June 19, 2015


Let’s focus on marriage as a sacrament

The recent vote in the Republic of Ireland authorizing the redefinition of marriage to include couples of the same sex is a huge disappointment to those of us who believe in the importance of defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman. But we shouldn’t be surprised.

Practically speaking, in western culture at large, “marriage” long ago lost its permanent sacred character, and became an optional matter of convenience for couples who choose to live together in various degrees of intimacy—at least for a time. When marriage is understood primarily as an optional form of civil union (perhaps, but not necessarily, “blessed” by one’s religious tradition) why not extend this social custom to same-sex couples?

Of course, we Catholic Christians view marriage from a radically different perspective. We see it as a sacrament—a sign of God’s grace that causes what it signifies. What does marriage, understood as the union of one man and one woman, signify and cause? Family. Not the analogous family of people who happen to live together for many different reasons, including genuine love and commitment, but the natural family whose love is ordered to conceiving, bearing and rearing children.

We believe that the sacrament of marriage signifies the creative, loving union of God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), which generates new life and builds up the one family of God. We also believe that this sacrament causes what it signifies—the generation of new life, and the establishment of the family as a domestic Church, the primary unit of both the Church and society.

Catholic teaching affirms and celebrates the dual purpose of marriage: 1) the indissoluble union (physically and spiritually) of a man and a woman in love; and 2) the procreation, education and formation of children. Both purposes are indispensable to the meaning of sacramental marriage. Even when couples are unable to conceive children of their own, their sacramental union bears witness to their openness to participating in the generation of new life as co-creators with God.

Same-sex unions can be loving and committed, but they cannot generate new life. This is not a small thing. We believe it is essential to the meaning of marriage.

To oppose the redefinition of marriage is not an act of bigotry or a denial of civil rights. It is simply to affirm that a same-sex union cannot signify, or cause by natural means, the birth of children. That makes a same-sex union a fundamentally different thing than a marriage which by definition is ordered to the conception of children and the establishment of new domestic churches (families).

In an amicus brief filed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in a case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court involving marriage redefinition, the bishops’ lawyers argued that, because the union between a man and a woman is “the only union capable of creating new life … it is reasonable for a state to treat the union of one man and one woman as having a public value that is absent from other intimate relationships.” The brief goes on to say, “When it uniquely reinforces the union of one man and one woman, the law furthers the interests and well-being of not only children but their parents.” How does government support for the traditional understanding of marriage serve parents? By encouraging the unique gifts that both mothers and fathers bring to raising children, and by reducing or preventing the alarming incidences of single-parent (usually single mother) families that are so prevalent today.

As the vote in Ireland shows, the “culture war” over the definition of marriage as being exclusive to one man and one woman has so far been lost. Regardless of the outcome of the Supreme Court’s decision about the legality of state laws that define marriage traditionally, the social convenience that our society at large calls “marriage” will gradually be applied in the minds of many people to all who choose to call themselves married. Opposing this cultural trend on philosophical and legal grounds is a courageous act of principle. But without some kind of radical change in understanding of the meaning of marriage itself, these efforts will ultimately be unsuccessful—at least in the hearts and minds of many people.

What are we who believe in the sanctity of marriage and family life to do? Focus on the sacrament of marriage and the call to holiness that every family receives from God, the author of all creation. Only by clarifying and deepening our understanding of the sacramental character of marriage can we hope to show—by our example as well as our words—that the loving, permanent and life-giving union of a man and a woman is something qualitatively different than all other forms of civil union, including cohabitation, common-law and same-sex unions.

Let’s focus on marriage as a sacrament. Let’s cultivate reverence for marriage as something holy. And let’s maintain as paramount the essential connection between a loving, grace-filled marriage and the generation of new life.

—Daniel Conway

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