Marriage Bill Passes, Undermines Truth, Natural Law
A couple of weeks ago I warned that it looked as if the deceptively-titled “Respect for Marriage Act” was likely to pass in the U.S. Senate.
Unfortunately, last week that’s exactly what happened. In a 61-36 vote last Tuesday, the bill received final approval in the Senate. It now goes back to the House for a final vote, where it is expected to pass easily. It will then go to the President for his signature.
I say that the law is “deceptively-titled” because the bill ultimately has nothing to do with “respecting” marriage. Instead, it legislatively enshrines the radical redefinition of marriage imposed on the country in 2015 by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Obergefell v. Hodges decision.
In brief, the bill mandates that the federal government recognize same-sex “marriages” contracted in states where such civil unions are legal. The motivation behind its introduction is to ensure that even should the U.S. Supreme Court overturn Obergefell, as it did with Roe v. Wade, same-sex civil unions would still be legal in the U.S.
Unfortunately, in the end 12 GOP senators joined the Democrats in assaulting marriage, family, and the common good by advancing the bill. Without the support and the betrayal of these 12 individuals, the bill would never have passed.
While the bill includes language ostensibly designed to protect religious conscience rights, critics of the bill have warned that those protections do not go nearly far enough. Furthermore, supporters of natural (true) marriage are rightly fearful that as same-sex civil unions become more deeply instantiated in culture and law, it is only a matter of time before any religious protections are gradually whittled away to nothing.
Among those who are deeply concerned are the United States’ Catholic bishops.
In a statement, Bishop Robert Barron, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, noted that the bishops are “gravely disappointed” by the Senate vote, and that they continue to call for the rejection of this piece of legislation.
Bishop Barron noted that Pope Francis had stated in 2016 that the Catholic Church “can hardly stop advocating marriage simply to avoid countering contemporary sensibilities.” In doing so, the Holy Father had said, “We would be depriving the world of values that we can and must offer.”
Bishop Barron noted that marriage, which he defined as “a lifelong and exclusive union, a complete and mutual gift of the husband and wife to each other for their good and for the procreation and education of children,” is “essential to the common good.”
“However,” he added,
decades of social and legal developments have torn sexuality, childbearing, and marriage from each other in the public consciousness. Much of society has lost sight of the purpose of marriage and now equates it with adults’ companionship.
This bill fails to include clear, comprehensive, and affirmative conscience protections for religious organizations and individuals who uphold the sanctity of traditional marriage that are needed.
The bishop concluded by noting that the bill “will only contribute to the diminishment of the sacredness and integrity of marriage in our society.”
A Wrong-Headed Betrayal
The fact that 12 GOP senators joined the Democrats in passing this radical bill is a disturbing sign that political support for natural (true) marriage is crumbling. Indeed, it would be naïve not to acknowledge that in the past few years the political and social consensus has shifted towards strong support for the redefinition of marriage.
When the U.S. Supreme Court imposed same-sex civil unions on the U.S. in 2015, public opinion was fairly evenly split. Many states had passed marriage amendments, with public support, protecting the definition of marriage (one man and one woman). Since then, however, support for same-sex unions has climbed to over 70%.
Given the shift in public opinion, it’s perhaps not surprising that some so-called “conservative” legislators and opinion leaders are now finding ways to justify support for the redefinition of marriage. One of the approaches used by people of faith to justify their support is to distinguish between “religious” or “covenant” marriage, and civil marriage.
Such commentators will say that religious marriage is still the lifelong union of a man and a woman, and that this is the definition of marriage that churches can and should enforce internally. Civil marriage, on the other hand, is different. So long as Christians stand firm in our belief that religious marriage is between a man and a woman, we can support the legalization of same-sex unions in civil law.
One of the things that people using this argument will point out is that civil law has not reflected the Christian ideal of marriage for a long time. After all, Christians believe that marriage is the permanent, lifelong union of a man and a woman, and yet no-fault divorce has been the law of the land for decades now. So, since there’s already a big disjunction between Christian ideals and civil law, why shouldn’t we allow that it’s okay for civil law to recognize same-sex unions?
To be blunt, this argument is utterly wrong-headed. After all, the obvious fact is that no-fault divorce has been a catastrophic development for society, in particular for children. In a way, these commentators are right: the fact that we allow no-fault divorce does seriously weaken the case for opposing same-sex unions. However, the response to this realization is not to advocate the further degradation of marriage. Instead, what we should really be doing is pointing out that no-fault divorce was a catastrophic mistake, and work to restore common-sense protections for natural marriage. Moreover, attempting to redefine marriage to give legal recognition to same-sex unions is a grave injustice by the state that chooses to ignore the irreplaceable and proper place of husbands and wives, of mothers and fathers, and especially the rights of children to a mother and father.
Marriage Is Essential for the Common Good
Marriage is a natural institution, something common to all mankind and a practice common to all cultures in all ages. At its most basic level, marriage is a union between a man and a woman for the purpose of procreation and for mutual support and love; it is also understood that marriage is meant to be a lifelong union.
On the one hand, it is true that there is a difference between marriage as a Christian sacrament, and marriage as a civil contract. The Church does not teach that only sacramental marriages should be recognized as civil marriages. Non-Christians can and should be able to get married in civil law. Furthermore, it’s entirely possible for a couple to contract a sacramental marriage without getting civilly married. Civil marriage is a civil contract. Sacramental marriage is, well, a sacrament!
