My fellow California Catholics will face a big decision Tuesday: whether to affirm or deny the traditional definition of marriage. The state’s voters will consider Proposition 8, an initiative that would overturn the state Supreme Court’s May 15 ruling to legalize same-sex marriage. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the state’s Catholics will likely play a pivotal role in its outcome:
Catholics, who make up nearly a quarter of likely voters, also could make a difference, DiCamillo said. Catholics opposed Prop. 8 by a 48 to 44 percent margin, but that's down from 55 to 36 percent a month ago.
When the Proposition 22 same-sex marriage ban was on the ballot in 2000, Catholics were split almost evenly in the final pre-election poll, DiCamillo said. But exit polls showed Catholics actually voting for Prop. 22 by 15 points.
"The Sunday before the election could be important, since people may hear priests and ministers preaching against same-sex marriage," he said.
My family and many of my friends still live in the Bay Area, and I am familiar with the arguments against Prop. 8. The chief argument is that marriage should be defined by an individual’s desires and wishes. In its majority opinion, the California Supreme Court wrote,
These core substantive rights include, most fundamentally, the opportunity of an individual to establish – with the person with whom the individual has chosen to share his or her live – an officially recognized and protected family possessing mutual rights and responsibilities and entitled to the same respect and dignity accorded a union traditionally designated as marriage.
In the words of gay writer Andrew Sullivan, the terms of the court’s decision are a “watershed.” Previous marriage law had distinguished between gay and straight. The court’s ruling doesn’t. It posits that “the individual citizen … is defined as prior to his or her sexual orientation.”
Sullivan gets it half right. The court’s decision is a watershed, but not for the reason he described. The logic of the court’s decision, that of contractual law, is a common one in the legal world. Multiple parties discuss terms of a deal and sign a contract. Landlords and tenants operate on these terms, as do employers and employees. Whether the parties involved are gay or straight is irrelevant; the individual comes first.
What makes the court’s decision a watershed is not its logic, but rather its application.
Marriage had not been treated under the law as a purely private affair. It was understood to have private and public purposes. Marriage wasn’t just about the parties’ happiness; it was also about a common good – the begetting and proper raising of children. The gender of the parties, therefore, mattered. One party should be female, the other male. (Unsurprisingly, the California ruling severs the cord between marriage and children; as Sullivan notes, it establishes a definition of family “in which reproduction and children are not necessary.”)
Supporting this traditional understanding of marriage is reason enough to oppose gay marriage. As any Catholic knows, our private actions should be oriented toward the common good, especially as they the most vulnerable members of society. Just consider the consequences of no-fault divorce laws, which are governed by a contractual logic similar to that of gay marriage. These laws have harmed millions of children since their imposition 40 years ago. As Adam Thomas and Isabel Sawhill noted, if family structure had remained unchanged from 1970 to 1998, the child-poverty rate would have been 13.9 percent rather than 18.3 percent.
But there is also a specifically Catholic reason to oppose same-sex marriage. As Pope Benedict XVI points out, traditional marriage promotes authentic human freedom. It does this not as gay marriage does, by denying the real differences between men and women. Rather, it does this by affirming those differences and embracing them for their unitive and procreative ends. After all, what makes humans more free than becoming God-like, begetting children, and ensuring the future of humanity? As the California Catholic Bishops wrote in their statement in favor of Proposition 8,
we need to recall that marriage mirrors God's relationship with us-and that marriage completes, enriches and perpetuates humanity. When men and women consummate their marriage they offer themselves to God as co-creators of a new human being. Any other pairing-while possibly offering security and companionship to the individuals involved is not marriage. We must support traditional marriage as the source of our civilization, the foundation for a society that can be home to all human beings, and the reflection of our relationship with God.
The differences between the two types of marriage should be clear. Gay marriage represents, as Pope Benedict notes, “anarchic freedom.” Traditional marriage represents authentic freedom. This is in no way means that Catholics, or anyone, should disparage gay couples and their legitimate feelings. Yet California Catholics should understand the true nature of marriage, realize its implications, and vote accordingly.