National Catholic Register


Battle Over a Single Word


June 29 - July 5, 2008 Issue | Posted 6/24/08 at 12:24 PM


In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet utters the famous line, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” As Shakespeare was keenly aware, changing an object’s name does not change its underlying essence. Things retain their identity regardless of what we call them.

Despite this, we as a society have become immersed in the name-changing business, operating as if we could call a weed a rose and thereby make it smell as sweet.

The ongoing debate over what we define as marriage is a case in point. The recent California Supreme Court decision that ruled that the term “marriage” should be applied to same-sex unions was all about naming and had nothing to do with rights.

In fact, the decision to grant these unions the designation of “marriage” did not give same-sex couples any more rights under California law. As the majority opinion pointed out, California’s comprehensive domestic partner legislation grants same-sex couples “all of the same substantive legal benefits and privileges, and imposes upon the couple virtually all of the same legal obligations and duties that California law affords to and imposes upon a married couple.”

The sole issue the court was deciding was whether it was lawful to restrict the use of the word “marriage” to same-sex couples. It was all about the name.

As the court realized in its ruling, reserving the name “marriage” solely for a union between a man and a women implies that there is something profoundly different about a union between a same-sex couple and one between a heterosexual couple.

This difference is as obvious as the difference between men and women but it is a distinction that this renaming will continue to obscure. That is the power of a name.

While renaming same-sex unions cannot change the reality of what they are, it can change our perception of what they are.

Advocates of same-sex “marriage” hope that by equating same-sex and opposite-sex unions under the same name of marriage, we as a society will lose sight of the fundamental distinction between the two. The complementarity of the man and the women, the reproductive capacity of opposite-sex unions, the ability to have both a father and a mother for the raising of children, all aspects which are inherent in traditional marriage, will become blurred into the recesses of our collective consciousness if we redefine marriage.

If we call both arrangements “marriage” long enough, eventually we will become unable to perceive a difference between the two. We will become deadened to the fact that there is something distinctly lacking and morally objectionable in same-sex unions.

We should not be surprised at what has happened in California, as it is simply another chapter in an ongoing epidemic that is now rampant in our society.

It is an epidemic that is bent on sanitizing sin by giving specific sins new noble-sounding names. In this case, what used to be identified as sexual promiscuity is called “marriage.”

The same thing has happened in regard to sexual promiscuity between members of the opposite sex. What once was called fornication is now called sexual liberation, as if there is some profound and rapturous insight to be reached through casual sex.

It is hard to imagine how the lingering effects of casual sex — depression, abortion, loneliness and the inability to build lasting marriages — can be seen as rapturous but that is what is promised by those who have renamed such things.

Abortion is another sin that has gone through this sanitization.

What was once recognized as the taking of innocent life and a violation of the dignity of the mother is now called a “choice” or quite paradoxically a “reproductive right.”

The effect this has on the women involved, both emotionally and physically, is dismissed presumptuously by those who clamor for so-called women’s rights.

Our desire to perform research on embryonic stem cells has led to the need to sanitize this as well. Such research requires the creation and destruction of human life, something many view as unpalatable and even sinful.

Yet if we call it therapeutic cloning or regenerative medicine, maybe these minor issues will be overlooked. What, pray tell, could be wrong with something that sounds so promising and compassionate?

Euthanasia has gone through a similar renaming process. The killing of those in the most vulnerable of circumstances is considered now ironically “mercy” killing. The practice is couched in terms of a right to die at whatever time one chooses.

Those who choose this option are considered brave and selfless, with no mention of the fact that many of them are depressed and lonely, lacking any support from family members. Yet the choice is considered merciful nonetheless.

Such renaming efforts seem difficult to overcome given the well-funded groups that drive them but the good news is that the ongoing effort to sanitize sin is doomed to collapse under its own weight. This effort will ultimately be shown to be as futile as an attempt to change the nature of a rose by renaming it. Renaming, no matter how it affects our perception, can never alter the underlying reality.

The Nazis could call their final solution to the “Jewish problem” by many names, but what they called it never changed what it was — genocide, a grave moral evil. No matter what we rename things and no matter how much this deadens our conscience to what we are actually doing, the disastrous effects of abortion, casual sex, homosexual sex and euthanasia still are very real.

These consequences will eventual force us to come to terms with what we as a society have done. The effects of sin cannot be washed away by our collective creative wordsmithing. Rather, these consequences will eventual stare each one of us in the face and it is at that point we will have a decision to make.

We can either continue to live hollow lives trapped in state of perpetual denial or we can shed the sanitized façade and step out into the light.

Fortunately, there are signs of hope, particularly among our youth, who appear discontent with the amoral world they have inherited. Top-selling books like Wendy Shalit’s A Return to Modesty, the burgeoning pro-life groups at colleges like Princeton and the number of youth that will flock to see Pope Benedict at World Youth Day indicate that there is a longing for clarity among our youth; a longing for calling a sin a sin.

Many young people are wiser than those who have come before them. They have learned the hard way. They have realized first hand what the renaming and sanitization of sin has wrought upon society.

They have paid for it in the cost of broken families and broken relationships. They have come to realize that no matter how we try to redefine sin, that which we call a sin, by any other name would be as ugly.

They are no longer fooled by this renaming.

Daniel Kuebler, Ph.D., is an

assistant professor of biology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.