When did it go wrong?

No doubt about it, U. S. Supreme Court rulings at times significantly affect the way Americans live.

For example, in 1954, Brown v. Topeka Board of Education set in motion events that gave African-Americans full civil rights. In 1973, in Roe v. Wade, abortion was legalized, and as a result millions of innocent lives have deliberately been destroyed.

Each of these decisions was shocking, not simply in what they would produce, but in the sense that they ran opposite the prevailing social attitudes of Americans. Right or wrong, in 1954, most Americans had a ho-hum attitude about racial discrimination. In 1973, the overwhelming majority of people opposed abortion, and laws in most of the states forbade abortions.

The two decisions of the current Supreme Court regarding same-sex marriage come in a different atmosphere. The country, it is true, still is divided on the issue. The court, however, did not redefine marriage in the most profound sense. It has done much to set a redefinition in granite, but we the people redefined marriage a long time ago.

It is not just about two persons of the same gender wishing “to marry” and being allowed by the civil law “to marry.” It is about how Americans view marriage, and what they expect of marriage.

In 1900, Protestants dominated this country’s society, economy, lawmaking and culture. Very many had little use for Catholics and Jews, and it showed. Catholics in this country, nevertheless, were reaching the point in their numbers that they had to be accommodated.

Everyone was aware of sharp denominational differences, but all regarded religion to be an integral part of life, and its tenets, even if some were debated along denominational lines, were the keystone of everything in life.

The various denominations absolutely were together on the question of marriage. It was regarded as being between one man and one woman, and no sane person at the time would have thought otherwise. It was about total commitment of one spouse to the other, even in the event of heavy sacrifices. It was about lifelong commitment and children. Marriages that somehow deliberately excluded children were seen as odd.

Problems in marriages existed, but the expectation was that the couples in these marriages would resolve the problems, because keeping the marriages intact definitely was the ideal.

Everything has changed. In our world, institutional religion clearly is declining. Even Americans who identify themselves as being religious consider religiously based values out of place in politics, economics or social behavior. Religion hardly is the present cornerstone of current American society — and fewer and fewer want it to be.

Years ago, attitudes about marriage radically changed. When problems in marriage come today, divorce is the preferred option. Rare is the person who truly sees marriage as a lifelong commitment, with no possibility of dissolution.

The most radical difference is in attitudes about children. Easy and reliable contraception has enabled a shift of thinking here. Spouses obviously still beget and rear children, but it is on a “planned” basis, subject to the parents’ own interests. Now, abortion is available when contraception has not been employed or has failed. The number of women in congenial marriages, and in secure financial conditions, who resort to abortion is staggering. American views of marriage equate with American views about everything. The recent Supreme Court decisions will have great impact, but long ago Americans began to destroy marriage. 

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.