Is the fight against same-sex marriage lost?
On one level, that question seems like a strange one. In 31 states voters have taken to the polls to vote on the issue of same-sex marriage, and each and every time, the decision to retain the definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman has passed by decisive margins. That's as true of deep "red" states such as Alabama, Texas and Nebraska, as it is of deep "blue" states, such as California, Wisconsin and Maine.
"There is no groundswell of public support for redefining marriage to include same-sex sexual partnerships," said Robert George, McCormick professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University. "Not even advocates of redefining marriage actually believe they have the public support to win in truly democratic forums."
At least, they don't believe they have the support just yet. But that may be changing.
Although the unanimity of the electoral victories is encouraging, the same can't be said of much of the most recent polling data on the question.
According to a May Gallup poll, 53 percent of Americans now support the rights of same-sex couples to enter into civil marriages. Just five years ago, that number was only 42 percent. Similar results crop up across the board, from the CNN/Opinion Research Poll, which shows a jump of 7 percentage points — from 44 percent in favor in 2008 to 51 percent in 2011 — to an ABC News/Washington Post Poll, which indicates a rise in support from 37 percent in 2003, when it first started asking the question, to 53 percent today.
Zero in on the younger demographic groups and the data grows more troubling still. In the last year alone, the Gallup poll indicates that among Americans ages 18 to 34, support for same-sex marriage has risen a whopping 16 percentage points — from 54 to 70 percent.
It's true, of course, that poll numbers don't mean everything.
For starters, polls tend to reflect the thoughts of the general population, not the population most likely to translate belief into action at the ballot box. Likewise, how questions are phrased, the sample population polled and the pollsters themselves can skew the final outcome in a direction that is not fully reflective of reality.
Moreover, even when polls do accurately reflect reality, they only reflect the reality at one given point in time. Essentially, they reflect opinions. And opinions change.
"To worry too much about poll trends is to succumb to the belief that people don't have free will, that arguments make no difference and that truth makes no difference," said Maggie Gallagher, president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy.
But although polling data doesn't mean everything, it does mean something. And the steady and consistent rise in support for same-sex marriages among Americans, especially younger Americans, tells us that although the fight against same-sex unions is far from lost, it also is far from won. It has, at the very least, been compromised. But by what?
In a May 16 article titled "Gay Marriage and the Gamaliel Moment," published on Patheos.com, Boston College honors professor Timothy Muldoon proposed an answer to that question. He suggested that part of the reason traditional marriage supporters have been losing ground as of late is because of the very ground on which they've chosen to wage their campaign — legal ground.
"Trying to take the vast, beautiful, complex understanding of marriage and boil it down to a legal argument compromises evangelization," Muldoon said in an interview with Our Sunday Visitor. "It doesn't allow us to tell our story. It forces us into defending a legal position, rather than telling a compelling story about what God calls us to be as human beings."
More specifically, Muldoon sees an increasing tension between how most Americans currently understand marriage — as a contractual relationship entered into by two consenting adults for the purpose of their mutual happiness and fulfillment — and the Christian understanding of marriage. That is, as a divinely ordered, lifelong covenantal relationship entered into by one man and one woman for the sake of their salvation and for the purpose of bearing and raising children, as well as for their mutual happiness and fulfillment.
For as long as that tension lasts, Muldoon believes, supporters of same-sex marriage will continue to gain traction in the court of public opinion because their understanding of marriage is much more in line with the culture's understanding of marriage.
Accordingly, Muldoon said, it would be wiser for pro-marriage forces to back out of the public arena and focus more on helping Christians live the true meaning of marriage.
"Instead of arguing about law, we should be modeling the kind of love that the author of the letter to the Ephesians describes as most closely modeling the love of Christ for the Church," he wrote in the Patheos article.
Through that witness, he said, Christians can more effectively counter the prevailing cultural understanding of marriage, as well as the misguided notions about sex and love that lead people to enter into same-sex relationships in the first place.
Muldoon's arguments are, in a certain sense, attractive. It certainly would be easier to abandon the public fight for traditional marriage, and it might make Catholics a bit more popular with certain segments of the population. Besides, no one likes being labeled a bigot, and in our current culture that's the label that often gets slapped on anyone who says two men or two women can't marry.
Also, in many ways, Muldoon is right.
He is right in the sense that as long as a majority of Americans continue to buy into an understanding of marriage in which children are choices, not gifts, the long-term prospects for traditional marriage — both in the court of public opinion and the court of the land — appear grim.
"Children are, as the Second Vatican Council taught, 'the supreme gift of marriage,'" said Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth. "The two values of marriage cannot be separated: the good of the spouses themselves and the transmission of life. When these fundamental truths are forgotten or rejected, it should come as no surprise that efforts are underway to redefine marriage in the civil realm."
Blogger Andrew Sullivan said pretty much the same thing back in 2003, albeit much more boldly.
"We are all Sodomites now," he wrote in a New Republic article, making the case that the separation of sex and procreation in most people's minds has made same-sex sexual relationships far more culturally acceptable and undermined arguments about the essential need for sexual complementarity in marriage.
