A few years ago, I was discussing the Church’s position on contraception with a friend of mine. He said, “Well, getting sick is natural, and we take medicine to stop the process of becoming ill. Why is taking birth control to stop the process of becoming pregnant any different?” I must admit, I was a little stumped. I knew that the two cases—becoming ill and becoming pregnant—were different, but I couldn’t quite parse out how. I had an intuition that it had something to do with the way my friend was using the word “natural.” Surely, I thought, getting sick and getting pregnant are two different kinds of natural processes. But how?
We all have a general—perhaps a vague—idea of what “natural” means. Such is obvious by the fact that we assume the existence of nature in our everyday language. When two dogs struggle against their leashes to sniff and inspect one another, we say, “Well, they’re just doing what comes naturally!” We say things like, “I hadn’t eaten breakfast or lunch, so naturally, I was starving come dinnertime.” Not only do we talk about the natural, but we also have an intuition that what is natural is good. For instance, many of us favor natural remedies as opposed to prescriptions. Many of us gravitate toward brands that include the word “natural” in the name, brands that promise products free of chemicals and food free of additives and preservatives.
As Catholics, we have an especially rich understanding of the natural as good. We take human nature to be the grounding for certain truths about the human person: that mankind was created male and female, that the human being is ordered toward procreation and family life, that the human being is by nature a social creature. All these things we regard as good insofar as they are integral aspects of human nature, and to live out these aspects of human nature is what enables the human being to flourish. When we recognize a common human nature and recognize this nature as good, we therefore know also that it is good for everyone to flourish. In other words, we recognize that to flourish is a right, so to speak, of each and every person. To recognize this fact gives way to the concept of human dignity, which means to respect and, indeed, to help our fellow human beings flourish and live-out their human nature. We cannot, therefore, truly know what it means to say that human beings have worth and dignity, what is good for mankind, without a concrete notion of human nature.
In 1993, St. Pope John Paul II published his encyclical Veritatis Splendor in view of widespread confusion and disagreement in the areas of ethics and moral theology. The mission of the encyclical was to recall and restate the fundamental truths of Catholic doctrine as it pertains to the Church’s moral teaching. The overarching theme of Veritatis Splendor is to affirm the natural and eternal law, to affirm and defend a real and immutable human nature, and to affirm the fact that “the power to decide good and evil does not belong to man, but to God alone.” (VS, no. 32) In other words, St. John Paul II teaches us in Veritatis Splendor that to know human nature and to know it as good and created by God are essential to understanding the Church’s moral teaching.
Taking for its inspiration St. John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor, this blog series will answer questions about the Church’s teaching in the areas of human sexuality, marriage, and the family— with an eye toward human nature and natural law. For example: What does it mean to say that marriage is a natural institution? In what sense is marriage natural? Why are unity and procreation marriage’s natural ends?
In the blog entries to come, I hope to provide some clarity and insight into the nature behind Church teaching and to answer some of these tricky questions that sometimes leave us stumped. These are questions that Catholics and non-Catholics alike struggle with and, if left unanswered, can be a source of confusion, frustration, and anxiety. It is more important than ever to understand and promote the true nature of the human person and the true nature of marriage. It is more important now than ever to remember that nothing in God’s creation is arbitrary, that (in the words of Aristotle) “nature does nothing in vain”—to remember that not only is marriage unique, it is unique for a reason.
About the Author: Bridget Groff is an M.A./Ph.D. student in the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America. She currently works part-time at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as an intern for the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.
Once again, a federal district court judge has taken it upon himself to redefine marriage, this time in the state of Michigan. U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman issued a ruling on Friday that overturns the Michigan Constitution, which voters chose to amend in 2004 by defining marriage as between one man and one woman.
