Our esteem as Christians for that unique friendship which we call marriage arises from not only the natural union of a woman and a man that begins when they consent to it but also its call to reflect the nature and generous love of God. God is a trinity of persons, equal yet unique. Married love is a creation in this image.
No legislation of its contents or parameters will ever quite be able to define its mystery. However, there was a time when what civil law calls marriage embraced a generous understanding than what is has devolved towards.
Restoring a sense of the full potential of marriage will not be accomplished through any legislation – civil or canonical – alone, however protective or well-intentioned it may be. Needless to say, neither will the use of slogans and mantras that sound like they come another era, like the French Revolution (“liberty, equality and fraternity”) or the suggestion of facile comparisons with the struggle against slavery or for civil liberties. It has yet been to be determined whether or to what extent there is, in fact, a Constitutional “right” to marry or whether any particular legal definition of marriage is even a federal issue, that power having always resided in the states. Even the so-characterized “evolution” of President Obama’s “position” (as he calls it) on same-sex marriage, which has invited any number of accolades and critiques, does not appear to include a political strategy for legislative change. His statement neither proposes nor challenges any laws.
The controversy over “same sex marriage,” in any event, will not likely be resolved without a consensus on what marriage is, which cannot be forced by law. In the present socio-political climate in the U.S., this is unlikely to occur any time soon. When asked to opine on the issue, many people begin with the words “I feel” or “I believe.” How can one argue with a feeling or a belief? The appeals of those seeking legislation either to change or uphold traditional understandings of marriage are often emotional and anecdotal. Witness the recent strategy used effectively to enact New York’s so-called “Marriage Equality Act,” whose title merely begs the question: equal to what? Precisely what understanding of marriage can a same-sex union be said to be equal to?
If marriage is traditionally understood as (a) a partnership of mutual aid and affection (b) between a woman and a man (c) uniquely oriented towards the new life their love generates and nurtures mutually (d) and for life, then several of these components would seem to be absent from some contemporary definitions, and not only same-sex unions.
History is not always progress. The institution of marriage has, for some time now, been suffering from erosion. Civil divorce is now virtually institutionalized – even celebrated – thus breaking the promise of permanence (for life). The contraceptive mentality is widespread. For some couples the promise of generous love does not extend to children after a certain point, if ever. What remains unique to civil marriage except a physical and emotional relationship sanctioned by a state? What does registration under the label “marriage” add but evidence for certain rights guaranteed by law that could as easily be contracted to?
As disheartening as it might be for those seeking to preserve the fuller meaning of marriage to observe a president, wittingly or not, contributing to its deconstruction, the tidal wave has long since passed over us and we are living already amidst the social devastation. Much courage and sacrifice will be demanded to bear witness to a world where happiness is thought to derive from receiving gratification quickly rather than creating beauty slowly, patiently and with infinite, forgiving love. In the end, true married love will find a way of bearing witness to its indestructible mystery.