Marriage by any other name would be just as sweet


Soon after the U.S. Supreme Court declared that same-sex couples have a right to “marry,” Alaska’s bishops issued a brief but resolute statement of concern and disapproval. In concert with the president of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference, they pronounced that “the Court is wrong again. It is profoundly immoral and unjust for the government to declare that two people of the same sex can constitute a marriage.”

To the delight of some and the dismay of others, the meaning of marriage in the civil sphere is no longer what it once was, and in this sense, the legal institution of marriage has been “redefined.” But it may be more accurate, more descriptive, to say that the Supreme Court has furthered the deconstruction of this venerable institution. Reading through the majority opinion of the Court, one often encounters the phrase “right to marry” but struggles to understand how this means anything more than the right to be friendly companions.

So while the Court has declared obsolete the once-upon-a-time commonly held understanding of marriage as a “gender-differentiated union,” it did not propose a replacement definition for marriage. Looked at in this way, marriage has not been re-defined; in fact, as a civil/legal institution, it appears not to be defined at all.

Perhaps there was a time when the civil/legal/cultural institution of marriage bore a tolerable resemblance to marriage as the Catholic Church understands it. But that time is decades (and perhaps over a century) in the past.

To comprehend the divergence, it is critical to first hear what the church has to say about marriage. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The vocation of marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator” (1603). “From a valid marriage arises a bond between the spouses which by its very nature is perpetual and exclusive” (1638).

The Catholic Church holds that matrimony is a sacrament for baptized persons. The conjugal love which spouses celebrate in the context of their sacramental union “demands indissolubility and faithfulness in definitive mutual giving; and it is open to fertility” (1643). The family home that arises is called a domestic church: “a community of grace and prayer, a school of human virtues and of Christian charity” (1666).

Enshrined in the Scriptures, the Catechism, papal writings and Council documents, the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage remains unchanged.

Marriage in the civil sphere, on the other hand, had come to be thought of as little more than a cooperative co-habitational relationship between a man and a woman. With the advent of no-fault divorce and the widespread use of contraception, the cultural institution of marriage inevitably became sterile, impermanent, decadent, unnatural and self-serving. A gaping chasm grew between cultural institution and sacrament. In many ways the cultural institution of marriage in America already bore a sinful character. The latest ruling by the Supreme Court simply destroyed any remaining semblance of similarity between marriage as civil/legal institution and marriage as sacrament. It marks the end of a long, sad and ruinous journey.

Where do we go from here? Below are three practical suggestions.

First, in the area of language: Catholics in America could, and perhaps should, refrain from using the term “marriage.” By now it must be clear that in the American civil sphere, the term “marriage” has been gutted of meaning. Other words or phrases may be used in its stead, for example: nuptial union, conjugal covenant, holy matrimony. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” so we read in Shakespeare.

Second, in the area of practical faith: nuptially-united Catholics might foster an ardent devotion to a favorite saintly couple bound to one another in matrimony, such as Joseph and Mary, Saints Joachim and Ann, or closer to our own age, Blessed Louis and Zelie Martin, the parents of St. Therese of Lisieux. In the midst of the turmoil and confusion of our times, how beneficial it would also be to reacquaint ourselves with Catholic teaching on matrimony as found in the Catechism.

And of course, pastors and homilists have a part to play in fostering God’s good plan for conjugal relations. “The law of God entrusted to the Church is taught to the faithful as the way of life and truth. The faithful therefore have the right to be instructed in the divine saving precepts…” (CCC 2037). “My yoke is easy and my burden light.” Natural family planning is such a lighter “burden” than the discord and unhappiness which follow upon sterilization and contraception.

Third, in the area of law and culture: people of good will should be asking themselves, of what worth is a state-issued “marriage” license in the absence of a definition for the term? Finding little substance in these marriage licenses, a God-fearing people, by means of its state government, might seek to honor and recognize the conjugal covenant of man and woman under a name other than marriage. Call it a “matrimonial union” or a “conjugal covenant” and issue certificates for the same. The key is to define it in a way which is consistent with Judeo-Christian Tradition and then to honor it as an institution of which God himself is the author.

The writer lives in Anchorage and has a Master in Theological Studies degree from the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, DC.

'Marriage by any other name would be just as sweet'
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