How The Catholic Bishops Plan To Fight Marriage Equality And Why It Won’t Work


Marriage Unique for a ReasonThe United State Conference of Catholic Bishops has released a new set of strategies from its Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage about how to argue against marriage equality. Posted in a seven-part series on the Bishops’ Marriage Unique for a Reason blog is a series of tips for talking about same-sex marriage in the wake of the Supreme Court’s rulings overturning the Defense of Marriage Act and allowing California’s Proposition 8 to fall.

Here’s a look at the rhetorical tricks and strategies the Church hopes to utilize and why they won’t work:

Define Marriage As Heterosexuals-Only

The first tip offered in the series suggests that Catholics should simply assert a definition for the word “marriage” that is heterosexuals-only. That way, they can supposedly reframe the debate around what’s good about marriage for straight couples without sounding discriminatory:

In our conversations and communications, we must insist on bringing the debate back to the fundamental question: What is marriage? A phrase we use in our work is: “Treating different things differently is not discrimination.” We can make a case for the uniqueness of marriage between a man and a woman by pointing out that only a man and a woman can form a one-flesh communion and can give themselves fully to each other, including on a bodily level. Only a man and a woman are capable of welcoming new life into the world, even though there are times, sadly, when this doesn’t happen for reasons beyond their control. And so forth.

Two men or two women are thus not capable of giving themselves fully to each other or effectively raising children, so marriage just isn’t for them.

No, Really, Marriage Is So Special That It’s Only For Straight People

The second tip is an extension of the first: describe marriage with the most “comprehensive vision” possible to make it seem like it’s okay that it’s only “made possible by the presence of a husband and a wife”:

We need to reclaim not just the truth that marriage takes a man and a woman — we need to reclaim all of the truths about marriage, that it is open to life, faithful, indissoluble, and at its heart a complete gift of one’s self, time, body, possessions, and so on, to one’s spouse… We must be clear that neutrality is not an option. We have been given by our Church such a beautiful, comprehensive vision of marriage, and we should look for every opportunity to proclaim it.

In other words, Catholics should argue that straight couples just have relationships that are more meaningful and dedicated than gay couples’ relationships.

Homosexuality Doesn’t Exist, So Gay People Should Just Be Chaste

According to the Bishops, there’s no such thing as “sexual orientation” or “gender identity” because “our identity as human persons is intimately connected with our identity as a man or as a woman.” Rather than define a more complex human identity, these distinctions “separate one’s identity from one’s bodily nature as a man or woman.”

In short, gay people don’t really exist according to Catholic teachings, so they should live lives of chastity:

Christian anthropology, rightly understood, is a message of freedom for every person. In particular, Church teaching on the universal vocation to chastity is an avenue through which to approach questions of sexuality, gender, love, and marriage. Everyone – married and single, those who struggle with same-sex attraction and those who don’t – is called to chastity, because everyone is called to integrate their sexuality within themselves and to love authentically.

If the only authentic outcome for gay people is to never have sex or have meaningful relationships, then they don’t even need marriage.

Preventing Gay Couples From Marrying Is Good For Children

Tip number four expounds upon how inspiring it is when straight people marry, and particularly how important that is for children:

And marriage of course benefits society by giving children the best possible chance to be born into a situation where their mother and father have already committed to each other and to any children born from their union. Not every married couple is blessed with children, but every child has a mom and a dad. As the quip goes, “When a child is born, chances are there’s a mother close by. The problem is: Who’s the father?” Marriage solves this cultural dilemma by bringing men and women together before children are conceived, to lay a solid foundation where they can be welcomed into a “sanctuary of life.”

Generally, children can determine who their parents are based on who is actually raising them, be it two biological parents or two adoptive parents, regardless of their sex. According to the Bishops, though, opposite-sex parents deserve special recognition because “all of us are sons or daughters” and “all of us have a father and a mother.”

Church Leaders Must “Combat” Marriage Equality Through Ministries

The bishops call on church leaders to “more effectively combat the growing sense that gender is irrelevant to marriage,” through various ministries, such as a program for young adults that could “integrate more teaching on chastity and Christian anthropology.” In other words, the Church must indoctrinate more Catholic lay people to fight marriage equality using the aforementioned rhetoric:

Being “neutral” toward marriage redefinition is no longer an option; being proactive is. Defending and promoting marriage go hand in hand, and while not everyone is called to engage in public policy advocacy work, all of us can intentionally promote and defend the uniqueness of marriage and help people see and articulate alternative responses to the dominant cultural messages on marriage.

Given that Catholics support marriage equality at higher rates than the general public and generally disagree with most of the bishops’ positions on social issues, this is a tall order.

Convince Young Catholics That The Church’s Positions Are Reasonable

The Bishops admit that their primary audience is Catholic young adults, because they are “most bombarded and most susceptible to faulty messages about marriage”:

The end-goal of the resources is inculcating a renewed understanding and appreciation of what the Church teaches in regards to marriage, and a sense of its reasonableness. The hope is that learning the Church’s timeless teaching can build confidence to promote and defend it.

In addition, “prayer is key,” because “fundamentally, the battle is spiritual, and it’s a battle for souls.”

Why None Of These Arguments Or Tactics Will Work

There isn’t much new in the Bishops’ new strategy to oppose marriage equality, and it suffers from the same fatal flaw as all the past strategies. (Unsurprisingly, the National Organization for Marriage thinks highly of the Bishops’ resources and talking points.) Just like the other set of “new” conservative talking points against same-sex marriage, this rhetoric discounts the lived experiences of actual gay people and their families.

Nothing the bishops describe about opposite-sex couples’ relationships is uniquely true to them, and to assert otherwise is nothing short of heterosexual supremacy, i.e., straight marriages are better just because they’re straight. The only option for the entire gay community is to live out their lives without love, and there is no consideration whatsoever for the thousands of children already being raised by same-sex couples.

The Catholic Church defines a very narrow vision of the world that simply excludes gay people, and all it can hope to do is prevent Catholic people from learning about them from the rest of society. Maintaining ignorance for the sake of discrimination in the age of information is not a realistic goal.