Marriage is as old as humankind. From the beginning, God created the human race in His own image and likeness. Sexual difference and complementarity have been present from the beginning as part of God’s creative plan. Equal in dignity but complementary in their sexual difference, men and women who are called to marriage are intended to form one-flesh unions. Thus, marriage can be seen as the “primordial sacrament” predating the Fall and surviving original sin. It provides the ideal context for children—citizens of the state and of the Kingdom—to be formed, nurtured and educated. It is therefore the fundamental building block of every society and of the Church, a matter of vital concern to both.
This pastoral reflection is offered to the faithful of the Archdiocese of Newark to help them form their consciences, discern their vocations and, for the married, fulfill their vows. It is also offered to other men and women of good will—of every faith—who join us in the sincere hope of seeing family life flourish in northern New Jersey and throughout our state and our nation. Because God loves and cares for us, He has revealed to us the nature, purpose, and meaning of marriage. This revelation is recorded in Sacred Scripture and Tradition; it is safeguarded and faithfully developed by the Magisterium, the teaching office of the Church. This gives Catholics the assurance of faith in the Church’s firm teaching on the nature of marriage. But marriage is also part of God’s creative plan and can be known through reason, unaided by revelation. The truth about marriage is, in other words, part of the natural law.
What is Marriage?
Marriage is a natural and pre-political institution. It is not created by law or the state, though governments rightly recognize it in law and protect and support it for the sake of the common good. Marriage is a human institution, to be sure, and spouses can enter into the bond of marriage only by freely choosing to do so. Its defining features and structuring norms are not pure products of human choice. We cannot define and redefine marriage to suit our personal tastes or goals. We cannot make forms of relationship or types of conduct marital simply by attaching to them the world “marriage.” The defining features and structuring norms of marriage are written in the design of creation and revealed to us by a loving God who has made marriage a powerful symbol of the mystery of His love for us. Canon law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church both provide a straight forward definition of marriage: “The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring…” Thus, the essential elements of marriage include a communion of life (unity), permanence, fidelity, and an ordering toward fecundity (fruitfulness). It should be clear from this definition that the Church recognizes as valid and binding all true marriages, not simply those between Catholics or Christians or believers in God. It is true that Christ has elevated the marital covenant between baptized persons to the dignity of a sacrament. But considered as a natural human good, marriage is, in a profound sense, prior not only to the state, but even to the Church and the Abrahamic covenant that Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike recognize as foundational to salvific faith.
Even in this broadest sense, the unity of the marital covenant is a communion of life and love. Husband and wife give themselves each to the other for the whole of life. Theirs is an open-ended commitment a covenantal union for the whole of life (“for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health”), not a mere contract. It does not unite spouses just for the achievement of this or that specific project (even the profoundly important project of childrearing), but is intended to last for the whole of life (“until death do us part”) in its many diverse dimensions. Spouses pledge to be faithful to each other (“I promise to be true to you…) and to accept children lovingly from God.
This definition we know from faith as well as reason, and it is part of the authentic teaching of the Church. All Catholics, as the Second Vatican Council teaches, are called to give a religious assent of mind and will to this teaching. Some of this teaching, such as the belief about the permanence of marriage, has been proposed infallibly by the ordinary universal Magisterium and defined by an Ecumenical Council and requires the assent of faith.
Can the truth about marriage be known through reason alone?
The short answer to this question is “yes,” most of the truth about marriage can be grasped through reason alone. Philosophers, both secular and religious, have from antiquity recognized the existence of the “natural law”: a body of moral norms “written on the heart,” as St. Paul said, that serve as the universal rational standard for human behavior. These norms are accessible to human persons through our powers of reason. They can be obscured by injustices and other sins, but they cannot be obliterated. They remain valid whether they are respected or dishonored, acknowledged or ignored. In other words, the natural law remains true, indeed accessible, even if the individual has not (yet) accepted it or no longer does.
Neither natural law nor the tradition of philosophical reflection on it is a Christian invention. Indeed, philosophical reflection on the natural law reaches back to the pre-Christian Greek philosophers, especially Plato and Aristotle, and Roman jurists. Cicero describes his understanding of the natural law as:
True law is right reason in agreement with nature; it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting.... It is a sin to try to alter this law, nor is it allowable to attempt to repeal any part of it, and it is impossible to abolish it entirely. We cannot be freed from its obligations by senate or people, and we need not look outside ourselves for an expounder or interpreter of it...Whoever is disobedient is fleeing from himself and denying his human nature….