In a press release issued Friday, the seven Catholic Bishops in Michigan stated, “Today’s decision from federal district court Judge Bernard Friedman to redefine the institution of marriage by declaring Michigan’s Marriage Amendment unconstitutional strikes at the very essence of family, community and human nature. In effect, this decision advances a misunderstanding of marriage, and mistakenly proposes that marriage is an emotional arrangement that can simply be redefined to accommodate the dictates of culture and the wants of adults. Judge Friedman’s ruling that also finds unconstitutional the state’s adoption law is equally of grave concern.” By working through the Michigan Catholic Conference, the Bishops “will collaborate with those who are upholding Michigan’s Marriage Amendment and adoption statute and will assist to the greatest extent possible efforts to appeal Judge Friedman’s most regrettable ruling.”
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette immediately filed an emergency request for a stay of the ruling, which was provisionally granted Saturday afternoon and will put Judge Friedman’s decision on hold until at least Wednesday, March 26th.
For the Bishops’ full statement on Judge Friedman’s ruling, click here.
March 24, 2014
The Supreme Court’s decisions on the two marriage cases before it, one involving California’s Proposition 8 and the other the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), are expected tomorrow (Wednesday).
In the meantime, here is an excellent column from Miami’s Archbishop Thomas Wenski, on the impossibility of so-called same-sex “marriage.”
“If you call a tail a leg, then how may legs does a cow have? Four, because calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one.” So said Abraham Lincoln, thus showing a greater grasp of the reality of things than many in our culture today, including not a few Harvard law school graduates and possibly even a majority of the Supreme Court should they decide to overturn DOMA and California’s Proposition 8, and thus effectively impose “same sex marriage” on the nation.
Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago, published a short article about marriage and civil society on the Chicago Catholic blog this past Sunday: “Reflections on ‘Chicago values’”
In addition to commenting on current events, the Cardinal outlines basic catechesis on marriage:
It might be good to put aside any religious teaching and any state laws and start from scratch, from nature itself, when talking about marriage. Marriage existed before Christ called together his first disciples two thousand years ago and well before the United States of America was formed two hundred and thirty six years ago. Neither Church nor state invented marriage, and neither can change its nature.
Marriage exists because human nature comes in two complementary sexes: male and female. The sexual union of a man and woman is called the marital act because the two become physically one in a way that is impossible between two men or two women. Whatever a homosexual union might be or represent, it is not physically marital. Gender is inextricably bound up with physical sexual identity; and “gender-free marriage” is a contradiction in terms, like a square circle.
Apr. 29, 2012
Today’s Sunday Pope Quote is from the 1963 Encyclical Letter of Bl. Pope John XXIII, Pacem in Terris: “On Establishing Universal Peace in Truth, Justice, Charity, and Liberty.”
Bl. John XXIII begins the Encyclical: “Peace on Earth—which man throughout the ages has so longed for and sought after—can never be established, never guaranteed, except by the diligent observance of the divinely established order.” (1)
This “order,” John XXIII observes, “predominates in the world of living beings and in the forces of nature […] And it is part of the greatness of man that he can appreciate that order, and devise the means for harnessing those forces for his own benefit.” (2)
The Catholic Church teaches that the family, as the union of one man and one woman together with their children, is a part of the natural order; it is essential and foundational for the organization of a humane society.
Bl. Pope John XXIII: “The family, founded upon marriage freely contracted, one and indissoluble, must be regarded as the natural, primary cell of human society. The interests of the family, therefore, must be taken very specially into consideration in social and economic affairs, as well as in the spheres of faith and morals. For all of these have to do with strengthening the family and assisting it in the fulfillment of its mission.”
Bl. Pope John XXIII, Pacem in Terris (no. 16)
About this series:
Every Sunday, the Marriage: Unique for a Reason blog will feature a short quote from either our current Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, or our late Holy Father, Bl. John Paul II (or occasionally another pope). These two men have given the world an immense treasury of wisdom about marriage, love, and the meaning of the human person, all of which are topics integral to the Church’s witness today. Their words are well worth reflecting on, as we have much to learn from these wise successors of St. Peter.
