The Catholic Thing
Defining Marriage Down Print E-mail
By Michael Novak   
Monday, 20 October 2008

A question posed by Bill O’Reilly has been nagging at me for a couple of weeks: “What is wrong with gay marriage?” None of his on-air guests had given him reasons.

Meanwhile, the Connecticut Supreme Court has joined Massachusetts and California in “defining marriage down.” This battle is carried out in the courts because very few legislative bodies could form majorities in favor of “same-sex marriage.” My Webster’s defines “marriage” as “the social institution under which a man and woman establish their decision to live as husband and wife by legal commitments, religious ceremonies, etc.” But in 2003, the high court of Massachusetts imposed a more flexible meaning: “a voluntary union,” “the commitment of two individuals to each other.”

In other words, the courts ignore the centuries-old meaning described in the dictionary, and trim “marriage” down to a contract of friendship between any two persons.

Why do gay rights advocates seek this ceremony? A public ceremony provides public recognition. It elevates a private relationship into a public reality. Though public recognition is the real emotional force in this effort, gays also have practical motives, such as the legal warrant for sharing in health, pension, and other benefits now limited solely to traditional marriage.

But if the courts water down the legal concept of “marriage” to a mere benefit-sharing contract between two individuals, we will not in principle be able to stop at same-sex unions. Why restrict “marriage” to husbands and wives, or same-sex couples? Are there not many sorts of companionships equally worthy of public blessing: elderly sisters living in one household, or any two (or three, or four) members of any household?

What our common law has heretofore singled out for support is an exchange of lifelong, covenantal vows between two persons. Not just any two persons, but one man and one woman. These spouses needed to be able in principle to have children through their marital union, though it is not the business of the state to monitor whether they are doing so.

Of course some gays and lesbians also rear children. However, these are not children who share in the blessings of having both a mother and a father. Still, same-sex partners often provide a good upbringing, and that is to their credit.

Nonetheless, the vast majority of children are born of man-woman unions. It is therefore in the high interest of the state to regulate these unions carefully, and to grant them special privileges. In meeting the deepest interests of the state, same-sex couples are not equal to man-woman couples, and should not have equal privileges. Why is this?

States that suffer a decline in childbearing begin to wither in many other aspects of national life, such as prosperity, defense, and a well-undergirded future. Thus, states have long developed policies that encourage the married life of husbands and wives committed to a lifetime of rearing good children. They do this in the historically warranted expectation that stable, loving households will more frequently nurture children who becoming accomplished human beings and free responsible citizens, fit for maintaining a free republic long into the future.

A particularly fruitful activity of the state is to cultivate public recognition of the beauty and utility of the permanent love of a mother and father. Such a love by its daily workings engenders among their children the confidence of being unconditionally loved and an example to emulate in their own commitment to the next generation. Besides, marital love and childbearing demand special commitments to self-sacrifice. Rewarding these is good government policy, in partial compensation for the good brought to the commonwealth by these sacrifices.

As Alexis de Tocqueville observed, Americans were prepared to trust their republic by the marital fidelity experienced in a vast majority of their families. He contrasted this with the European institution of the mistress.

In Europe almost all the disorders of society are born around the domestic hearth and not far from the nuptial bed. It is there that men come to feel scorn for natural ties and legitimate pleasures and develop a taste for disorder, restlessness of spirit, and instability of desires. Shaken by the tumultuous passions which have often troubled his own house, the European finds it hard to submit to the authority of the state's legislators.

As we see today, a strong currency is extremely beneficial to nations. Maintaining the full faith and credit of the marital union that gives birth to a nation’s families is an even more serious duty. Strong families, oriented toward the rearing of highly skilled, virtuous, and creative children are necessary to the future common good. By honoring these families and rewarding them with benefits, the state encourages actions crucial to its own health.

Justice demands that equals be treated equally. No other relationship between two persons adds as much to the common good of states as does the fruitful union of husband and wife. Two-person relationships are not all equal. Each type should be rewarded by the state in proportion to its benefits to the common good. That is the true principle of equality and justice.

Michael Novak’s website is

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Comments (5)Add Comment
written by James the Least, October 21, 2008
Justice demands that equals be treated equally, but homos qua homos are not the equal of heteros qua heteros, in precisely the same way that those who surrender to the temptation to steal are not the equals of those who resist. That is the underlying moral truth that must be insisted upon. It is the same moral truth that used to prevent the adulterous husband from marrying his mistress in addition to, or instead of, his wife: the adulterous relationship is not the equal of the licit one.
written by Sandia, October 21, 2008
"Still, same-sex partners often provide a good upbringing, and that is to their credit."

I cannot believe that those words are in a Catholic publication! Shame. Intentionally depriving children of a mother and a father is nothing short of child abuse, not to mention the sexual depravity that is the norm rather than the exception for homosexual couples. There is nothing "good" about that upbringing and certainly nothing for which a respectable Catholic theologian should "give them credit."
written by Juan Jose, October 22, 2008
There are many valid arguments against same-sex marriage. But just recently I encountered one of the most powerful arguments Ive read in a while:
"In tawdry contrast with [cohabitation] is the demand for domestic partnerships between homosexuals, who now paradoxically are demanding a legal form that would be equated more or less with marriage. This trend departs completely from the moral history of mankind [...] Here we are dealing, not with discrimination, but with the question of what the ...
written by Juan Jose, October 22, 2008
... the human person is, as man or as woman, and how the common life of man and woman can acquire a legal form. If, on the one hand, their living together becomes increasingly detached from juridical forms and, on the other hand, homosexual unions are seen more and more as having the same status as marriage, then we are confronted with a disintegration of the image of man, which can only have extremely serious consequences."

This was written by Joseph Ratzinger in 2004.
written by Mike, October 23, 2008
The root problem is not so much defining marriage down as defining sex down. Once we separate the pleasure of sex from its biological function, to create children, there is not any logical place to stop. Homosexual intercourse is unnatural in this sense, but it is also unhealthy. Male and female bodies are complementary-- the parts are supposed to fit together. Not so within the same sex. Homosexuals should be respected, but homosexuality is a disorder, homosexual sex should be discouraged.

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