An initiative of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

Marriage FAQ’s

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

En Español

1) The Meaning of Marriage & Sexual Difference
1. What is marriage?
2. Why does it matter that humanity is male and female?

3. Why does a person’s sex matter for marriage?
4. What is complementarity?
5. Why does the Catholic Church care about civil marriage?
6. Should a Catholic attend a same-sex “wedding”?

2) The Gift of Children
1. What does marriage have to do with children?
2. What is the difference between a husband and wife who can’t have children and two persons of the same sex, who also can’t have children?
3. Why is a child meant to have both a mother and a father?
4. What about single parents? These families lack a father or a mother, just like households headed by two men or two women
.
5. What about adoption?
6. Technology like in vitro fertilization (IVF) can enable two men or two women to have a child; why is this unacceptable?

3) The Common Good & Human Dignity
1. What does human dignity mean?
2. What does marriage have to do with human dignity?
3. Does the Church believe that people who experience same-sex attraction have equal dignity?
4. What does “the common good” mean?
5. Isn’t marriage a private relationship? What does it have to do with the common good?
6. Isn’t marriage just a religious issue that the government should stay out of?
7. Is marriage a basic human right? A civil right?
8. Isn’t allowing two men or two women to marry just like interracial marriage?
9. Since all people deserve equal rights, why doesn’t the Church support “sexual orientation” or “gender identity” (SOGI) non-discrimination legislation? 

4) Religious Freedom
1. What is religious freedom?
2. How are marriage and religious freedom connected?
3. How could changing the legal definition of marriage affect religious freedom?
4. What is the threat to religious freedom posed by marriage redefinition?
5. What is the threat to religious freedom posed by SOGI legislation?


1) The Meaning of Marriage & Sexual Difference

1. What is marriage?

Marriage is a lifelong, faithful partnership between a man and a woman. It is ordered toward (made for) the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of children (see Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], no. 1601). The bond of marriage is indissoluble – it lasts “until death do us part.” Love itself is “to will the good of another” (CCC, no. 1766). At the heart of married love is the total gift of self that husband and wife freely offer to each other, becoming “one flesh” and being open to children, “who are a living reflection of their love” (Familiaris Consortio, no. 14).

Marriage in the Church (between a baptized man and a baptized woman) has been raised to a Sacrament by Jesus Christ. By this sacrament, Jesus gives to spouses the grace they need to love each other. Their relationship is “caught up into divine love” and “governed and enriched by Christ’s redeeming power and the saving activity of the Church” (Gaudium et Spes, no. 48).

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2. Why does it matter that humanity is male and female?

Being male or female affects a person at every level of his or her existence: genetically, biologically, emotionally, psychologically, and socially. Sexual difference makes it possible for two human persons to fully unite. The personal union between husband and wife that is at the heart of marriage is only possible because men and women are different. St. John Paul II wrote of this difference noting that, “God created man and woman in such a way that through their bodies it would be self-evident to them that they are called to love, called to give themselves to one another” (Theology of the Body [TOB], Jan 16, 1980). Sexual difference is a dynamic in all our relationships, as sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, and so on.

It is important to distinguish sexual difference and differences between individual men and women. Cultural stereotypes about the sexes, while they may have some basis in fact, do not define sexual difference. In the Church, we honor saints who do not embody cultural stereotypes. St. Joan of Arc is one example. A man who is sensitive and artistic is no less a man, and a woman who is competitive on the sports field is no less a woman.

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3. Why does a person’s sex matter for marriage?

One’s sex matters for marriage because the body matters for love, and especially, spousal love. A person’s body is a necessary part of identity, even though who we are cannot be reduced to “just” our bodies. As St. John Paul II said, the body reveals the person. It is a deeply personal reality, not just a biological fact (see TOB, 14 Nov, 1979). Loving as a human person means loving as a man or as a woman. Our bodies direct us toward the other sex because we can never be the other sex. Only a man and a woman can truly unite and become “one flesh.”

