Marital union confusion

Among the few bright spots for moral conservatives in the election of 2008 was the action of voters in California, Arizona, and Florida approving amendments to their state constitutions that define marriage as the union of a man and a woman -- right?

Right. But hold off on counting your chickens. In March, the Supreme Court of California -- the same court that imposed same-sex marriage on that state last summer -- will hear a challenge to the election results by homosexual-rights activists. Just because a majority opposes same-sex marriage, don't start thinking this is a democracy or something.

As matters stand, then, two states -- Massachusetts and Connecticut -- now extend legal recognition to same-sex marriage, while California remains up in the air. The homosexual activists' campaign to achieve this long-sought objective of theirs will go on.

Against this background, it may be helpful to call attention to certain distinctions not usually acknowledged in discussions of this issue. A little clear thinking can't hurt anyway. So, allow me to underline the easily overlooked fact that this one word "marriage" is routinely used to refer to three radically different things.

In the context of the Church, "marriage" commonly refers to the sacramental bond existing between a man and a woman that mirrors the bond between Christ and the Church itself.

St. Paul expresses the sacramental reality like this: "Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. ... For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the Church. ... This mystery is a profound one, and I mean in reference to Christ and the Church" (Eph 5:28-32).

No one who thinks seriously about this passage is likely to imagine that a homosexual union is or ever can be a sacramental marriage.

Then there is natural, non-sacramental marriage. It, too, is the union of a man and a woman. It is real marriage, but not a sacrament in the sense explained by St. Paul: an image, a kind of icon, of the relationship of Christ and the Church.

But inasmuch as natural marriage is, as it were, the forerunner and foundation of sacramental marriage, it is not and cannot be a same-sex relationship.

Finally, there is civil marriage -- whatever form of union the state chooses to recognize and dignify by the name "marriage." In a morally healthy, clear-thinking society, civil marriage also is a man-woman reality.

But in a morally troubled and deeply confused society like the one we live in, it is predictable that the state, responding to political pressures and distorted thinking on the subject of human rights, at times and here and there will fall into the regrettable error of conferring legal recognition as marriage upon same-sex relationships.

In doing so, needless to say, it does not touch the man-woman reality of natural marriage and sacramental marriage. These things are forever outside the capacity of the state to change.

That, however, is no reason for complacency about the ongoing high-pressure campaign to win legal recognition for same-sex marriage. On the contrary. Pre-existing confusion is deepened and great harm is done in this way, precisely insofar arguing for same-sex marriage obscures the meaning of marriage and weakens the institution of marriage.

It is very likely too much to hope that judges and university professors and journalists who are committed to forcing social change along secularist lines should comprehend these things. Even so, the point made here is simple enough: Judicial chutzpah to the contrary notwithstanding, calling a same-sex relationship "marriage" doesn't make it marriage in any fundamental sense.

Russell Shaw, an OSV contributing editor, is covering for Greg Erlandson this week. Spectator will return Jan. 25.