However, what the Church does teach is that Christ elevated marriage between a man and a woman to the level of a sacrament, in part because of the profound, intrinsic dignity of this particular union. By elevating marriage to the level of a sacrament, Christ pointed to the immense good of this lifelong union of a man and a woman, such that their union is not only a way to grow in love and to welcome children into the world, but is also a means of salvation for the couple and their children; they participate not only in God’s creative act but also in the redemptive act of Christ – a type and symbol of the divine union between Christ, the Bridegroom, and His Church, the Bride.
The Church has also always taught that the goodness of man-woman marriage is reflected in natural law. Marriage is the bedrock of a healthy civilization. It is the venue in which future generations are brought into the world and educated. One doesn’t need to be a theologian to see that there is a natural physical and psychological complementarity between men and women that is ordered towards the begetting and rearing of children, and that the health and strength of a civilization in large measure depends upon the health and strength of individual families, which are in turn founded upon strong marriages!
As the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) put it in the document Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons,
Marriage is not just any relationship between human beings. It was established by the Creator with its own nature, essential properties and purpose. No ideology can erase from the human spirit the certainty that marriage exists solely between a man and a woman, who by mutual personal gift, proper and exclusive to themselves, tend toward the communion of their persons. In this way, they mutually perfect each other, in order to cooperate with God in the procreation and upbringing of new human lives.
Furthermore, “There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.”
From the standpoint of natural law alone, the fact that marriage can only be between a man and a woman is (or should be) self-evident. It is also (or should be) self-evident that ideally such marriages should be as stable as possible. In other words, one does not need religious arguments to make the case that civil law should proactively encourage and (if necessary) enforce marriage as a permanent, lifelong union of a man and a woman. Divorce is not compatible with marriage; the same is true of adultery and same-sex unions.
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, civil divorce and/or separation are not to be embraced, but only “tolerated,” and only if there is no other possible way to secure legal or financial rights or care of the children (no. 2383). It must also be understood that “tolerance” of a civil divorce or separation does not touch the true bond of the marriage, which stands intact between the spouses and in the sight of God.
Hence, the decision to allow no-fault divorce was the beginning of the transformation of our understanding of marriage as the necessary and sacred foundation of a stable civil order, to (as Bishop Barron put it above) little more than “adults’ companionship.” Moreover, no-fault divorce recognizes no obligation to maintain a common conjugal life; there is no interest in protecting children from scandal and no recognition of the obligations of the spouse causing the dissolution.
As one writer put it recently, “If marriage can mean anything, it will soon mean nothing.”
The Solution to Insanity Is Not More Insanity
The immediate victims of this redefinition that began decades ago has been the generations of children who have had their worlds torn apart because the adults in their lives chose to prioritize their temporary “feelings” over fidelity to the vows they exchanged on their wedding day and the good of their children. The long-term victims have been all of us, as we all suffer the consequences of the widespread disillusionment in the values of love and commitment, the further degradation of our understanding of sexuality and marriage, and the social fallout of broken families.
The evidence is clear: Once you abandon the natural law understanding of marriage as the lifelong union of a man and a woman, everything is up for grabs. We have already seen this with the legalization of same-sex unions. As so many pro-family activists had warned would happen, we have seen an explosion in LGBT propaganda in our schools, entertainment, and laws. Furthermore, it used to be common sense that men and women were physically different and complementary. Now, however, radical gender ideologues are calling into question the very existence of men and women, saying that girls can become boys, and men can become pregnant. Tens of thousands of children are being swept into a maelstrom of insanity, being provoked into questioning their sexuality and gender, with serious consequences. And, unsurprisingly, the push is on for recognition of polygamous unions, as pro-marriage advocates had warned.
The so-called “Respect for Marriage Act” simply pushes us one step further down the path to madness. Those 12 GOP senators who voted for this bill have betrayed the pro-family causes. As the CDF put it, “Those who would move from tolerance to the legitimization of specific rights for cohabiting homosexual persons need to be reminded that the approval or legalization of evil is something far different from the toleration of evil.”
These senators (and others advocating for this bill) are contributing to the undermining of the family, the bedrock of civilization. I hope that they will hear from their pro-family constituents, and that next time they come up for re-election, someone more principled will be put forward in their place.
And finally, as Catholics, our response to the current situation is a fervent commitment to live, teach, and defend Catholic principles regarding marriage, remaining resolute in our advocacy, reverence, and protection of spouses, children, and families.
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Father Shenan J. Boquet was ordained in 1993 and is a priest of the Houma-Thibodaux Roman Catholic Diocese in Louisiana, his home state, where he served before joining HLI as its President in August 2011. Father Boquet earned a BA from Saint Joseph Seminary College, a Master of Divinity (MDiv) from Notre Dame Seminary Graduate School of Theology, a Certification Program in Health Care Ethics from the National Catholic Bioethics Center, and a Master of Science in Bioethics (MSBe) from the University of Mary in Bismarck. In 2018, Father Boquet was awarded an honorary visiting professorship by the Benedict XVI Catholic University in Trujillo, Peru. He is available for interviews and bookings on behalf of HLI by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.