Wednesday, June 11, 2008

NY Bishops on Marriage

The Catholic Bishops of New York State have issued a formal statement on marriage in response to the governor's directive that same-sex marriages legally entered into in other states will be legally recognized in New York. You can read the statement here. Not surprisingly they are opposed to legal recognition of same-sex marriage. At the heart of their argument is the link between marriage and procreation:
Marriage always has been, is now and always will be a union of one man and one woman in an enduring bond. This is consistent with biology and natural law, and should be obvious to all, no matter what their religion, or even if they have no religion at all. It is a mutual personal gift between the two that serves the individual couple in many ways, allowing them to grow in love and, through that love, to bring forth children.

Just as importantly, this union also serves the larger society. Marriage provides a stable family structure for the rearing of children and is the ultimate safeguard so that civil society can exist and flourish. That is why civil society through the ages has recognized its duty to foster and respect marriage between a man and a woman.
This is basic Catholic teaching. The purpose of marriage is to provide a stable environment for the raising of children. You will get no quarrel from me about the benefits of children being raised and nurtured in the homes of married parents. And there is no denying the cost to children and society of family breakdown.

But that is all the more reason to support with every means available to us those same-sex couples who are raising children. Thousands of same-sex couples are already raising children. We should welcome their willingness to love and care for children with the same moral and legal support we give to straight couples. Their children are every bit as precious and important. Legal recognition of same-sex marriage increases the pool of stable families available to raise children. This is a good thing.

We need to be honest, though, and recognize that marriage is not and never has been just about raising children. One only need think of biblical stories of polygamy and historical stories of political and arranged marriage. There has always been marriage for other culturally accepted reasons. And this remains true to this day. There are young couples who get married and they have no intention of having children. There are older individuals who are outliving their original spouses and finding new mates. Are these marriages any less legitimate? Are they less deserving of the legal protections of the state? We marry them all the time in court houses and churches, and we do not link their marriage rights with procreation. The bishops' letter essentially demeans the nature of these marriages:
The simple fact that two people have a committed relationship is not a reason for the state to confer upon it the status of marriage. If affection and commitment were the only prerequisites for a marital relationship, then it is conceivable that any two or more individuals could claim the right to a civil union, no matter what their relationship.
This mere "affection and commitment" typically involves one in major life decisions about education, jobs, care of one's partner if they are ill, care of aging parents, and a host of other life transitions and challenges that are every bit as real for couples who don't have children. The state confers legal protections on these marriages because as a society we see an economic and social value in supporting these commitments. Gay couples deserve the same protections.

Reading this letter gives one a sense of the gap that exists between those looking on from the outside at marriage and coolly reasoning about its theological meaning and those who actually get married and know what it provides and what it costs. How else do you account for a statement like this:
Societal acceptance of casual divorce and single parenting was initially viewed by many as the natural progression of an enlightened society, just as “same-sex marriage” is viewed by some today.
Casual divorce? Maybe among Holywood celebrities or Las Vegas revellers. But for the vast majority of married people there is no-such thing as casual divorce. Whatever the legal hurdles to marriage, be they stringent or lax, divorce is painful and difficult for all involved. Only someone who has never been married could make such a statement.

The Catholic Church or any other church should be free to pronounce marital blessings on whomever they choose. They don't have to bless same-sex couples. But the state should not be in the business of legislating religious principles regarding marriage. The state of New York is doing the right thing in moving to recognize same-sex marriages legally performed in other states. Encouraging same-sex couples to get married and protecting their legal rights when they do is in the best interests of everyone.

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