The Catholic Church speaks clearly and succinctly of marriage. Marriage is “a covenant by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of their whole life and which of its own very nature is ordered to the well-being of the spouses and to the procreation and upbringing of offspring” (canon 1055). Though this may be a rigorous teaching, Catholics share it with other Christian churches and with other faith traditions. Their common understanding is that marriage is lifelong, that husband and wife are fulfilled in marital friendship, and that children will come of this relationship to be loved, cherished, and raised into decent human beings. Customs and cultures vary around the world, but with the notable exception of polygamy, most religious traditions share these strictures or something closely resembling them.

This understanding of marriage can fail of accomplishment and always has—adultery, domestic violence and spousal abuse, abortion, and child neglect and abandonment have long been with us. No doubt, its accomplishment falls short today as divorce rates attest. Yet, at the same time, shifts in legal and cultural practices have increased the prevalence of marital friendship as well as childcare and protection. Attitudes change and so do behaviors; even those of the Catholic Church—after all, it is only during the last century that moral theology affirmed sexual pleasure as a legitimate dimension of marital intercourse. And at least in the United States, many Christian churches, along with Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu communities, continue to hold standards like those in canon 1055 as the end point for which husbands and wives should strive, as many do.

Thus, Paul Griffiths seems to me mistaken in his claim that the Catholic view of marriage is so markedly different from that of others that political prudence counsels that Catholics not insist it be reflected in civil law. On the contrary, current civil law reflects the view of most religious traditions, including the Catholic one, if not in their fullness, then in their general understanding. And then, what evidence is there that “the body politic is deeply divided about the question of marriage,” at least in the United States? Though a high divorce rate indicates that permanence is at issue, we should not assume that the gender of the marital partners is. Currently 57 percent of Americans want a Federal Marriage Act defining marriage as between one man and one woman (Wirthin); 60 percent are opposed to same-sex marriages; 33 percent are in favor (Time/CNN). Furthermore, efforts to change the definition of marriage through the courts rather than legislatures suggest that many advocates of same-sex unions do not expect that this view will soon change by popular demand. (This is not to say that at some point Americans would support legal provision for domestic partnerships in order to remove barriers that currently prevent same-sex couples, and others sharing a household, from supporting and caring for one another. But this is not marriage or the equivalent of marriage as commonly understood.)

Griffiths writes, “It is...always an exercise of prudence... whether in particular cases to advocate the mirroring of the church’s moral teaching in the state’s law.” Indeed, distinctions should be made. Prudence is called for. But at least at this point in time, the Catholic moral view is already mirrored in civil law. Furthermore, Griffiths is not simply arguing that Catholics stand aside and allow the law to change, but that “it is possible for Catholics to support laws legalizing same-sex unions.” Though his watchword is political prudence, what is prudent about a scenario in which Catholics stand apart from or even work against the views of most of their fellow Christians, and other faith communities, indeed against their own views? In fact, shouldn’t we ask for political prudence on the part of those who advocate changing the legal definition of marriage?

Griffiths’s proposal seems to me not only imprudent, but oddly out of sync with the current political climate. (It is a legitimate question, however, whether it would be prudent for some U.S. Catholic bishops to wage a campaign against same-sex marriage in light of the clerical sexual-abuse scandal—a different issue certainly, but a matter that has seriously eroded episcopal credibility.)

Griffiths has usually seemed a reasonable man. What can he be thinking of? Let me offer the following conjecture.

Notwithstanding his reluctant but laborious contestation of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s imprudent command to Catholic politicians to oppose legalizing same-sex unions, is it same-sex unions or U.S. civil law that is the end point of Griffiths’s proposition? The view that seems to lurk between the lines of his argument is one of Catholic sectarianism. Yes, we are all sinners as Griffiths rightly reminds us and we all struggle to live our faith in a broken world. Was it ever thus? Well yes, but we now live, he claims, in a “profoundly pagan” United States, and must make our way in a context where “civil marriage rapidly changing in Europe and North America [Canada],” and it is best that Catholics withdraw from the public argument about this.

In these circumstances, the Catholic teaching on marriage seems to him so unique, so rare that it is unreasonable to expect non-Catholics to accept our reasoning in this matter, at least as far as civil law goes. Better to pull out with the hope that disentangling a noble idea of marriage from a degraded one will enhance the noble, Catholic one. This strategy, Griffiths proposes, will make the Catholic idea of marriage more appealing to Catholics and perhaps attractive and inspiring to others as well. But isn’t this just the sort of fault he finds in the CDF document—a “lack of modesty about its own predictive powers”? In any case, the “irreconcilable differences” he perceives between Catholics and others are not real, or so I have argued. Aren’t those irreconcilables rather the phantom of a desire to set Catholics apart? Indeed, the analogy he draws to female circumcision and the imprudence of a minority trying to ban it in a society where it is practiced suggests the perspective of a believer who sees himself besieged in a culture that is contemptible and unredeemable.

American culture certainly has its vulgar hot spots; sexual display is one, so is vehicular display, and so too various forms of political and theological posturing. But “profoundly pagan”? Compared to what? To whom? Griffiths may not like the way Americans, or his fellow Catholics, practice their religion, or, for that matter, the citizens of his native England (who may well be pagan), but why throw in the towel in a polity where there is general agreement about the fundamentals of marriage? Withdrawal from public debate on the definition of marriage, or any other publicly contested issue is the gesture of sectarians—a perennial temptation of certain Protestant groups, and now of some Catholics, both right and left, as well as the newly self-styled “orthodox Catholics.”

It is a big church, and we may well diverge on matters involving political prudence and public policy. Good people may be tempted by the sectarian view underlying Griffiths’s proposal, but I do not think it is catholic or Catholic. The Incarnation is one of Catholicism’s essential teachings; indeed, a sacramental understanding of marriage rests upon it (an understanding oddly wanting in Griffiths’s argument). Such an understanding requires an engagement with the world that we live in, not the one we wished we lived in.

The noble idea of Catholic marriage should be lived out by all of us called to that state—lived out in public and private, in political debate and cultural representation. Furthermore, we should see in our fellow Christians, in Jews, Muslims, and Hindus as well as many who call themselves secular, people striving to fulfill “a covenant by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of their whole life and which of its own very nature is ordered to the well-being of the spouses and to the procreation and upbringing of offspring.” This covenant may be difficult to carry out, but it is not rare that many strive to meet its conditions.


Related: Legalize Same-Sex Marriage, by Paul Griffiths

Margaret O’Brien Steinfels is a former editor of Commonweal. 

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Published in the 2003-10-24 issue: View Contents
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