There is no doubt that the Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage will reverberate through our culture and increase the assaults on Christians and religious liberty. This ruling will be used to vilify anyone who does not embrace and celebrate homosexuality. Expect pressure to remove any tax-exempt status from schools, churches, and charities that do not endorse homosexual unions. I would not be surprised to see the United States go the way of Canada and proclaim religious teachings that deem homosexual behavior as disordered and sinful to be hate speech and subject to prosecution.
On the other hand, we must be clear about what this ruling did and did not do. This ruling redefined the word marriage. What has been for millennia the unique union of one man and one woman as the founding cell for society has now been reduced to a legal partnership formed for the pleasure of adults. All legal marriages, no matter the gender or sexual orientations of those involved, are now civil unions or just another legal relationship. They have no more societal significance than the legal establishment of a business partnership or the contractual relationship of a building contractor with his client. The status of being legally married carries with it certain rights, responsibilities, and implications for taxation and property ownership. Now, there is no state acknowledgement of any sort of transcendence of the marital union. The unique complementarity of a man and a woman that makes their relationship the kind of relationship that can participate in the wonder of procreation and support the cultural cornerstone of the family is now missing from the state definition of marriage.
Justices of the Supreme Court, however, do not have authority over God. What the current Supreme Court did not and cannot do is alter the reality of Holy Matrimony. This is the joining of one man and one woman before God for the purpose of serving God together for as long as they both shall live. This vocation, in order to be valid, requires that this joint service to God be open to new life. It does not require that the couple be successful in achieving pregnancy. Infertility for whatever reason does not invalidate their union. Their relationship is still the kind of relationship that could, if all the reproductive faculties were functioning, bring forth new life. This is a biological impossibility for same sex unions and therefore it is impossible for same sex couples to ever be joined in Holy Matrimony.
The differences between legal marriage and sacramental matrimony have always existed. However, it has been easy to conflate the two because until now, legally married couples looked just like sacramentally married couples. In fact, priests and other clergy act as agents of the state to confer legal recognition to couples as they enter into Holy Matrimony. The Supreme Court ruling that now expands the definition of legal marriage to include any assortment of adults draws a bright red line demarcating the differences between legal unions and sacramental unions.
How should we respond to this development? I think we should concede the battle of semantics and focus on building up Holy Matrimony. We need to highlight the institution the state is recognizing is a new innovation and is nothing like the traditional institution of one man and one woman joined before God for life. The word “marriage” is now a legal term that denotes a legal relationship and is on par with “partnership” or “corporation”. Therefore, we should no longer use the word “marriage” to describe the union of one man and one woman in Holy Matrimony. If a couple is going to be wed in Holy Matrimony their wedding invitations should say so. If a couple wants to celebrate the state’s acknowledgement of their relationship they should invite people to witness their marriage.
I also think it is important for all Catholic clergy to decline to act as agents of the state to confer the legal status of married. The Church has no interest in the establishment of legal unions. It was a matter of convenience for couples wed in the Church to receive state acknowledgement of their relationship at the same time. Now that the state’s use of the word “marriage” cannot be reconciled with the Church’s understanding of Holy Matrimony, there is no reason for the priest to participate in the state’s process. If couples wish to be joined in Holy Matrimony they should go to the Church. If couples wish to have their relationship recognized by the state for legal interests, they should go to the state. The Church has long refused to recognize the authority of the state to dissolve a marriage through divorce. There is no reason for the Church to cooperate with state authority in the initiation of the current legal entity known as marriage.
The Supreme Court has the ability to determine what configuration of adults can be given legal recognition under the umbrella term of marriage. Now that the complementarity of one man and one woman is no longer a requirement, there is no logical reason to limit this legal status to two adults. Polygamy, polyamory, and countless other relational innovations are lining up for the same legal recognition and I have no doubt they will be successful in obtaining it. The idea of marriage will be so broad and inclusive as to become meaningless.
We do not have time to wallow in despair or anger. We need to seize the initiative and claim this opportunity for a much-needed catechesis on God’s vision for the family. We may have to accept that the legal definition of marriage has changed. We cannot and must not accept that this legal definition is equivalent to Holy Matrimony.