United on Marriage

As the Church prepares for the fallout from the Obergefell decision, it is vitally important that she presents a united front.  But it seems that rather than a willingness to fight for marriage, many have greeted the decision with either indifference saying, “how does what they do affect my marriage?” or with scapegoating, usually blaming the “culture,” “Cafeteria Catholics” or “liberal bishops.” I would like to address both groups because I think they make the same fundamental error, even if they end up in different places.

The Indifferent

One of the clarion calls of the gay marriage movement has been that gay marriage is between two consenting adults, doing no harm to anyone else and should be legal.  Therefore we should remain indifferent to the laws surrounding it as long as they do not discriminate.  The assumption is that marriage is a private affair and should have no outside interference.  This, of course, ignores the fact that the law is a great moral teacher.  As St. John Paul II reminds us, laws “play a very important and sometimes decisive role in influencing patterns of thought and behavior.” (Evangelium Vitae, 90).  Succeeding generations will grow up assuming that homosexuality is morally acceptable.  Beliefs shape behavior.

It is this interest in the succeeding generations that forms the basis for the State’s interest in marriage.  The State is only interested in marriage because it is where the next generation is raised.  They should show concern that the rights of children are protected and children have a natural right to being raised by both parents.  Even the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child have recognized this right.

This is a natural right because “[M]arriage is the fundamental pattern for male-female relationships. It contributes to society because it models the way in which women and men live interdependently and commit, for the whole of life, to seek the good of each other.  The marital union also provides the best conditions for raising children: namely, the stable, loving relationship of a mother and father present only in marriage” (USCCB, Marriage and Same-sex Unions, 4).

Now that same-sex marriage is legalized, there will be a significant change in our society, the fruit of which we will not necessarily see in our generation. We have codified the assumption that the primary purpose of marriage is to validate and protect a sexually intimate relationship. All else is secondary including the rights of the other members of the family.

The Scapegoaters

On the other hand there are those who normally label themselves as “conservative” Catholics who are on the lookout for someone to blame.  It is always those people who aren’t Catholic enough—bishops, priests, laity—who are to blame for the current plight in the world.  They usually measure the Catholicity of those around them by counting the number of kids they have.  We have all met them—they define themselves by how many kids they have and they speak of other people in the same terms.  They hold those with two kids in contempt.  They are also marked by a joylessness that usually stems from the demands of having four kids within six years of each other.  It never crosses their minds that the couples with two kids may be looking at them not because of how many kids they have but with how unhappy they seem.

Now let me be absolutely clear what I am saying here.  Large families are a beautiful gift and there are many of them who live with a great joy and make it look so appealing.  They are living out their vocation in the manner God has called them.  But not everyone is called to have a large family.  There are grave reasons why having more children temporarily or permanently is imprudent or even impossible.  Certainly it matters morally how we accomplish this.  That is not what this is about.   It is about those couples who show no discernment and assume marriage is simply about baby making.  Because they are operating out of the same set of assumptions as those who are indifferent and bear just as much responsibility as them in creating this atmosphere.

To understand the assumption that is being made, it is first necessary to clarify the distinction between intrinsic and instrumental goods.  An intrinsic good is one that is good for its own sake and is an end in itself.  An instrumental good is one that is a means to some intrinsic good.  If we classify marriage as a good, is it intrinsic or instrumental?

St. Augustine was the first to hold that marriage is an instrumental good.  He said “we must see that God gives us some goods which are to be sought for their own sake, such as wisdom, health, friendship; others, which are necessary for something else, such as learning, food, drink, sleep, marriage, sexual intercourse.” (St. Augustine, De bono coniugali, 9.9).  This notion of marriage as merely an instrumental good is still in vogue today.  However, marriage is an intrinsic good.  As John Paul II pointed out in Veritatis Splendor, the communion of persons in marriage is a fundamental human good upon which all human goods are built.

If we define marriage as “a union between a man and a woman who, by mutual personal gift, proper and exclusive to themselves, tend toward the communion of their persons” (CDF, Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons, 2) then we see that only in light of marriage as an intrinsic good do the ideas of permanence and exclusivity make sense.  If marriage is not an end in itself then there is no reason to abide by these ideals in the face of the nearly inevitable trials that come with every marriage. If marriage is an intrinsic good, then it is written into the very nature of man.  This means that it is fixed and not open to redefinition.  However, when it is treated as an instrumental good, many begin to see it merely as a social construct.  This means that it may be defined in any manner that a given society sees fit in order to meet the needs of the members.

It is because of the instrumentalist view that the push for same-sex marriage gained traction so quickly.  This is because few people, unfortunately, noticed the radical change in the definition of marriage that began nearly fifty years ago.  Thanks to the “sexual revolution”, sex became separated from procreation.  Once that intrinsic connection was lost, sex within marriage became an instrumental good.  The rest of married life followed suit; marriage became a means of personal fulfilment instead of mutual fulfilment, and when one of the spouses no longer felt “personally fulfilled”, he or she felt free to terminate the contractual agreement.  That this occurred seems self-evident, but it may not be so obvious that the occurrence represented a vast change from the traditional understanding of marriage.

Catholic Rabbits

Out of this rose the reactionary group that sees marriage merely as a means instrumental to the founding of a family.   This temptation is something that the future Pope John Paul II recognized.  He taught that “the inner and essential raison d’etre of marriage is not simply eventual transformation into a family but above all the creation of a lasting personal union between a man and a woman based on love” (Love and Responsibility, p.228).  In other words, the family is a fruit of marriage that is founded on the communion of the spouses, but it is not the purpose of marriage itself.   The fact that society feeds on that fruit should not obscure this either.


I think this what at the heart of what Pope Francis was saying when he cautioned against becoming Catholic rabbits.  The point is that the vocation of marriage is a calling to healthy family life which may or may mean a large family.  Many Catholics today would have scoffed at Mary and Joseph for having one kid (and some of their Jewish neighbors probably did).  And yet they serve as the model for all of family life because of the three signs of a healthy marriage—(1) mutual sanctity of the members (2) greater concern for the perfection of their spouse than their own (3) joy.

The point is that large families are not the solution to the marriage crisis as some seem to think.  The solution is holier families.  This means a commitment to the sanctification of each of the members individually.  Large families can turn the eyes of the world for two reasons—the first is that they appear to be a freak show or second because of the great joy of their members.  Only in the second case does the freak show aspect fade and the beauty of marriage well lived shine forth.  The world looks at the joyless family and sees the mom as nothing more than a baby-making machine and in some respects they are right.  Marriage has to be so much more than that.

We have no one to blame for the marriage crisis but ourselves.  If Marriage is an intrinsic good then it is written in all of our hearts to live out God’s plan for it in our lives.  In other words, the witness of a beautiful marriage speaks volumes to the hearts of those in the world.  This cannot be stamped out because we are made for it.  When the law says marriage is something that it is not, then one of the weapons to fight it is to live more clearly what it is.  The problem has been that we have not lived it out well enough to show this.  If you want to change the culture, start in your own house.  The culture war will be won one family at a time.  We have to always remember this and not be surprised or discouraged when things like this happen.  As the Fatima visionary Sr. Lucia told Cardinal Carlo Caffara,

“the final battle between the Lord and the reign of Satan will be about marriage and the family. Don’t be afraid, she added, because anyone who works for the sanctity of marriage and the family will always be fought and opposed in every way, because this is the decisive issue. And then she concluded: however, Our Lady has already crushed its head.”


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