Today, news from “across the pond.” The President and Vice President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales penned a pastoral letter on marriage that was to be read at parishes throughout England and Wales this past weekend, March 10 and 11. In their letter, Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster and Archbishop Peter Smith of Southwark write that they plan to present “the Catholic vision of marriage and the light it casts on the importance of marriage for our society” (all emphasis added).
The Archbishops reflect on marriage both as a natural institution and as a sacrament:
The roots of the institution of marriage lie in our nature. Male and female we have been created, and written into our nature is this pattern of complementarity and fertility.
. . .
As a Sacrament, [marriage] is a place where divine grace flows. Indeed, marriage is a sharing in the mystery of God’s own life: the unending and perfect flow of love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The letter also argues that “changing the legal definition of marriage would be a profoundly radical step.” Continuing, they explain:
The law helps to shape and form social and cultural values. A change in the law would gradually and inevitably transform society’s understanding of the purpose of marriage. It would reduce it just to the commitment of the two persons involved. There would be no recognition of the complementarity of male and female or that marriage is intended for the procreation and education of children.
On the Bishops’ Conference website, Archbishop Nichols and Archbishop Smith urge residents of England and Wales to sign an online petition organized by the grass-roots campaign Coalition for Marriage.
Bishop Richard Malone of Portland, Maine wrote a pastoral letter on marriage on the occasion of World Marriage Day, this past February 12, 2012: “Marriage: Yesterday – Today – Always.” The letter clearly reflects the bishop’s role as teacher (see CCC, nos. 888-892): it lays out the foundations for the Church’s teaching on marriage as found in sacred Scripture, sacred Tradition, and the natural law. It responds to the contemporary challenge of the proposal to redefine marriage but does so in the context of an expansive vision of marriage’s timeless beauty and essential place in society. In sum, Bishop Malone’s letter serves as a timely “mini catechesis” on marriage and a firm but gentle reminder of what society stands to lose if marriage is redefined in the law.
Part One: Introduction
- Goal: “to reflect with you…upon the greatness and the beauty of marriage – as an original gift of the Lord’s creation and, consequently, as a vocation and as the foundational institution of family and society” (p. 1)
- All are called to the vocation of holiness. Within this universal vocation is the call to holy orders, consecrated virginity, and marriage. (p. 2)
- Challenges to marriage: cohabitation, divorce, contraception, and marriage redefinition that rejects the essential place of sexual difference (p. 3-4; see USCCB, Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan , pp. 17-27).
- Maine law currently defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman, a union it describes as “of inestimable value to society” (p. 5).
Part Two: What is Marriage?
- A basic definition: “Marriage is the lifelong exclusive union of one man and one woman – a font of unitive life and love as well as the foundation of a stable family and society” (p. 6).
- Marriage is rooted in creation: “God created marriage in the very same breath as He created the human person” (p. 8).
- Every heart longs for communion; marriage is a unique kind of communion where man and woman “truly become one” (p. 9).
- Sexual difference matters to parenting, that is, to fathering and mothering: “The mother and the father, each in her/his own way, provide a loving space for the child, one by accenting union, the other by accenting distinction” (p. 10).
- “A child is meant to have a mother and a father. Children long for this and it is their right” (p. 10).
- Infertility does not diminish the goodness of a marriage: “The marital union of a man and a woman is a distinctive and complementary communion of persons. An infertile couple continues to manifest this attribute” (p. 12; see Love and Life, p. 14).
- Children are a gift and not something that spouses have a “right” to (p. 12).
Part Three: Marriage and the Natural Law
- Going to the roots: “Even the Church’s teaching about marriage is rooted in something far older and more fundamental than religious doctrine: it is the law of nature which furthers the order of creation and establishes the activities of all creatures” (p. 13).
- About natural law: Natural law is our participation in God’s eternal law (p. 12); natural law shows us what conforms to our human nature (good actions) and what is at variance with our nature (bad actions) (p. 13-14); natural law is immutable, enduring and unchangeable (p. 14); and natural law is “the source from which both civil law and Church law emerge” (p. 15).
