Note: This post is second in a series of posts about what we can learn from the Supreme Court’s June 2013 DOMA decision, and how that can help us better promote and defend marriage. This series is based on a July 2013 talk by staff of the USCCB Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.
PART ONE: What we can learn from the Supreme Court
Post #2: Unspoken assumptions & reframing the debate
In the marriage debate, there are many, many unspoken assumptions. It’s often the case that the most important questions go unasked and thus unanswered, chief among them the most important question of all – What is marriage?
For example: the opening line of the majority opinion says, “Two women then resident in New York were married in a lawful ceremony in Ontario, Canada in 2007” (p. 1). It goes on to argue that it was wrong of the U.S. federal government not to recognize this marriage and grant the attendant federal benefits.
The assumption hidden here is huge: the Court has taken it as a given that if these two women were “lawfully wed” in Canada, then they’re married. End of discussion. A marriage is a marriage is a marriage because the government (or a governing body) says it is. But for those of us who believe that marriage’s meaning is rooted in the meaning of the human person, created male and female (see Catechism, nos. 1602 – 1605), the question is: “Is it even possible for two women to be married? Is marriage the kind of thing that can actually exist between two persons of the same sex?” But the Court elides those questions, taking for granted that these two women – Edith and Thea – were lawfully, actually married, no question.
We can dig down deeper and uncover other hidden assumptions: assumptions about the body, assumptions about children and procreation, assumptions about freedom and the meaning of rights, and so forth.
So here’s tip number one: We must bring to light what is hidden in the dark by uncovering hidden assumptions and offering alternative readings that do justice to the human person. In other words, we must reframe the arguments to get at the deeper questions, questions that go all the way to the root: Who is the human person?
As another example, the Court argues that the real issue at stake in the marriage debate is equality. The Court doesn’t mince words here. It says, “DOMA writes inequality into the entire United States code” and the “principal purpose” of DOMA is to “impose inequality” (p. 22). In contrast, allowing two persons of the same sex to marry gives them a “status of equality” (p. 14).
The looming, unasked question here is: are these two situations really identical, such that equality demands identical treatment? The Court assumes that the marriage of a husband and wife and the “marriage” of two persons of the same sex are exactly the same thing. (And “assumes” is the right word – the Court does not make an argument that this is the case but just presents it as such).
But we can only address the question of equality after first addressing the question of marriage, a question that is going both unasked and unanswered. In our conversations and communications, we must insist on bringing the debate back to the fundamental question: What is marriage? (see FAQ #3) A phrase we use in our work is: “Treating different things differently is not discrimination.” We can make a case for the uniqueness of marriage between a man and a woman by pointing out that only a man and a woman can form a one-flesh communion and can give themselves fully to each other, including on a bodily level (see FAQ #8). Only a man and a woman are capable of welcoming new life into the world, even though there are times, sadly, when this doesn’t happen for reasons beyond their control. And so forth.
Reframing means not accepting the terms of the debate as given, but digging deeper to get at the real issues, the real questions. So if someone asks you, “Are you for marriage equality?” an answer could be: “Well, what do you think marriage is?” or, less Socratically, “I’m for equality, sure – but I think marriage is unique and needs both a man and a woman; it’s not wrong to treat different things differently,” etc.