The Church’s struggle against the legalisation of gay unions is now a defining feature of its teachings on marriage

The US bishops' new website presents Church teaching on marriage

I have been browsing around a new website, erected (if that’s the right word) by the US Conference of Bishops, entitled “Marriage: unique for a reason”. It contains teaching at various intellectual levels, including a sentimental video entitled “Made for Each Other: Sexual difference is essential to marriage”, in which a handsome married couple with perfect teeth “talk about why men and women matter for marriage”. “Their dialogue and interactions,” claims the website, “illuminate the beauty of sexual difference and complementarity between man and woman as husband and wife.”

Well, maybe. But one thing is clear: though the website gives the Church’s immemorial teachings about marriage (and does it, it seems to me, mostly rather well) it is – as the Church’s constant restatement of its unchanging beliefs for each new generation always is – very clearly a response to the situation in which we currently find ourselves. In particular, it is a response to the threat against the family represented by secular society’s accelerating movement towards accepting what were, only a generation ago, simply demands by a small minority of activists for the legalisation of homosexual “marriage”. It was seen very clearly then as a direct attack on the uniqueness of traditional marriage.

Now, this uniqueness is no longer taken for granted: homosexual “marriage” is more and more seen as a human right which ought to be enshrined in legislation. We have gone very far indeed along that road when a Conservative leader can say, at the Tory conference itself, something as mind-bendingly foolish as “Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us… So I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.” This did not go down well in the Tory heartlands, but so what? Cameron knows the way things are going: and he will lose few votes by saying what he said.

That is where we now are; and that, increasingly, is where the Americans are, too; in fact, they led the way. Hence, the homepage on the USCCB’s new marriage website opens with the following introductory passage:

What is marriage? Are a man and a woman really essential to marriage? What about the child … and the role of mothers and fathers? Is it discriminatory to defend marriage as the union of one man and one woman? What impact does the redefinition of marriage have on religious liberty?

That is how, increasingly, the Church now sees it: we’ve gone beyond the point at which we are simply defending traditional marriage: more and more, this is seen as a question of defending our liberty to do it. The USCCB website invites us a little coyly to “Dive in deep to the Church’s teachings”: this can be done by going to one of the site’s most valuable pages, which gives links to statements on marriage by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Second Vatican Council, Pope Benedict XVI, Pope John Paul II, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Pontifical Council for the Family and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

Here are just two passages germane to that question about the impact of the redefinition of marriage on religious liberty. The first is from a document snappily entitled “Declaration of the Pontifical Council for the Family regarding the Resolution of the European Parliament dated March 16, 2000, making de facto unions, including same sex unions, equal to the family”:

The communications media report that the European Parliament has approved a Resolution regarding human rights in the European Union which also considers de facto unions, including the registered cohabitation of persons of the same sex, and the need to recognize “legal marriages” between persons of the same sex.

This Resolution represents a grave and repeated attack on the family based on marriage, a union of love and life between a man and a woman from which life naturally springs. Every society is solidly based on this marital union because it is a necessary value. To deny this fundamental and elementary anthropological truth would lead to the destruction of the fabric of society. Doesn’t making “de facto” unions, and all the more homosexual unions, equivalent to marriage, and inviting Parliaments to adjust their laws in this sense, represent a refusal to recognize the deep aspirations of peoples in their innermost identity?

We tend to give Vatican documents issued by dicasteries like the Pontifical Council for the Family a miss, assuming that they will be written in the usual impenetrable Vaticanese: but this passage is pretty close to being a cri de coeur. Here’s another, scarcely less oratorical in character, from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which almost jumps from the awful dull parchment colour of the Vatican website (when are they going to do something about that?): the title of this document is “Considerations regarding proposals to give legal recognition to unions between homosexual persons”: (2003)

The Church’s teaching on marriage and on the complementarity of the sexes reiterates a truth that is evident to right reason and recognized as such by all the major cultures of the world. Marriage is not just any relationship between human beings. It was established by the Creator with its own nature, essential properties and purpose.(3) No ideology can erase from the human spirit the certainty that marriage exists solely between a man and a woman, who by mutual personal gift, proper and exclusive to themselves, tend toward the communion of their persons. In this way, they mutually perfect each other, in order to cooperate with God in the procreation and upbringing of new human lives.

“No ideology can erase from the human spirit the certainty that marriage exists solely between a man and a woman”: well, you would have thought so, wouldn’t you? But we seem, all the same, destined to live through a period during which that certainty will more and more become clouded for many. In the end, it will, we may be sure, reassert itself: but only because of the many human casualties which will, I very much fear, emerge as our deeply confused society blunders around, continuing to undermine the stability of the traditional family based on marriage between a man and a woman. In the end, the tide will turn; and once more, the Church will be seen to have been right all along (as it was, for instance, over eugenics, whose assumptions were at one time almost universally believed). But it will take decades: I will not live to see it. Meanwhile, the Church is fighting back; perhaps, in the end, that is the one good thing to come from all this.

And one thing is certain: there will always be something.