On Aug. 29, 2017, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention drafted a text to reaffirm, in the wake of the Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex “marriage” nationwide, a biblical understanding of Christian marriage. The preamble to the document the commission produced, known as the Nashville Statement, reads: “By and large the spirit of our age no longer discerns or delights in the beauty of God’s design for human life. Many deny that God created human beings for his glory, and that his good purposes for us include our personal and physical design as male and female.”
Now, five years later, the American public, across party and religious lines, overwhelmingly supports the legal redefinition of marriage. Public figures have backed en masse the deceptively named Respect for Marriage Act. On Thursday, Dec. 8, after having previously passed the U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives passed the bill with a 258-169 vote. President Joe Biden has promised to sign the measure into law without delay.
Facing these staggering odds, people of faith may find themselves without the social capital, political resources and clarity of thought to peacefully dissent. As the public considers the Respect for Marriage Act, the defenders of secular orthodoxy do not welcome or respect the believer’s defiance, much less civilly engage with those who hold fast to the Christian understanding. Because of this, many Christians find themselves privately holding to the biblical view of marriage, perhaps teaching it to their children, but disengaging from the current debate.
The response of Catholics everywhere to the Respect for Marriage Act can and must be peaceable but determined opposition. Now is not the time to acquiesce, concur or assent. Out of respect for the true understanding of marriage — namely, that God calls one man and one woman to be united in an exclusive and lasting partnership ordered to the generation of offspring and the goods of family life — we must stand and defend Catholic teaching.
Marriage is not merely one facet of what political commentators have dubbed “the culture war.” Marriage is the most fundamental institution of society, without which families and communities will fragment and decay. To deter that tragic end, believers can prepare for conversations about the Catholic understanding of marriage by focusing on three major currents of the debate.
First, Catholics must be concerned about the nature of words. No matter what the public at large, or their elected representatives, think of same-sex unions, such a union is not, nor can it ever be, marriage. In the Christian view, the world — including our bodies and our embodied sex — is received from God who authored it in a plan of love. The attempt to redefine words, particularly an institution like marriage, must be identified and resisted. Marriage will always mean the complementary affiliation of a man and a woman for the purpose of procreation and the raising of children in a stable, committed union.
Second, the culture at large has effectively decided that what two consenting adults have determined contributes to their personal pursuit of happiness has no bearing on the rest of society. This is not true. Marriage matters to the public; it is not a private concern. Legal protections were awarded to marriage because marriage fostered unity in society and provided for the special protection of society’s most vulnerable members: children. By welcoming and educating children, parents build a society’s future. But filiation is directly tied to a couple comprising one man and one woman. A man and a woman together are the biological origins of life, which no technological development can replace. The inescapable complementarity of parenthood extends to the compassion with which mothers and fathers nurture and the virtues they model for their children.
Finally, and most urgently, this legislation threatens the free exercise of religion. To defend the true understanding of marriage does not discriminate against same-sex attracted persons, nor does it even, necessarily, oppose civil protections for same-sex partnerships. But the Respect for Marriage Act’s provisions fail to provide adequate protections for religious believers and imperil Catholics who would live according to the dictates of their conscience and the teachings of our faith.
The bill would affect faith-based adoption agencies, housing programs and agencies serving immigrants. Moreover, religious organizations could be compelled to provide benefits to same-sex spouses or to hire and retain staff who reject the organization’s view of marriage. Ultimately, in a not-so-distant future, religious organizations could lose their tax-exempt status and even be barred from the use of public property, because of the simple principle that law builds on law.
Resistance to the Respect for Marriage Act is about opposing the redefinition of a term and upholding the free exercise of religion, while safeguarding the unique institution that fosters life and forms the basic building block of all societies. As our culture decays because the cult on which it is based is being steadily banished to the edges of our shared worldview, standing up for the truth will take the form of nonconformity. We must ready ourselves for current and future dissent.
Our Sunday Visitor Editorial Board: Father Patrick Briscoe, Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott P. Richert, Scott Warden, York Young