A Religious, Civil Hornet's Nest: Emotional Baggage Connected with the Word Marriage Complicates Debate over Gay Unions

By McClory, Robert J. | National Catholic Reporter, August 15, 2003 | Go to article overview

A Religious, Civil Hornet's Nest: Emotional Baggage Connected with the Word Marriage Complicates Debate over Gay Unions


McClory, Robert J., National Catholic Reporter


In the official teaching of the Catholic church, gay marriage is an oxymoron, a logical impossibility. Yet, in the judgment of many Americans today, Catholics included, it is, by its very nature, a necessity, an inevitability.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is clear on the subject: "The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish a partnership of the whole of life, is ... ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring."

Since a same-sex union cannot procreate children, it cannot be called marriage. The Vatican's recent declaration that Catholic politicians have a duty to oppose legalization of gay marriage is an application of that conviction.

The idea was affirmed explicitly by Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania in an appearance Aug. 3 on Fox News Sunday. Santorum, an outspoken Catholic on the issue, said, "It's common sense marriage is between a man and a woman, Why? Because of children. It is the reason for marriage. It's not to affirm the love of two people. That's not what marriage is about. It's about uniting together to be open to children."

Yes, but it's about other things too, and that's why gay marriage has become a hornet's nest in the church and in the public at large. Though the magisterium may be united, the larger Catholic church is "conflicted," said Timothy O'Connell, professor of Christian ethics at Loyola University in Chicago. The roots of the conflict, he said, are found in the Second Vatican Council, at which the bishops very deliberately avoided restating the old dictum that the primary purpose of marriage is the procreation and education of children. Instead, they began their presentation on marriage in the document Gaudium et Spes by emphasizing the relationship of the couple, "their covenant of personal consent," and "their conjugal love for one another." And even when speaking about marriage's generative purposes, the document noted that "other aspects of matrimony" should not be considered "of less account." The elevation of these "other aspects," said O'Connell, opened a debate on the fundamental meaning of sexuality, a debate the Vatican neither participates in nor acknowledges. In Catholic universities today, "we present the best wisdom of the leaders of the church, which states that the relational and generative functions of marriage are inseparable, but we have to acknowledge that this teaching is less than convincing to many," said O'Connell.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan, a former U.S. congressman, said he is reluctant to support any diminishment of marriage from its traditional position as a unique relationship of men and women. "We shouldn't lose any of that," said Drinan, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center. But he added he too is "conflicted" about efforts to dismiss gay marriage because that "could mean a denial of basic rights and benefits to some couples who truly love one another."

There is no doubt that the theoretical esteem in which marriage is enshrined in the American legal system does leave same-sex unions at a considerable disadvantage compared to heterosexual unions. Michael Adams, an attorney with the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund in Washington, cited a variety of situations involving disparity:

* Income tax: Gay partners cannot obtain the benefits of joint filing available to married couples.

* Health insurance: Unless an employer's policy makes special provision, gay couples are not eligible for family coverage.

* Social Security: A surviving gay partner cannot receive any benefits earned by the deceased partner.

* Adoption: Unless a state has authorized co-adoption (about half the states have not), a surviving partner has no legal claim for custody of the child of a deceased partner. Her relation to the child is legally that of a "stranger."

* Visitation rights: Unless a partner has previously obtained legal power of attorney for health care, he can be barred from visiting his partner in a hospital by blood relatives of that partner.

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