A Star Beside the Sun: What marriage means to an orthodox Roman Catholic
I’m Roman Catholic. And while I have no right to, I guess I’m going to try to articulate something that I think a lot of American Roman Catholics — Catholics who, like me, do their best (and often fail) to be faithful to the message of their Church and of Christ, their God — are feeling about the social movements in their country, which recently crested like a great wave we all could feel coming.
The Catholic Church teaches certain things about marriage, and I am obliged as a Catholic to take those teachings seriously, to ponder and pray over them, to search to understand them as an expression of a God who is and does love endlessly. I have this obligation toward all the teachings of the Church, from what color some guy should wear at the altar next Sunday to how I should treat the poorest and most misfortunate around me. The point being that some doctrines and practices are relatively trivial while others make up the core of the faith. The public sanction of same-sex marriage is somewhere in the vast middle there, and while this historical moment makes it feel like the weightiest of weighty subjects, there are a lot of teachings that we Catholics are called to embrace and defend that are of much greater importance than this one. Thus, it’s as painful to see Catholics hated for what they believe about it as it is to see Catholics getting rabidly upset over it, to a degree they never would about poverty, say, or liturgy.
At the same time, the Church declares to her members a truth. When expressed in the current cultural circumstance, proclaimed before a broadly secular society, certain elements of this general truth stand out in high relief, casting bogeyman-like shadows that make it seem ugly, and hateful, and unfair. And probably they are destined to seem so from outside of the Church, without both the larger context of their meaning and a faith in the inspired wisdom of the Church. Because of that, I’m not here to convince anyone that the Catholic Church has it spot-on about marriage; I’m just looking to build a bridge of understanding and, if I’m really lucky, convince someone that these teachings aren’t truly ugly, hateful, or unfair.
Let’s leave the inflammatory parts aside for as long as we can. When the Church speaks about marriage — as when Christ spoke about marriage, which he did on a few occasions — she speaks about it as a sacrament. This is a foreign notion to many, even many Christians. It can be, frankly, a very strange notion for anyone. For Catholics, sacraments are a Big Deal. And there are many definitions of a sacrament, but what I think it helps to know for the moment is that each sacrament is like a linchpin in human life. Although human life has been and will be lived in a million different ways throughout history, and even the sacraments themselves have been practiced in some variety through the centuries, each sacrament holds within it a universal and eternal deep-down nature not created not by us. The sacraments are human life distilled and perfected by God who is the source and architect of that life. If this sounds absurdly mystical, superstitious, or arbitrary to you, well, it probably should without the entire scaffolding of the Christian worldview supporting it, and unfortunately this story is going to be too long as it is without me getting into more of that. Give me the benefit of the doubt for at least a few more paragraphs.
Marriage is a sacrament, so it is something defined eternally and perfectly, woven into the fabric of reality and human nature. And there are many things the Church professes about marriage, but one of them is that the subjects-slash-objects of every marriage are a man and a woman. Not because we like it that way, but because just How It Is. That is the sacrament. Just as only sinners can seek Penance and only men can be Ordained (mayday! mayday! controversy! turn back!) and you gotta have water to be Baptized. Like, seriously, guys — if there’s no water involved, except in the most extreme circumstances, a baptism isn’t a baptism. Again, this looks like superstitious weirdness. I get it, and that’s okay. You gotta be in here to see that’s it’s sort of awesome and beautiful, while also still being pretty weird.
Again, the Church teaches lots of things about marriage. Like, once it’s done it can’t be broken. And, the bride and groom are literal stand-ins for Jesus and the Church, who are often talked about as a married couple (hence, the pronoun is “she” for the Church). And, one of the inextricable purposes of marriage is to foster new human life. Not planning on having kids? Please don’t get married. (Can’t have kids? — different thing.) That part is all wrapped up in the man-and-woman bit, of course.
So the Church has all these truths about marriage that she proclaims, and because she believes they really are true (as strange as they are), she hopes that they will be embraced by all people. The Church fervently hopes for all of human society to be organized according to the truths she discerns. That’s not religious intolerance or persecution; that’s just a natural conclusion of really believing that some things, whatever they happen to be, are true. The Church has tried lots of different ways throughout history to convince, instruct, influence, or force people to accept her truths. These days, she’s generally pretty happy to combine exemplary witness (walking the walk) with some loud-mouth exhortations (talking the talk) and hoping some folks take notice and a few of them come around. It’s a comparatively gentle way to go, though it would probably work better if the people doing it were better. But regardless, the Church is disappointed when society at large takes a step in another direction from the truth she holds. It’s a natural time for the Church to speak up and remind anyone listening what she thinks the truth is.
Let’s jump back now to where I said that the Church teaches lots of things, and some are more crucial than others. Possibly the most crucial doctrine of the faith is that as we were begotten in love, we are called to love each other without exception. So to whatever extent the proclamation of the nature of the sacrament of marriage is intentionally hurting someone, a line has unjustifiably been crossed. Our political moment makes this so easy. And weak, scared, and sinful Catholics can often make the perceptions worse by opening themselves to hatred for the sake of what they think is the good cause of “defending marriage.”
It’s also totally understandable that gay folks and their supporters and advocates take umbrage at a group of people telling them that they can’t or shouldn’t participate in this lionized institution; one which, on the surface anyway, is quite private and practically inconsequential to those outside one’s personal circle. That is to say: Does gay marriage injure me personally in some way? Certainly not. Further, from all the premises of our democracy and notions of individual rights, gay marriage is kind of a no-brainer. And more importantly, from the perspective of simple compassion, the practical and legal implications of marriage like the right to visit a partner who is sick in the hospital or to inherit the belongings of a close loved one — these are duly owed to any couple who desires them. Modern Christians gladly make many compromises with the broader culture and politics, and it takes a certain amount of stubbornness or lack of perspective to think that this one is somehow The Bridge Too Far or that it is uniquely insidious. For heaven’s sake, the nature of marriage aside, we can at least all recognize that it is love that sincerely motivates this social innovation.
And yet politics and law and society, these are man-made. Despite them, there is still the sacrament. Still there with all those bits that are eternal and perfect because their source is eternal and perfect. Do some parts of the sacrament or its practice change over time? Yes. And I can’t say that one day same-sex couples won’t be validly allowed to celebrate the sacrament of matrimony. Only God knows the future. But if this teaching changes in that way or any other way, it is a tenet of my faith that it will do so without contradicting the truths that have always been taught; it would just be a matter of our understanding changing, not the truth itself.
I have family members who are gay. I have very close gay friends. I love them all very much, and am called to love them more perfectly all the time. I want them to be happy, of course. If they were to get married, by the definition of the state, I would wish that that act would bring them all the happiness in the world. I would be a bit disappointed that I couldn’t consider that act marriage, in the true and sacramental sense. I’d hope that that wouldn’t bother them, or make them feel less loved or less supported; after all, there’s lots of other baggage in that sacrament thing that they probably wouldn’t care for, what with the mandatory babies and the Christ-the-Bridegroom stuff.
Still, there is this ideal world in my mind, where everyone’s notion of marriage is the sacramental notion of marriage, and in that world, well, my friends wouldn’t be married. If that angers them, I can’t really blame them. It makes sense from within — that’s all I could say to them — and I do believe sincerely it’s all compatible with true notions of love and justice. They likely wouldn’t see it that way. Happily, in that ideal world, that imagined Heaven-on-earth, the nature of marriage (whatever it is) would be just one small star in the sky of truth. Would we fret about it? Would that star move us to so much anger and argument? Never, for it would be entirely enveloped and overwhelmed by the sun that is a love offered fully to all.