We must do better


We all want to be equal at times and we all want to be exceptional, to stand out, at times. It depends on which status brings the rewards we value. Last week the Supreme Court of the United States confirmed for homosexual Americans that they deserve all of the social rewards of marriage when they couple up according to state marriage laws.
There should be no official difference between a same-sex coupling and that of a woman and man. Legally they are equal. Thus the name “marriage” must be applied to both equally.
This is what the Supreme Court confirmed last week in its two latest decisions in the long march toward equal rights in American law. It declared unconstitutional a federal law’s description of marriage as a status reserved to the man-woman pairing. Why? Because the states, not the federal government, define and regulate marriage. And several states, including Iowa, have declared that same-sex pairings can be marriage. Thus, they may not be burdened in exceptional ways.
The court really had no choice. Even the justices who dissented from the majority’s DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) ruling had little dispute with its main point. The case at issue involved a significant burden for a woman whose partner had died after they were married according to state law in New York. The survivor was presented with an estate tax bill of $363,053 because her relationship was not recognized as a marriage in federal law. She paid the bill and then sued for relief because her right to equal protection in the law was violated. Lower courts agreed with her, but the case was pushed upward to the Supreme Court by groups concerned about losing the traditional understanding of marriage.
This case did not declare that same-sex marriage is legal everywhere. It only makes the marriage benefits — and responsibilities — in federal law available to everyone who meets the marriage laws of the states. Homosexual couples married in Iowa, for example, now must be treated like any married couple, and a surviving spouse like any widow or widower. Not so, however, in Illinois, Ohio and most other states, where marriage is reserved to the man-woman union.
Since the drive to place same-sex couples in the status of marriage is based on appeals to equality, it continues to gain. The movement is also helped by the dominant cultural view of marriage as simply the mutual commitment of two people attracted to each other. Justice Samuel Alito described this view in his DOMA dissent. He called it “the ‘consent-based’ vision of marriage, a vision that primarily defines marriage as the solemnization of mutual commitment — marked by strong emotional attachment and sexual attraction — between two persons.”
Alito noted that “our popular culture is infused with this understanding of marriage. Proponents of same-sex marriage argue that because gender differentiation is not relevant to this vision, the exclusion of same-sex couples from the institution is rank discrimination.”
The Catholic Church carries a different, more complex understanding of marriage which better fits the reality of both personal and community life. But that understanding doesn’t stand up well in today’s legal and cultural struggles. It cannot stand only on the Bible. The Bible isn’t accepted for that kind of evidence in our courts, nor is it accepted in most of the culture, even among Catholic young people.
If we want to defend marriage today as a social institution unique to the woman-man pairing that makes the human future, we need ways to talk about it that resonate especially with young people who want to be fair. They don’t condemn the homosexual persons they know. They don’t see them as a special breed of sinner. As long as they hear the Church begin from that standpoint — and that is what they hear — their ears will be closed.
We must do better.
Frank Wessling

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1 thought on “We must do better

  1. Thanks Frank for the thoughtful analysis our changing world of “marriage”. As a parent of young 20 somethings, I see first hand how turned off they are by the intolerance shown by some people in the church. They have gay friends, and see them no differently than their straight friends. To them this “moral” debate is not valid. If God makes all people, then God makes gay people. It is about civil rights and nothing more. I know the church is usually about 100 years behind culture (Father Boyle, 19th and 20th Century Catholicism, U of I 1985). But in today’s rapidly changing world, that gap needs to close or I fear young people will never return home.

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