Note: This post is third 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 #3: What do you say that marriage is? The need for a comprehensive vision
The marriage debate consists of two competing, mutually exclusive visions of marriage. Justice Alito made this point in his dissent. He wrote, “By asking the Court to strike down DOMA…[the plaintiff is] really seeking to have the Court resolve a debate between two competing views of marriage” (p. 13, Alito dissent).
Often we hear that the marriage debate is not about redefining marriage; it’s about expanding marriage. But consider the way in which the Court describes marriage (although it doesn’t come right out with a clear, comprehensive definition; that is not its focus). Marriage is the “legal acknowledgement of the intimate relationship between two people” (p. 20). Marriage happens when two people “affirm their commitment to one another” (p. 14). It grants persons “a status of equality” (p. 14) and “a dignity and status of immense import” (p. 18), allowing them to “live with pride in themselves and their union” (p. 14).
Reading through the majority opinion, one could be excused for thinking that marriage’s purpose is to validate adults’ feelings for one another, and to make sure they feel that their relationship is “worthy” and not “second-class” (terms also used by the Court: pp. 25, 22). Indeed, the word “dignity” is used eight times in the majority opinion. Gender, of course, has no rational connection with this.
In contrast, the definition of marriage held by Catholics and many others has everything to do with gender and sexual difference because at its heart is the one-flesh bond of husband and wife, a union open to the gift of life (see FAQ #3).
These two views of marriage – which have been called by various names, such as “revisionist” or “genderless” versus “natural” or “conjugal” – are not compatible. Either marriage has at its heart a one-flesh communion made possible by the presence of a husband and a wife, or it doesn’t. To “expand” marriage is really to flatten it – to reduce it to the state’s recognition of adults’ romantic relationships.
Tip number two: present as comprehensive vision of marriage as possible.
It’s no secret that the push to redefine marriage to include two persons of the same sex is just the latest assault on marriage. Contraception, divorce, and cohabitation have each contributed to erode marriage’s meaning. We need to reclaim not just the truth that marriage takes a man and a woman – we need to reclaim all of the truths about marriage, that it is open to life, faithful, indissoluble, and at its heart a complete gift of one’s self, time, body, possessions, and so on, to one’s spouse.
Presenting the fullness of marriage provides a counter to the alternative view of marriage that has gained such traction. And it also provides a way for everyone, in whatever ministry or situation they are in, to help rebuild marriage. For example, NFP teachers can help people see the fruitfulness of marriage; those who help to heal struggling marriages can help people see marriage’s indissolubility; married persons can witness to marriage by living it faithfully, and so forth.
We must be clear that neutrality is not an option. We have been given by our Church such a beautiful, comprehensive vision of marriage, and we should look for every opportunity to proclaim it.
Background: We’re reading through the Viewer’s Guide to “Made for Life,” a video about the gift of children and the need for fathers and mothers. In the last installment, we looked at what openness to life means and why love and life are inseparable. In this section, we’ll reflect on the unique gift of self in marriage and how that gift of self opens to the gift of life.
“You give yourself, then, totally and completely . . . saying ‘I love you so much, I’m going to give myself to you as a gift, and I am open to whatever that brings and whatever God wants.’”
Katie is speaking here about the very foundation of what makes marriage “made for life”: the total gift of self between a man and a woman as husband and wife. We have already mentioned this gift of self in marriage, but it deserves some more attention. Indeed, every person is called to a generous and sincere gift of self. [i] But marriage is a unique instance of self-gift. In marriage, husband and wife give not just part of themselves to each other, but give all—their whole person, body and soul. This gift of self in marriage is not something temporary like a loan; it is meant to last for a lifetime. [ii] It is a total, lifelong gift of husband to wife and wife to husband. [iii]
A husband and a wife’s total gift of self in marriage, with its lifelong permanence, makes their bond absolutely unique and different from any other relationship between two people. Although two persons of the same sex can have an authentic and holy friendship, only a man and a woman can pledge themselves to each other in marriage. Through their sexual difference, only a husband and a wife can speak the “language” of married love—total, faithful, and fruitful self-gift [iv]—not only with their words, but also with their bodies. [v]
The couples in Made for Life all bear witness to the fact that the gift of self in marriage, which begins with the spouses, does not end with them. As Pope Paul VI taught, married love is fruitful because “it is not confined wholly to the communion of husband and wife; it also aims to go beyond this to bring new life into being.” [vi] Precisely because husband and wife are “made for each other,” their bond is “made for life,” made for fruitful love and for the adventure of fatherhood and motherhood by being open to the gift of a child.
