Insight in the Same Sex Marriage Debate

The debate surrounding same sex marriage is both contentious and complex. That’s why it’s refreshing to read a contribution that carries a measured tone even as it contains real insight from a historically orthodox Christian perspective on the question.

Cardinal Francis George, the current Archbishop of Chicago for the Catholic Church, recently took up the issue in his bi-monthly column. I’d like to point out a few sections that might encourage further thinking and discussion.

After briefly outlining some of the biblical and societal grounds for traditional marriage as defined between a man and a woman, Cardinal George sums up and responds to the alternative view:

Many, unfortunately, now see marriage only as a private, two-person relationship based on love and sexual attraction rather than as a public social institution governing family life. Further, the claim that one is not equal under law is powerful in our society; it makes one a victim. And the claim that one is being demeaned and personally wounded is even more powerful evidence of victimization. Finally, in a post-Freudian culture one should be free to act on every sexual desire, provided there is no coercion in the relationship. 

Nonetheless, the legal creation of what is naturally impossible is not inevitable. Cultural change can be redirected so that the long road to obtain respect that has been traveled by many homosexually oriented persons can be maintained without destroying the institution of natural marriage. Since the difference between men and women is different from racial difference, same-sex marriage is not a civil rights issue. A newly invented civil right cannot be used to destroy a moral good, lest society itself go into decline.

Cardinal George goes on to discuss the role of government in our society as well as its specific relationship with marriage:

We should be concerned as well about the State overreaching its proper authority, which is limited to the civil order. Neither the church nor the state “own” the institution of marriage. The state has a right to supervise but not to redefine an institution it did not create. This tendency for the government to claim for itself authority over all areas of human experience flows from the secularization of our culture. If God cannot be part of public life, then the state itself plays God. There are many paths to total state control of life — fascism, totalitarianism, communism. In the United States, the path is labeled “protection of individual rights.”

Cardinal George’s comments touch on a broader issue that needs careful attention. Nearly anyone (from libertarians to arch-progressives) who wants to preserve personal freedom in one area encourages governmental involvement in some other respect. Who or what then determines the proper relationship between personal freedom and the larger good of society? A purely objective secular authority doesn’t exist. History shoes popular opinion is sometimes just and sometimes tyrannical. What then?

This last excerpt is written from a particularly Catholic vantage point. But I found it helpful to substitute “Christian” for “Catholic” as I read:

Catholic politicians are complicit in secularizing our society when they reduce their religious beliefs to private opinions and promise that their religious faith will not influence their public life. This false dichotomy began when John Kennedy, fighting anti-Catholic prejudice in his campaign to be elected president, told Protestant ministers in Houston not to worry about his acting like a Catholic….

Are we to have a religious test for public office that excludes Catholics serious about their faith from appointment to federal judgeships? Are Catholics who will not perform abortions to be excluded from medical school? Are Catholics to be unwelcome in the editorial offices of major newspapers, in the entertainment world, or on university faculties unless they put their faith aside? In short, what began as a political device to get elected to office in a Protestant society can be used more broadly to exclude Catholics from any position of influence in public life. If Catholics are to be closeted and marginalized in a secularized society, Catholic parents should prepare their children to be farmers, carpenters and craftsmen, small business people and workers in service industries, honorable occupations that do not, however, immediately impact public opinion. Is this the future? That’s a concern.

Indeed it is. Christians should not be under any illusion that widespread adoption of same sex marriage will result merely greater social acceptance for its practitioners. Rather, it will inevitably bring with it a greater marginalization of and even discrimination toward those who hold to orthodox Christian teaching on the subject. To help prevent that possibility, Christians must seek God’s grace to engage in the debate faithfully, respectfully, and persuasively.

One final note: for anyone wishing to gain a greater understanding of marriage—what it is and what it isn’t—let me recommend two books:

What is Marriage by Sherif Gergis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George: The authors defend the traditional notion of marriage from the vantage point of natural law and offer a convincing critique of what they call the revisionist view.

The Meaning of Marriage by Tim and Kathy Keller: Perhaps the single best treatment of marriage I’ve ever come across, this book offers a specifically biblical (and more comprehensive) view of the subject. While it doesn’t address the issue of same sex marriage directly, it serves as a great foundation for how Christians should view the institution.

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