Thursday, September 6, 2012

Addressing the Arguments Against Same-Sex Marriage Offered by the Catholic Bishops of Washington State

An Open Letter to the Washington State Catholic Conference: Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of the Archdiocese of Seattle; Bishop Blase J. Cupich of the Diocese of Spokane; Bishop Joseph J Tyson of the Diocese of Yakima; and Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Seattle.

Dear Bishops of the State of Washington:

We in Minnesota are facing the same issue you are facing in the state of Washington, with the difference that ours is framed as an amendment to the state constitution defining marriage and yours is framed as a referendum to affirm an action of your legislature. Those framings bring up different sets of questions, but we would like to address with you only the arguments you make.

We realize that you have addressed your people pastorally and that your recent letter is meant to show people a right path in their civic responsibility. We hope that a pastoral purpose does not preclude good reasoning, and we have some questions about that.

You, no doubt, are familiar with the Latin phrase in logical argumentation: Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur. What is gratuitously asserted may be gratuitously denied. We wonder if you haven’t drawn conclusions from many assertions that you presume to be true, but for which you have not made persuasive arguments. The position you intend to be reasonable and persuasive can, therefore, be easily dismissed.

1. The purpose of marriage: “Marriage is founded on sexual difference and ordered toward the fulfillment of husband and wife and the procreation and rearing of children. This basic understanding of marriage and family is ‘built in’ to the very nature of man and woman.” Isn’t this a gratuitous assertion? Why does marriage have to be founded on sexual difference and ordered toward procreation? Does civil marriage law require people to declare purposes when they apply for a marriage license? Aren’t there many civil marriages that are contracted for other purposes than the ones you mention? If this essentialist understanding is ‘built in’ to the very nature of man and woman, how is it so many men and women have different understandings? If there is a benefit, other than an economic one, in having the word “marriage” applied to a couple’s union, why should this benefit be denied to same-sex couples? You may believe your assertions about the purpose of marriage, but why should anyone else accept them?

2. Marriage and children: “Civil marriage law exists to promote the best environment for the health, welfare and education of children.” Isn’t this a gratuitous assertion? Where did you get this information about the purpose of civil marriage laws? Is there settled Washington case law that establishes this as the purpose of civil marriage law? May people get married in Washington if they do not intend to have children? May people beyond child-bearing years be married in Washington? If marriage is to benefit children, why exclude the many same-sex couples who are raising the biological children of one of them or the biological children others have put up for adoption? Why can’t state civil marriage laws extend to their benefit, not just economic benefits, but also the honor and prestige that we bestow upon the permanent and faithful bond of love connoted by the word “marriage”?

You assert that because of the state’s recognition of same-sex marriage the “foundational nature of marriage for the good and strength of human society will be harmed beyond repair.” What is the evidence for this assertion? It could be argued that the foundational nature of marriage—whatever that is—could be strengthened by including same-sex permanent and faithful families.

You assert that “social science has established that children do best when raised in homes with married mothers and fathers.” Even if this assertion were backed by evidence, is it a reason to disqualify children who are being raised in the homes of same-sex couples from whatever benefit accrues to the word “marriage” for their parents’ union? Are you saying, “It is not ideal; therefore, it should not be protected by law”? Is the protection of law only for people who live in ideal situations? Who decides what the ideal is? You seem to be on very shaky ground here.

3. Marriage Law and Religious Liberty: Your argument here depends on a right of religious people to discriminate in the name of their beliefs. You deny that it is discrimination, but you want to be able “to promote the unique value of children being raised by their biological mothers and fathers.” It will be hard to convince adopted children and children of single parents that their parental situation is not being held in less esteem than the one being promoted. How can you “promote” anything without distinguishing it from other less desirable alternatives? That is what discrimination means. We don’t think you can have this both ways: if you want to discriminate, you have to admit honestly that you are doing it and that your religious belief requires you to do it. Then you must courageously give up all the economic benefits and the respect that are denied to you by a society that values freedom and equality.

– The Editorial Team of The Progressive Catholic Voice

Michael Bayly
Mary Beckfeld
Paula Ruddy

See also the previous PCV posts:
The Marriage Amendment
Archbishop Nienstedt's Marriage Amendment Message to Priests: "The Stakes Could Not Be Higher"
Why the Catholic Church in America is Divided
What is "Marriage Itself"?


  1. Nice post. I have heard conservative Christians make all the arguments addressed here and it's so frustrating. What they argue is essentially a social Darwinist view of marriage, as if same-sex couples have nothing to offer to the survival of the species. This seems so hypocritical of religious conservatives, doesn't it? I wonder would they think that couples who marry do not have children be assigned orphans to raise? Would that be the logical conclusion to the "exception" of childless marriages? Do these conservatives make as much about divorce? Logically, they should. Sure in the eyes of the RC church, you are still married unless you get an annulment. Even if their argument is accurate in that “Civil marriage law exists to promote the best environment for the health, welfare and education of children" they seem to fail miserably at encouraging or supporting this type of relationship amongst people who have children and are not married. I do not see conservatives speaking out against fathers who abandon their children, or promoting sexual activity only within marriage. Sure, there is the issue of pre-marita sex, but they seem to have a consistent record at failing to promote the message. Another issue related to this is child welfare. I work in the child welfare system and not one of the broken marriages has anything to do with same-sex issues. They are all socio-economic issues. The RC can pay lip service to immigration issues and the economy but they don't take any actions, do they? Regarding the marriage laws and religious liberty issue, I have to side with the conservatives in that I don't think they should be forced to marry anyone, even provide a space for same-sex couples to marry in or celebrate their marriage, if they so choose. That to me is not the same as racial segregation issues. However, I think these issues need to be dealt with in the courts to create case law for or against the issue. That is why we have a court system. I don't think it is right for same-sex couples to sue anyone if they don't want to rent out a hall, even allow them to stay at a B&B for their honeymoon. I also wonder about another issue. Why are churches beholden to the state concerning marriage in the first place? Why have to say, "By the power invested in me by the state of...?" In the eyes of God, I believe same-sex couples are all ready married. A marriage license exists with the government for tax purposes - not even issues of paternity.

  2. Hi, Matteo. I'm glad you pointed out the hole in our argument about religious liberty. Yes, I guess I am taking it for granted that churches will not have to marry people they don't want to marry, for whatever reason. We are just talking here about churches objecting to civil marriage. Trickier about being in business and not selling to or providing service to same-sex couples. The word "discriminate" is used is several different ways, isn't it? It is both legally and socially permissible to discriminate against drunk and disorderly, people without shirt or shoes, etc. It might be legally permissible in a busiess to discriminate against some people, but society might punish the discriminator. I think it is a good sign that society is increasingly more tolerant. What do you think?

  3. Moral judgment (and any discrimination that may arise from it) needs to be based on protecting victims, that's what morality is all about.

    If someone poses a threat to others, such as the case of drunk and disorderly, it's reasonable to exclude them.

    A gay, black, Hispanic, Muslim, Jewish or hey, even Catholic, couple who want to rent a hall or hotel room, eat in a restaurant etc pose no threat to anyone, thus exclusion is not warranted.

    The private property issue is a tricky one. As example, should Catholic churches be legally required to admit neo-nazi biker gangs to their services, assuming the gangs are not breaking any law?

    I'm not a lawyer, but my limited understanding guesses that current American law requires any enterprise open to the public to actually be open to the public, the entire public. It's not clear to me exactly where the boundaries are.