The battle over gay marriage has become one of the movable markers in the culture wars.  

The fact that a sitting president has been willing to endorse gay marriage, as President Barack Obama did earlier this year, suggests how much the terrain has shifted in just the past few years. That he would feel it safe to make such an assertion in a tightening election contest suggests that he sees such an endorsement as having little political risk. The Democratic Party appears likely to follow suit in coming weeks by adding a gay marriage plank to its platform. 

The institutionalization of gay marriage and its attendant legal moves are likely to margin- alize and impede the Church.

Two recent events also have captured the cultural divide on this issue. On one hand, Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, committed $2.5 million in support of a gay marriage initiative in the state of Washington without fear of any sort of customer backlash. On the other hand, the president of Chick-fil-A, a purveyor of fast-food chicken sandwiches, was pilloried when he expressed support for the “biblical” concept of marriage. Certain political leaders have let it be known that the national chain is not welcome in their cities, and calls for a boycott have already started. 

In the justice system, two significant cases are heading to the Supreme Court. One is the battle over California’s Proposition 8, which won the support of the majority of voters for traditional marriage, but was struck down by a federal court. The second case is a suit against the federal Defense of Marriage Act (or DOMA). The Obama administration has already taken the unusual step of refusing to defend the law, even though it was passed overwhelmingly by Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton. The Justice Department, in a disturbing coda to this decision, has even declared that it views support for DOMA as an expression of bigotry. 

In this environment, the Church is justifiably concerned that its teaching in defense of the historic understanding of marriage will come under increasing legal assault. One could argue this is already happening. In Illinois and in Massachusetts, Catholic adoption agencies have been shut down because they refuse to give children to gay or unmarried couples. 

Some argue that the Church is on the wrong side of history, and frame the issue solely as a question of granting rights to an oppressed minority. But they — and disturbingly even many Catholics — misstate the Church’s fundamental interest in this question. Its defense of sex and child-rearing complementarity of the sexes within marriage is based on an understanding of what humans are, and is aimed at promoting happiness. That message may seem anachronistic to some, but it goes to the heart of the role of the family in society, one that virtually all agree is in crisis, with enormous and undeniable social and economic costs. 

Instead, the Church looks increasingly vulnerable to “punishment” for incorrect views, and prominent Catholics are among those ready with whip and cane. One noted Catholic legal scholar recently opined that Church efforts to resist gay marriage referendums or legislative campaigns violate its non-profit status. The warning is clear: The institutionalization of gay marriage and its attendant legal consequences are likely to marginalize and even impede the Church. 

Next to watch for on the marriage front: Lawsuits seeking to legalize polygamy have been filed. As the definition of marriage shifts to a voluntary union of individuals, it will become more difficult for society to impose any limits, much less traditional ones.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.