At Bondings 2.0, Catholic moral theologian Lisa Fullam takes a careful look at the U.S. Catholic Bishops' argument that Catholics must oppose civil marriage for same-sex couples. She concludes that, in fact, Catholics appear to have a strong moral obligation to support civil marriage for same-sex couples.
I won't rehash Fullam's extensive and painstakingly constructed argument. I do recommend, however, that readers interested in this subject make the effort to grapple with the entire essay. In a nutshell, Fullam builds her argument by distinguishing sacramental from civil marriage, and by noting that in its social teachings and its theology of marriage, the Catholic tradition has very powerful resources for understanding civil marriage as a positive good that contributes to the well-being of society and the common good.
As Fullam points out, both the Catholic theology of marriage and Catholic social teachings rely heavily on natural-law theory which, at its best, has always refrained from trying to impose on secular society specifically religious understandings of matters like marriage. Catholic natural-law theory insists, instead, that people of good will have the capability of reasoning together about moral issues like how marriage should be defined, and can arrive at sound moral conclusions on the basis of the shared enterprise of reasoning together and without the imposition of specific religious teachings to predetermine what that shared enterprise will find as it goes about its work.
The approach of the American Catholic bishops to the question of civil marriage for same-sex couples breaks with this traditional way of doing Catholic moral theology in matters where there's overlap between specific Catholic moral concerns and moral concerns of secular society as a whole. It does so by directly importing into the secular debate, and seeking to impose on that debate as a controlling presupposition, the specifically religious notion that marriage is all about the biological complementarity of men and women.
The USCCB derives this understanding of marriage from Pope John Paul II's theology of the body, which derives it, in turn, from the book of Genesis — or, more precisely, from that biblical book rendered through John Paul's rather peculiar optic of interpreting it. And so the U.S. Catholic bishops insist that Catholics have an obligation to oppose civil marriage for same-sex couples while they do not insist (and never have insisted) that Catholics oppose civil marriage for opposite-sex couples incapable of procreating, or for opposite-sex couples who don't intend to have children.
But our question here is civil law, not Church law. Civil marriage is available to the fertile, the infertile, the post-fertile, the sexually uninterested, and the impotent alike. Civil marriage does not require that partners seek parenthood. Surely, non-reproductive civil marriages can embody the wide array of social and personal goods of marriage for partners, children and society beyond reproduction, just as the non-reproductive marriages we recognize in the Church do. Why would Catholics deny to same-sex couples the goods of marriage we recognize in infertile marriages within our own flock? Likewise, there has been no magisterial opposition to heterosexual civil marriages that do not meet Catholic standards for Church marriages. Why would we deny to same-sex couples the advantages we implicitly affirm by tolerating heterosexual civil marriages that would not pass magisterial muster inside the Church?
In fact, as she points out, the Catholic church celebrates sacramental marriages between men and women beyond childbearing age, or in which one or both partners are, for a biological reason, incapable of procreation. The bishops have worked themselves into the peculiar position of opposing civil marriage only for same-sex couples, and this not precisely on the ground that same-sex couples are incapable of procreating, but on the ground that same-sex couples are not opposite-gender couples.
The U.S. Catholic bishops have worked themselves into the peculiar position of asking that all Americans, and all Catholics, for that matter, buy into a religious ideology based on a previous pope's eccentric reading of the book of Genesis, which hinges the definition of marriage on something that had never been the central hinge of the definition of marriage in the past: this is the assertion that marriage is about the complementarity of a man and a woman.
In this way, the argument has moved down the road from the argument that same-sex couples should not be permitted to marry because they cannot bear children (since how can anyone continue mounting that argument in any credible way when churches and society as a whole have long since decided to permit infertile heterosexual couples to marry?), and is now about whether the two spouses have male and female genital equipment. The bishops have ended up where the "new natural law" theorists that we discussed some weeks back as we surveyed John Corvino's latest book have ended up: a marriage between an infertile man and woman is a "real" marriage even though it's non-procreative, whereas no marriage between a woman and a woman or a man or a man can be a real marriage, because real marriage requires complementary biological equipment that can at least ape the actions of that equipment when it's engaged in procreative intercourse.
If this argument strikes you as strange, you're not alone. It's not an argument that convinces many members of civil society, or many Catholics, for that matter. It doesn't do so, in part, because it elides central aspects of the Catholic understanding of civil marriage to which Fullam points as she makes her case for the moral obligation of Catholics to support civil marriage for same-sex couples.
These include Pope Paul VI's argument in the encyclical Populorum Progressio that marriage is an "inalienable right" of human beings, which, when denied, violates human dignity in a very serious way. They also include the recognition of Vatican II's document Gaudium et Spes that marriage exists to serve both procreative and unitive ends — a recognition built into the respect the church shows heterosexual married couples incapable of having children, since, as Pope John Paul II noted (the citation is from Fullam's essay),
[E]ven when procreation is not possible, conjugal life does not for this reason lose its value. Physical sterility in fact can be for spouses the occasion for other important services to the life of the human person, for example, adoption, various forms of educational work, and assistance to other families and to poor or handicapped children.” (Familiaris Consortio 14).
Built into the Catholic understanding of marriage and Catholic social teaching as well is the insistence that, even (or especially?) when we're discussing the rights of a minority group, we have an overriding moral obligation to protect that group from discrimination and defend its human rights. And, finally, there's the strong recognition in Catholic moral thinking that all of society benefits when we provide the social safety network represented by civil marriage to same-sex couples who are already living in committed monogamous relationships, and, in more than a few cases, raising children.
When we allow those committed monogamous relationships and the families connected to many of these relationships to flourish, to enjoy the same rights and privileges accorded to other married couples (regardless of whether those couples are procreative), we all benefit from the social stability we build through that choice, and from the respect for human dignity we demonstrate by making this choice. In helping to strengthen and support committed same-sex relationships by permitting civil marriage for same-sex couples, we help those relationships to demonstrate their generative potential to serve the whole of society and to build the common good in a way that benefits all of us.
It's on these grounds that I hear Lisa Fullam arguing for a Catholic moral obligation to support same-sex civil marriage (though I'm certainly filtering her argument through my own words and concepts). And if I am correct in understanding what she's saying, I certainly agree with her.
The photo of Lisa Fullam is from the Bondings essay.