SCOTUS Votes 5-4 in Favor of Human Dignity

The Supreme Court today issued its opinion strking down anti-marriage equality laws in all 50 states. Writing for the majority, swing vote Justice Kennedy concluded his opinion with this moving paragraph:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed.

The Court's argument was based on four "principles and traditions" which show that the reasons marriage is fundamental under the Constitution apply equally to all. They are:

  1. The right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy. (Here Kennedy cites Loving v. Virginia, which struck down interracial marriage bans.)
  2. The right to marry "supports a two-person union unlike any other in its importance to the committed individuals," and same-sex couples have the same right "to enjoy intimate association."
  3. Marriage "safeguards children and families and thus draws meaning from related rights of childrearing, procreation, and education." This doesn't mean that everybody has to procreate in order to marry civlly: "Precedent protects the right of a married couple not to procreate, so the right to marry cannot be conditioned on the capacity or commitment to procreate."
  4. "[M]arriage is a keystone of the Nation’s social order," and excluding same-sex couples is "demeaning" to them. 

While this is not a decision that Church leaders are likely to cheer, it is striking to me how strongly these principles echo Catholic doctrine on marriage:

  1. It was Pope Paul VI who labeled marriage an inalienable right way back in 1967: "When the inalienable right of marriage and of procreation is taken away, so is human dignity." (Populorum progressio, 37)
  2. The special bond between the married is so important in Catholic tradition that we recognize marriage as a sacrament.
  3. The safety and security of children has rightly been an important factor in the magisterium's argument against marriage equality. However, it is clear from experience, scientific study, and simple common sense that marriage equality does not, in fact, harm children, and that providing children's families legal protection can only benefit them. The opinion's note that people are not required to procreate is also echoed in Catholic tradition: marriage does not lose its dignity if a couple cannot procreate, and Catholics are to exercise prudence in deciding when--and even if--they procreate. Pius XII explicitly noted that couples may practice (licit) avoidance of procreation "for a long period or even for the entire period of matrimonial life." (Allocution to midwives, October 29, 1951) Catholic tradition also allows post-menopausal women and other sterile people to marry, asking only that they not deceive their partners as to their procreative capacity.
  4. The Church recognizes the equal dignity of all human beings, and says specifically of gay and lesbian people that "They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided."(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2358)

Perhaps a good first step for Church leaders would be to applaud the Court's decision in light of its overlap with Catholic values regarding marriage. Of course, the Church may still refuse to marry lesbian and gay couples, just as it refuses to marry anyone with an un-annulled previous marriage. In time, I trust that Church teaching on sacramental marriage will evolve, too, and take note of the powerful sprit of love and commitment vivifying lesbian and gay marriages as well as straight marriages. 

But in the meantime, please, please, let's stand with the Court and celebrate the equal human dignity of ALL God's children. And Happy Pride, everybody!

 

Lisa Fullam is professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. She is the author of The Virtue of Humility: A Thomistic Apologetic (Edwin Mellen Press).

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