To consider the body (and one’s sex) as unimportant to marriage means treating the body as inconsequential or, at best, as an object or tool to be used according to one’s pleasure or desire. Instead, we know that the body is an essential – and beautiful – aspect of being human and loving as a human person. The spousal love between husband and wife calls for a free, full, faithful, and fruitful gift of self to each other, including the gift of their bodies. Sexual difference is necessary for such a full self-gift.

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4. What is complementary?

“Complementarity” refers to the unique – and fruitful – relationship between men and women. To “complement” something is to add to or perfect, like a harmony in a song, or to make complete in a way, like the key ingredients necessary for a dish (or like the tones and rhythm necessary for music). Men and women are “made for each other” and complement each other in many ways. (Check out our podcast episode on this topic.)

Both men and women are created in the image of God. We are equally His children in our human dignity and supernatural calling. But equality does not mean “sameness”: a man is not a woman, and a woman is not a man. Instead, “male and female are distinct bodily ways of being human, of being open to God and to one another” (USCCB, Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan, p. 10). Neither are “incomplete” in themselves, they are whole persons – but they complement each other and bring different gifts to a relationship. This can be at a universal level (only a man can be a father) or at a more individual level (a particular woman may be very good at calculus).

In marriage, the complementarity of husband and wife is expressed clearly in the act of conjugal love, having children, and fathering and mothering – actions that call for the collaboration and unique gifts of husband and wife. In fact, both are necessary for marriage; only a man and a woman, through their distinctive otherness that is ordered to each other, can join in a spousal union.

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5. Why does the Catholic Church care about civil marriage?

The Catholic Church cares about the truth of marriage, even in civil law, because marriage is a fundamental good that is foundational to society. Following the example of Jesus, the Church cares about the whole person, and about all people. The introduction into civil law of a false understanding of marriage and human sexuality brings about confusion and hurt to real people. Today, people already suffer because of family breakdown – divorce, growing up without a father, domestic violence, and so on. Marriage has public significance and public consequences because it unites children in the law to their mother and father. The redefinition of marriage to include two men or two women is a redefinition of the human person, disregarding what it means to be a man or a woman. Redefining marriage has led to widespread confusion about the rights of men and women in the public square. This is a basic injustice to men, women, and children. Marriage is truly one of the most important social justice issues of our time.

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6. Should a Catholic attend a same-sex “wedding”?

For a Catholic who is invited to a same-sex “wedding,” it is important to consider what marriage is and what his or her attendance at such an event would mean. Since marriage is the union of a husband and a wife – that is, as a man and a woman – attending a same-sex “wedding” may be considered support for something that is incompatible with this truth. Especially when it involves close family or friends, it can be a difficult decision. In such circumstances, it is good to seek the advice of your pastor or spiritual director. It is also good to remember that there are many ways of showing love to a person with same-sex attraction without attending such a ceremony.

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2) The Gift of Children

1. What does marriage have to do with children?

Children are at the very heart of marriage because the sexual relationship (which ought to be exclusive to a husband and wife) is one that may bring about a child. It is through their sexual difference that spouses cooperate with God in the profound adventure of welcoming a child into the world. Marriage is not just about fulfilling adult desires but is the basis for the family.

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2. What is the difference between a husband and wife who can’t have children and two persons of the same sex, who also can’t have children?

A man and a woman, as husband and wife, can give themselves to each other totally in a way that unites them in both body and soul. Only a man and a woman can conceive a child through each other. Even when a husband and wife do not in fact conceive a child (due to infertility, age, and so on), their sexual acts are still procreative acts: in other words, they are the kind of acts by which children are naturally conceived. In contrast, two persons of the same sex will never be able to enter a bodily communion in such a way that they unite fully, nor can they conceive a child through any act they perform.

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3. Why is a child meant to have both a father and a mother?

In truth, every child does have a mother and a father. The simple biological fact is that two sperm or two ova cannot unite.

