The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date: August 15, 2003
A religious, civil hornet's nest
Emotional baggage connected with the word marriage complicates debate over gay unions
By ROBERT J. McCLORY
In the official teaching of the Catholic church, gay marriage is an oxymoron, a logical impossibility. Yet, in the judgment of many Americans today, Catholics included, it is, by its very nature, a necessity, an inevitability.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church is clear on the subject: The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish a partnership of the whole of life, is ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring.
Since a same-sex union cannot procreate children, it cannot be called marriage. The Vaticans recent declaration that Catholic politicians have a duty to oppose legalization of gay marriage is an application of that conviction.
The idea was affirmed explicitly by Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania in an appearance Aug. 3 on Fox News Sunday. Santorum, an outspoken Catholic on the issue, said, Its common sense marriage is between a man and a woman. Why? Because of children. It is the reason for marriage. Its not to affirm the love of two people. Thats not what marriage is about. Its about uniting together to be open to children.
Yes, but its about other things too, and thats why gay marriage has become a hornets nest in the church and in the public at large. Though the magisterium may be united, the larger Catholic church is conflicted, said Timothy OConnell, professor of Christian ethics at Loyola University in Chicago. The roots of the conflict, he said, are found in the Second Vatican Council, at which the bishops very deliberately avoided restating the old dictum that the primary purpose of marriage is the procreation and education of children. Instead, they began their presentation on marriage in the document Gaudium et Spes by emphasizing the relationship of the couple, their covenant of personal consent, and their conjugal love for one another. And even when speaking about marriages generative purposes, the document noted that other aspects of matrimony should not be considered of less account. The elevation of these other aspects, said OConnell, opened a debate on the fundamental meaning of sexuality, a debate the Vatican neither participates in nor acknowledges. In Catholic universities today, we present the best wisdom of the leaders of the church, which states that the relational and generative functions of marriage are inseparable, but we have to acknowledge that this teaching is less than convincing to many, said OConnell.
Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan, a former U.S. congressman, said he is reluctant to support any diminishment of marriage from its traditional position as a unique relationship of men and women. We shouldnt lose any of that, said Drinan, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center. But he added he too is conflicted about efforts to dismiss gay marriage because that could mean a denial of basic rights and benefits to some couples who truly love one another.
There is no doubt that the theoretical esteem in which marriage is enshrined in the American legal system does leave same-sex unions at a considerable disadvantage compared to heterosexual unions. Michael Adams, an attorney with the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund in Washington, cited a variety of situations involving disparity:
Adams acknowledged that some of these benefits can be gained by obtaining the necessary legal documents, but others are not available under any circumstances. The federal government and some 37 states have passed a Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as only between a man and a woman. The U.S. General Accounting Office estimates that more than 1,000 special benefits are automatically provided to heterosexual married couples simply because they are married.
Adams cited more than a dozen cases in which Lambda Fund attorneys in New York attempted to intervene on behalf of gay persons who lost their partners in the 9/11 terrorist attack. We had to fight for everything -- state, federal, even Red Cross assistance -- that married survivors received without question, he said.
Martin Grachola, a board member of Dignity Chicago, declared, It is time to deal with the reality that gays and lesbians can form long-term relationships. Society has a vested interest in extending to same-sex couples the same kind of legal benefits, responsibilities, safeguards and protections it extends to married persons.
Grachola said he has no problem with the principle that the family is the building block of society, but we must widen the definition of what constitutes a legitimate family.
Obviously, one way to get around the emotional baggage connected with the word marriage is by legalizing gay relationships as domestic partnerships or civil unions. The state of Vermont has already done this, and measures to do likewise are under consideration in Massachusetts and New Jersey. That would be a way to go, said Grachola, but many gay advocates will be satisfied with nothing less than marriage.
New designations will not provide the protection that the term marriage does, said Lambdas Adams. Marriage is simply the basis on which all entities today provide benefits to citizens, he said. Domestic partnership is a whole new institution. Under the most favorable circumstances, it will be treated as novel and strange, he said, and in many cases ignored or scoffed at, while a legitimate marriage license is not so easily dismissed.
Marianne Duddy, executive director of Dignity USA, said much of the opposition to gay unions stems from the tendency to fuse together marriage as a religious commitment and marriage as a civil contract. And this makes for an incredibly complex debate, she said. If marriage can be viewed as a legal contract between two people making a permanent commitment, there should be no problem, she explained, adding that religious dimensions of the relationship should be addressed exclusively within the belief system of each religious denomination.
That does not mean Dignity would be satisfied with domestic partnership or some similar designation for gay unions. As an organization with a Catholic constituency, it is committed to a change in church doctrine that would allow gay unions to be regarded as valid, permanent, even as sacramental marriages. There are signs of progress, she said: Catholic parishes where gay couples are openly acknowledged and involved in ministry, where same-sex unions are liturgically (though privately) celebrated, where gay couples and gay families are even pictured in the parish family directory.
But opposition to legalizing gay unions under any title is also widespread and deep-seated among some segments of society. Baptists and several other large Protestant denominations remain vehemently opposed, as do some secular leaders and publications. The pressure for legalizing such unions is just the latest item in a nationwide gay agenda, according to Stanley Kurtz, a contributing editor of the National Review. Gay marriage would create a slippery slope that will lead to the justification of polygamy, adultery, and other forms of immorality, he said in a recent article. Ultimately, Kurtz contends, the gay agenda is designed to undermine and destroy monogamous, heterosexual marriage.
Others who do not go that far argue that gay parents are unable to provide the balanced nurturing of children that comes in a home with a male and a female parent; they also fear that gay parents, by their everyday example, will rear generations of gay children. Concern about children was clearly a major point in the Vaticans recent statement, claiming gay adoptions should be opposed because they do violence to children by placing them in an environment not conducive to their full human development.
That position, like much of the anti-gay marriage argument, is totally without empirical data or foundation, said psychotherapist A.W. Richard Sipe. It makes no sense, said Sipe, to insist that a committed relationship between two men or two women automatically creates an unhealthy environment for children. Sipe has written widely on celibacy and other sexuality-related issues.
The churchs teaching on sexuality is pre-Copernican, he said. It fails to take into account what we know today and what we are learning.
Sipe added that the preponderance of evidence today indicates that sexual orientation is determined in the womb and therefore cannot be considered disordered, as the church claims. The biggest mistake, he said, is the refusal by the Vatican to discuss or dialogue on any of these sensitive sex-related issues.
Robert McClory, an NCR contributor, writes from Chicago.
National Catholic Reporter, August 15, 2003
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