An initiative of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

Unspoken Assumptions & Reframing the Debate (2nd of 7 in a series)

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.

Earlier posts:

#1: Background to the Supreme Court cases


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.

Next: Post #3: Mutually exclusive understandings of marriage, and the need for a comprehensive approach

13 responses to “Unspoken Assumptions & Reframing the Debate (2nd of 7 in a series)”

  1. John Buckley says:

    Studies were done, evidence presented, the truth determined, and the courts ruled. There are no assumptions about the body, children and procreation, freedoms and rights, they have been turned into facts. The answer to the question, “Who is the human person?” continues to develop in the wake of new discoveries and modern medicine. It ensures we will always have a far more accurate and reliable description of humanity than the unchanging centuries old Catechism.

    You do not draw the epithet of bigot for simply opposing same sex marriage. You do not attract charges of discrimination for stating your religious belief. You draw the ill will because you obfuscate the issues and falsify the scientific evidence. To suggest that you are treating two different things differently is disingenuous, and a deliberate attempt to obscure the facts.

    Marriage equality involves only one group of people with respect to humanity and ability to love, and rights to fair treatment under the US Constitution. You disparage certain members of this group for what you have decided is an unfavorable trait. You falsely characterize their behaviors as disordered, portraying them as a group in need of pity for suffering from same sex attractions. We have scientific and biological studies that explain they exhibit natural and instinctive behaviors associated with falling in love, the very same instinctual behaviors you encourage from other members of the same group, whom you have judged to have more desirable traits.

    There is no crisis or attack on religious belief. We are merely accepting new discoveries about our humanity. Reality hasn’t changed, only our understanding of it has. The Church must learn to accept this or it will become obsolete very quickly.

    • Maria says:

      The truth will never become obsolete. Ideologies come and go. In time, the homosexual ideology will go the way of the Communist ideology–and the way of the countless heresies that have arisen over the past two millennia. The Church, however, will continue to stand firm in the truth.

      • John Buckley says:

        You overlook one very important fact Maria, homosexuality is not an ideology. It is a biological trait favored by the natural forces of evolution which shaped human development over hundreds of thousands of years. It will continue to thrive in the human population until another genetic mutation is favored to render it obsolete. Humanity is helpless to control evolution, and we have no choice but to exist within its limitations.

        On the other hand, ideologies such as the Church, are controllable by people and must respect natural laws or they will not survive. Communism fell because natural laws could not sustain it. It lasted only as long as the last believer could control it. The Catholic Church will also succumb to similar forces if it cannot operate within the confines of natural law.

        • Maria says:

          Homosexuality is not an ideology, but there is a homosexual ideology. Like Communism, the homosexual ideology is based on pseudo-science and a flawed anthropology. Twin studies prove that same-sex attraction is not a biological trait. The claim that there are two types of humans, homosexual and heterosexual, runs counter to natural law. Nazi race theory (another ideology that held power for a time) also made claims about the existence of different types of humans, supposedly formed by the forces of evolution. The Church rejected these claims, as it now rejects the claims of the homosexual ideology. Christian anthropology is based on natural law. It has stood the test of time, and it will continue to stand.

        • bm says:

          Evolution? Get serious. The main process of evolution is natural selection and homosexuality inherently implodes since it cannot pass its genetic material onto the next generation. This is naturalism 101. The only way for it to survive is socially parasitically. Natural selection has tagged homosexuals for genetic extinction. I am not promoting any devaluation of someone with same sex attraction. But since you hold Darwinism with such high regard, you must understand its fundamental precepts and implications. Evolution’s natural conclusion leads us to racism and genocide. And in your argument, FOR the destruction or nonsupport of homosexuality and those who are under its genetic banner. Your naturalistic argument for homosexuality implodes under the weight of Naturalism itself.

          Studies of paternal twins have shown that homosexuality is NOT genetic. Most twins that involve homosexuality have only one twin who is gay. The vast majority of the twins have one of them who is heterosexual.

          Studies now seem to theorize that perhaps a process that ‘normally’ happens in development in the womb to form a persons sexual orientation, fails and homosexuality comes from that defect. But that only proves it is a birth defect. Something doctors would normally seek to correct.

          Even so, heterosexuals are not allowed to morally follow their instinct to procreate with many partners. So homosexuals have the same general moral burden heterosexuals do – namely to refrain from immoral behavior.

          Men and women’s brains are different, not just their genitalia. But like so many of Gods works, many angles and components are all wrapped and tightly coupled into one thing. Sex is not solely for pleasure, but also to create new life, to bind the couple in a conjugal communion, etc. God’s works are often symphonies of various things put together to accomplish a multitude of works in a beautiful array of spectacular acts. Leaving out parts ruins the entire thing.

          • John Buckley says:

            Studies of monozygotic twins absolutely do link homosexuality to heredity. Concordance rates are higher than with fraternal twins. When considered with the statistically significant higher occurrence rates of homosexuality within families with respect to single births and across generational lines, there is little doubt that a genetic component is involved.

            Inheriting genes directly from a parent is not the only way evolution works to preserve a favorable trait in a species. A close relative who inherits a gene that allows him to contribute to the survival of a family member will ensure that his common genes will be carried on through them. It is likely that homosexuality is passed on in this manner.