Christian thinkers such as St. Thomas Aquinas certainly contributed to the development of thought about natural law, and Christian statesmen relied upon it in the founding of modern nations. In the United States, our founding fathers believed in what the Declaration of Independence called “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” As Martin Luther King, Jr. would later note, they understood that human law stands under the judgment of natural law and that human laws that fail to meet the standards of natural justice lack the power of just laws to bind in conscience.
It is so important in our times for us to recognize and to overcome false and ultimately destructive ideologies that deny what thinkers from Plato and Aristotle, to Cicero and Aquinas, to the American founders, to Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi all affirmed: that objective truth exists and it is our task to discover it, be formed by it, and to conform our lives as individuals and communities in accord with the truth. We should want what is good, but something is not good simply because we want it.
Such is the case with marriage. Many today believe that it is an arbitrary thing whose meaning and purpose is imposed by political or juridical fiat. It can mean one thing now and another later. But this has never been the case. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has pointed out:
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. The natural truth about marriage was confirmed by the Revelation contained in the biblical accounts of creation, an expression also of the original human wisdom, in which the voice of nature itself is heard.
What does the Catholic Church teach about persons with homosexual attractions?
There are 2,865 paragraphs in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Only three of them deal directly with the question of same-sex attraction. In two of these paragraphs (2358-59), the Church reaffirms the dignity and worth of people with “deep seated homosexual tendencies,” commanding that they be "accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity." It also condemns any sort of unjust discrimination against them, and acknowledges the pain they may experience.
The Catechism calls those with same-sex attractions, as it does all Christians, to chastity and holiness (“Christian perfection”), aided by “disinterested friendship,” by “prayer and sacramental grace.” Most people find these paragraphs unremarkable except for their pastoral sensitivity.
This leaves one paragraph that causes some misunderstanding. Paragraph 2357 defines what homosexuality is, states that it has taken different forms in different ages and cultures, and alludes to the lack of consensus among psychologists and other social scientists on its genesis. The paragraph continues by affirming that the teaching of the Church founded on Sacred Scripture and Tradition has always and everywhere taught that homosexual acts are not in accordance with the natural law.
This teaching is not new but a reaffirmation of the moral norm that the only acceptable place for genital sexual expression is in a valid conjugal marriage based…on the sexual complementarity of the couple and the one flesh unity of husband and a wife.
Some mistakenly charge that Christ and His Church condemn or fail to love persons who experience romantic or sexual attraction to members of the same sex. On the contrary, while calling each of us to renounce all sinful behavior, Christ and His Church unequivocally love every last human person, in every condition of life: the unborn and the dying; the able-bodied and the sick; the young and the old; and men and women, whatever their inclinations. The same gift of reason that makes us the “crown of creation” thus enables us both to know and to choose to live by the moral truth about sexuality, unshackled by mere instincts or inclinations. In other words, Christ and His Church recognize that no person is simply bound by “un-freedom” to any form of sexual activity; rather, as human persons, each has the capacity to exercise sexual capacities on the basis of reasonable judgments and moral values. For this reason, the Church “refuses to consider the person as a ‘heterosexual’ or a ‘homosexual,’ as if these were identities or identity-forming features, and insists that every person has a fundamental identity: the creature of God and, by grace, His child and heir to eternal life.” The Church speaks instead of people with homosexual “inclinations” and calls them, like everyone, to live abundantly (Jn. 10:10), with integrity, in every arena—at home and at work, in Church and in society. In fact, the Church does not hold that homosexual attraction is necessarily an impediment even to marriage. Today and throughout history, there are and have been persons who experience same-sex attraction, even strong and predominant same-sex attraction, who also understand marriage and its value and have chosen to be joined to a person of the opposite sex in true matrimony. Many such persons have lived good, faithful, and even joyous married lives. It is a lie to say that they are living, or have lived, a lie; and the Church has never said that, and will never say it. Authenticity, after all, cannot require following every emotional inclination, or never resisting any. For any fallen human being, this would make for a fractured, indeed a dissipated life. What authenticity requires is that we live according to the truth—including the moral truth—about our nature and dignity. Of course, not everyone is called to the married state, and for some, it may be imprudent to marry: psychologically too difficult, or likely to put severe strains on the couple, for any number of reasons. Personal vocations can only be discerned by prayer and reflection based on all our particular circumstances, and the Church can help us by spiritual direction and the example of the saints. For all, however, chastity, whatever its challenges, is what brings fullness of life and, with it, the gift of greater holiness.