So, sexual difference is necessary to conceive a child, but its importance does not end there. Men and women bring unique gifts to the shared task of parenting, that is, of fathering and mothering. Each contributes in a distinct and unique way to the formation of children, helping them to understand their identity as male or female. Respecting a child’s dignity means affirming his or her need for – and right to – grow up in a family with his or her married mother and father. Pope Francis has commented on this several times, as when he wrote, “Every child has a right to receive love from a mother and a father; both are necessary for a child’s integral and harmonious development (Amoris Laetitia, no. 172).

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4. What abousingle parents? These families lack a father or a mother, just like households headed by two men or two women?

The Church always seeks to support single parents as they – often heroically – seek to meet the needs of their children. As most single parents will admit, however, their situation is not ideal.

There is a big difference between dealing with the unintended reality of single parenthood and approving the deliberate formation of “alternative families” that deprive a child of a father or a mother. Single parenthood can still witness to the importance of sexual difference by acknowledging the challenges of being without the other. In contrast, arrangements of two men or two women present either motherhood or fatherhood as disposable and contradict the conjugal and generative reality of marriage. Single parents may also marry at some point in the future, providing their children with a mother or a father at that time.

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5. What about adoption?

Adoption is a generous response to a child who is in need or abandoned. Mothers and fathers who adopt children witness to the truth that every child is a gift. The Catholic Church actively supports adoption and has been a leader in this vital ministry.

Adoption, guardianship, and foster care are all generous ways of caring for a child. While placing a child in the care of two men or two women may be well-intentioned, it ultimately deprives the child of either a mother or a father, and in the place of one, substitutes another (see questions #3 and 4 above).

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6. Technology like “in vitro fertilization” (IVF) can enable two men or two women to have a child. Why is this unacceptable?

No matter how powerful reproductive technology becomes, the fact will always remain that two men or two women can never become parents through each other. They will always depend on the “donation” of someone else’s sperm or egg in order to bring about the conception of a child, or some kind of scientific manipulation of biological material to mimic the union of sperm and egg.

IVF and related technology are wrong for everyone, not just for same sex “couples.” Using these technologies means that conception takes place outside the loving embrace of husband and wife. In its place is a dehumanized act of production, a mere “putting together” of the parents’ genetic material. No child should be treated as a product. A child deserves to be the fruit of an act of marital love, of his or her parents’ mutual, loving self-gift.

Many husband-wife couples who struggle with infertility and miscarriage are advised by physicians and others to pursue IVF. More needs to be done to reach these couples with sound medical advice, the truth about IVF, and ongoing pastoral accompaniment. There are good doctors working to understand the underlying causes of infertility and miscarriage, and many women and men continue to be helped in ways that respect God’s plan and the dignity of every human life. When couples have conceived and given birth to children through IVF, they need to be gently accompanied to see that, even while their child remains a gift, the way of conceiving the child was not in accord with the dignity of human procreation.

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3) The Common Good & Human Dignity

1. What human dignity mean?

Human dignity means that every human person is made in the image of God (Gen 1:27) and deserves love and respect. Each and every human being is unique and irreplaceable. For these reasons, every man, woman, and child has great dignity that can never be taken away. Respecting a person’s dignity means treating them justly. It also means helping them to flourish as a human being.

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2. What does marriage have to do with human dignity?

Marriage protects and promotes human dignity because it corresponds to the truth of who the human person is. First, the lifelong partnership of marriage is the only place where men and women can truly “speak” the language of sexual love – free, total, faithful, and open to children. Only within marriage can sexual relations express true self-giving love between a man and a woman (and not the selfish use of sexual acts). Second, marriage provides a context within which the rights of children to a mother and a father are protected. Marriage also helps ensure that children will be welcomed as gifts. Without the life-long commitment of marriage, children are likely to be viewed as commodities. Finally, the family, founded on marriage, is the context in which a child can be most secure. 

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3. Does the Church believe that people who experience same-sex attraction have equal dignity?

