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NEWS ANALYSIS: As the Supreme Court and politicians weigh ‘marriage equality,’ Catholic Americans need to remind the nation why marriage can’t be redefined.
BY JOAN FRAWLEY DESMOND
WASHINGTON — Last week, when the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments for two landmark marriage cases, several justices dismissed the suggestion that procreation played a central role in the meaning and purpose of marriage.
During one exchange, Charles Cooper, the advocate for the private group defending Proposition 8, the California voter initiative that effectively barred same-sex “marriage," argued that a law defining marriage as a union of a man and a woman reflected the state’s rational “interest in responsible procreation” — not animus to homosexuals as a group.
Justice Elena Kagan clearly found that argument to be nothing short of ludicrous.
“Suppose a state said that, ‘Because we think that the focus of marriage really should be on procreation, we are not going to give marriage licenses anymore to any couple where both people are over the age of 55.’ Would that be constitutional?” asked Justice Kagan.
Cooper would not retreat: “[S]ociety’s interest in responsible procreation isn’t just with respect to the procreative capacities of the couple itself,” he said.
“The marital norm, which imposes the obligations of fidelity and monogamy, Your Honor, advances the interests in responsible procreation by making it more likely that neither party, including the fertile party to that … marriage, will engage in irresponsible procreative conduct outside of that marriage,” Cooper continued. “That’s the … marital norm.”
Cooper scored a point, but the outcome of the Proposition 8 case is far from certain. The high court, like the nation itself, appears divided on the constitutionality of the California law, as well as the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
And now the GOP leadership, which has defended DOMA in court — after the Obama administration deemed the 1996 law to be unconstitutional — may be reassessing its stance. Over the past month, a slew of high-profile Republicans have endorsed same-sex “marriage.”
The Decline of Marriage
Truth be told, recent data on U.S. marriage practices suggest that many Americans no longer see a clear connection between matrimony and procreation. And that trend helps explain why many younger voters are outraged by the exclusion of same-sex couples from legal marriage.
At present, just half of adults in this country are married, a 20% decline from 1960. College-educated couples are now the most likely group to tie the knot.
Meanwhile, 41% of live births in the U.S. are to unmarried women. Sociologists report that many unwed mothers say they cannot find worthy husbands, yet they do not want to delay childbearing, despite decades of research confirming that fatherless children are more likely to face problems with school, drugs and landing jobs as adults.
The data provide an urgent reminder that our nation’s marriage culture is losing ground, with grim consequences for both the children raised in such households and for the country’s economic future.
Hadley Arkes and Bill Bennett, senior fellows at the Claremont Institute, explain that strong marriages dispel the notion that sexual relationships are purely about pleasure and teach the young that “our gendered existence, as men and women, offers the most unmistakable, natural sign of the meaning and purpose of sexuality” — the creation of new life.
Still, a chorus of media commentators echoed Justice Kagan’s derisive treatment of the argument set forth by Charles Cooper, the chief advocate for Proposition 8.
“Leaving aside Mr. Cooper’s 19th-century views about procreation (he apparently has not heard, for example, of in vitro fertilization or surrogate pregnancies), the very premise is ridiculous,” stated New York Times columnist Andrew Rosenthal in a March 28 post.
“Society does have an interest in children in the context of marriage — but it is their upbringing that is of concern, not the method of their conception.”
Rosenthal did not explain how the costly, emotionally complex and ethically questionable practice of "surrogate pregnancies" would become commonplace. But he spoke for the many Americans who now question whether the state has a rational basis for upholding marriage as a union of a man and a woman.
Thus we should not be surprised that, during the two days of oral arguments on the constitutionality of Proposition 8 and DOMA, the justices noted the risks of any untested social experiment but did not focus on how “marriage equality” might further weaken U.S. marriage rates overall.
Reflecting on the high court’s muted treatment of the catastrophic decline in marriage, Mark Steyn, the bestselling author, observed that in “the upper echelons of society, our elites practice what they don’t preach.” In other words, educated Americans marry, but few publicly celebrate the virtues of matrimony.
“Scrupulously nonjudgmental about everything except traditional Christian morality, they nevertheless lead lives in which, as Charles Murray documents in his book Coming Apart, marriage is still expected to be a lifelong commitment,” Steyn continued.
The author is referring to sociologist Charles Murray’s cogent, if grim, analysis of the qualities and habits that send some white Americans to the top of the U.S. economy and others to the bottom. While legal marriage, a college degree and church attendance are common practices among the top 20%, Murray reported that the fatherless children in the bottom 30% grow up on the fringes, cut off from a stable wage earner as well as a vibrant religious community. Murray concludes that the decline of marriage among lower-income Americans (a sharp departure from the relatively uniform cultural practices of U.S. citizens in the decades leading up to the sexual revolution) has stalled upward mobility for the poor.
Today, the two poles of American society have little to do with each other, so it’s easy for well-educated elites to ignore the fact that a weak marriage culture has fueled poverty among all races in this country.
Marriage experts like Maggie Gallagher, the founder of the National Organization for Marriage, and David Blankenhorn, the author of Fatherless America, have spread the word that cohabitating couples endanger the happiness of their present and future offspring. And both have spoken out against same-sex “marriage,” when they concluded that it would further weaken the link between marriage and procreation.
Then, last year, Blankenhorn announced that he had given up his efforts to counter the crusade for “marriage equality.”
“I opposed gay marriage, believing that children have the right, insofar as society makes it possible, to know and to be cared for by the two parents who brought them into this world. I didn’t just dream up this notion: The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which came into force in 1990, guarantees children this right,” stated Blankenhorn in a 2012 New York Times column marking his decision.
“No same-sex couple, married or not, can ever … combine biological, social and legal parenthood into one bond,” continued Blankenhorn, who said he nevertheless embraced the “basic fairness” of incorporating same-sex couples in legal marriage.
Blankenhorn’s former allies said that he was retreating from the brutal partisan warfare of the “marriage equality” debate, and, in recent days, a number of political leaders have also reversed their position on the issue.
Proclaiming the Truth
We don’t yet know if or when same-sex “marriage” will be legal throughout the nation. We don’t know if Catholics and their political allies who embrace Church teaching on marriage will enter a political wilderness, just as pro-life Catholics did before them in the wake of Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton.
But we do know that the Church will proclaim the truth, in season and out, and that she will not allow political calculations to extinguish the vital work of building a civilization of love.
Inspired by a Vicar of Christ with a special love for the poor, the faithful will look for ways to share, with love and prudence, the truth about God’s plan for the gift of sexuality with those most in need.
“At stake is the identity and survival of the family: father, mother and children. At stake are the lives of many children who will be discriminated against in advance and deprived of their human development given by a father and a mother and willed by God,” then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio told Argentinians in 2010, when that nation weighed the legalization of same-sex “marriage.”
Emphasized the future Pope, “At stake is the total rejection of God’s law engraved in our hearts.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.