a problem giving “short answers” to anything! But on this issue it is especially difficult to give a short answer – in fact most “short answers” I have seen offered by people both supporting and opposing this amendment typically fail to address the real issues.
In particular, many “short answers” I have seen from people tend to come across as bigoted and reactionary. We want to be neither of those things! I believe that you deserve a well thought out and reasonable explanation on this matter, and do not want to short-change you simply because this is a touchy “political hot button” issue.
For my “short answer” I will simply say that the issue has less to do with homosexuality, and more to do with marriage itself. For my long answer, keep reading.
THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND HOMOSEXUALITY
Despite my just having said this issue is really about marriage, not homosexuality, I do want to be absolutely clear from the beginning as to what our position, as Catholic Christians, is towards homosexual behavior and people with same-sex attraction.
The Catholic Church teaches that homosexual acts are intrinsically wrong, which is to say they are morally sinful. But the Catechism also teaches us that “men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies… must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided” (CCC 2358).
It may sound cliché to say “hate the sin, love the sinner,” but that is exactly what we are called to do. We love the sinner. Because guess what? You and I are sinners, too. We do not want to discriminate against people who are guilty of a particular type of sin. They also stand in need of Christ’s love and compassion, and we are the ones who ought to be bringing that love to them.
This is why I don’t like to use terms such as “homosexual” or “gay” because it becomes too easy to label people and not look past the label. I prefer to use the term “people with same-sex attraction,” even though it is more wordy, because it reminds us that we are talking about people and that these people have the same innate human dignity as anyone else.
Ok, so what is this Marriage Amendment about? What will NC residents be voting on, exactly?
Here is the exact wording of the proposed amendment:
Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State. This section does not prohibit a private party from entering into contracts with another private party; nor does this section prohibit courts from adjudicating the rights of private parties pursuant to such contracts.
This proposed amendment has been added to the upcoming ballot by the vote of a bi-partisan majority of the North Carolina Legislature. (In other words, this is neither a Democratic or Republican issue).
This amendment is being referred to as “Amendment One” in the press, which can be confusing. When you go to cast your vote, this amendment is actually the LAST item on the ballot, and as it is the only amendment being voted on, it is not numbered. So if you are looking for something called “Amendment One” you will miss it.
Here is a very important point: this proposed amendment to our state constitution simply reflects current law that is already in effect in the state of NC. This is important because whether this amendment is approved or rejected on May 8, it will not change current law in our state.
So why do we need this amendment? To avoid what has already happened in California, Massachusetts, Iowa, Vermont and Connecticut. Same-sex marriage is now legally recognized in those states. The citizens of these states did not vote to recognize same-sex marriage; rather judicial courts overturned existing marriage laws. Incorporating the traditional definition of marriage in our state constitution would make it more difficult for a single judicial court to change our state’s marriage laws. Over 30 other states have already taken this important measure to preserve the traditional definition of marriage.
But again, regardless of what happens on May 8, current law in NC already recognizes marriage only between one man and one woman, and this will not change as a result of this election.
I have seen a lot of material circulating around Facebook and other online venues about this amendment that is purposely designed to mislead and misdirect. For example, one item I saw said people should vote against this amendment because it would remove legal protection for women against domestic violence. This is absolutely untrue.
Another said that it would force senior citizens to choose between legal protection and their pensions. Again, this is entirely untrue.
The same post asserted that this amendment would cause children of unmarried parents to lose health care benefits. Again, untrue. This amendment has nothing to do with domestic violence laws, senior pensions, or child health care. In fact, before our Catholic bishops came out in favor of this amendment, they had their lawyers examine all of these issues and more to ensure that these sort of unintended consequences would not happen as a result of a marriage amendment, and have stated that they would not support the amendment if any of these things were true.
So whether you decide to vote for or against this amendment on May 8, please do so for legitimate reasons, and do not fall prey to false statements being used as scare tactics by either side.
A RELIGIOUS ISSUE?
