Words Have Meaning

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” — William Shakespeare

Words make a difference. They have meaning. Recently the debate began in Maryland on changing the definition, and therefore the meaning, of marriage. On the one hand are those who argue that “marriage” can mean anything the legislature decides it to be. Then there are those who know that some words have a meaning that not even a majority of politicians can change.

Childbirth is one such word. It clearly and precisely defines the action of a woman bringing forth from her womb a baby. It would not make sense, nor would it be truthful, for the legislature to decree that henceforth adoptions are to be called “childbirth” lest someone feel that he or she is the object of discrimination or a “second-class citizen.” The law already recognizes the equality of children regardless of how they become part of a family.

“Marriage” is the word that throughout human history has been used to designate the act of commitment of a man and a woman to join together in a partnership for life directed towards their mutual support and the generation and education of children. This is what marriage means and has always meant.

This is not to say that some people over the ages have not come together in a variety of ways, physical, financial and social. But these various unions have always had other names because they are not marriage. “Domestic unions,” “legally domiciled adults” and “recognized significant others” can all describe two people deciding to live together and share their affection and property. In all honesty, such unions should bear an identifying name. Whatever else these legally recognized unions might be, they are not a marriage. The word “marriage” already describes the partnership of a man and woman with the possibility of generating children. “Marriage” should not be emptied of its meaning for political purposes.

The reason we have words at all is to express both ideas and objective reality. Words like earth, fire, wind, water, life, death have meaning beyond anyone’s power to change them. Calling a rock “water” doesn’t make it so. If your house is on fire, it is crucial that you and the fire department mean the same thing when you say, “Water!”

This idea is not new; it is the basis of all cultures and relationships. Civilization depends on the promise that we say what we mean and mean what we say, which we cannot do if the meanings of words are altered and redefined. In fact, nearly 2,400 years ago the great philosopher Plato wrote, “We cannot name things as we choose; rather, we must name them in the natural way for them to be named and with the natural tool for naming them. In that way we’ll accomplish something and succeed in naming; otherwise we won’t” (Cratylus, 387c). Reality and truth are not ours to change.

Is speaking up for the truth of our words important? Or should we simply let the legislature define reality any way it wants according to political pressures, special-interests groups or so-called “correct” thinking?

If you can arbitrarily change the name of marriage to make it anything you want, then the same is also true of other words. Once the legislature decides that male and female, human complementarity and the possibility of generating and educating children have nothing to do with the word “marriage,” what is to stop the same lawmakers from deciding to redefine other words like: abortion, health care, medical treatment, education or perhaps even gestation?

It has been suggested that the word “gestation” be redefined to include the first three months after the birth of a child. In this way, according to the proposal, should there be some defect that is apparent after the birth, the baby could still be legally “aborted,” since it was legally still in “gestation.” A wild idea? Yes, but all you have to do is change the meaning of the words.

All it would take is a simple change in the law to redefine what is meant by an abortion. Suppose a legislature simply renamed abortion as an “obligatory medical service” when the conditions set forth by the law are met. This might well mean that all hospitals, public, private and religious, would be obliged to perform abortions or lose their licenses to operate or be prohibited from receiving third-party funding (insurance payments). The same legislature could define in what sense that “medical service” became “obligatory” on the mother.

What if the same legislature decided to redefine the word “education” to include whatever 51% of the politicians have in mind to impose on each child in every school? They could argue that no private or Catholic school would have to accept the new definition of “education,” but only at the risk of no longer being certified as a school that meets the legal requirements to grant diplomas recognized by the state. We should ask academics if they would like a legislature to define “academic freedom.”

The list can go on and on, and we must make sure it does not.

Words make a difference. They have meaning. We must be careful how we use them and very careful when lobbyists, special-interests groups and lawmakers want to change their meaning.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl is archbishop of Washington, D.C.