The Magisterium's Arguments against "Same-Sex Marriage": An Ethical Analysis and Critique

Article excerpt

THE MOST OUTSPOKEN and consistently negative response to proposals that the state recognize same-sex marriage has come from the Catholic Church. (1) "Marriage" in this context concerns the state-sanctioned exclusive, consensual union of spouses that is terminated only with a legal divorce; "civil marriage" needs to be distinguished from "sacramental marriage," "common law marriage," or other uses of the term. Rather than taking a constructive position on the question of civil marriage, this article confines itself to examining the moral logic of the Church's opposition to same-sex marriage as expressed in documents issued by the papal and episcopal magisterium. It argues that the Church's strong suit is its recognition that marriage needs to be strengthened and has strong ties to particular cultural contexts, but that to do so it is not necessary to speak of gay people in a derogatory manner, to demean the value of committed gay partnerships, and to ignore the demands of social justice and the rights of gay people and their families.

This article proceeds in the following stages. The first part briefly describes some salient features of the contemporary social context surrounding the same-sex marriage debate. The second part reviews some key themes of recent statements of the magisterium. The third section subjects these statements and their arguments to ethical analysis and critique. It argues that the magisterium should continue to advance only its argument from marriage as a social institution and abandon the other arguments it has deployed against same-sex marriage.


Over the course of the last 40 years civil society has become more accepting of gay people. (2) The sexual behavior of gay people is probably as diverse as is it among heterosexuals. It seems to run along the same broad spectrum from strict monogamy to promiscuity. Some gay people, like some heterosexuals, regard recreational sexual activity between consenting adults as morally acceptable. Others embrace a very elevated moral interpretation of sexual ethics and find a minimalist sexual ethics of consenting adults to be morally unacceptable.

Some gay people believe that sex has a deep human meaning that is achieved only in lifelong and exclusive interpersonal commitment. They live in settled relationships that involve many practical interdependencies. About one-fourth of the 600,000 same-sex couples currently living together in the United States are raising children. (3) Gay people live in the same houses, often and increasingly raise children jointly, need health care insurance, and visit one another in hospitals. They rely on one another's paychecks, Social Security benefits, disability insurance, sick and bereavement leave, death benefits, and unemployment insurance. They contribute to their neighborhoods and other intermediary institutions and generally strive to be responsible members of their communities. (4)

Under current legal arrangements in most states, many people in these relationships are deprived of rights and benefits that are granted to married couples, including hospital visitation rights, joint income tax filing, rights to make income transfers and gifts, child and spousal support in the case of dissolution of the relationship, the right to make medical decisions for an incompetent partner, sponsorship for immigration, and so forth. (These concerns obviously also pertain to cohabiting heterosexual couples as well.)

Some activists argue that to meet these needs, cohabiting gay couples ought to be granted some form of legal recognition--special registration, civil unions, or marriage. (5) Not all gay people, of course, want marriage for themselves or even think it desirable for marriage to be extended to gay people in general. (6) Some gay people, going further, argue that the distinctive value of "queer" culture needs to be protected against the hegemonic design of the heterosexist majority to impose its own norm on sexual "others. …