Muldoon is also right in the sense that as long as most Americans understand marriage as a right that can be civilly legislated, created and dissolved, not a lifelong vocation that is divinely ordained, denying same-sex couples that "right" will seem unjust to a large portion of the populace.
"When people conceive of marriage as just a union of adult desires sanctioned by the state lasting for 'as long as we both shall love,' rather than as a one-flesh complementary union made by God that lasts 'as long as we both shall live,' then it becomes difficult for many to understand why same-sex couples can't enjoy that same legal relationship," said Father Roger Landry, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass.
"The truth is that marriage is about more than love, and it's fundamentally a sacred bond that God himself makes between a man and a woman. But because many young people today no longer see this, arguments about people's 'right' to enter into a same-sex 'marriage' end up sounding valid to them."
As insightful as Muldoon's article was in certain respects, however, it was dead wrong in its assertion that Christians can just back out of the public arena and cede the right to marry to same-sex couples.
"Preaching the Gospel (i.e., living a life of Christian discipleship) includes working for laws that are just," said Andy Lichtenwalner, who works for the U.S. bishops' Subcommittee on the Promotion and Defense of Marriage."To see these dimensions as 'either/or' is to present a false dichotomy and a 'thin' sense of Catholic social teaching. The moral battle cannot be separated from the legal battle — the common good is at stake."
Which is to say that no matter how unpopular the Church's arguments in the public square might be, all Catholics have a responsibility to support laws that protect traditional marriage.
That's what a 2003 doctrinal note, issued by the Congregation of the Faith under then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, makes clear in regards to Catholic politicians.
It states, "When legislation in favor of the recognition of homosexual unions is proposed for the first time in a legislative assembly, the Catholic law-maker has a moral duty to express his opposition clearly and publicly and to vote against it. To vote in favor of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral. When legislation in favor of the recognition of homosexual unions is already in force, the Catholic politician must oppose it in the ways that are possible for him/her and make his/her opposition known; it is his duty to witness to the truth."
Those same duties, albeit in a different way, are also incumbent upon Catholic citizens.
According to George, all Catholics must "support the conjugal conception of marriage as the union of husband and wife and the efforts now afoot to reform unwise and destructive policies such as no-fault divorce."
To do that, he continued, Catholics must "place the defense of marriage and human life at the top of one's list of priorities in deciding whom to vote for and against."
To his credit, after publishing his article and speaking with OSV, Muldoon reflected upon the issue and backed away from his suggestion that Christians cede the legal arguments to same-sex marriage proponents. On June 27, he wrote another column on Patheos.com acknowledging the "false dichotomy" of his previous position.
"I was positing too strong a difference between moral law and civil law," he said in an email to OSV. "I cast this relationship between evangelization and law as an 'either/or', when really it must be a 'both/and.'"
The Catholic call
What Muldoon has not changed is his belief that the Church's "primary aim must be evangelization."
And he's not alone.
"When we are weak in proclaiming the truth about marriage and family, especially not witnessing to the truth as we should, it leads to the devaluing or rejection of that truth in wider society," Bishop Rhoades said.
As such, he continued, bishops and priests must "teach more vigorously and convincingly the true nature of marriage" and "make the promotion of marriage and family a priority in parish life."
Bishop Rhoades also stressed the importance of educating Catholics about the virtue of chastity and spreading Pope John Paul II's teachings on the theology of the body.
"This should include helping our brothers and sisters with homosexual attractions to feel loved and accepted by the Church and assisting them to embrace the call to chastity," he said.
Gallagher also said that priests have to be increasingly bold, speaking out on the most difficult of subjects even when they know people who disagree with them are in the congregation.
"Our front guys, our priests, need to do what Jesus did and speak directly to the problems before them," she said. "Jesus shocked his listeners by saying that divorce wasn't acceptable. But that's what they needed to hear."
She likewise urged parishes to provide more resources for those "tempted by divorce."
"Instead of leaving them alone, we need to surround them with people who are saying, 'Your marriage is worth saving. Let us help you love each other better,'" she said.
The Church, however, is not just priests, bishops and parish staff. It's also laymen and women, married and unmarried, who compromise their own evangelical witness by using contraception, cohabitating, cheating, divorcing, living selfish or unchaste lives, using pornography and refusing to commit to marriage or another primary vocation.
With each and every one of those failures, Gallagher said, the truth about marriage is obscured.
"Every time someone divorces, is afraid to love in marriage or is afraid of even getting married, they express a public doubt about the capacity of love to endure," she said. "That may be reasonable given their parents' marriages or the marriages around them, but it is the reverse witness of faith."
Which brings us back to Muldoon's primary point: That, as important as it is to work and vote for laws and officials that uphold traditional marriage, the answer to the question, "Is the fight against same-sex marriage lost?" is contingent upon whether more Catholics start witnessing to the truth about marriage with their hearts and lives. On that, and not simply on laws, is what the future of marriage ultimately depends.
Gallagher said, "If Catholics were visibly 50 percent better than atheists at getting married, staying married and raising children, the culture would be transformed."
Recently, Our Sunday Visitor spoke with Father Roger Landry, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., who's prepared hundreds of couples for the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony and speaks nationally on the theology of the body, about what Catholics can do to strengthen the institution of marriage. Read what Father Landry had to say.
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.