The state of New York redefined marriage to accommodate same-sex couples on the feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. This may have been a prophetic occurrence, as one recalls: “John the Baptist did not lose his head because he protested against Roman occupation or other social injustices,” as Jesuit Father George Schultze once reminded me. “He lost his head because he pointed out that Herod had no ‘right’ to marry his brother’s wife. This was against the law. This was the prophetic statement that was most challenging to Herod, and it dealt directly with marriage and the nature of family.”

A statement released by the New York bishops stated, “We realize that our beliefs about the nature of marriage will continue to be ridiculed, and that some will even now attempt to enact government sanctions against churches and religious organizations that preach these timeless truths. … To that extent we members of the Catholic Church are called to be in opposition to the prevailing culture.”

Bishop Salvatore Cordileone, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage, added, “As demonstrated in other states where marriage redefinition has occurred, officials there will be in a position to retaliate against those who continue to uphold these basic truths.” 

The outcome in New York is a reflection of the culture at several different levels. First, it was a testament to the power and influence of the well-financed “gay rights” lobby that was able to persuade a few Republican senators to change their votes despite the fact that they campaigned and won elections on the promise to defend marriage.

Second, the decision is also a reflection of the confusion about marriage today and the fact that an increasing number of people now believe marriage to be merely the public recognition of a committed loving relationship for the private interest of adults. When that happens, some fail to appreciate the reality of what marriage is and its unique value to children and society. In these cases, complementarity in marriage can seem to be arbitrary or even discriminatory.

More than just a committed relationship, in reality, marriage unites a man and a woman with each other and any children born from their union. That is what it is; that is what it does. It is a reality that can only be recognized, not created or changed. It describes all of the goods of marriage rolled up in a single basic good that Blessed John Paul II called “the communion of persons in marriage.” However, recognizing this good, the reality of marriage, does not depend on faith or belief in God.

The Conservative Party in New York has vowed to actively oppose any Republican who voted in support of redefining marriage. The National Organization for Marriage also pledged $2 million to help replace anti-marriage and anti-family legislators in an effort to repeal the law in the future or at least give the citizens of New York the right to vote on marriage. The voters of New York do not have an initiative process as California and Maine do.  They must rely on the Legislature to place referendums or constitutional amendments on the ballot.

The Real Problem

Bishop Cordileone said, “Now, New York’s government will be forced to ignore that children have a basic right to be raised by their mother and father together. … This is a mark of a profoundly unjust law.”

As incredible as it may seem, redefining marriage as merely a committed relationship between adults makes discriminatory any promotion of the unique value that married mothers and fathers provide for children. Anyone advocating such a public interest or interest for children would be subjected to claims of discrimination against gays and lesbians and their families, described as “alternative families.”

Every “alternative family” has a child who has been deprived of his or her mother or father or both. The trend of promoting them as equivalent to families in which mothers and fathers are united in marriage will increasingly lead young people to trivialize the value of mothers and fathers for children. We are already seeing this today, as 41% of children are currently born to unmarried mothers. In Illinois, with the passage of a same-sex civil-union law earlier this year, the government and “gay rights” advocates are attempting to use force of law to get adoption agencies to deprive children of married adoptive mothers and fathers. This is a violation of the human rights and dignity of children, who are being reduced to commodities for the fulfillment of adults.

New York’s new law will also force schools, except those affiliated with churches, to teach children that there is no unique value in marriage that unites children with their mothers and fathers. It is absurd to think that teaching children that marriage has no connection to mothers and fathers and children will not have some impact on the decisions young people make about marriage and family in their own lives. This is a threat to every family and should be a concern of every parent.

The Catholic Response

As the New York bishops have said, “While our culture seems to have lost a basic understanding of marriage, we Catholics must not. Let this moment where marriage is being attacked from without become a moment of renewal from within — in our Church, in our communities and in our families — where marriage is indelibly marked by fidelity, sacrifice and the mutual love of husband and wife leading to children.”

Every effort must be made to restore the recognition of the reality of marriage in New York law and by public institutions — the consequences for not doing this are too great. We must not only stand in opposition to what is false, but in solidarity with the common interest that every child has in the marriage of his or her mother and father.

Much more needs to be done to restore the true understanding of marriage across the country for all young men and women, not just Catholics, in order to encourage them to marry before having children. We must work to end the practice of people creating children through artificial-reproductive technologies with the intention of depriving them of knowing and being cared for by their mother and father or both. We must fight those who would force adoption agencies to deprive children of married mothers and fathers after having already lost their natural mothers and fathers. We must stand in solidarity with children who are powerless to express their right to a married mother and father. This is a matter of social justice.

William B. May is chairman of Catholic for the Common Good, an apostolate for the evangelization of culture inspired by Blessed Pope John Paul II.

Catholics for the Common Good is an apostolate for the evangelization of culture using applied Christian personalism. Its Stand With Children project has a mission of rebuilding a marriage culture in solidarity with the common interest that every child has in the marriage of his or her mother and father. CCG is organizing Faith & Action Circles in parishes in California to help prepare the faithful for the evangelization of culture starting around the family dinner table.