Not a month goes by in my parish that I don’t help very ordinary people face very extraordinary moral decisions. The “sexual revolution” has turned out to be not simply an era of free love, but a genuine revolution in human sexuality — the consequences of technology that separates the sexual act from procreation are a total free-for-all in sexual behavior. Therefore, people-in-the-pew Catholics wonder how to respond to a whole range of questions our parents and grandparents could never have imagined.
One of the key questions is that of same-sex “marriage.” Can Catholics ever endorse or allow same-sex “marriage”? If a secular government enacts legislation allowing two persons of the same sex to “marry,” there is little Catholics can do about it. We have good reasons for opposing same-sex “marriage” in society generally, but we have no power to impose those objections on others, and if the state approves same-sex “marriage,” all we can do is protest peacefully and assume a position — as we do with abortion — of tolerant resistance.
Those who disagree with Catholics on this issue should recognize and respect our position of tolerant resistance and attempt to understand why we are opposed.
We are not opposed to same-sex “marriage” because we hate homosexuals. We don’t “hate fags”; nor do we believe that God does. We don’t judge a person’s heart simply because he or she is attracted to persons of the same sex. The official teaching of the Catholic Church says homosexual persons “must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided” (Catechism, 2358).
Are there some Catholics who are hateful bigots? Sure. There are people like that in all segments of society. They’re not only bad people, they’re bad Catholics.
However, when it comes to same-sex “marriage,” we are dealing not only with the question of homosexuality per se, but also of the Catholic sacraments. Those who disagree must therefore try to understand Catholic beliefs because the Catholic intransigence on the subject of same-sex “marriage” is not so much about homosexuality, but about the very foundation and core of the Catholic faith.
Catholic teaching is a unified, coherent and consistent body of thought that encompasses not only religious beliefs and behaviors, but also includes history, anthropology, political and economic theory, sexuality, cosmology and ecology. In other words, what we believe about God and humanity touches everything.
At the core of this belief system is what we call the “sacramental economy.” We believe the primary way God works in the world is through his Church and through the sacraments of the Church. The sacraments are seven ways that God intimately touches individual human lives with his power and love. When his power and love are active in our lives, we not only walk in the path of human flourishing, but we also secure our path to heaven.
The seven sacraments are therefore vital for our interaction with God — for our progress towards heaven and our fulfillment and happiness as human beings. The Catholic Church will defend at all costs the seven sacraments. This is because her main concern is the salvation of human souls, and the sacraments are her tools to complete this work. The sacraments are our ladder to heaven, and if the ladder is broken, our path to heaven is broken.
Furthermore, we didn’t just make up the sacraments in an apostolic brainstorming session 2,000 years ago. We believe that the sacraments were established by Jesus Christ as part of his mandate from God for the salvation of the world. The sacraments were designed and given to us by God.
Consequently, while we can adapt the outward rituals, we cannot change the essential features of the sacrament. For example, the Catholic Church can change the format of the baptism service, but she can’t declare that baptism now takes place by putting mud on a person’s head instead of water.
This is the main reason why the Catholic Church will never allow same-sex weddings — because we believe that marriage is a sacrament, and we can’t change the content of the sacrament. A sacramental marriage is between one man and one woman for life, and we can’t change it any more than we can say the grass is purple or the sky is green. We can’t change the content of the sacrament because that’s the way things are. The fundamental definition of marriage between one man and one woman was established from the beginning of the human race and validated by Jesus Christ and established as a sacrament for our salvation.
If we don’t allow same-sex weddings, we also don’t allow child brides, polygamy or remarriage after divorce for the same reason. We realize that others may disagree with our beliefs. We know members of other religions allow remarriage, child brides and polygamy. We also understand that other Christians and those with no belief may permit same-sex “marriage.” They may do so. We cannot stop them, but they should also realize that what their religion allows ours does not.
This doesn’t mean that we hate homosexuals, Muslims, Mormons, Episcopalians or atheists. It doesn’t mean that we are racists and bigots. We acknowledge that homosexual people may love one another. We can admit that if the law allows they may establish a civil union and live together. They may do as they please. They can even call what they do “marriage,” but that doesn’t make it marriage, and it certainly doesn’t make it a Catholic sacrament.
Catholic beliefs are not simply a matter of opinion; they are a matter of fact.
Even if we want to, we can’t change the essentials of the sacrament of marriage — not because we can’t change our beliefs, but because we can’t change facts.
Governments may say a circle is square. Newspapers and pressure groups may argue that a circle is square. Ninety-nine percent of the population may insist that a circle is square. Government policy may force schools to teach that a circle is square. Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and fellow Christians may all agree that a circle is square.
But a circle is still round.
Father Dwight Longenecker is a priest of the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina.
Read Father Longenecker’s blog, browse his books and be in touch at DwightLongenecker.com.