The Church has in the past five decades stressed the importance of ideas that cluster around the phrase 'human rights' - in doing so, it has dug a hole for itself

One day the following passage may well be carved in stone on some monument, and held in the same regard as the Gettysburg Address of Abraham Lincoln:

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 fulfilment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilisation’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

There can be no doubt that these words represent fine oratory. But the words of Justice Anthony Kennedy, in which he, the swing voter in the Supreme Court of the United States, effectively delivers the right to same-sex marriage, are more than just rhetoric. They need to be seen in the cultural context from which they have emerged, and believe it or not, that context has been created, in some part, by the Catholic Church, of which Kennedy is a member.

For years the Church has stressed the profundity of marriage, its unitive nature, its importance. Marriage is, as the Church has taught, the cure for loneliness and the foundation of civilised living. Justice Kennedy is echoing the sort of views that were at the heart of the teaching of St John Paul II. For the judge and the saint, marriage is a very big deal indeed.

Kennedy also invokes the sacred words “equal dignity”. Of the first, equality, we have heard a great deal, perhaps too much. There is equality of opportunity, and this can and should be contrasted with equality of outcome. But what about equality of dignity? Again, the Catholic Church has tirelessly promoted equality of dignity, between rich and poor, between races and cultures, between men and women, and between social classes.

The discourse of the Catholic Church in the past five decades or so has not only stressed the importance of relationships, but the whole family of ideas that clusters around the phrase “human rights” as well. In so doing, it has dug a tremendous hole for itself, and found itself denying (or so it is perceived) these very things to gays and lesbians. In its rush to celebrate the human good, the Church has had to draw itself up sharply before same-sex marriage; and the proponents of same-sex marriage have used the Church’s own teaching and language to fashion a weapon with which to bash the Church.

Alasdair MacIntyre, in an aside in After Virtue, the book that made him famous, raises questions that should lead us to rethink the allegiance of the Church to the theory of human rights. He asserts: “There are no such rights, and belief in them is one with belief in witches and in unicorns.”

Indeed, where do human rights come from? How was it that no one was aware of them until the dawn of the French Revolution? On what are they founded, and how can we know them? But to ask these questions in Catholic circles is to meet an embarrassed silence. Ever since the UN Declaration of Human Rights, crafted in part by the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, the Church has been wedded to the doctrine of such rights. One clear example of this is the way our opposition to abortion is couched in the language of human rights. But this leaves the Church in a bind: we speak up for the rights of the unborn, and then in the next breath we seem to deny the rights of the gay community to marry. Of course, there is a right to life, and there is no right to marriage, but the difference is a subtle one, and impossible to explain amid the cacophony of public conversation.

The Church is certainly not wrong to defend traditional marriage, and our lack of success in this field springs, one fears, from the mistaken theological and philosophical emphases of the past decades. Marriage, as the liturgy reminds us, is the one gift of God that survived the Fall. Moreover, the first marriage began in Eden, but continued in exile from the Garden. In other words, talk about marriage cannot be separated from talking about sin and, above all, Original Sin, the fundamental flaw that is in every human being, and which is seen so clearly in our desires, most of all in our sexual desires.

Justice Kennedy is no doubt well-meaning, but he is hopelessly optimistic about the world and the human race. He ought not to be: he should, however, be optimistic about God’s grace, the only remedy for sin. I would like to lock him away for a few months with the complete works of St Augustine. Indeed, I would like the whole Church to go back to Augustine and restart its theology of marriage from scratch.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (3/7/15).

Take up our special subscription offer – 12 issues currently available for just £12!