BALTIMORE — Over the last five years, the defense of marriage has emerged as a key catechetical, legislative and religious liberty issue for the U.S. episcopacy.

Few bishops understand that better than Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington.

As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops gathered for its fall general meeting, Archbishop Wuerl had to keep one eye on a same-sex “marriage” bill in Washington that likely will pass early next month.

Public debate on the bill has prompted bitter resistance to any broad exemption for Catholic social institutions with city contracts. City council members have accused the archdiocese of issuing “ultimatums.” Church officials contend that “without a meaningful religious exemption in the bill, Catholic Charities and similar religious providers will become ineligible for contracts, grants and licenses to continue those services.”

When marriage is the topic of debate, the U.S. bishops face a war that must be fought on multiple fronts: theological, cultural and political. No surprise that Archbishop Wuerl — who has defended Catholic teaching in the pages of The Washington Post, in parish bulletins and in public forums — applauds the arrival of the bishops’ new pastoral letter, “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan.”

“The heart of the pastoral statement is the definition of marriage,” said Archbishop Wuerl. “It is so important for our faithful and for the wide community to understand this; we want to reaffirm this teaching so that people can speak with assurance about marriage. What is it about marriage that makes it unique and important? Why do people follow through with all the effort associated with marriage?”

In 2004, the bishops approved a multilayered pastoral initiative designed to strengthen marriage; the pastoral letter, approved during this month’s meeting, is described as “both an end and a beginning” of this effort.

As the teaching authority of the American hierarchy is increasingly challenged in battles over same-sex “marriage,” Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, chairman of the Subcommittee on Marriage and Family, heralded the letter as a “foundational document” and an “authoritative point of reference.”

The letter addresses marriage’s critical role in the nurturing and education of children; it challenges modern attempts to reduce married love to a “private” couples relationship and warns against the destructive consequences of redefining marriage to include same-sex unions.


Theology of the Body

Chastened by the increasingly skeptical response they have received from younger Catholics in particular, the bishops plan to communicate the central teaching of the pastoral in Web-based campaigns as well as through more traditional catechetical methods. The letter presents marriage as both a “natural institution” and a “Christian sacrament,” and takes note of social science research confirming the essential role of traditional marriage.

“There is a huge need for catechesis on marriage,” confirmed Bishop Richard Malone of Portland, Maine, who helped to lead a repeal of same-sex “marriage” in Maine earlier this month. “Throughout that public debate in the state, I was alarmed by the number of our Catholic people who have a shallow understanding of what marriage is.”

The pastoral letter incorporates the central teaching of Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth) on the unitive and procreative dimensions of conjugal unions. But it also embraces the fresh insights of John Paul II’s theology of the body.

During an era when mass media encourages Americans to shrug off the distinctive characteristics of men and women, and where the young learn to treat the human body as a kind of machine that can be exploited or manipulated at will, the theology of the body offers an integrated vision of the human person. In this teaching, sexual complementarity is a gift to be embraced as the foundation for deep marital communion.

The late Pontiff provided a modern meditation on a fundamental truth: The body expresses the person’s deepest values. Sexual relationships that ignore marital vows of faithfulness, permanence and openness to children violate basic human dignity.

“In drafting the letter, the committee felt that the insights John Paul II made in the theology of the body strengthened the case we can make to people today. Paul VI provided a great foundation, but Humanae Vitae didn’t get the proper catechesis when it was first promulgated,” said Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan.

The U.S. hierarchy’s initial failure to effectively defend Humanae Vitae is now viewed as a primary reason for ongoing confusion among Catholics about the evils of contraception and — subsequently — the immorality of some reproductive technologies and of same-sex “marriage.”


A New Hunger

Yet, Archbishop Naumann suggests that the past 40 years also have created a new hunger for this teaching.

“We have the experience of the past 40 years. That has given us a lot of empirical data to substantiate the teaching and encourage an openness to the teaching that didn’t exist in the ’60s,” he suggested.

The bishops’ pastoral initiative on marriage may also help to shore up catechetical efforts in states where same-sex “marriage” is already legal. “The pastoral gives us an opportunity to develop a new apologetics,” said Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston. “We don’t hate gays, and we are not trying to deny anyone their civil rights. This is about the defense of marriage.”

The bishops acknowledge that a more intensive effort to present the countercultural elements of Church teaching on marriage is likely to provoke intense resistance not only from homosexual couples seeking social approbation, but also from poorly catechized Catholics.

The pastoral letter addresses a number of sensitive issues — including reproductive technologies that help infertile couples to begin families but violate Catholic teaching. The USCCB also approved a separate document that provides more detailed doctrinal analysis and pastoral reflection on in vitro fertilization, cloning and related procedures.

But bishops who have ministered to infertile couples acknowledge that many are bemused by the Church’s apparent departure from what they define as a pro-child theological tradition.

“I expect that many couples won’t see the need for ethical reflection on reproductive technologies,” said Bishop Salvatore Cordileone of Oakland, Calif., who helped jump-start California’s Proposition 8 ballot measure that led to the repeal of same-sex “marriage” in the state and is eager to bring the pastoral letter to his diocese.

Pushback from dissenting Catholics and political opponents is a given, but during the Baltimore meeting, the bishops appeared both revitalized and resigned as they considered the challenges ahead. Same-sex “marriage” fights appear likely in New Jersey and New York, and many bishops planned to meet with their senators about health-care reform before returning home.

During an afternoon press conference, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the bishops’ conference, was asked if his colleagues had “regained their political strength.”

“We know many of these issues are both moral and political. Our task is to bring the moral voice to the debate,” responded Cardinal George.

But then he acknowledged that the bishops’ work occasionally influenced the larger public debate, roiling partisan emotions that could fuel a backlash against the hierarchy. “There is something more than Catholic doctrine involved. Some issues are also political, and they draw on loyalties that go beyond Church membership.”

Joan Frawley Desmond filed this report from the U.S. bishops’ meeting in Baltimore.