Learning what to say in the marriage debate

“Because God says so,” is an answer that may work for a faithful few, but when it comes to explaining the Church’s moral teaching to a secular world, such an answer just won’t do. 

That’s especially true when it comes to explaining the Church’s teachings on traditional marriage. With believers and nonbelievers alike increasingly subscribing to a secular understanding of marriage, helping people understand why marriage can only be between one man and one woman is a task that grows harder by the day. Many think the Church’s teaching is rooted in anti-homosexual bigotry. Others think it old-fashioned and out of date. And those who do agree with it, struggle to explain why. 

A new book, however, by William B. May, president of Catholics for the Common Good, has set out to change that.  

“Getting the Marriage Question Right: A Guide for Effective Dialogue” (Emmaus Road, $5.95) gives Christians the words they need to make the case for traditional marriage in their homes, office and the culture at large. Taking the rights and needs of children as the starting point for the discussion, May’s book offers guidelines on how to both approach the issue from a secular and legal standpoint and avoid common stumbling blocks in the marriage debate.  

Recently, Our Sunday Visitor spoke with May about the book and what separates its approach from others of its kind.  

Our Sunday Visitor: Where should we begin the conversation about marriage with people who don’t share our beliefs? 


William May: In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI reminded us that without truth, all we have to go on in making decisions is emotions. In order to defend and promote marriage, we must get to the truth about what marriage is in ways everyone can understand. 

The mistake most people make is thinking other people’s understanding of marriage is the same as theirs. The majority of people think that marriage is merely the public recognition of a committed relationship between a man and a woman that can also be a sacrament between baptized people. However, it is much more than that. As Blessed John Paul II described it, marriage is a communion of man and woman leading to a communion of parent and child. Marriage unites a man and a woman, not only with each other, but with any children born from their union. That is what marriage is; that is what it does. This expresses the totality of what marriage is about: complementarity, procreation, motherhood and fatherhood, kinship, irreplaceability, irrevocability, non-substitutability, the good of the children and even the potential for the heartbreak of infertility.  

OSV: Why should we begin the conversation there? 

May: Marriage has become redefined in the minds of the majority to be something that it is not. In order for people to understand the reality of what marriage is, they have to compare the two different understandings of marriage. If marriage is merely the committed relationship between loving adults, it has no public interest or benefit to society. However, most forget that marriage between a man and a woman creates the only institution that unites kids with their moms and dads.  

If marriage is redefined in the law, that institution would no longer exist.  

marriage book

OSV: What harm can come from focusing too much on our opponents in the marriage debate? 

May: There are several problems with focusing on opponents in the marriage debate. First, people try to explain why same-sex couples can’t marry or why the relationship between them cannot be called marriage. It is impossible to successfully defend marriage that way because the conversation always devolves to sexual ethics and not marriage. This leads to the perception that people discriminate against gays and opens them to attack, ridicule and persecution. Marriage has nothing to do with homosexuality. It is the only institution that unites kids with their moms and dads. Do we need such an institution? Yes or no? 

OSV: Why is supporting traditional marriage so critical to the welfare of children? To young people? 

May: Over the last 30 years, the marriage rate has declined by 45 percent. As a result, there are more children living in poverty and many are suffering from the consequences of growing up in fatherless homes. As Brad Wilcox, of the University of Virginia, has said, the breakdown of marriage is “one of the great social tragedies” of our time. It is not enough to defend marriage. Policies and school curriculum must promote men and woman marrying before having children. Instead, schools and TV promote as role models “alternative families” — families in which children have been deprived of married mothers and fathers. 

Children are the victims of efforts to redefine marriage and the family. More and more children are deprived of knowing and being cared for by their mothers and fathers, often intentionally. Young people are being taught distorted views of love, marriage, family and human sexuality, which are undermining their ability to form the kind of relationships leading to healthy marriages. 

OSV: What does redefining marriage imply about parenting, and what makes for good parents? 

May: Because of contraception and abortion, everyone, at least subliminally, knows that any mother today is a mother by choice. Having children has become a lifestyle choice, and you hear absurd things like, “Just because she chose to be a mother, doesn’t mean I chose to be a father.” You actually have to remind people today that every child has a mother and a father and the loss of one or both is a privation. We confirm this by turning to our own desire for connection with, and love from, the man and woman from whom we originated. They are part of our identity. The lie being perpetrated is that all that matters in parenting is competency. 

OSV: To what extent is the debate over redefining marriage the result of the breakdown of traditional marriage in the wider culture? How are the two related? 

May: Efforts to redefine marriage and the family would be absurd without the confusion about marriage, parenting and sexuality that have contributed to the breakdown in marriage. No-fault divorce redefined marriage as a commitment only valid as long as both parties are happy. It made marriage adult-centric. With the shift to thinking that only competency matters in parenting, men and women became interchangeable.  

The sexual revolution and contraception were responsible for separating sex from its procreative and unitive reality, reducing it to a utilitarian means of creating a sense of intimacy for self. With men and woman engaging in both contracepted and non-procreative acts (the same kind as homosexual persons) sex partners become interchangeable depending on attraction or preference.  

OSV: What are some of the fundamental rights of every child? 

May: Lost in the marriage debate is the interest children have in the marriages of their mothers and fathers. Marriage has become so adult-centric, the child has been forgotten. Most do not even know that the Church teaches that children have a right to be born into a real family with their mother and father united in marriage.  

OSV: What are two or three common traps we can fall into when discussing the marriage question? 

May: The influences of the culture often cause us to unwittingly fall into traps that undermine our ability to effectively communicate the truth about marriage. For example, the term “same-sex marriage” is equivalent to the term “pro-choice” in the pro-life debate. It implies participation by same-sex couples in marriage, and therefore makes someone opposed to it anti-gay. Using that term obscures the fact that redefining marriage actually removes from law the only institution that unites kids with their moms and dads. How can anyone oppose that institution? 

The second-biggest trap is talking about what children need or what is good for children. Different people have different opinions about what is good and what children need. Discussing this invariably leads to a debate about competency in parenting and children’s outcomes, both of which have nothing to do with the reality of what marriage is.  

Marriage is an integral part of God’s plan for creation, but knowing this is not dependent on belief in God. It can be verified by turning to our own experience of the desire for connection, the desire to know and be loved by our own mother and father, even if we never knew them, even if we hated them.  

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.