[i]. See Gaudium et Spes, no. 24: “Man is the only creature on earth that God has wanted for its own sake . . . [and] can fully discover his true self only in a sincere giving of himself.”
A few weeks ago, we read through the Viewer’s Guide for the video “Made for Each Other,” which is about sexual difference and complementarity. Now, in this Respect Life month of October, we’re going to read through the Viewer’s Guide for the second video in the Marriage: Unique for a Reason series, “Made for Life.”
“Made for Life” features real-life married couples and parents who share their reflections on what it means to be open to life, why fathers and mothers matter for children, what it means that children are a gift, and so on. Their reflections aim to help viewers understand the life-giving nature of married love and why that matters to what marriage is.
In the first section, we look at what openness to life means and why love and life are inseparable.
“Being open to children is so foundational. When you’re open to children, you’re not just opening yourself to the possibility of the gift of life, but you’re [also] opening yourself up to your spouse.”
Marriage is made for life. It is a singular institution that brings a man and a woman together as husband and wife, who vow themselves into a union directed not only toward themselves but simultaneously to the gift of new life. As Katie relates, this openness to life is part and parcel of married love, and it is deeply personal, that is, it accords with the nature of the human person. Openness to life also accords with the nature of love itself. As the bishops of the United States taught in their pastoral letter on marriage, “It is the nature of love to overflow, to be life-giving.” [i]
Marriage is the natural human context wherein a child is properly conceived and welcomed into life as the “supreme gift of marriage.” [ii] And in this stance of openness and welcoming, meant to mark every aspect of married love, a husband and a wife grow closer to each other. They share themselves fully with each other, inviting deeper trust and the freedom that comes from each spouse making a gift of himself or herself to the other. Being open to one’s spouse and being open to children is one and the same choice and act. As Pope John Paul II taught, “Thus the couple, while giving themselves to one another, give not just themselves but also the reality of children, who are a living reflection of their love, a permanent sign of conjugal unity and a living and inseparable synthesis of their being a father and a mother.” [iii]
In other words, in marriage, love and life are inseparable. This is what the Church means when she teaches that the unitive and procreative meanings of married love are inseparable. [iv] In embracing each other, husband and wife embrace their capacity to conceive a child and are called to do nothing deliberate to close part of themselves to the gift of the other. This does not mean that a child will be—or should be—conceived from every act of sexual intimacy. Marriage is not a mechanical factory for the mass production of children. The Church teaches couples in their openness to life to practice responsible parenthood by discerning whether or not they have serious reasons, in keeping with God’s plan for marriage, to postpone becoming a father and a mother here and now. [v]
The inseparable connection of love and life means that husband and wife are called to give everything to each other in their acts of intimacy—including their capacity for fruitfulness. Otherwise, their gift of self would not be total. Being open to each other, open to receiving the gift of the other, and therefore being open to life, is not something optional for marriage. Instead, it is at the core of marriage, and only a man and a woman can make the radical promise that marriage entails: “A man and woman united in marriage as husband and wife serve as a symbol of both life and love in a way that no other relationship of human persons can.” [vi] This is why marriage can only be between a man and a woman. Persons of the same sex lack the sexual difference that is the necessary foundation for a husband and wife’s ability to live both “gifts”—the total gift of self exchanged between them in marriage, which includes their openness to the gift of a child. [vii]