Engagement or Retreat?

Catholicism & Same-Sex Marriage

Last summer Commonweal published a controversial essay by Joseph Bottum, “The Things We Share: A Catholic’s Case for Same-Sex Marriage.” Bottum, the former editor of First Things, had long publicly opposed same-sex marriage, but in “The Things We Share” he argued that it was no longer prudent for American Catholics to oppose the legal recognition of same-sex civil marriage—because such opposition had likely become a lost cause; because the only good arguments against same-sex marriage were no longer intelligible in an essentially post-Christian culture; and because same-sex civil marriage might end up being good for gay couples, as well as for America’s marriage culture more generally. According to Bottum, Catholics should instead concentrate their efforts on the “re-enchantment” of a culture that had forgotten “the essential God-hauntedness” of the world. Because he did not argue for a change in church teaching, many readers of Bottum’s essay criticized him for not going far enough. Many conservatives, meanwhile, criticized him for going much too far.

We invited Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist at the New York Times, and Jamie Manson of the National Catholic Reporter to comment on Bottum’s argument. Manson’s piece appears below; Douthat’s piece, which we posted Wednesday, appears here, and Joseph Bottum’s response to both is here.

On the first day same-sex marriage became legal in New York State, in July 2011, I headed to Washington Square Park to witness the marriage of two women. The couple, who had been together for nineteen years, first exchanged vows and rings in a commitment ceremony seventeen years ago. The vows they repeated on that Sunday afternoon gave them, at last, equal protection under the law.

After the ceremony, we celebrated with pizza, strawberries, and Prosecco (smuggled into the park in coolers). The twenty people in attendance, whose ages ranged from twenty-one to well over seventy, all shared two things in common with the couple. We were all either gay or lesbian, and we all remained deeply committed to our Catholic faith. The married couple—both former nuns—first met at Mass two decades ago. And it was directly to Mass that they, and most of the wedding party, headed after the festivities.

Seeing these two women still so completely in love after two decades together, few could deny how naturally they complemented one another on every level. But for all of the special and spiritual aspects of the afternoon, I was struck most by how ordinary it was. I wished that those who regard same-sex marriage with contempt, fear, or concern could have observed that celebration. What they would have witnessed would probably have borne a striking resemblance to other weddings they’ve attended: friends weeping over the couple’s vows, taking tons of pictures, and enjoying a great party.

Joseph Bottum is certainly correct that “same-sex marriage is already here; it’s not as though we can halt it”—and that strenuously resisting state recognition of same-sex marriage is an expensive, damaging battle for the Catholic hierarchy. In his view, “American Catholics should accept state recognition of same-sex marriage simply because they are Americans.”

I would take that further. As someone preparing to enter a same-sex marriage with my partner of five years, I think American Catholics can and should accept recognition of same-sex marriage because they are Catholics. The church should revise its attitude toward same-sex relationships not simply because the culture is moving in that direction—which by itself, as Bottum says, is no reason to alter any moral teaching—but because it has become clear that that what the church teaches about homosexuality is not true.

Bottum writes that “the thin notions of natural law deployed against same-sex marriage in recent times are unpersuasive, and, what’s more, they deserve to be unpersuasive—for their thinness reflects their lack of rich truth about the spiritual meanings present in this created world.” I agree, though I suspect the truth I have in mind is not what Bottum is gesturing toward. Anyone with an experience of loving same-sex relationships will find unpersuasive the Catholic teaching that such relationships are sinful by their very nature because only sex acts that have the potential to create new life are licit.

Such a strict interpretation of natural law reduces human beings to their biological functions, and fails to appreciate persons in their totality as the emotional, spiritual, and physical beings that God created us to be. Most of us have realized that the potential to procreate does not by itself lead to the flourishing of married couples. Many childless couples have demonstrated that their relationships can also be fruitful and life-giving. So why must same-sex couples be regarded as incapable of marriage?

