In recent months, I have heard some Catholics ask why the Church is so concerned about the definition of civil marriage. After all, they say, changing the definition of civil marriage to include gay couples would have no consequences on the definition of the sacrament of Matrimony, so changing the law will not harm the Church, right?
Unfortunately, this is not the case. In addition to the numerous implications that a redefinition of marriage would have on society and children, the Church is gravely concerned about the legal redefinition of marriage because it would threaten its fundamental ability to exist and exercise its ministry fully.
We can already see the effects that the push to redefine marriage has had on Christians trying to live out their faith.
A Christian baker in Lakewood, Colo., is facing jail time because his conscience would not allow him to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. Although he made it clear that he was not anti-gay and would be happy to bake a birthday or graduation cake for a gay individual, he is still facing the threat of imprisonment for refusing to affirm “gay marriage.”
Sadly, this case is not unique. In New Jersey, a Methodist church was sued because it would not allow its facility to be used for a same-sex “wedding.” The judge ruled against the church.
Catholic Charities has been forced out of the adoption business in Massachusetts, Illinois and Washington, D.C., because it would only place children in homes with a mother and a father.
The list goes on. In Massachusetts, a father was arrested for trying to pull his son out of a kindergarten class where he was being taught about homosexuality and “gay marriage;” a doctor in California was punished by the courts because he would not use artificial insemination to create a fatherless child; a photographer in New Mexico was faced with legal action because his conscience would not permit him to photograph a gay ceremony; a Vermont bed and breakfast owner and a New York farm owner were sued because they did not want to host gay “weddings” in their privately-run facilities.
These examples offer a response to those who think that redefining civil marriage will leave the Church free to use its own definition of marriage.
Catholic adoption agencies were not free to simply use “their” definition of marriage – they were required by law to comply with the legal definition. Even the Methodist church was not permitted to use “its” definition of marriage.
The Danish government recently determined that “gay marriage” includes a right to get married in any church in the country, even if that church objects to such unions. Churches throughout the country will now literally be forced to conduct marriages they believe to be invalid and sinful.
This could happen in the U.S. – government regulations forcing Catholic churches to conduct “gay marriages” with the justification that they are not required to recognize them as sacramental. The ongoing debates over the HHS mandate show us that the current government views religious freedom so narrowly as to remove nearly all of its meaning. If the government can force religious institutions – such as hospitals, schools and charitable agencies – to facilitate birth control against their beliefs, it can certainly force them to accept “gay marriages.”
The erosion of religious freedom is further seen in Colorado, where lawmakers recently passed a gay civil union bill – described by its supporters as a stepping stone to “gay marriage” – that intentionally left out a religious exemption for faith groups that object to recognizing gay unions.
In a heated hearing over this purposeful exclusion, gay advocates argued that religious groups do not have the right to adhere to their own beliefs on marriage as they conduct their affairs and carry out the various services that they provide for the community.
Colorado senator Pat Steadman had a message for those who object to recognizing “gay marriages” on religious grounds: “get thee to a nunnery. Live there then. Go live a monastic life, away from modern society.”
Steadman argued that there is no room in the public square for those who hold religious beliefs that object to “gay marriage.” He even went so far as to argue that they should live “(a)way from the stream of commerce” because it is intolerable for them to bring their religious views into the world of business.
The exemption-less Colorado law passed, and gay advocacy groups around the country applauded it as a victory, with virtually no mention of the impact it will have on religious groups.
We see this on a national level too, as discussions over redefining marriage routinely fail to include any mention of allowances for religious freedom.
Yes, it is possible in theory to envision a way in which society could allow gay couples to have the civil benefits of marriage while respecting the rights of religious individuals and groups to follow the beliefs they have held for millennia. But in reality, this is not what is being proposed.
The current debate is not simply one of civil benefits. In the words of Jennifer Chrisler, executive director of gay activist group Family Equality Council, “marriage is more than just benefits and protections.”
Rather, Chrisler explains, marriage is “an institution that carries with it a universal definition of family” and “communicates society’s acceptance of a loving relationship” (emphasis added).
This is not simply a debate over civil benefits. It is a question of society – all of society – being required to accept and affirm same-sex relationships as being equivalent to the sexual union of a man and a woman, the only type of union from which children come into the world.
But the Catholic Church simply cannot affirm this. Since its very beginning, the Church has taught that there is a natural and intrinsic connection between sex and babies, and this teaching – rooted in biology – influences the Church’s unchangeable positions on contraception, marriage and a host of other “reproductive issues.”
The reality is, civil marriage affects well over 1,000 provisions in the law, and the Catholic Church would be required to abide by them, in ways that could reach within the four walls of the church building itself.
In effect, legalizing “gay marriage” is at the same time criminalizing the Church’s view on marriage, wherever it is expressed. It does not leave the Church free to operate under its own definition of marriage. Rather, it forces religious groups to adhere to the state’s definition or shut down, pushing the Church and its understanding on marriage further and further out of the public square.
A society with “gay marriage” is a society without Catholic adoption agencies, marriage counselors or wedding halls. It is a society in which Catholic homeless shelters cannot provide rooms or programs for married couples and Catholic colleges cannot offer married student housing. It is a society in which the Church’s view on marriage is criminal.
In this critical time, Catholics must not be naïve. Make no mistake, the legalization of “gay marriage” is the criminalization of Church teaching on marriage. And to the extent that the Church cannot comply, there will be consequences. The Church and “gay marriage” cannot coexist.