Today, in lieu of an exegesis on the gospel of the week, I am taking the opportunity to address an issue that came up in CCD this week. Indeed, this is an issue that continues to come up in conversation with people of good will, both in this parish and outside of it, with young people and with adults of all ages.
I am talking about the issue of the redefinition of marriage.
Two summers ago, the Supreme Court of the United States released one of the worst decisions in its history. The decision to redefine marriage was based, not on objective reality, not on history, not even on science. It was based on the opinion of five individuals who think that humans should have “the constitutional right to define and express their own identity.” This is from the first line of the majority opinion, written by Justice Kennedy. Before I make the case for marriage, I first must comment on the audacity of this statement.
Perhaps the most egregious problem with this statement is that it presupposes that it is the Constitution that gives us our rights. Not even the framers of the Constitution believed this lie. Thomas Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, wrote that our rights are endowed by our Creator. He and the Founding Fathers believed that the government is meant to protect God-given rights, not to create them out of thin air and to distribute them in a godlike fashion. The framers of the Constitution debated whether they should include a Bill of Rights at all, because they saw the danger in setting a precedent. The precedent, they said, would be to suggest that the government should begin making a list of rights. But where does it end? This is why the Bill of Rights was only included later, as the first Ten Amendments to the Constitution. Furthermore, nothing even close to the “right to define and express our own identity” is found anywhere in the Constitution or its amendments.
The most disheartening part about this decision is that, not only is it bad jurisprudence, but that our civil law is often formative of our consciences. For the most part, we believe that what is illegal is morally wrong, and what is legal is morally permissible. But from this point forward, it is going to be even more difficult to convince a neighbor or a friend that this is not always the case. Not everything that is legal is morally good. I am concerned that future generations will use human law rather than God’s (natural) law as the measure of morality.
Justice Kennedy’s opinion is flawed because he is mistaken about this basic fact: we don’t create ourselves; everything about our identity is received. We receive our very being from God, with the creative help of our parents. We receive our names from our parents. We receive baptism as a gift from God, and by such we are incorporated into his family, which then changes our identity to a son or a daughter of God. We receive that identity. We receive our race, sex, talents and abilities from our genetic code, again from our parents. We receive our language, faith, and even our favorite sports team from our family and the community. All the things about us that are at the core of our identity are received as gift. Most of who we are is written into our very DNA and taught to us when we are young.
And so it is with attraction. We don’t choose who we are attracted to. It just happens. Maybe it’s genetic, maybe it’s by upbringing, but regardless, it isn’t a choice one makes. It isn’t an act of the will. Let me explain what I mean by that.
In moral theology, there’s this concept of the will. Now, some of the things we do are voluntary, that is, they engage the will; some are involuntary, that is, the will is not engaged. When I kick my foot out to play soccer, that is a voluntary motion; my will chooses to do that. When the doctor taps my knee with a mallet, and my foot kicks out, that is involuntary; my will is not engaged. A moral act is something I do voluntarily, with my will, like giving or stealing. An involuntary act is an act where the will is not engaged, like sneezing or sleeping.
We can apply this to attraction. Our attractions are not something we can control with the will; they just happen. Thus, they are not a moral act. That is, there is no moral value to them, positive or negative, any more than it would be moral or immoral to sneeze.
However, our actions are moral acts. When I take the trash out, or fail to take the trash out, or play guitar, or choose not to play guitar, I am engaging the will. When the will is engaged, the action (or lack of action) takes on a moral value, positive or negative. And so it is with how we choose to act on our attractions. The attraction is involuntary, but the actions that follow are voluntary. We can choose what to do with the attraction.
The error that the Supreme Court decision makes is to take identity and place it in the category of a moral act—something we can choose with our will. There are many things we can choose to do with our appearance—we can exercise, change our hair, paint our toenails, shave, (or not shave). Similarly, there are many things we can change about our behavior—giving up swearing, or smoking, praying, fasting, or doing an act of charity daily. But we can’t change our attractions, and we can’t change our identity, any more than we created ourselves in the first place.
How, then, are we to treat our classmates, friends, or family members who experience abnormal attractions? The world tells us that we must normalize every attraction, so that nobody’s feelings get hurt. As if to even speak the word “normal” would be offensive to someone who doesn’t feel normal.
But the Church says otherwise. This is the Catholic Church—the universal Church—the Church for everybody. Even those who experience abnormal attractions are at home here. They belong here. They are our brothers and our sisters, and we love them.