In her book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, Margaret Farley proposes that, in addition to meeting the norms of equality, mutuality, and commitment, a just and loving sexual relationship should also demonstrate fruitfulness—which need not be limited to conceiving and raising children. Some married couples are called to be parents, Farley explains, but all married couples are called to bring the life of God into the world by caring for one another, nourishing other relationships, working to mend our broken world, and being a sign of faithfulness to their community.

Rather than making procreation and genital complementarity the fundamental criteria for marriage, we should instead be asking whether spouses are a visible, tangible sign of God’s loving presence in our midst. Does their relationship help them flourish as individuals and as a couple? Does their commitment inspire others to deepen their fidelity and devotion? Are they a sign of the power of forgiveness, mercy, and unconditional love? Are the sacrifices that they make for one another an incarnation of the selfless love to which Jesus calls us?

Many of us know same-sex couples that fit this description, and, sadly, we know married heterosexual couples that do not. Reducing these couples to the functions of their anatomies simply does not do justice to the Catholic understanding of human persons. Recognizing the potential of a gay or lesbian couple to fulfill the requirements of sacramental marriage would be one way to embrace “the spiritual meanings present in this created world,” as Bottum puts it. The growing acceptance of same-sex relationships and the push for same-sex marriage is not, I would argue, a sign that reality needs re-enchanting, but a sign that our culture may be more receptive to a challenging spiritual vision of married love and commitment than Bottum suspects.

Bottum seems to want to table the question of whether gay and lesbian relationships are sinful until some future date when the church and the culture are better equipped to discuss it. “After the long hard work of restoring cultural sensitivity to the metaphysical meanings reflected in all of reality,” he says, “Catholics will have enough experience to decide what measure of the deep spirituality of nuptials, almost absent in present culture, can reside in same-sex unions.” For people like myself, and the friends who joined me that Sunday in Washington Square Park, that suggestion is unsatisfactory. By all means, we should work to make our culture more sensitive to the deep spirituality of nuptials. But same-sex couples shouldn’t have to wait for the success of that project, whatever that might look like, before we can participate.

It may take centuries before the Catholic hierarchy recognizes that marriages like the one I witnessed in the park, or the one I hope to enter, are holy unions with the potential to bring the life of God more fully into our world. But just as most of our culture has already concluded that same-sex relationships are equally deserving of protection under the law, for many Catholics the question of whether gays and lesbians are capable of living the vocation of marriage is already settled.



Commenting Guidelines

I found this essay to be remarkably off point and judgmental.  Being charitable forces me to ascribe the offending language as being written by someone who has never been married.  I advise printing this out and putting it in a keepsake box with the other memorabilia from your wedding and looking at it five years hence.  Here is where you went off the rails, from my perspective:

"Farley explains, but all married couples are called to bring the life of God into the world by caring for one another, nourishing other relationships, working to mend our broken world, and being a sign of faithfulness to their community. . .

All married couples?  How about all PEOPLE, married or not.  The notion that marriage is a "singular" state (not intended to be a pun) associated with an outward facing care and nourishment of others could, truly, only have been written by someone who is not married.  This is almost Mormon in its implicit elevation of the married state as being exalted over singleness.  It is definitely not consistent with NT Christianity.

"Rather than making procreation and genital complementarity the fundamental criteria for marriage, we should instead be asking whether spouses are a visible, tangible sign of God’s loving presence in our midst. . . .

"Criteria"?  What?  Are you proposing a test after one or two years of married life to determine whether two people deserve to stay married on the basis that, in someone's judgment (whose?), the spouses are  a visible and tangible sign of God's loving presence -- what if it is only one of the spouses?  What if by that time they have children?  I mean, what in heaven's name are you saying here, exactly? 

"Many of us know same-sex couples that fit this description, and, sadly, we know married heterosexual couples that do not."

"Many of you know"?  What do you know?  Do you eavesdrop in their bedroom?  Do you know their challenges and disappointments and expectations and needs, met and unmet?  (Which brought to mind the following poem, "Eros Turannos" at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/2042.)

