Catholics should pay attention to the recent Federal Court’s unanimous decision that declared the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).is unconstitutional. Although the U.S. bishops had listed legalized same-sex marriage as a form of religious persecution this year, this legal decision rebuts the bishops’ thinking as counter to the Constitution of the United States of America. There is no reason, argues the court, to deny the legal benefits of marriage to persons of the same sex. So what is the greater pull to Catholic America: Being “Catholic” as the USCCB Ad Hoc Committee demands, or being “American” as required by the Constitution?
I have met many Catholics in the pews who are willing to concede every legal right to persons of the same sex “living together”: equal rights in housing codes, hospital visitation rights, inheritance matters, protection from bullying and health insurance coverage. They object, however, to the change of an abstract definition of marriage. In other words, “they” can do what they want “behind closed doors,” but shouldn’t ask for the same status as traditional marriage between one man and one woman. Even if same-sex marriage does not interfere with the pastoral practices of Catholicism, they fear a “slippery slope” that eventually leads to perversions like those denounced by former Senator Rick Santorum. As passionate as believers in this posture may be, their logic is flawed. Here’s why.
The abstract principle behind marriage is a life-long commitment to share oneself with a loved one. But abstract principles are just that -- “abstract” -- while people are real. How can you say you favor justice for gays and lesbians while advocating discrimination against them in law? It’s a contradiction to favor the practice but oppose the principle. “Anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen” (I Jn. 4:20).
Moreover, the principle that marriage is a highly serious commitment is one of the reasons couples increasingly co-habit rather than marry. As suggested here previously, many parish priests find pre-set marriage preparations courses harder to teach because of the social aversion to commitment. Ironically, when some gays and lesbians make such a commitment they strengthen the abstract principle behind marriage. Denying same-sex persons access to a permanent state for two people sharing life together, not only violates their equal rights, but lessens the number of married couples. Ironically, DOMA encourages indifference to marriage because it attacks the abstract principle of loving union for a couple by denying its universal application.
One of the most common objection to same-sex marriage is based on the notion that the purpose of marriage is about propagation of the human race through reproduction. However, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC #1641-1648) elevates the higher spiritual value of love over that earthly purpose. In fact, a marriage is sacramentally valid (CCC #1654) even when the couple -- e.g. two people in a nursing home - are not going to have children. Sociological evidence shows that two persons of the same-sex can successfully adopt and raise children, while parents of different sexes offer no guarantee of a solid family.
Finally, Catholic America needs to recognize that government has a responsibility of providing for the common good, which is not the same as legislating morality. The secular question for the state is how to best provide for law and order, not what the Catechism says. The American Catholic Church has long ago learned to live with legalized divorce (CCC #1650), although the lesson came later in mostly Catholic countries like Spain (1981) and Ireland (1997). Same-sex marriage, I think, is no more an attack on Catholic religious freedom than is legalized divorce. Moreover, society as a whole benefits when couples are committed to monogamous relations, which is why property and other legal rights are bestowed on those choosing to marry.
To answer the question, “Where do we go from here?” I think the bishops ought to stop using church funds and pulpits to impose DOMA-style laws. Otherwise, we might wind up on the wrong side of American exceptionalism.