I have been asked by some if I could explain why a person should support this amendment without reference to religion. This is an unfair question. It is asking someone to give their opinion on how we define one of the most fundamental of all human relationships, without referencing their overarching world-view that informs their understanding of human nature itself.
Nevertheless, it is a question religious people are asked. A similar argument you will hear goes something like this. “We don’t want to change what Catholics, Protestants, Jews, or Muslims believe about marriage. We are only saying that in a secular, religiously pluralistic society, everyone should have the freedom to enter into a civilly recognized marriage. To not allow this is discrimination. You don’t have to marry same-sex couples in your church, but to impose your religious doctrines on a secular society is wrong. If two people want to make a life-long commitment to love one another and be faithful to one another, what is wrong with that?”
This certainly sounds like a valid argument, and doubtless it will be a popular one on most college campuses, including here at WCU. It sounds fair and reasonable, non-judgmental and compassionate. Why should others be expected to live according to our religious teachings?
Here is the interesting thing about Catholic morality. It is not based on the Bible, or on Divine Revelation. Yes, it is supported by the Bible, and by Revelation. It is upheld by those things. But it is not based in those things.
So what is our moral teaching based on? The answer is the human person. What does it mean, objectively, to be a human being? To live a moral life is to live in accord with our human dignity. To act against our human dignity is to act immorally. It is that simple. This is called the Natural Law.
Now, natural law moral principles are a bit more complex than this, and if you were to take a course on natural law philosophy, you would delve deeply into many subjects, certainly including human sexuality. But suffice it to say now, because our Catholic moral teachings are based on human nature, and this something we all share in common, we do believe our moral principles to be universally valid.
How we understand marriage is a part of our human nature. It is not an invention of the Church. Nor is it an invention of the state. It has been around for as long as there have been people. It is neither a religious institution nor a government institution – it is a human institution. We don’t get to define it, we simply need to learn to recognize it.
So let’s return to the question, “What is wrong with allowing same-sex marriages to be recognized by the state?”
I would say nothing is wrong with it. I would say that, if marriage were simply a matter of two people who love each other publicly expressing their commitment to one another. This brings us to the crux of the matter. That’s not what marriage is.
THE REAL ISSUE: WHAT IS MARRIAGE?
In recent generations, our society has largely lost the sense of what marriage is all about. This was reflected by a cartoon I saw recently.
The point of the cartoon is clear. How can these first two be right, and the third wrong? My answer to that would be that all three are wrong! None of them reflect a proper attitude about marriage.
Allow me to quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s definition of marriage, and pay special attention to the purposes mentioned.
A covenant or partnership of life between a man and a woman, which is ordered to the well-being of the spouses and to the procreation and upbringing of children.
You will notice that the purpose of marriage is three-fold.
- The well-being of the spouses.
- Procreation of children.
- Upbringing of children.
All three of these are important. All are essential to the meaning of marriage. Marriage is the seed from which families are grown, and families are the basic building blocks of society. When we marry, we say to our spouse, “I give myself fully to you.” And that gift of self is not merely on a spiritual or emotional level, but on a physical level. Your two bodies combine to become “one flesh” resulting in a new and unique person – a new human life.
This is precisely why marriage, as a stable, life-long, committed relationship is so important to society. Marriage is about more than two people who love each other. And it’s about more than simple procreation. It’s also about a father and a mother sticking around to help one another raise children into responsible adults, and providing a loving, caring home in which they can grow.
This is not a condemnation of the many single parents who do the best they can to raise children, but those same parents would be the first to tell you their situation is not the ideal.
Let’s face it; marriage in our country is in trouble. This is evident in the statistics. In 1940, according to the CDC, only 4% of children born in the United States were born out of wedlock. In 2010 (the latest year for which I could find a statistic), that number was 41%. If the trend continues, soon half of all children born in our country will be born out of wedlock.