Seriously, Ms. Manson, what you have written makes it seem as if you are making a fetish of marriage.  As much as I do not agree with the Church's aggressive targeting of same sex marriage, I know this from being married: most marriages "work" when people think being married is worthwhile in spite of (often enough) not meeting criteria and ideals set forth by people like you and those you quote.  It is not just commitment to the other person or to lofty ideals, to a certain extent, it is commitment to the idea of marriage.  That can't be everything, of course, there are marriages that deserve to be undone, but if there is one thing marriage does not need, it is another set of ideals that make it seem unattainable to even more people.

I really and truly wish you the best, but I sometimes joke that if there is something harder than being married I haven't figured out what it is.  Setting yourself up as a judge of whether other people's marriages meet your criteria is probably not a good way to start your married life.


Dear Barbara,

You paint a beautiful picture of marriage.  Really nothing harder?  War, famine, abuse, rape?  What about cancer or death of a close loved one?  My experience of marriage, and as well as that of many other people I know may contradict your experience. 

I also think that it is clear that Ms. Manson does not exalt singleness over marriage, being that she quoted the work of Sr. Margaret Farley, who is a nun in the order of the Sisters of Mercy.  She just happens to be responding to someone who wrote about marriage and therefore is writing in the same vein.

I do find it interesting that you call Ms. Manson a "judge of whether other people's marriages meet [her] criteria," when you have already characterized her marriage five years down the road.


Tina Romano

Ms. Manson wrote:  "Many of us know same-sex couples that fit this description, and, sadly, we know married heterosexual couples that do not."  It was fair for me to characterize this statement as a judgment about other people's marriages. 

It is not fair for you to state that I have done the same thing.  I haven't characterized anyone's marriage five years down the road.  I counseled her to save her piece and look at it five years from now.  I would counsel others -- for instance, those who write their own vows -- to do the same thing.  I don't know what she'll find, because I don't know her, her betrothed, or what fortune or misfortune they will encounter, but having been married for 25 years, I bet she will reconsider what she wrote from the experience of having been married for five years no matter what she encounters. 

And actually, I said that she was exalting "marriage" over singleness, so I don't know whether you misread or miswrote. 

And no, really, I don't think there is anything harder that takes place in the ordinary course of one's life.  All the things you mention qualify as violent or intended to harm or extraordinary acts of humans or nature.  Marriage is expected, and is supposed to be happy and contribute to flourishing.  Anything that requires you to make a commitment for the future requires optimism and expectation of good things, but it also requires a certain commitment to roll with the punches, so to speak, and it shocks a lot of people that marriage takes so much effort and requires so much self-abnegation (at times).  

Of course, there is a spectrum.  Likewise there are ups and downs and unexpected occurrences (job loss, children who are far more challenging than you are equipped to deal with, and lots more, good and bad).  And just to be very clear, I do not oppose SSM, nor do I like the definition she is countering, which really is a form of biological reductivism, just as she says it is. 

But I don't think it's helpful to drench the institution with more happy talk about people who are "still so completely in love after two decades together," and who so clearly and completely complement each other.  That's great for them, it is, but if you really think people who don't fit that mold don't meet your criteria for marriage, well, that's not my idea of marriage, and yes, I think it is harmful to hold it up as a way to define the institution for all people, which is what the point of Ms. Manson's article was -- to offer an alternative way of viewing marriage.



My description of certain arguments as biologiistic, legalistic and physicalist can be found in both tradionalist essys and revisionist theological essays over many decades of scholarly debate

Mike, those are still names not arguments. And they are not reasons to support homosexual activity which has clearly be evaluated as a grave sin by the faithful for the past 2000 years.  They are more akin to people trying to justify behavior they want to engage in than rational arguments supporting the behavior. Heterosexual relationships are fundamentally different from homosexual ones simply by the capability to procreate whether it's actually realized or not.  That means those type of relationships are not the same and do not justify the same legal treatment. But believe what you want. 


“  Perry Turchi  May 31, 2014 - 10:52am

One significant problem with legalizing SSM in the current judicial, political and cultural climate, is that such a law will be used to intimidate and silence those who disagree. Not only in the world of journalism, but just as importantly, in the much larger worlds of commerce, education and others. It has already happened and is happening. Once incorporated, there will be progressive calls for "tolerance" - but these will be short lived. Impatience with those individuals and institutions that fail to "get with the program of SSM" will result in legal and public pressure dealt to punish those, who now will be thought to simply be the contemporary version of Bull Connor. “

Also known as the domino theory or the Henney Penney school of  “The sky is falling!  The sky is falling!”


