June 26, 2015

What the Catholic Church does (and does not) teach about same-sex marriage

By Jennifer Manning *

If you are a Catholic, chances are you may be bombarded with questions at your local cookout this weekend, thanks to the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage today.  In case you are a little rusty, here are a few talking points on what the Catholic Church does and does not teach regarding same-sex marriage. I base much of this on the amicus brief submitted by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for Obergefell vs. Hodges. If you find yourself at all struggling to understand or to explain the Church’s stance on same-sex marriage and want a more detailed read, I highly encourage you to read this thoughtful and respectfully written document, which you can find here.  The document seeks to shed light on why the Church believes that the definition of marriage should not be changed, and its authors draw on a variety of sources, not “just” religious conviction.

First and foremost, "the legal definition of marriage as the union between one man and one woman is not based on hatred, bigotry, or animus." (USCCB amicus brief, pg 16) The section on homosexuality in the Catechism of the Catholic Church opens with the admonition that “any sign of unjust discrimination” toward homosexual people is not to be tolerated. Indeed, we recall that Christ loved all people—especially those whom society scorned.  When, for example, Jesus encountered the woman caught in adultery who was about to be stoned to death for her crime, he didn’t judge her, but instead told her to “go forth and sin no more” (John 8).  It follows, then, that we could not expect a faith founded on unconditional love of all—even one’s enemies—to preclude extending that love to people who are attracted to people of the same sex.   Despite the Gospel message, people are always surprised to know that the Church doesn’t “hate gay people,” because this is all too often the characterization that they see in the mainstream culture.

The brief goes on to explain, then, that “declining to accord a sexual relationship between two men or two women the benefits of marriage is not a reflection of bias or animus of any kind. Rather, it is a common sense reflection of the fact that such relationships do not result in the birth of children, or establish households where a child will be raised by its birth mother and father.” (page 16)

For Catholics, marriage is certainly about “intimate association” and “the hope of companionship,” as argued in the majority opinion of Obergefell vs. Hodges, but marriage is also linked intrinsically to the procreation and education of children. This, too, is a seemingly foreign concept for many of us today.  The “contraceptive culture” has left us believing that the main function of our reproductive systems is not, in fact, to reproduce, but is rather for the pursuit of pleasure or intimacy, or sometimes both.  The Catholic Church teaches (as enumerated in Pope Paul VI’s landmark encyclical Humanae Vitae) that sex within marriage has two purposes: the unitive and procreative.  If we eliminate one of these purposes—or both, as the hook-up culture tends to— we are left with a physical union of bodies, devoid of any transcendent meaning. Sex and babies are so separated in the modern mind that it is exceedingly challenging to describe why and how marriage is more than two people who love each other, but that it is a conjugal union that exists in part for the creation and education of new people.

The USCCB amicus brief explains how this is relevant not only from a religious purview, but from that of the state: “as a matter of simple biology, only sexual relationships between men and women can lead to the birth of children by natural means. As these relationships alone may generate new life, the state has a distinct interest in reinforcing these relationships alone, particularly to assure responsible childbearing and the protection of children’s interests.” (6)  This is why, as Justice Kennedy had mentioned during the initial hearings, marriage has been viewed as a permanent union between a man and a woman for millennia.

Finally, we must recall the main tenets of Christ’s message: human dignity, love, justice, and respect for life in all of its stages.  Is all of this teaching a farce?  Now that this issue has been decided by the Court rather than by the people themselves, it is more important now than ever to foster dialogue about this issue.  We need to be willing to discuss the uncomfortable, to try to explain where much of this teaching comes from, so that others know and understand that the Church’s position here is not based on hatred or discrimination.  If we do not take this opportunity, we lose the ability for an honest dialogue and faith-filled people will be dismissed as bigots rather than as people who are seeking to work out their faith “with fear and trembling.” (Phil 2:12)

Contrary to popular belief, Catholics do believe that  #lovewins. We call it the Resurrection.

Jennifer Manning is a Catholic schoolteacher in Massachusetts and a volunteer with Catholic Voices USA.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.