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The True Purpose of Marriage

Almost every day someone says something about changing the status of homosexual people in our society. In the past year we’ve seen a real movement toward gaining stronger legal rights for same-sex couples. Raising the stakes to the highest level yet, Massachusetts legalized homosexual marriage in November.

States across the union are scrambling to deal with a changing scene, many banning homosexual marriage outright. There is growing talk of the need for a U.S. constitutional amendment that would define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

Unfortunately, homosexual-rights advocates have picked an area for advancing their cause that our Church and society cannot afford to relinquish: the sanctity of marriage as the union between a man and a woman, which is our traditional understanding.

Let’s clarify our intentions from the beginning. This is not a gay-bashing editorial. To be clear about the purpose of marriage as the union of a woman and a man is not to be vindictive or hateful about homosexual men or women. The status of homosexual persons, who may well have been created that way, is complicated and still unfolding for Catholics.

But the status of married people has challenges enough of its own without diluting marriage’s true meaning. In November 2003, within days of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling legalizing gay marriage, the U.S. bishops issued a statement clarifying the issue for Catholics. We applaud the November 2003 statement of our bishops, which restates long-held Catholic teaching about marriage.

Marriage's Purpose

So what is the purpose of marriage? In their November statement, Between Man and Woman: Questions and Answers About Marriage and Same-sex Unions, the bishops remind us what the entire Church has learned over the centuries: “Marriage, as instituted by God, is a faithful, exclusive, lifelong union of a man and a woman joined in an intimate community of life and love.”

Women and men are made for each other—that we all know about, physically at least. But, as the mystery of life unfolds for married couples, they have the opportunity to unite their physical union more fully with a spiritual union. This union of the physical and the divine is a sign of the Creator, or, as the bishops say, “rooted in the divine plan of creation.”

Marriage unites a man and a woman so that, when God wills, children are born, who are a further sign of God’s blessing. This is traditional Catholic teaching, developed over many centuries.

The very purpose of marriage is to develop union between husband and wife and to bear and raise children. In more technical language, we call those two purposes unitive and procreative.

God does not will that all married couples have children, as we know, and we don’t understand why. But our tradition of listening to God, revealed in Scripture, in the experience of the Church and all creation, tells us that married couples need to be open to bearing and raising children.

Question and Answers

The bishops issued a short question-and-answer-format statement that does not claim to cover all the bases. It’s a basic religious-education lesson on what marriage is and why same-sex unions are not marriages.

In the news conference following the statement’s release, Bishop Kevin J. Boland of Savannah, head of the bishops’ Committee on Marriage and Family Life, pointed out that the bishops realize we as a nation are in a social debate about marriage, an area about which our Church has a “core belief.” The statement is an attempt to introduce into this debate some key Church themes in everyday language.

Rather than attempt to summarize the eight questions and answers, we recommend that you read them for yourselves. The bishops’ publishing office has issued an attractive pamphlet. We’ve also presented the full text in the March 2004 issue of Catholic Update (order online or by phone at 1-800-488-0488).

A 'National Tragedy'

Archbishop Sean O’Malley, profiled in the cover story of this issue, had some comments for St. Anthony Messenger on the Massachusetts situation, which the Massachusetts Catholic Conference called a “national tragedy.”

O’Malley told Contributing Editor Jack Wintz, O.F.M., that marriage is “so much at the core of what we need to be as Church and society.” Changing its definition will “weaken this institution,” he said. The Church isn’t embracing this position to be mean-spirited or to deny homosexual people their rights, he said, but out of concern for society: “Society has to recognize the wisdom of the millennia in the definition of marriage....We’re trying to do something that’s important and good for society!”

Our Church teaches that, as the debate unfolds in our culture, we are called to be just and compassionate toward people who are homosexual. They deserve fair pay, just benefits—they deserve our love. They do not deserve unjust discrimination. But that doesn’t mean we have to gut our understanding of the nature and purpose of marriage.—J.B.F.

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