Friday, September 30, 2011

What is “Marriage Itself”?

By Paula Ruddy

The Minnesota Roman Catholic bishops are playing fast and loose with reason in their statement opposing Catholics for Marriage Equality MN. The bishops’ press release is quoted in the Catholic Spirit of September 29.

The bishops: Be afraid. Change makes the sky fall. If the State allows same-gender civil marriage, “marriage itself” will be undermined. The bishops lead with the fear card.

The person desperately seeking reason: What is “marriage itself”? Are the bishops telling me there is an essence labeled “marriage” existing somewhere and all actual marriages should be patterned on it? Or have they taken an idea of marriage from the many conceptions that humans have constructed over the centuries, called it “marriage itself” and attributed it to Jesus. Are they saying that if I want to be a member of the Catholic Church I must never question that construction or think about any other?

As a person living in the post-modern Western culture, I have learned to find the meaning of words like “marriage” in looking at actual marriages. If I try to construct an idea of what marriage is that way, I find there is no such thing as “marriage itself.” There are many kinds of marriages. There are different marriage laws the world over. There are actually gays and lesbians who are in permanent mutually caring relationships and caring for children just like heterosexuals. Wow, the bishops are sure confusing me.

If the bishops mean that “marriage itself” is the Church’s conception of sacramental marriage, why should it be undermined if the civil law of marriage changes? Hasn’t the Roman Catholic Church lived for many generations in the U.S. with the distinction between civil marriage, according to State law, and sacramental marriage, according to the law of the Church? If Catholics are well-taught by the bishops and value the Church’s conception of sacramental marriage, why would civil laws allowing same-gender marriage undermine their values?

But that is precisely the problem. Catholics are not listening to the Church’s teaching. The bishops see that U.S. Catholics increasingly value equality, freedom, and democracy in governance, which are not part of Roman Catholic culture. They see that Catholics have stopped valuing Church teaching on co-habitation, contraception, divorce, same-gender marriage, and even abortion, influenced by the thinking of mainstream civil society.

I do not doubt that the Minnesota bishops want a morally good and stable society in this state. But their strategy to accomplish it is misguided. Instead of trusting all people of the state, including Catholics, to want the same morally good and stable society they want, they say stuff like this:

It is the responsibility of the bishops in communion with the pope to uphold the truth as well as encourage and support all Catholics who are trying to live their baptismal promise of believing and trusting in our one, Catholic and apostolic faith. This is especially true in the area of marriage and sexuality, where the universal moral law and Gospel values are constantly under attack in American law and culture.

Good grief. Because they have failed in their responsibility to protect Catholics from the values of U.S. “law and culture,” the bishops now want the people of Minnesota to amend their state constitution to enforce the bishops’ views to help them keep the flock in check.

It would be so much more helpful if the Minnesota bishops first of all realized that truth is discovered by taking the life world seriously. The love of truth requires some humility and modesty. Can we alone have it? How do we arrive at it? The bishops would then speak to the people, inquiring of them what they experience and what they think, reasoning with them within the frame of reference of twenty-first century reflective adults. That is what Catholics for Marriage Equality MN is asking of them.

The Minnesota bishops could watch the video newly produced by Catholics for Marriage Equality MN, the trailer of which can be viewed here. On the video they will see adult, permanent gay and lesbian partners and parents of gays and lesbians talk about their experience of faith and their relationship to the Roman Catholic Church. They will hear about the harm the Church’s insistence on its position causes. Then they should respond feelingly and reasonably. And let the Holy Spirit do the work.

Related Off-site Links:
Local Catholics Premier Video Series on Faith, Family and MarriageThe Wild Reed (September 26, 2011).
Archdiocese Says Marriage Equality Group That "Seeks to Confuse Catholics" Must Be Avoided – Andy Birkey (Minnesota Independent, September 30, 2011).
New Video Adds to Gay Marriage Debate Among Catholics – Lauren Radomski (KSTP, September 29, 2011).

Image: Michael Bayly.


  1. P.S. Answering to the charge of my being a "relativist": I'm no expert in epistemology, but I suspect there are gradations of certainty about knowing truth and judging moral goodness. I don't know anyone who asserts a belief without thinking they are saying something true or anyone who thinks that all actions are of equal moral value, thereby making value meaningless. That rules out extreme relativism. On the other hand, I don't know anyone who would claim to know the absolute truth about everything or claim absolute certainty in judging moral goodness. That rules out extreme absolutism. Aren't we as a human community seeking truth from many different perspectives and interpreting value also from various perspectives? So I suspect that moderate relativism is the only postion to take in knowing truth and judging value. I am open to being set straight on this by anyone who knows better.

  2. Hi Paula. I'm back ever so briefly. Philosophers of science are working on the evolutionary basis of morality. So you are on the cutting edge! Marie.