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Last Word - September 2009

Another look a "Gay Marriage"

The passage of bills in several states recently, including our own, has raised a very important question: What is marriage?

Marriage is not a creation of the state. It pre-existed all states and all of the world’s major religions. The law, whether civil or religious, simply reinforces and supports an already existing human institution. Marriage is a unique and natural phenomenon with a definition that springs from the very nature of the human person.

What is that definition? In every society, in every culture, from the dawn of human civilization, the definition of marriage has included certain elements. Marriage has always been a bond between a man and a woman. It has always been seen as a permanent state. It has always required faithfulness. Marriage has always had two objects. One of these is the good of the spouses themselves, that is: mutual assistance; emotional, spiritual, physical and intellectual support; a sharing of resources and property; and a certain communion of life and love. Marriage also has as one of its objects, acts which are apt for the procreation of children. Now, of course, there can be unintended obstacles which frustrate the achievement of that purpose, including age and health reasons, but marriage should be open to this creative impulse and then open to following through with the formation and education of any children that might be born. With regard to this latter object of marriage, in many ways it was the procreation and education of children that was the primary reason in the history of humankind why men and women bond for life unlike some other creatures which mate and never see each other again. The nature of the human child requires long-term and intense care which in turn calls forth a long-term relationship between the spouses.

What is the definition of marriage according to the state, in view of its recent legislation? Well, certainly the state’s definition no longer includes permanence. With the advent of easy divorce for virtually any reason proposed by the couple, many couples understand permanence merely to mean they will stay together as long as their love lasts or as long as they find the relationship to be contributing to their personal fulfillment. Many couples in America today marry with the desire for a permanent relationship but with the escape clause, however unexpressed, understood to be available to them.

Certainly, marriage according to the state no longer includes faithfulness. Most people would agree that whether or not couples are faithful to each other is no business of the state. Couples can decide to have an “open” marriage if they so choose. If one of them were to be unfaithful, that is purely a private matter between themselves and not subject in any way to the scrutiny of the law.

Regrettably, we all know that the bond between marriage and procreation was ruptured some decades ago. Today about 40% of children in America are born outside of marriage and in some groups that percentage rises to about two-thirds of all births.

Now, the state tells us that even being male and female has nothing to do with marriage. So if you eliminate openness to permanence, fidelity, openness to children, and male and female, what is left of marriage? It becomes no more than a relationship for mutual support and sharing of property and, since the state cannot legislate mutual support, it ends up little more than a contract regarding property rights. Marriage has been reduced to the least common denominator.

Now I am no hopeless romantic, but this sounds to me like a frightening reduction in the nature of marriage, a social structure so necessary for the well-being of society. At this point, you can see that what the state does is never more than civil unions. An individual couple may, by their own consent, choose to bind themselves in a religious or even nonreligious ceremony to more than a mere contract regarding property rights, but the state makes no such demand. The state sees no difference between marriage and civil unions. But, is that really the “marriage” we want as a society, and, for that matter, as voters?

If marriage means marriage, with all the elements of that definition I have listed above, and if marriage is not just civil union, then there is nothing discriminatory about restricting marriage to one man and one woman. That’s simply the definition of the thing. We have different words with different definitions for different things. A cat is not a dog; an oak tree is not a rose. It is not discrimination to call one person a man and another person a woman. It is not discrimination to call one person a father and another person a mother. It is not discrimination to call one person a husband and another person a wife. It is not discrimination to say that one person is heterosexual and another person is homosexual. As Abraham Lincoln said, “How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it a leg." Calling the relationship between two homosexuals a marriage, doesn’t make it a marriage. It simply doesn’t fit the definition. It is not discrimination to call things by their right names.

As for the civil rights and obligations that have been attached by civil law to marriage, for example, inheritance or other property rights, rights regarding medical care, or the right to certain employment benefits, all of those things, without exception, could simply and easily be made equally available to the unions of two homosexual persons without calling these unions marriage. Marriage can remain what marriage has always been and another name (pick one) can be given to unions of homosexual persons. The civil rights issues, in so far as there are any, can be easily solved without further reducing the definition of marriage.

One final point, if you will allow me. I know that gay activists are interested in claiming the name marriage as a way of asserting their personal dignity and the dignity, as they see it, of their loving relationships. But you do not claim your dignity by trying to adopt the ways or structures or titles or names or definitions of some other group of people. You assert your dignity by demanding respect for yourself, as you are, in all your diversity. It is not gay pride to aspire to an institution that is uniquely and by definition a heterosexual institution.

This was the error of some elements of the early feminist movement. In order to be accepted as a woman, women were encouraged to disguise their uniqueness as women, to become as men are in order to succeed in business or politics or whatever. Perhaps you remember the whole “unisex” craze. But as the feminist movement matured, it was seen that women have a dignity that is their own and that does not demand becoming like men. Men and women are really different. And women claim their dignity by being women with gifts to offer to business and politics and medicine and science and religion, not by denying or suppressing the differences between them and men. Gay men and women repeat that error in asserting that they can only have the dignity appropriate to them by appropriating the uniquely heterosexual institution of marriage, thereby, unwittingly, denying their own unique identity and dignity.

The Catholic Church affirms the dignity of every human being. Gay men and women are entitled to their rightful dignity. They are not entitled, in my thinking, to marriage.

Rev. Msgr. Michael J. Henchal