Well, you ask, if we love them, why don’t we let them do whatever they want to do? As if that were ever the measure of love! How many of you parents let your young children do whatever they want to do? There are things they want to do that are dangerous, right? Then the loving thing to do is to keep them from hurting themselves, not to just let them do as they please.
This is why the Church, in her love for her children, insists on retaining the original definition of marriage.Still, many will ask: “Why can’t two people get married if they love each other?” Good question. There are two terms we need to define if we are to answer that question:
- What is love?
- What is marriage?
What is love?
We have in the English language many words that are similar to love: to like, to adore, to have affection… but our language sometimes fails to express the subtleties of love. I also hear young women say things like, “I like him more than a friend.” It’s a feeling that is difficult to convey in one word.
The ancient Greeks had many words that they used for love. Each expresses a nuance of our generic English word, “love.”
- Storge: An affection. Like you would have for your favorite ice cream, or your dog.
- Philia: A brotherly love, as between siblings. The city of Philadelphia has the word “philia” hidden in it. It’s known as the city of brotherly love.
- Eros: This is where we get the word erotic. It means a possessive type of love. It is a strong sense of desire. It is the type of love most associated with attraction.
- Agape: In the New Testament, this is the word most used for love. It is a self-sacrificing love. It is the strongest and most true sense of love. It is a love that drives one to give his life for another person. For that reason, we call it Christ-like love.
It is to this last type of love that we are called as Christians. We who are called by his name, Christ-ians, are called to love like he did. We make sacrifices of ourselves when we love others. We give our whole selves to others, seeking what is best for them, not what is best for us. In a sense, it is the opposite of eros, which is a “me-centered” love. We can do acts of agape love for one another person without being married to him/her, but within marriage, agape is necessary. Storge and philia are not strong enough for a marriage. Eros is possessive. But agape is generous and selfless.
The truth is that those with abnormal attractions act in such a way that is harmful to their partner. This is hardly a love that seeks the best for the beloved. In reality, it is eros running wild. The Christian is called to agape.
What is Marriage?
The second term we must define is marriage. In a paper published in 2012 entitled “What is Marriage?” the three authors, Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson and Robert George argue that there are two main views on marriage today:
- Conjugal view: Marriage is the union of a man and a woman who make a permanent and exclusive commitment to each other of the type that is naturally (inherently) fulfilled by bearing and rearing children together.
- Revisionist view: Marriage is the union of two people (whether of the same sex or of opposite sexes) who commit to romantically loving and caring for each other and to sharing the burdens and benefits of domestic life.
The key difference between the two views is the rearing of children together. Marriage is designed for the raising of children! Now, it is true, for example, that an orphaned child could be raised by monks or nuns, and this would not mean they are married. Or by two elderly brothers, and this does not mean they are married, even though that relationship can be for the raising of children in exceptional circumstances.
But what makes a marriage different than any other friendship or partnership is the act by which a marriage is sealed. That act, by its very nature, is also ordered towards procreation. The two purposes of union and procreation are naturally and necessarily parts of the same act.
Because this act, which is the defining feature of a marriage, is also the same act that by design bears fruit, it is only possible for marriage to exist between a man and a woman. It is written into our very bodies.
The reason it is so easy to justify the redefinition of marriage is because we, as a society, no longer see the essential connection between the marital act and the bearing of children. Nature has placed these two purposes together. Only man has succeeded in separating them.
You may notice that I did not quote Scripture to make this case, though I could have done so. I did not rely on the authority of the magisterium of the Church, though I could have done so. I didn’t make a straw-man out of the opposing viewpoint so I could knock it down. I have framed the argument in this way because this is how we must now speak to a culture that pays lip-service to God, while behaving as if he did not exist. This is how we must speak to our coworkers, our classmates, and to our family members who are missing from our pews week after week.
In this argument, I appealed to the very experience we have of our own bodies.This is the genius of Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Upon great reflection, St.JP2 approached the subject of marriage and the family thru our common human experience, always keeping in mind that the God who designed and created the universe did so with great care and purpose. Thus, our bodies reveal to us not only how we are to act towards one another, but they also teach us something of our God. Our God is: faithful, fruitful, loving, nurturing, attractive, generative, initiative, receptive, self-giving, and self-sacrificing for the good of his beloved. In a word, God is love. He has written himself into our hearts and into our bodies. In this life, we desire to love and to be loved. Man can live without air for a few minutes, without water for a few days, without food for a few weeks. But man cannot live without love.
Choose the best kind of love for one another. Choose love that seeks the best for the beloved, regardless of the cost to yourself. Then, you will not be far from the heart of Jesus.