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May 2, 2006

Marriage in Other Terms

Fr. Peter,

As a parishioner who has been thinking and writing about the issue of same-sex marriage for the past five years, I found cause for concern in your recent bulletin missive on the topic. It is fine for a pastor to struggle with such matters; indeed, I'd argue that we all have a responsibility to engage them. For my part, I began contemplation of same-sex marriage thinking that there mightn't be a problem, and might be justice in, equalizing marriage as a matter of the law. Inasmuch as you affirm the Church's handling of marriage for itself, it would appear that your thinking is similar to mine back then. However, having opened this particular can of worms, as you say, in your own public forum as a spiritual leader, it seems to me that you've a responsibility to follow your thinking to its end and resolve the ambiguities in your letter.

Toward beginning to reconcile modern gut response with tradition, I would stress that general principles of separation of church and state do not dictate government relativism in all areas in which religion supplies concrete answers. That the Church has accurately identified a spiritual imperative does not mean that the social manifestation of the same imperative is not a proper matter for legislation. Different assumptions direct the logic of religion and of government, to be sure, but if it is a fact that God has revealed truth through our particular Church, it follows that similar principles are at least likely to carry over into the secular sphere.

You find it important, I was relieved to read, to repeat and affirm the Church's internal teachings on marriage, based on the premise that "the joining and benefit of each partner is... understood as being inseparable from the bearing of children." The question that must next be answered is the reason for our government to acknowledge and promote marriage. Is it just for affirmation, for recognition? Is civil marriage to be understood as a golden sticker borne for all to see that we legitimately have, in your words, "dignity as human persons"? Woe to our society if we need to be thus regulated as individuals; more's the woe if each of us must seek it through prior declaration of our value by another person.

If civil marriage is meant to allay our insecurities as social beings, then why must it be limited to sexual relationships with non-relatives? Why must it be limited to two people? Why — I ask again — have government-acknowledged marriages at all? If it is to encourage mutual care (one possible answer), the presence of "a healthy and mature sexual orientation" would seem to be moot. What, in terms distinct from those religious ones on which we agree, is marriage for? Beyond passive bestowment of status to relationships that citizens insist are "marriages," what does our government hope that marriage will actively do to benefit our society?

The conclusion to which I've come is that the government's critical reason for recognizing and encouraging marriage is to form the culture's vision of the institution as one uniting parents together and with their children. We do not invest in the culture of marriage in order to affirm adults in their private decisions or even as an expression of belief in their dignity; we vest marriage with meaning primarily with an eye toward those adults who are least likely to choose its restrictions. We want marriage to be strong, in short, in order to bind adults together when they might be drawn to different lives, and we do so not as an instrument of oppression, but for the benefit of those with no say, but high stakes, in the matter: children. And the sexual male-female relationship is the only one in which children can appear without an explicit choice to form a family.

I, along with many other married people with intentional children and willful fidelity, do not need government recognition, especially in addition to Church recognition, for my marriage to be meaningful and permanent. The public's interest in such marriages is as instances of investment, of definition (further obligating the spouses to live up to the example that their choices have put them in a position to represent.) Public investment in same-sex relationships as a form of marriage would serve to redefine the institution, changing its meaning beyond the straightforward statement of responsibility to begotten life. Rationalize as we may, if marriage is not understood as "inseparable from the bearing of children," then bearing children must be separable from marriage.

You ask how "we [can] foster a greater dignity for all persons." I submit that we do so by leading people toward maturity — not a "mature sexual orientation," but a mature understanding of their place in the scheme of life. "A sense of identity" does not come with a paper from the city hall, but with an acknowledgment of the ways in which identities define what we can, can't, and should do. And dignity cannot coincide with — much less be built upon — a false equivalence.

Conversation continues in the comment section of Mark Shea's post noting my letter.

Posted by Justin Katz at May 2, 2006 6:52 PM
Marriage & Family

Thoughtfully put. And welcome back!

Posted by: Marty at May 4, 2006 9:25 AM