Should faithful Catholics defend the traditional teaching on marriage in the public square?
Besides the significance historically given to marriage even in the secular realm, the Church, in recognizing the same elements, also sees something more in Christian marriage: it is a sacrament in that it is a sign of the love of Christ for His Church. Christian spouses, therefore, are signs of God’s self-sacrificial love for us. The way they lay down their lives in love and service to one another gives witness to how Christ mercifully loves each of us. In forming communities of life and love, they reflect the Triune love of God.
However, honesty demands that we recognize that the current state of marriage in our Church and in our society often acts as a counter sign. This means that many young people today have not experienced permanence and faithfulness in the familial relationships around them.
This impedes their appreciation of the truth about marriage and makes it difficult for them to make serious and permanent commitments which overcome self-regard in favor of the good of others and the common good. Most significant, within the marital environment, the dramatic increase in the number and the social acceptability of divorces (and more recently “no-fault” divorce) has produced a generation that knows marriage only as an unstable state meant to serve the individualistic happiness of the spouses alone, with reduced regard for their duty to their offspring— the very opposite of the permanent and open-ended commitment that defines marriage as such.
Closely related to this, the widespread use of contraception in sexual relations makes it difficult for young people today to grasp the intrinsic meaning and relation between sexual activity and procreation that has always been one of the fundamental meanings of marriage, even in the secular realm. When couples choose to contracept, they hold back part of themselves (their fertility) and refuse to accept the other in his or her totality. This impedes the sign of the total gift of self-inherent in the marital act.
The prevalence of false ideologies about our nature affects how we think of our bodies. These ideologies have degraded the body, treating it as separate from the identity of the person. Identity appears to rest only mind and will, and the body is regarded as part of a lower order of creation. To some, sexual activity is understood simply as a source of pleasure or recreation, or as a way of satisfying an appetite just like hunger or thirst. Its deeper meaning as a one-flesh unity of covenantal partners is lost.
The loss of the sense of fidelity and permanence within marriage and the loss of the centrality of offspring within marriage (through contraception and abortion) in favor of pleasure, has contributed to the arguments for "same-sex marriage." Worse, it has undermined the wellbeing of many children and contributed to numerous social problems affecting the common good.
One of the best services we can provide to our Church and our society is to commit or recommit to faithfully and lovingly living out our own commitments to marriage and celibacy for the Kingdom. Our children and our nation need the example of many, many faithful people fulfilling in a joyful and self-sacrificing way their vocations. In particular, I ask all to renew their efforts to be child-focused families where the good of the children comes before career or “personal fulfillment.” I call upon our archdiocesan offices and our parishes and schools to renew their efforts to be at the service of the families of northern New Jersey.
In addition, I call upon all Catholics, especially Catholic politicians who serve the common good, and other men and women of good will to defend the truth about marriage against those who would try to deconstruct or radically alter its meaning. Catholic citizens must exercise their right to be heard in the public square by defending marriage. We must exercise our right to vote in defense of marriage and life. This is our duty as citizens and believers.
Don’t equality and justice require the state to recognize same-sex unions as marriage?
This argument might be stronger if the Church’s opposition were based solely on religious beliefs, and same-sex relationships were equivalent to conjugal partnerships that have historically been denoted by the word “marriage.” Neither is true.
Marriage is a covenant whereby a man and a woman pledge themselves each to the other, exclusively, for the whole of life. In the acts that uniquely embody and renew that commitment, they form a one-flesh union that is by its nature completed by, and suited for, begetting and rearing children. This one flesh union depends on the complementarity of the sexes. Of course, this first stage of the reproductive process might or might not lead to children, but it is viewed in many civil legal systems (as well as in canon law) as consummating the marriage. For it makes spouses, like healthy parts of a single body, united in coordination toward a single biological end: it makes them one flesh. Even without children, such unions make two people one flesh in the context of permanent and exclusive commitment.
