As the U.S., and many other places in the world, scrambles to conform to same-sex marriage as the “law of the land,” Catholics have a golden opportunity to think about and communicate what makes the Church’s teaching on marriage distinctive. In a significant way, the Church’s conception of marriage is not terribly distinctive, historically speaking. Everywhere and everywhen up until a few decades ago, it was understood and taken for granted that “marriage” is a union between a man and a woman. Even in societies that have practiced polygamy, no one thought that, for instance, the multiple wives could be married to each other. Today, many people probably have the impression that the only possible objection that can be levied against same-sex marriage is some religious objection or other. But is this so? As we shall see, in one way, no, and yet in another way, yes.
Consider why societies have felt the need for an institution like marriage, characteristically between a man and a woman (there is no record of anyone in any culture even coming up with the idea of same sex marriage before very recently). What’s distinctive about male-female unions? Obviously, they tend to lead to procreation. And human children need years and years of material and emotional support in a stable home environment to be raised successfully. The most straightforward and logical way, all things considered, to ensure that the tremendous investment involved in this undertaking goes through is to expect a lifelong commitment between the children’s biological parents. All of this is easily seen by the light of natural reason and upholding such an institution should not seem to, in principle, require specifically religious motivations.
So why has marriage always been considered a sacrament by the Catholic Church? For one thing, it is obviously so important, as it safeguards crucial human goods that are required for a society’s long-term functioning and continuance. In addition, the Catechism teaches that “God who created man out of love also calls him to love the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being. For man is created in the image and likeness of God who is himself love. Since God created him man and woman, their mutual love becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves man. It is good, very good, in the Creator’s eyes.” (CCC 1604) Marriage is an intentional vocation that men and women live out to become “one flesh” (Mark 10:8) in a way that only embodied, sexual beings can. In their natural complementarity the two become a reflection of the Love that comes originally from God. So by being a sacrament, marriage with all its natural earthly goods is elevated in status to something that is not only good for ourselves with respect to each other, but also insofar as human beings as such relate to our Creator.
And, not only does the sacrament have a theological basis that gives it its meaning as a sacrament, but its sacramental meaning also serves to safeguard the natural meaning of marriage. In our post-Christian culture, people have not only rejected the true religion represented in the Church, but also natural reason itself. G.K. Chesterton said that “When people cease to believe in God, they will not believe in nothing—they will believe in everything.” And so we find ourselves trying to communicate truth to a culture that no longer recognizes any truth except what individuals may feel like doing at any given time, whatever that may be. It is considered as making no difference what sex a person is or whether there even is such a thing as sex—it’s now just a name for whatever it is that makes one feel good at the moment. It’s just as if people have forgotten all about the “birds and the bees” and believe that new human beings just pop into existence for no reason at all. Contrary to popular belief, it’s one of religion’s major roles to safeguard culture, reason, value, and everything that makes us human. And, it’s a testament for our need for the eternal truths that the Church offers that without it, people can even forget who they are as human beings.
About Micah Newman
Micah is a grateful convert (as of 2009), and a writer/editor and philosophy teacher. His passions include Catholicism, theology, science, art, music, and his two beautiful children.