It seems clear to me that you have not followed by arguments on this article. I would ask you to do so if you want to debate. My arguments on this blog are far form name-calling and I will not repeat them. 

However, your repeating the magisterium teaching is an argument about authority which, by itself and in your short inadequate summary, is a weak theological argument. For your information, the capabilty to procreate is not a moral norm for marriage because fucundity is not an asolute requirement. I ask: How is your term 'different' in the context of heterosexual and homosexual relationships specifically morally relavant? Are sexual acts of heterosexual couples who are infertile symbolic when there is no capabilty to procreate or mataphorically open to the transmission of life? A relevant article discussing this issue is from Todd Salzman and Michael Lawler: Truly Human Sexual Acts: A Response to Patrick Lee and Robert George, in Theological Studies 69 (2008)....

"The hermeneutics of the body and the nuptial metaphor applied to heterosexual couples can be extended to homosexual couples as well, because in both homosexual and heterosexual relationships the partners, as sexual beings, give their bodies to one another and are "theologically communicative", that is they are witnesses to the community of God's constancy and steadfast fidelity. In their witness, homosexual couples have "symbolic significance" in their sexuality through embodied interpersonal union, just as heterosexual couples, both fertile and infertile, have "symbolic significance" in the sexuality in their embodided interpersonal union. Heterosgenital complemenarity is not a determining factor. Rather, two genitally embodied persons, heterosexual or homosexual, in permanent interpersonal union, who reflect God's constant love and steadfast fidelity, are the determining factor."

I am familiar with the debate and do not claim that my arguments on this blog are the absolute moral truth, but are legitimate reasons for a rethinking of this teaching. 

Dear Barbara,

I was sorry to read that you had such an adverse reaction to my essay. While my friends were indeed very much in love at their wedding, I did not mean to make their experience normative for everyone. I only used that story as a point of departure.  The point was to demonstrate the balance they found between their loving commitment and their Catholic identity.

The intention was never to have them "drench" the piece or hold them up as an icon, as you suggest. In fact, in the section where I write about the criteria for marriage, I had the kinds of marital struggles to which you allude in mind:

"Are they a sign of the power of forgiveness, mercy, and unconditional love? Are the sacrifices that they make for one another an incarnation of the selfless love to which Jesus calls us?"

I do not know you or anything about your marriage, but your words suggest that you have had to show much unconditional love, mercy and sacrifice. That was precisely what I was trying to honor with those words. I wish I could have elaborated, but the word count was quite strict and there was much to respond to! 

When I followed up with the line: 

"Many of us know same-sex couples that fit this description, and, sadly, we know married heterosexual couples that do not."

I really was thinking about relationships where there is abuse, violence, addiction, control and/or a radical lack of presence or concern for the other.  I certainly didn't have in mind marriages that, though not "blissfully happy" (and how many are?), nevertheless show great devotion and a deep commitment to faithfulness, not only in the face of adversity, but even in the monotonous face of the ordinary times, too.

My partner and I have been committed to one another for over five years now, and lots of stress was "front-loaded" on us in our first year: job-loss, death of a parent, my own serious illness. Somehow we've managed to get through it, stick together, stay strong and even still have fun. But we've learned a lot about forgiveness, sacrifice and unconditional love in that time. Life will bring us many more lessons in the future.

I hope you will wish us well. I wish you well. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. 



I think the correct argument lies in your last paragraph. Homily explanations of scripture and parables often begin with " first of all you have to understand the context of the times in which this was written". Why would this not recontextualize the persons whom we now know were born as they are so far as sexual orientation is concerned--and not making a free will choice? The perpetual church-versus-science scenario. Who perceives homosexuality more clearly?



About the Author

Jamie L. Manson is a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter. She is also NCR’s book-review editor.