Same-sex couples cannot be joined as “one flesh” in the unified biological process of reproduction (or any other). At best, two men or two women have a union of hearts and minds. For these reasons, moreover, there is no overriding reason for the state to recognize their relationships any more than other types of deep friendships or relationships.
Marriage unites spouses in heart, mind, and body. Because human persons are bodily beings, a comprehensive union of persons involves bodily union. (This helps to explain two important things: 1) how marriage differs in principle from other forms of relationship, including ordinary friendships, no matter how close and intense; and 2) why marriage is inherently, and not merely incidentally, a sexual partnership.) But union requires a common good; and bodily union, a common biological good. Two men or two women cannot come together in any bodily way that tends towards a single biological good. They may be seeking mutual pleasure, but pleasure is only a good when it is taken in something independently good. There are many bodily activities that people do together: enjoy meals, play sports, do manual labor, etc. Friends, teammates, colleagues, and others engage in all of these and many other activities. But everyone recognizes that marriage involves a sexual component, which these other physical experiences lack. A brother and sister or an uncle and his niece are prohibited everywhere from marrying because of the relationship of marriage to sexual activity and the laws of consanguinity. Even those who propose radically altering the definition of marriage would not advocate allowing two brothers or sisters or an uncle and his nephew to marry. The state does not and should not regulate our ordinary friendships or voluntary associations because, important as they are, they do not affect the political common good in direct and structured ways. However, everyone, including the state, has a vital interest in ensuring the best possible environment for begetting, rearing and educating of the next generation.
Should civil law reflect natural law?
Civil law should reflect natural law to the extent that public order allows. The believer grasps that natural law is “a participation in God's wisdom and goodness by man formed in the image of his Creator. It expresses the dignity of the human person and forms the basis of his fundamental rights and duties.” Other men and women of good will recognize the need to embody in law the truth written in their hearts. At the same time, any man-made law (positive law) must, like all law, be “an ordinance of reason for the common good made by one who has care for the community and that is promulgated.” For such a law to be just, it must serve the common good, and it must not exceed the legitimate authority of its human authors. Following the ancient dictum: “An unjust law is no law at all,” no human authority can declare what is morally evil to be morally good (e.g. abortion, euthanasia, homosexual acts).
Conjugal marriage has a long history as a natural phenomenon and a reality protected in law. It has cultural, philosophical, psychological, and religious aspects which run deeper than the political. Any attempt to change the definition of marriage at the political level represents an overreaching of the competence of politicians and, indeed, of civil positive law. Though its precise emotional or economic contours have varied, marriage has served the wellbeing of spouses and children, and thus of all society, in numerous ways throughout the ages. Even under the pagan law of ancient Rome, marriage was defined as “a union of male and female.”
Some may ask: how could the recognition of “same-sex marriages” harm other types of unions, or the common good? All social processes that undermine the natural law embody untruths about our humanity distort our understanding of what is good and just, and hence our ability to live accordingly. The law teaches. Changing the definition of marriage teaches that marriage is basically about adult emotional and physical gratification (the fulfillment of desire), not one-flesh union and children. It would also enshrine in law a non-optimal way to raise children as equivalent to that which is best. It would also seriously undermine religious freedom and moral truth. This is not a time to be alarmist, but it is a time for clarity of thought and rightness of action. Make no mistake about it: recent legal actions against the Church and other faith groups in this nation and around the world have demonstrated clearly that the freedom of the Church as an institution (including our schools, our universities, our hospitals, our counseling centers, and other social service organizations) and Catholic believers as individuals will be significantly curtailed by any redefinition of marriage that would abandon the understanding of marriage that has been accepted since well before the foundation of our nation. Every human being must obey the dictates of conscience, but our consciences must be formed. All the faithful have the obligation to seek to understand and to share with their children and those in their care the message of Jesus Christ and His plan for salvation. This plan is articulated in and through the particular actions and decisions of our individual moral life and our life together as people of God preparing today for eternal life with Christ. Part of this plan is God’s plan for marriage and family.
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