By Frank Wessling
Nobody “owns” marriage. Some people complain that the Church and heterosexual people act as if they are owners of marriage and can set the boundaries of its meaning. But the institution itself, the idea, the historical reality of it, is simply natural, something we get from the bipolar sexual nature of humanity.
One from each side is required for building the next generation, and the pair who generates a new member of the human race is most responsible for the long nurturing which that new life requires. So, we have set up the expectation that those two people will commit themselves in a way appropriate for this social task.
Marriage thus isn’t “owned” by anyone, not by any class of humanity or by the Church. It is what the human race as a whole finds best for its progress into a future.
The Church does own a particular way of symbolizing the deeper value of marriage. We say that marriage is established by God. We call it a sacrament, meaning that the marital relationship is a sign of God’s own creative life of love.
This does not mean that there is a real difference between religious and civil marriage, as the current drive for same-sex marriage as a civil right contends. Marriage is simply what it is. The Church only points out the higher values of this natural bond and celebrates them in ritual. That’s why marriage is unique among the sacraments: the two people being married are the ministers at a wedding, not the church official.
The man and woman realize — or should realize — that they are the vessel of holiness to each other that makes them one, or whole. Their vows symbolize the power of love to cross boundaries of otherness. The peace and unity of humanity begins here. The Church as an institution is a witness of this event, representing God as the ultimate mystery of the other and spirit of love.
Other religious faiths also recognize this transcendent symbolism in the union of a man and a woman. The male and female dimensions of humanity unite in mutual gift-giving and the future is born.
We all own marriage in its sense as society’s foundation. None of us gets to redefine it as if the reality on which it stands is changeable.
This is all a very hard saying for many homosexual people. It seems to deny them entry to a privileged status in society. And many point out the irony from another reality: the tattered condition of marriage in practice could hardly be made worse by the inclusion of same-sex couples. They might even reduce the divorce rate.
A voice within the Church, as this is, has to take great care with how it treats this topic. Homosexual people are not outsiders. They are fully capable of the sacrificial love we identify with Christ. This is the ultimate measure of our faith.
The drive to make “marriage” include same-sex relationships is now a worldwide and accelerating phenomenon. It reduces marriage to civil rights and fairness while pushing other meaning to the sidelines. This simplifying has drawn courts, national leaders around the world and even some churches onto the bandwagon. It is probably going to happen: children born today will grow up with the message all around them that “marriage” is merely an option for two people who want some legal benefits from living together.
That is a flatter, and to some people perhaps, “fairer” future in some ways, but also a retreat from the rich symbolism available only in the natural, traditional meaning. It will be that much harder to teach young people how high they ought to aim.