          • Jamez says:

            And yet, homosexuality exists in the same single digit percentage of the human race as it always has long before the Catholic Church ever existed. As you say since homosexuality cannot pass its genetic material onto the next generation, that would then mean that heterosexuals are passing the genetic material for homosexuality onto the next generation. From an evolutionary standpoint, we can surmise the human person is passing that genetic material for a reason…

    • Kelly says:

      @ Mr. Buckley,

      You assume marriage is primarily about sexual orientation. At its deeper core, it is about gender. Should marriage be gender-integrated and open to all? Or should we change it to allow gender discrimination and segregation? Is society better off when we promote excluding a wife and mother from families?

      I support pro-gender marriage because gender matters to everyone, including those with SSA and their children.

  2. Samwise says:

    @ Mr. Buckley,
    Burgess Meredith starred in an episode of the twilight zone titled “Obsolete”. It was about a state official who began burning books, including Bibles, because he said they were “obsolete”.
    Then Mr Meredith asked the state official to spend time with him in prison, with full knowledge that the world would soon end by nuclear bomb. As the clock ticked to detonation, the state official panicked and despaired while Mr Meredith quoted his “obsolete” book: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”
    Finally, they opened the cell and told the state official that it was all a test–and he had failed while Mr. Meredith had passed. The Bibile was no longer “obsolete”

    • Magnanamist says:

      I won’t address the epithets, only that they are a rather juvenile tactic that actually lessen the credibility of your argument.

      First point:

      What is more interesting is the underlying philosophical basis of your polemic, namely, scientism and materialism. Both of these necessarily circumscribe the possibility of human knowing to the falsifiable and the empirical.

      They exclude other valid forms of knowledge such as metaphysics and natural law, both of which you would probably dismiss as quaint or irrelevant when in fact they are part of our enduring Western intellectual inheritance.

      Catholic thought carefully considers the contributions of all forms of philosophical and scientific knowledge, your approach is impoverished at least by half.

      What is really means is that the difference between your “truth” and the Truth offered by the Church are incompatible.

      Second point:

      The heterosexual institution of marriage is antecedent to the establishment of the Catholic Church and IN FACT has been and is the fundamental cell of both society and state in all cultures. It is the generative nature of the married heterosexual union that GUARANTEES the continued existence of the state by producing children and by the stability that man-women marriage provides.

      Third point:

      Therefore, the state has an interest to support and incentivize the continuance of this biologically-prescribed and time tested institution.

      Fourth point:

      No matter which way you approach it, homosexual unions do not and can not produce offspring. Since this is so, the only rationale for “marriage” devolves to solely affection, a situation that is NOVEL in the whole history of humanity (yes, Greeks “tolerated” same-sex relationships to an extent, but this was never enshrined in the legal code). It remains to be seen what effects same-sex unions–should this occur on a widespread basis–will have on broader society. At best, it would be an experiment with poorly articulated hypotheses…not a good recipe.

      Fifth point:

      At the risk of lowering the debate to ad hominem, what astonishes me most is the visceral anger exhibited by those such as yourself and the unwillingness to debate the issue on the merits. Instead, what I see right out of the gate is the attempt to bully, intimidate, and silence those who have a coherent basis for their beliefs.

      In fact, it can be so extreme as to be called legitimately Christophobic and Heterophobic. Again, not a show stopper for me, but an observation of the fascist-like intolerance I get on a monotonously regular basis.

      Time will tell how all this comes out in the wash, but one thing will remain True and that is the Christian witness of those who call Jesus Christ Lord and Savior. He who has already won the victory for those He loves, which by the way, includes you if you choose to believe in Him who has loved you since He first formed you in the womb.

      • John Buckley says:

        I did not choose to bring the epithets into the debate; the bishops did, and in so doing, they incorrectly stated how they were applied. I was correcting their misconception.

        One of the major shortcomings of the Catholic Church is her reliance on the metaphysical and her narrow definition of natural law compounded by her resistance to change as dictated by scientific discovery. It virtually guarantees that incompatibility with truth and reason will become inevitable.

        Logically, the metaphysical cannot reasonably exist once the empirical data invalidates it. The Church is not the center of the universe it once imagined itself to be; nor is it the archetype for an enlightened morality. Humanity has advanced far beyond the limited knowledge of the ancient scribes. It is within this truth that your argument loses its cogency. It is not possible to abandon only certain parts of a doctrine to reason and science without holding the rest of it up to the same levels of scrutiny and/or abandonment.

        You are deluding yourself to think that advocates for same sex marriage are unwilling to debate on the merits. The reality is that we have the more coherent argument firmly grounded on facts and evidence. The debate is over. Marriage equality is quickly becoming law all over the country. This did not happen because we intimidated or silenced anyone. We spent decades arguing in the courts and prevailed because of the merits. The only bullying, intolerance and attempts to silence anyone is coming from those who will not accept this truth.

  3. Meaghan says:

    “Only a man and a woman are capable of welcoming new life into the world”

    Sounds like you are saying gays should be refused marriage on the basis that they can’t reproduce. Well, what about those straight couples that cannot reproduce? What about couples (like my husband and me) who flat out refuse to reproduce?

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