- Natural law guides civil law to properly respect and foster the common good; marriage plays a key role in furthering the common good for all people (p. 17-18).
Part Four: Marriage: A Unique Relationship
- “Marriage is a unique union, a relationship different from all others. It is the permanent bond between one man and one woman whose two-in-one-flesh communion of persons is an indispensable good at the heart of every family and every society” (p. 18).
- Marriage is not… “the appearance of a union”… “a partial commitment”… “simply friendship” (p. 19).
- Marriage is… “more than just a loving relationship”… “more than just a committed relationship”… “more than just about access to certain state-sponsored benefits” (p. 20).
- What about benefits for unmarried persons? “The state has various legal means at its disposal to facilitate people’s ability to care for and support each other. We do not need to redefine marriage to accomplish this” (p. 20).
- The place of justice in the marriage debate: “To promote and protect marriage as the union of one man and one woman is itself a matter of justice” (p. 21).
Part Five: Marriage and the Good of Society
- For the good of children: “When we recognize true marriage and support it, we ensure that as many children as possible know and are known by, love and are loved by, the mother and father in the exclusive marital embrace” (p. 22).
- For all of society: “Everyone has a stake in a stable, flourishing, and loving society created and sustained in no small part by marriage between a man and a woman” (p. 22).
A Final Word
- “As your bishop, whose primary responsibility is that of teacher, it is my hope that this document will challenge everyone who reads it to embrace anew the truth, beauty and goodness of marriage as it has always been and always will be” (p. 23).
Read Bishop Malone’s pastoral letter, “Marriage: Yesterday – Today – Always“
Bishops are teachers
From the earliest days of the Church, Christians “devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles” (Acts 2:42). The bishops, as the successors of the Apostles, are teachers. For an apostle to teach means giving witness to the Truth. To teach the Truth means not only to teach the truth of faith, but also to remind men and women of the intrinsic dignity of reason. Human beings have the natural ability to know things as they really are by the light of reason. It is no wonder that the Catholic Church has maintained schools and universities throughout the world for centuries!
There is collaboration that takes place when one teaches and when one learns; and the bishops in the United States—in communion with the Bishop of Rome, the Pope—join together in a conference to collaborate on the issues that face our country and the Church in the United States.
Marriage is a truth accessible to both faith and reason
Marriage is one such reality that the U.S. Bishops are working to teach—or simply remind—the Church and our nation of its basic meaning and definition. Marriage is not only a teaching of faith, but is also a truth accessible to reason. In other words, we can and should have recourse to natural human reason in defending the truth of the Church’s moral teaching regarding marriage. Marriage is not simply a “religious” question; it’s a reality embedded in nature (the nature of the human person as male and female). The Church does not speak of marriage simply as a “religious” issue. Rather, it is a concern for civil society based on the natural law and the very truth of the human person, created as male and female.
The U.S. Bishop’s initiative, Marriage Unique for a Reason, under the auspices of the USCCB Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage, is one way in which the Catholic Church in the United States is seeking to invite our nation to consider and reclaim the basic truth and beauty of the unchangeable meaning of marriage.
Marriage: Unique for a Reason: Resources for proclaiming the authentic meaning of marriage
The Marriage: Unique for a Reason initiative includes a number of resources, with more on the way.
Completed and ready to use:
- “Made for Each Other” – DVD and companion written materials on sexual difference and complementarity between men and women
- “Made for Life” – DVD and companion written materials on the gift of children and the indispensable need for fathers and mothers
- Marriage: Unique for a Reason website (www.marriageuniqueforareason.org) – FAQs about marriage, Church teaching library, blog and more
- Spanish-language DVD resource – comprehensive treatment of the four topics addressed in the English-language DVDs
- DVD resource about marriage and the common good
- DVD resource about marriage and religious liberty
St. Peter exhorts us, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope” (1 Pt 3:15). The bishops’ apostolic mission of teaching helps us all to be ready to explain the meaning of marriage, a sign of great hope for the world.