The Sunday before last, the Archbishops of Westminster and Southwark sent a letter to be read out in every Catholic parish in England and Wales reminding the faithful of the nature and importance of marriage, and our responsibility as Christians to defend marriage for our sake and that of future generations. This letter was prompted by the Coalition Government’s stated intention to introduce legislation that would redefine marriage as a gender-neutral institution, opening up the way for same-sex couples to receive the right to solemnise their relationships as marriage on a par with heterosexual couples. This is a political action that, if we are to value the institution of marriage, and protect its integrity, we must all in good conscience (in keeping with the Church’s teaching, reflected in the archbishops’ letter) actively and strenuously oppose.
The best way to do this is to submit a contribution to the Government’s current consultation on same-sex marriage, which asks as its first question what respondents think of the basic proposal. As many Catholics as possible should write in making their views known. For many, however, this may seem a daunting task. The arguments against same-sex marriage seem counter-intuitive to the culture in which we live, and those who stick their head above the parapet to argue against the idea are frequently mocked, and slandered, as hopelessly antediluvian, homophobic bigots. As Christians, however, we know that God never asks us to do something that He does not give us the grace, strength, and ability to accomplish. Correspondingly, both a rational and powerful case against the re-definition of marriage, and an effective method of presenting it, are open to us.
The starting point in explaining why marriage should not be re-defined is precisely the one that the archbishops have described: the nature and purpose of marriage. In every culture throughout history, marriage has been the union of a man and a woman that is inherently fulfilled by, and is intrinsically oriented to, the generation of children. Marriage exists to provide the stability of formalised monogamous fidelity, which not only benefits the man and woman who enter into it, but forms the best atmosphere in which the children who result from their union can best be brought up. Indeed, the husband and wife consummate their union precisely by acts of sexual intercourse that do not just unite them together in love, but form the behaviour of reproduction. The nature of marriage, then, is a result of human nature, as our species has evolved to pair sexually as male and female, and in such a way that will result in the next generation being born and raised. It is, in this sense, a natural institution, and a fundamental part of what the Holy Father has called “human ecology”.
Marriage is also, therefore, a fundamental element of what the Church calls, the “common good”, by which we mean those institutions and conditions that lead to the flourishing of all human beings. We might say the common good is our “social ecology” – the social conditions that create the most beneficial culture for the good of humanity. Marriage forms the bedrock of the family – the basic unit of society – and it is therefore in the interests of the state to support and promote it. This is why the natural institution of marriage became a civil institution, regulated and recognised by government. By providing a formal and official recognition of marriage, our society prescribes the conjugal union of husband and wife as an ideal form of relationship. This reflects what we know about marriage: that it helps bind husband and wife together in faithfulness, and forms the best context in which to bring up children.
Why, then, should changing the definition of marriage, in order to include a small minority of same-sex couples, be deleterious to this fundamental human institution? For David Cameron, and other members of the Coalition Government, marriage is certainly beneficial insofar as it affirms “fidelity and commitment”, so why not allow two men or two women this affirmation? The rational answer to this is simply that marriage is not about “fidelity and commitment” alone. Marriage necessarily involves the possibility of the generation and bringing up of children, and by extending civil marriage to same-sex couples the state would be, on a very basic level, re-defining marriage itself. This is a move that would have profound and harmful consequences, in two particular ways that we may currently foresee.
The first of these consequences would be the effect it would have on our culture. The law changes, by the force of its authority, the way that society thinks, and how it perceives itself. By re-defining marriage, not only would Government be abandoning what it currently institutes as the ideal relationship, but it would, by implication, be denying that ideal. The relationship between husband and wife as the best context in which to bring up children would no longer be privileged by the state, and this would formalise an unfortunate view to the contrary that is already pervading public consciousness. Since the legalisation of same-sex adoption, and the legislative mandate that a child’s birth certificate no longer need mention the child’s father but may instead register the mother’s same-sex partner, our society has already begun to affirm the view that one or other of a child’s parents are dispensable to their upbringing. This is thoroughly wrong, and contrary to the best interests of children, who should have the chance to be brought up with, and have access to, the masculinity of their father and the femininity of their mother. As the columnist Matthew Parris once wrote: “I am glad I had both a mother and a father, and that after childhood I was to spend my life among both men and women, and as men and women are not the same, I would have missed something if I had not learned first about the world from, and with, both a woman and a man, and in the love of both.” By re-defining marriage, Government would deny this reality, and move our society further in the wrong direction. Re-defining marriage would also form a socially harmful precedent.
If we can change marriage in order to include one particular sexual minority, then why not change it to include any other sexual minority? If the male/female complementarity of marriage can be defined away, then why not the limitation to two people forming the marital union? If the fidelity and commitment of same-sex couples must be formally recognised in the interests of equality, then why not the fidelity and commitment of polygamists, or polyamorists?
If this seems far-fetched, it ought to be pointed out that legal efforts have already been mounted in Canada, the United States and Europe for the legalisation of polygamy, precisely in the wake of the legalisation of same-sex marriage. This is despite the fact that polygamy (as an example) has intrinsic harms to it, due to the inter-partner jealousy it engenders and the effect this has on the welfare of the children brought about in such families.
More reasons may be given against the re-definition of marriage, but the central concern about the effect of re-defining marriage on our culture, and the consequences this would have on the welfare of children and the good of society, is without doubt the most salient. By interfering with social ecology, which is a reflection of our basic human ecology, the Government risks doing profound harm.
To raise these concerns is not to deny equality or human rights, or to be motivated by base prejudice, but to witness to the common good for all people. As Catholics we need not feel cowed by the thought-terminating cliché of “homophobia” which is so often thrown as mud against those opposing marriage’s re-definition. As long as our language is moderate, and our tone light, we can communicate the Church’s concerns grounded in nature and reason, and win hearts and minds to defeat the Government’s proposal.
As always, may our guiding light of example be found in Holy Scripture, in which one of the first letters of the first bishops tells us: “Always be ready to give a defence for the hope that is within you, but do it with gentleness and reverence.”
Peter D Williams is a Catholic apologist and speaker for Catholic Voices. He tweets on Christian apologetics and politics at @PeterDCXW