Why does the Catholic Church oppose same-sex marriage? This question is a burning one for many Catholics.
The recent outpouring of local support for Mark Zmuda, former vice principal at a Catholic high school in Seattle, is an example of how the emotions involved in addressing this question cross our own hearts.
Zmuda resigned from Eastside Catholic High School in December after failing to honor his contract — which states he must follow the Church’s teachings — by marrying his same-sex partner in July. Since Zmuda’s departure, the school’s students have staged a walk-out, spoken out on social media and collected signatures for a petition to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
As is evident by these actions, the Church’s position seems especially inexplicable to young people. Anyone reading this may him or herself be same-sex attracted, and certainly all of us know and love people who are. Why, then, should there be any difficulty for the Church with same-sex civil marriage? Isn’t this a simple matter of civil rights?
Indeed, this is the way it appears to many. In fact, the Church’s position is often misunderstood or caricatured because the question is usually put this way: “Why does the Church oppose the extension of the right to marry to same-sex couples?” But to think of the Church’s opposition to same-sex marriage as a refusal to extend the right to marry to same-sex couples, and then to try to defend that refusal, is to guarantee that the Church’s position will be greeted with hostility and contempt, even, perhaps, in our own hearts.
The Church would put the question differently: “Why does the Church oppose the redefinition of marriage, such that it is no longer the same social institution?” The Church opposes giving up a conception of marriage in which the complementarity of man and woman is the defining feature and replacing it with a conception of marriage where the complementarity of man and woman is, instead, completely accidental to it.
Honesty on both sides of the debate would recognize that the Church’s position — that we are dealing with a change in the definition of marriage and not just an extension of it — is a plausible account of the situation. Opposing this change is not a priori bigotry or contempt, and it deserves a hearing as such, both in our own hearts and in society at large.
Procreation not accidental
Marriage, in all ages and under all forms, has been defined by the complementarity of male and female, and it was ordered, as that complementarity is ordered, toward procreation.
When marriage is redefined so that it can include a type of couple that, by its very type, and not by the accidents of circumstance or ill fortune, is incapable of procreative union, then we have endorsed a public, social declaration that procreation is completely accidental to marriage and not in any way intrinsic to its meaning. It means we are, as a society, declaring that procreation is completely accidental to marriage and irrelevant to its identity.
Formation of society
But this also means we are creating a society in which the natural unit of human procreation, the male/female couple, no longer has a social institution that is peculiarly its own. We are making the decision that this natural unit of procreation will have no social footprint, no social recognition, no social prestige, no social standing, no institutional trace.
We are forming our imaginations, and those of our young people, in such a way that the natural unit of human procreation, the male/female couple, has no special claim on our hopes and dreams as a society. We have decided that society no longer has an institution to which procreation is anything but accidental. Procreation is no longer a primary end of any social unit, but accidental to all.
Is this a good thing? It is a reasonable and vital question, not easily dismissed by charges of bigotry or contempt. If procreation is accidental to all and every legally defined social unit, then it ends up as a competitor with other ways of reproduction, all of which — all of which — are technological means of production and ultimately subject to a market economy. We are saying that, as a society, we have come to be able to see or value no difference between natural human procreation and artificial production of children.
In some indirect but real way, aren’t we saying that a child can be a commodity? Aren’t we saying, more directly, that it is completely socially irrelevant whether a child has a mother and a father, or is instead artificially generated in a production line, first with surrogate wombs for rent, and then, when technology catches up with our social cues, with artificial wombs and laboratory produced gametes?
The Church invites us to see that, as our social imagination continues to be redefined, we may very well begin to see the procreative human couple as a kind of outmoded technology, somewhat disgusting, even a little repulsive, as, for example, Gary Taylor talks about such a couple in his book, “Castration: An Abbreviated History of Western Manhood” (Routledge, $38.95).
Is this the proper direction for a society that values human dignity? A society that has divested itself from natural human procreation by eliminating any social institution that is intrinsically connected to the natural procreative couple has declared, in effect, that reproduction is essentially a kind of production, and that human beings can be, consequentially, a kind of product.
This is not such a distant prospect in the popular imagination. Take the ideal put forward in a recent book by Aarathi Prasad, “Like a Virgin: How Science is Redesigning the Rules of Sex” (Oneworld, $19.95). In a recent interview about her book, Prasad reflected on how gestating babies outside of the body would get away from the question of mother and father, and on how an artificial womb can be the same or even better than gestation in a mother’s womb. After all, we are just substituting one machine for another: “I mean, we are machines, after all … the body is a machine.” But is it?
To what end?
The Church poses this burning question back to us, asking us to think: “Is this really where we want to go as a society? Is this really what we want to teach our young people? Are we really ready to institutionally relativize the natural procreative unit of mother and father, so that it becomes just one equal option among many for reproduction? Is that really equality? Is it really fair to children?” It is not bigoted or contemptuous to worry about these implications or these outcomes.
Nor does it mean severing the bonds of love for persons of same-sex attraction. Rather, we are inviting everyone to ask if this very love is really compatible with a way of organizing society that in the end devalues human persons, making it easier for us to treat some as products and commodities.
Is that really OK? Doesn’t it end up reducing the value and scope of all human love? Can’t we find another solution?
John Cavadini is director of the Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame.