Marriage: Accept No Substitutes

Every week seems to bring a new headline about some law that legitimizes unmarried couples, including members of the same sex. Vermont has legalized “civil unions” for same-sex couples. France has passed a law allowing any two unmarried individuals to enter into a “solidarity pact.” A number of lawsuits to clear a path for same-sex “marriage” are wending their way through the Canadian legal system. And Holland has passed an act that will allow same-sex couples to fully “marry” as of April 1.

No one is more excited about these developments than mainstream greeting-card companies — ever eager to parse up new market segments each Valentine's Day, Feb. 14 — yet the issue of just what constitutes a couple is far from settled. For example, both the U.S. Congress and Canadian Parliament have reaffirmed that marriage requires a man and a woman, and 34 U.S. states have passed statutes recognizing this reality.

Into this maelstrom comes a very helpful document from the Pontifical Council on the Family (PCF). Entitled Family, Marriage and De Facto Unions, it was finalized in July and released in November. (If you have access to the Internet, you can read the document on the Vatican's Web site,

Family addresses three important questions about these developments: Why is marriage special? How do current trends threaten marriage and the family? And what can be done to help reverse these trends and reaffirm marriage?

Inimitable Institution

Marriage, the council states, is a unique sexual community. It is “based on some well-defined anthropological foundations which distinguish it from other kinds of union and which ... root it in the very essence of the person of the woman or the man.” For instance, men and women are equal, yet different, and their sexual difference is what brings them into a special union intended to create a family. “Marriage” is that union. It is based on a commitment of the will to give oneself and accept the other person without reservation. Marriage, says Family, is “a stable, joint project that comes from the free and total self-giving of fruitful conjugal love as something due in justice.”

There are other kinds of relationships, sexual or otherwise, and “other ways of bringing children into the world.” But marriage “is the only institution that incorporates and unites all the elements mentioned at the same time and in an original way.”Precisely because marriage is a unique social institution, the law should recognize it. “The marriage that comes from this covenant of conjugal love is not created by any public authority: it is a natural and original institution that is prior to it,” the council writes. “The family and life form a real unit which must be protected by society because this is the living nucleus of the succession (procreation and education) of human generations.”

Family spells out how marriage offers benefits for spouses, children and other members of the family — as well as for society as a whole: “[P]rocreation is the ‘genetic principle’ of society, and ... children's upbringing is the first place for the transmission and cultivation of the social fabric as well as the essential nucleus of its structural configuration.”

In short, marriage is a public institution, and therefore its well-being is a matter of public interest. De facto unions, in contrast, concern private life, and deserve no specifically public recognition. In Family, the council repeats the Church's argument that these relationships are immoral. But its focus here is “the social dimension of the problem that requires great reflection,” especially by policymakers. The council is concerned with how the recognition of these unions can harm marriage.

By “recognition,” the council means laws and policies that involve “elevating these private situations to the category of public interest.” By treating these unions as an institution similar to marriage, policymakers work “to the detriment of truth and justice.” This contributes decisively toward the breakdown of marriage.

How so? To begin with, laws that treat de facto unions like marriage are based on a lie. This has a very practical effect, since the law is a teacher. If the distinctive nature of marriage is denied, citizens do not understand the importance of forming stable and lasting marriages. (Then, too, no society built on lies can long endure.)

Also, treating de facto unions as similar to marriage is unjust. It makes marriage just another choice, based on an “individualistic and private approach.” In fact, such an approach “discriminates against marriage,” because the law takes on “marital” obligations toward de facto unions that the unions themselves reject.

Plus, treating de facto unions of homosexuals as similar to marriage has serious social consequences. It is contrary to common sense; it leads to adoption by same-sex couples; and it embodies an ideology of gender that disconnects culture from nature. The council quotes the French bishops who, in opposition to “solidarity pacts,” stated: “There is no equivalence between the relationship of two persons of the same sex and the relationship formed by a man and a woman. Only the latter can be described as a couple because it implies sexual difference, the conjugal dimension, the ability to exercise fatherhood and motherhood. Obviously, homosexuality cannot represent this symbolic whole.” This distinction is not a form of discrimination in any way.

Clarity vs. Confusion

What can be done in response to these social and political developments? The council recommends that Christians understand and act.

“Christians must try to understand the personal, social, cultural and ideological reasons for the spread of de facto unions,” writes the council. As for action, the council recommends six steps.

l First, Christian families must offer a positive witness to their neighbors. “To the disillusioned men and women who ask themselves cynically, ‘Can anything good come from the human heart?', it is necessary to be able to answer them: ‘Come and see our marriage, our family.’” Such marriages can be “a light in the midst of the darkness.”

l Second, marriage preparation needs to be intensified. The council notes that “many young people even doubt that it is possible to achieve real self-giving in marriage that will give rise to a faithful, fruitful and indissoluble bond.” To counter this, couples need “a correct and realistic idea of freedom in relation to marriage as the ability to choose and direct oneself toward the good of self-giving in marriage.”

l Third, the Church's educational system must be re-structured so that it provides “the explanation of marriage and the family based on a correct anthropological vision.” Based on this, schools can then offer “an appropriate education to marriage and the family as both fundamental and necessary nuclear structures for society itself.”

l Fourth, there must be “a special effort to make family values present in the communications media.” Adultery, divorce and cohabitation should not be glorified.

l Fifth, the Church must offer “intelligent and discreet pastoral care,” in which prevention “is a priority concern.” This involves “nearness, attention to the related problems and difficulties, patient dialogue, and concrete assistance, especially with regard to the children.” All of this expresses a “respect for the dignity of persons.”

l Finally, concerned citizens and organizations, including the Church, should advocate public policies that recognize, protect and promote marriage and the family. This is something all persons of good will can rally around. We must resist “giving in to demagogic pressures by lobbies that do not take the common good of society into consideration.”

The Church boldly “invites those who are fighting for the cause of man to unite their efforts in promoting the family and its intimate source of life which is the conjugal union.” In short, family rights and human rights go together.

Family, Marriage and De Facto Unions is a powerful statement of what makes marriage special, why de facto unions threaten marriage and the family, and how we should respond. No serious Catholic living in these confused times should fail to study it, share and, most of all, live it.

David Orgon Coolidge directs the Marriage Law Project at The Catholic University of America's Columbus School of Law in Washington.

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