Of course! Every single human person has inviolable dignity and worth. All persons should be treated with respect, sensitivity, and love. The Church calls everyone to a life of holiness and chastity, and to live in accord with God’s will for their lives. For more information on the Church’s pastoral care to persons with same-sex attraction, see USCCB, Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination (2006).

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4. What does “the common good” mean?

The common good is “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily” (Gaudium et Spes, no. 26). A society focused on the common good upholds the fundamental dignity of each person and promotes their well-being. A good society is one in which it is easy to be good.

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5. Isn’t marriage a private relationship? What does it have to do with the common good?

Marriage is a personal relationship, but not a private one. In fact, marriages play a crucial role in society. By marrying, husband and wife join more than their two lives together. They publicly declare that they will be faithful and open to children. Thus, each marriage is the foundation of a new family and so it is the very source of society (see Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, no. 214), the “cradle of life and love” (Christifideles Laici, no. 40). It is in the family where people are most challenged to love and be interdependent. Husband and wife are called to model love and communion by welcoming and raising new human life and by taking care of the weak, sick, and old. Marriages and families provide social stability and thus foster the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity.

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6. Isn’t marriage just a religious issue that the government should stay out of?

No. The social value of marriage exists regardless of faith or belief. Marriage as a lifelong, faithful, and fruitful union between husband and wife serves the good of all and does not rely on strictly religious premises. The goods and benefits it offers for husbands, wives, children and society are based on the nature of the human person. The government has the responsibility of promoting the common good and the best interests of all people, especially the most vulnerable, and upholding authentic marriage does precisely that.

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7. Is marriage a basic right? A human right?

Rightly understood, yes, marriage is a human right. “No human law can abolish the natural and primitive right of marriage, or in any way limit the chief and principal purpose of marriage [which is to] ‘Increase and multiply’” (Rerum Novarum, no. 12).

Having the right to marry is just that—the right to enter into a marriage which is a lifelong faithful union of husband and wife. All persons, of full age, have the right to marry but not the right to redefine marriage. Relationships between two persons of the same sex cannot be defined as marriage. This is not meant to be cruel or unfair; it is the nature of marriage.  

In the same way, the right to marry is a civil right. But the “right to marry” is the right to enter into a faithful union with a person of the opposite sex, not the right to force others by law to treat another kind of relationship as if it were a marriage. Advocates for marriage redefinition ignore this key distinction. Far from serving the cause of civil rights, the redefinition of marriage threatens the civil right of religious freedom: it compels everyone—even those opposed in conscience to same-sex sexual conduct—to treat same-sex relationships as if they represented the same moral good as marital relationships.

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8. Isn’t allowing two men or two women to marry just like interracial marriage?

There is no valid analogy between redefining marriage to include persons of the same sex and interracial couples. A man and a woman can unite in marriage no matter what race they are. Sexual difference is an essential characteristic of marriage; race is not, nor has it ever been. (Historically speaking, laws that banned interracial marriage acknowledged its possibility and sought to thwart it; a key factor in such laws was that people were particularly incensed (sinfully so) by the fact that such marriages would produce children. In other words, the lawmakers knew very well that interracial marriages were the same kind of thing as any other marriage.) Marriage is rooted in nature: two people of the same sex are no more being denied the “right” to marry than a man is “denied” the “right” to gestate and nurse a child.

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9. Since all people deserve equal rights, why doesn’t the Church support “sexual orientation” or “gender identity” (SOGI) non-discrimination legislation?

The Church continually supports the dignity and rights of each and every person. The term “sexual orientation,” however, is used in various contexts today with different meanings. For example, sometimes “sexual orientation” is used to describe one’s sexual inclination, tendency or attraction, but many times it is used in a way that includes sexual conduct. It can also be used in ways that give the impression that any sexual inclination is good or neutral and/or does not convey the nuances needed for genuine pastoral care.

