One wonders what the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (CDF) hoped to accomplish with the July 31 release of its statement, “Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons.” It was not so long ago in this country that Catholics aspiring to serve in elected office were questioned as to whether or not they would “take orders from Rome.” Evidently, the congregation now believes the influence of the church on public policy will be strengthened if it issues precisely such orders. “All Catholics are obliged to oppose the legal recognition of homosexual unions,” the CDF announces. “Catholic politicians are obliged to do so in a particular way....When legislation in favor of the recognition of homosexual unions is proposed for the first time in a legislative assembly, the Catholic lawmaker has a moral duty to express his opposition clearly and publicly and to vote against it. To vote in favor of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral.”

If these instructions did not have a Roman postmark, one would be tempted to think they had emerged from the fevered imagination of Paul Blanshard, the author of the bestselling anti-Catholic screed, American Freedom and Catholic Power (1949).

Whether or not civil law in this country should recognize same-sex marriage or, short of that, “civil unions,” is a question that divides many people of good will, including Catholics, and one that people are often internally ambivalent about as well. Except in obviously exploitative situations, Americans do not want to criminalize or put up legal barriers to the private conduct of consenting adults; nor do they want to sit in judgment on the “normalcy” of homosexuality. At the same time, many people are uneasy with what seems to be a demand to change the very definition of marriage, a complex institution that has developed over millennia and is widely recognized as the fundamental building block of society and the most secure basis for child rearing.

Catholic teaching has long recognized an important distinction between moral law and civil law; not everything that is morally wrong should be legally prohibited. Where a society is divided, the enforcement of an unpopular law can undermine the authority of the idea of law itself. Under such circumstances, prudential judgment must be exercised, especially by politicians. There are some instances, issues of life and death for example, where Catholics should not condone political compromise, nor is it hard to fathom why the CDF is concerned to see the moral law reflected in civil statutes. Still, in a pluralistic democracy the legal status of same-sex relationships is best handled by the prudential judgment of elected lawmakers rather than edicts from Rome.

It is less clear why the Vatican thinks its statement, which makes no effort to persuade or even to acknowledge the good will of those with differing opinions, will advance rather than set back its own cause. Not only does it instruct Catholic politicians how to vote, but it asserts that homosexual love is “immoral” and a “serious depravity.” For same-sex couples to adopt children “would actually mean doing violence to these children.” Legalizing same-sex marriage would thus sanction “deviant behavior,” and constitute “gravely unjust laws.” “The approval or legalization of evil, is something far different from the toleration of evil,” the CDF writes.

The CDF fails to understand that this sort of rhetoric and argument is not how citizens in a democracy talk with one another about publicly contentious issues that are also intimate and personal. In a democracy, individuals are rightly understood to be the best judge of their own interests and well-being. Not only is the Vatican’s statement likely to be politically counterproductive, it is likely to exacerbate the intensity of feeling on both sides rather than make those passions more amenable to reason. Referring to homosexuality as “evil,” and telling gay parents they are “doing violence” to children, only undermines the possibility that the CDF’s arguments will be given credence.

The Vatican’s statement is especially disappointing because the church’s concerns about the complex nature of marriage, the health of the family, and the well-being of children are all legitimate-in fact crucial. These issues need to be aired in the debate about same-sex marriage. With the embrace of no-fault divorce as well as the impact of the sexual revolution that began forty years ago, marriage and the family have undergone dramatic stress and change. Most measurements show that these changes have not been beneficial to children. Marriage is now widely thought to be a purely contractual arrangement, one that can be dissolved at the behest of either party, and one that has nothing essential to do with children or other concerns that transcend the self. Yet experience, as well as social science, shows that stable marriages between a man and a woman continue to be the best environment for raising children. There is a strong correlation between stable marriage and adult happiness as well. There is little doubt that the biological and intergenerational ties of traditional families are precious resources of social capital.

Society has a moral and pragmatic interest in promoting marriage, and recent social history shows that marriages need that support. Heterosexuality has been constitutive of the institution, and those who want to change that carry the greater burden of proof.

Neither the rush in some quarters to redefine marriage nor the demand of the Vatican to restigmatize homosexual relationships will help us sort through this question. The church’s insistence that the experience of homosexual people is irrelevant to any judgment about the purely deductive, a priori “immorality” of their sexual lives is not tenable, at least as a public argument. Too many parents, siblings, and friends can testify that loving, faithful homosexual relationships do contribute to the common good. On the other hand, those who think the moral goods that marriage makes available to heterosexual spouses, to children, and to society as a whole can flourish without institutional boundaries need to think again. Marriage is fundamental to any humane social order, but it is also fragile. Change of this magnitude should proceed cautiously. Our moral duty lies in building a democratic consensus that strengthens marriage but also safeguards the rights and dignity of others. Compromise is necessary on both sides. Orders from Rome don’t help.

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Published in the 2003-08-15 issue: View Contents
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