As the Supreme Court prepares to consider the definition of marriage, the public debate grows only more rancorous. The Court’s deliberations will hopefully take place more prudently than the fractious public debate. As president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, it is my personal responsibility and civic duty to speak for the common good, which I believe is served by preserving natural marriage protection through state laws.
The question is whether the long standing definition of marriage should be overturned. It is a far reaching question, but not merely because marriage is connected to more than a thousand laws or regulations, everything from the tax code to health benefits to higher education. It is a far reaching question because if the Supreme Court does not uphold the right of states to protect a natural definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman, it will unleash a lengthy litany of litigation that could unravel the very fabric of society.
What’s being lost in the debate is why marriage wound up in civil law at all. Civil law has long recognized the unique way the twin goods of marriage contribute to the common good of society. To thrive, society must recognize the foundational and indispensable union of man and woman as the irreplaceable basis of family life. To survive, society must protect this union as the way civilization replenishes itself through the gift of new human life.
Recognizing the essential meaning of marriage means recognizing the matchless contribution it makes to society. There remains only one stable way to bring a child into the world. The divine origin of life is uniquely found in the union between a man and a woman, and this is why marriage is afforded special status in law. In honoring marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman, as has every civilization and generation from antiquity, civil law merely reflects a society’s desire to continue to exist. To confirm the undeniable truth of this is not in any way to discriminate against anyone. It is merely to point to the past, the present, and the future.
Lifelong companionship and legal rights are noble goals, often cited by those seeking to redefine sexual difference out of the unique natural definition of marriage. Marriage, however, is far more than two adults coming together for their mutual benefit. The life-giving potential of marriage calls each couple to a unique self-giving sacrifice – man to woman and woman to man – in being open to the potential gift of children. Within the divine spark of life is the fundamental right of every child to know his or her mother and father.
Of course, not everyone has the benefit of both parents present, due to unforeseen tragedy or some other unavoidable event. And in that special setting, we – family, friends, church or society – have a responsibility to support single or foster parents. While single or foster parenting is a heroic act, the desire to know one’s own mother and father never entirely fades.
Government has codified marriage for the protection of the child. In doing so, government remains neutral as to the question of two consenting adults choosing to spend their life together outside of life’s natural potential. Every person has an inherent dignity worthy of protection against unjust discrimination, but we must do so in ways that do not redefine the unique status of marriage and discriminate against what human nature itself tells us marriage is.
As the public square becomes less inclusive of faith-based voices, it has become increasingly more difficult to speak in defense of marriage without being ridiculed, but a witness is needed now and into the future as we accompany a generation seeking to embrace our eternal destiny. Recognition of natural marriage is about protecting the bond on behalf of the child, so that he or she has the best possible environment in which to grow and then contribute to society. What we shouldn’t do is actively encourage the breaking of that sacred bond. Marriage must be more about the needs of children than the wants of adults. At the very least, those wants should not undermine family protections in more than a thousand ways.