Likewise, the term “gender identity” is used to promote the idea that one’s social-psychological identity is fundamentally different from one’s biological sex as male or female. Pope Francis noted: “It needs to be emphasized that ‘biological sex and the socio-cultural role of sex (gender) can be distinguished but not separated’” (Amoris Laetitia 56). Ironically, advocates for the “gender identity” label frequently endorse cultural stereotypes of male or female. Sexual difference and sexual identity, however, go deeper than cultural stereotypes. Pastoral care and accompaniment is needed to listen and respond to the real struggles people experience while also helping them accept and mature in their sexual identity as male or female.

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4) Religious Liberty

1. What is religious freedom?

Religious freedom is the freedom to live in accordance with your faith. “Nobody may be forced to act against his convictions, nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience in religious matters in private or in public, alone or in association with others, within due limits” (CCC, no. 2106). Religious freedom is so important that St. John Paul II called it the “source and synthesis” of rights considered basic to every human person (Centesimus Annus, no. 47).

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2. How are marriage and religious freedom connected?

Marriage and religious liberty are both for the good of society (the common good). The protection of both follows from the duty to protect the inviolable dignity of the human person. The legal protection of marriage as the union of one man and one woman also protected the religious freedom of those who adhere to that vision of marriage. Today, it is increasingly unclear whether or to what extent a person is “permitted” to believe, and act upon the belief, that marriage is only the union of one man and one woman.

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3. How does changing the legal definition of marriage affect religious freedom?

Changing the legal term “marriage” was not one change in the law, but rather thousands of changes at once. The term “marriage” is found in family law, employment law, trusts and estates, healthcare law, tax law, property law, and many others. These laws affect and regulate religious institutions—such as churches, religiously-affiliated schools, hospitals, and families—by requiring them to treat the marital relationship differently and more favorably than other relationships because of its relation to childrearing. Until recently, that requirement has not conflicted with the moral convictions of the Church (and has actually reinforced them). Now that Church and State disagree on what the term “marriage” means (because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges), conflicts between the law and religious institutions and families are occurring in all of these areas of regulation. In general, the problem is that the State would require the Church to extend the uniquely favorable treatment reserved to legal “marriages” on relationships that the Church cannot approve (see CCC 2357). Everyone’s religious freedom is threatened in this situation.

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4. What is the threat to religious freedom posed by marriage redefinition?

The legal redefinition of marriage can threaten the religious freedom of religious institutions and individuals in numerous ways, including:

  1. Compelled Association: the government could force religious institutions to retain as leaders, employees, or members those who obtain legalized same-sex “marriage”; or obligate wedding-related businesses to provide services for same-sex “couples.”
  2. Compelled Provision of Special Benefits: the government could force religious institutions to extend any employment or other benefit they afford to marriage to same-sex “marriage” as well.
  3. Punishment for Speech: preaching, political action, or conversation reflecting moral opposition to same-sex “marriage” could be seen as actionable “harassment” or “discrimination,” or forbidden “hate speech.”
  4. Exclusion from Accreditation and Licensure: those who adhere to the definition of marriage could be excluded from participation in highly regulated professions and quasi-governmental functions, as licenses are revoked and religious institutions lose accredited status.
  5. Exclusion from Government Funding, Religious Accommodations, and Other Benefits: those who adhere to the definition of marriage may be excluded from receiving government grants and contracts to provide secular social services, and from various tax exemptions.

Current Threats to Religious Freedom in the context of marriage and human sexuality.

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5. What is the threat to religious freedom posed by “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” (SOGI) non-discrimination legislation?

SOGI laws, using ambiguous definitions for both sexual orientation and gender identity, potentially impact all religious institutions that seek to uphold the Church’s understanding of sexual difference. For example, “sexual orientation” laws could force a Catholic school to retain a math teacher for obtaining a same-sex “marriage” because they do the same for those who obtain opposite-sex marriages. “Gender identity” laws may seek to force a women’s shelter run by a Catholic agency to allow a male to stay there because he “identifies” as female. The Church certainly stands against unjust discrimination, but SOGI legislation tends to go much further than this, introducing terms into law that are not clearly defined, and banning reasonable rules that acknowledge male and female differences.

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Also, here are the original FAQs originally published in this space in 2011.