Redefining Marriage?

The citizens of North Carolina recently recognized that “marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.” And they did so by a significant margin. President Obama stated in an ABC news interview that “I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,” while Mitt Romney, interviewed by a Denver television station, reiterated, “I do not favor marriage between people of the same gender and I don’t favor civil unions if they’re identical to marriage other than by name.”

The mainstream media has been up in arms, panning North Carolinians and presumptive GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, while praising President Obama for his “evolved” view.

The tamer headlines read “North Carolina Voters Ban Gay Marriage,” “Obama Endorses Gay Marriage,” and “On ‘Evolution Day’ Mitt Romney Opposes Gay Marriage.” Newspapers, magazines, and every form of media are covering homosexuality as the issue is pushed into the limelight by the impending cultural and moral firestorm.

Having no affinity for politics, I prefer to take a step back and address a more fundamental problem – that of language. As Catholics, how should we speak about this matter? What language should be used, and why is careful use of language so important?

Language is rarely harmless – it is laden with meaning and assumptions. Further, it teaches and forms individuals and culture. The headline claiming that the people of North Carolina “ban gay marriage” carries with it the assumption that while North Carolina bans “gay marriage” it can and does exist elsewhere. But, the reality is that nothing was banned because “gay marriage” does not exist; it is a non-entity. Saying “gay marriage” is banned is like saying square-circles were banned by Euclid or that unicorns were banned by the San Francisco Zoo. We cannot ban what does not exist. A choice to cherish and uphold a good that exists does not mean that we are banning non-entities.

Instead of banning something, the people of North Carolina chose to uphold something – namely the institution of marriage, the true meaning of which cannot “evolve” with the times. Church teaching is clear: “No ideology can erase from the human spirit the certainty that marriage exists solely between a man and a woman, who by mutual personal gift, proper and exclusive to themselves, tend toward the communion of persons” (emphasis added). There is no equivocation – marriage is not merely a word that can be stamped onto all sorts of relationships. Marriage is a naturally and neatly defined institution, and the word has true meaning independent of ideology. It’s meaning, further, does not wax and wane depending upon what the meaning of is, is.

Adoption of the language of “gay marriage” is a perhaps unwitting collaboration in the “conspiracy against marriage” that exists today. The slogans of “gay marriage” and “marriage equality” are rhetorical attempts to engage in social engineering by way of verbal engineering, with the implicit understanding that to oppose this redefinition is to be against “equality.”

When we adopt the language of “gay marriage,” we weaken our ability to proclaim the truth and allow the culture of death to become the norm.  William Brennan and numerous other scholars of all backgrounds have long argued that euphemisms and other verbal gymnastics are used as a tool of manipulation, so that the forces of death can be successful in numbing the moral sensibilities of a people and thus disfigure a culture.

Rather than decrying “gay marriage” we should instead speak of upholding and recognizing the true definition of marriage. We should speak of attempts to “radically redefine marriage” or attempts to “falsely define marriage.” Adopting accurate language is an essential element of Blessed John Paul II’s call to have “the courage to speak the truth clearly, candidly and boldly, but never with hatred or disrespect for persons.”

At the end of the day, our emphasis on promoting and protecting the one definition of marriage as the primary unit of society and basis of the family is about cherishing a great and essential good. Defining marriage properly does not signify hatred, disrespect or unjust discrimination towards a particular group of persons. It is, rather, a faithful response to a clear and emphatic duty, to proclaim the truth with love.

Arland K. Nichols served as HLI’s director of education and evangelization and executive editor of the Truth and Charity Forum until February 2014. He is currently president of the John Paul II Foundation in Texas, where he resides with his family.    
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