It is an oft-repeated statistic that half of all marriages today end in divorce. The numbers actually are more telling than that. While 41% of all first marriages today end in divorce, 60% of second marriages end in divorce, while 73% of all third marriages end in divorce. In other words, the more times you marry, the more likely you are to get divorced again. Moreover, 66% of all divorced couples are childless. These numbers are staggering, especially when you realize that in 1940, the divorce rate in the US was about 14%.
As an aside, the divorce rate among Catholic couples who faithfully practice Natural Family Planning (i.e. do not use artificial contraception) is .2%. And no, that decimal point is not a typo.
So what happened between 1940 and today, to cause the divorce rate to quadruple and the rate of out of wedlock births to increase tenfold? Many things have changed, but not the least of which are the following:
- Contraception has become accepted and easily available
- Abortion has become accepted and easily available
- No-fault divorce has become accepted and easily available
- There is no longer an expectation that marriage is a life-long commitment
- There is no longer an expectation that sex belongs properly to marriage
All of these factors have combined to obliterate our traditional understanding of marriage. Marriage, sex, and children used to be three intimately connected realities. Now, they are perceived as being three totally separate and independent goods. Today, one can have sex without children, one can have sex without marriage, one can have marriage without children, and one can have children without marriage. All of these are seen as perfectly fine and viable alternatives to the “traditional family.” These are all viewed as valid “lifestyle choices.”
In light of this, it is hardly surprising that people would advocate for same-sex marriage. Marriage has ceased to be, in the eyes of society, an institution for the public good. It has become a private contract, a celebration of love between two people and nothing more. And if this is all marriage is, why shouldn’t the state recognize marriage between two men, or two women? Why stop at two, for that matter. After all, if there is nothing special about gender, what is so special about number? Why not allow polygamy? (And yes, some are already advocating for this).
Yes, marriage is a celebration of love between two people. But it is a self-giving love oriented towards life and the generation of a new family. Marriage implicitly includes child bearing and child rearing. Marriage is a very important fundamental human right, but it is not an absolute right. It is not for everyone.
The expectation is that marriage will yield children. This is why, in the Catholic Church, couples may only validly enter into marriage if they are both open to having children. This is why the Code of Canon Law (Church law) still speaks of the need to consummate the marriage.
Does this mean people who are medically sterile cannot enter into a valid marriage? No, because such a medical condition is accidental (using the term philosophically) and potentially could be overcome. But it does mean that two people of the same sex, who are biologically incapable of procreating, are incapable of forming a marital bond.
Does our modern society allow all sorts of things in regard to marriage that the Catholic Church would not approve of? Yes. Should this fact be used as an excuse to further erode our understanding of marriage? No.
WHAT WE ARE NOT SAYING
Saying that marriage is, by definition, something that only opposite sex partners can enter into is not saying the love and friendship two same-same people can have for each other is somehow invalid. It is simply recognizing that it does not fit the criteria for marriage.
Nor is it saying that same-gender partners should not be able to visit a loved one who is sick in the hospital, or to leave inheritance to one another in their wills. These things should be allowed. But attempting to redefine marriage in order to make these things happen can only further degrade our society’s understanding of this essential institution.
Our society, as a whole, needs to rediscover the truth about marriage, about its beauty, its challenges, its rewards and its importance to our society. We can begin by voting to defend marriage in our state. And so, as your campus minister, I join with our bishop, Peter Jugis, and his brother bishop in Raleigh, and encourage you to vote FOR Marriage.
I do not want to speak for our bishops, and so I invite and encourage you to read their own statements on this issue at the following web site:
And finally, I would encourage you – especially those of you preparing for marriage yourselves – to take advantage of a wonderful online resource that the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has put together to help strengthen marriage in our country.
Lastly, I invite anyone who has issue with anything I have written above, or who wishes to discuss this or related matters concerning marriage, sexual ethics, chastity, discrimination, same-sex attraction, or any other related issue to please contact me. I would be more than happy to have a conversation with anyone on these issues. I’ll even buy the coffee.
God bless all of you,