National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  February 20, 2004

Ruling on same-sex civil marriage a positive step for human rights

The ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts allowing same-sex civil marriage is a beneficial step along the path of human understanding and human rights.

We say that with every understanding of how strongly some oppose such a notion, often out of deeply held religious conviction. And we say it understanding that civil marriage -- whether between heterosexuals or homosexuals -- has no effect on sacramental marriage or other religious traditions and their understandings of marriage.

Our own Catholic tradition, drawing on natural law and scripture, holds that marriage is only between a man and a woman. Official Catholic teaching says all homosexual acts are gravely sinful. Other major world religions hold similar views.

It should be noted here that advocating for civil marriage for gays and lesbians is not meant to seem a cavalier defiance of church teaching. The two, for purposes of the current debate, should be separate. That is not to suggest that church teaching should never inform legislative activity, and that can happen in a number of ways. But there also are any number of areas where church teaching and state law or policies diverge -- divorce and contraception come to mind, as do the continuing proliferation of nuclear weapons and the state’s insistence on maintaining the death penalty -- without harm to the church’s teachings or religious practice.

The church maintains strict rules regarding divorce, for example, but does little officially to interfere with the states’ rather relaxed approach to granting divorce. And though a divorced and remarried Catholic might be prohibited from receiving Communion, the church does not seek to deny that person civil benefits because his or her sexual practices might violate the church’s understanding of God’s law and natural law.

It should also be noted that the official church teaching on homosexuality, relying on ancient understandings of human nature and sexuality, has benefited little, as far as we can see, from new and accumulating insights in the study of such areas as sexuality, psychiatry and medicine.

In terms of scripture, too, we should not lose sight of the fact that slavery was once not only accepted but taught from our sacred texts. Our understanding of that bit of natural law and God’s order has certainly changed dramatically during the past century. Too often scripture is used to justify long-held notions and prejudices, following popular opinion as much as it might shape it.

All of that, of course, could make for good discussion some day within the church, but the church today, it is all too clear, is not receptive to discussion of many difficult issues concerning human sexuality.

Not only was slavery once written into our civil laws, so was the prohibition against racially mixed marriages. They no longer are because our understanding changes, and so do our laws and social proscriptions.

One of the primary arguments heard against gay marriage and the bestowal of benefits it would bring to gay couples is that allowing same-sex marriage will destroy heterosexual marriage.

Traditional marriage, of course, has been in trouble for some time now. Only half of new marriages last, yet among the host of reasons one could enumerate, no one has marshaled evidence showing a cause and effect between gay unions and the high divorce rate.

As of press time here, state lawmakers in Massachusetts were still debating possible amendments to the state Constitution, a process that could nullify the Supreme Judicial Court ruling, but that would also take until at least 2006 to finalize. In the meantime, under the Supreme Judicial Court ruling, same-sex partners will begin marrying in Massachusetts on May 17.

Whether one likes it or not, gay marriage is a reality if not a legal fact. Gay couples live together, own homes together, often contribute significantly to their communities. Increasingly their children attend our schools and play on our community sports teams and participate in local arts and music events. And increasingly gay couples attend our churches, as families, as full participants, celebrating with us, even sharing our sacramental life, presenting their children for baptism.

We in the church may have a long road of discussion and discernment before us on this issue. But that seems little reason to step into the fray, actively opposing what appears a logical evolution, in the civil arena, of human understanding and a reasonable extension of benefits to members of the community who even the church says should not be unjustly discriminated against.

National Catholic Reporter, February 20, 2004

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