At the Supreme Court’s oral arguments on the constitutionality of marriage laws, one of the justices said: “I thought that was the whole purpose of marriage. It bestows dignity on both man and woman in a traditional marriage… It’s dignity-bestowing, and these parties say they want to have that same ennoblement.”
It is important to define terms like dignity. The Oxford English Dictionary defines dignity this way: “The state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church reads, “The dignity of the human person is rooted in his creation in the image and likeness of God” (CCC 1700). Every human person has intrinsic dignity; it is not bestowed by any government or institution.
The civil recognition of marriage has traditionally acknowledged the commitment of one man and one woman to one another in the interests of strengthening that bond and establishing the parentage of children. It was not instituted in order to confer dignity on the man or woman. Other relationships that are important to people’s lives, such as friendships, do not seek or require governmental intervention. The state has a compelling interest and responsibility to protect marriage—it does not have such a compelling interest or responsibility with other relationships.
If the law treats marriage as dignity-bestowing to persons, then there can be no rational limit to who can ask the state for a marriage license because every person or even every friendship deserves dignity. Four single women who are friends and share a house should be able to marry, since they are entitled to the same dignity as everyone else, for example. To not allow these four to marry is not a denial of their dignity or reducing them to “second-class” citizens. Rather it acknowledges that their relationships, no matter how personally fulfilling, are not of compelling interest to the state such that the state needs to formally recognize and support them.
In the marriage debate, let us not imagine that marriage is any more important than it is. It is important enough to fight for, but it is certainly not where human dignity comes from.