The U.S. Supreme Court’s narrow decision affirming same-sex marriage ought to compel a divided America to pause, reflect and commit to compassion toward each other.
In a 5-4 vote, the judges ruled that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. All 50 states are required to license and recognize same-sex marriages. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy referred often to what Catholics might call “reading the signs of the times.” He said: “The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the rights of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning. … The right to marry is fundamental as a matter of history and tradition, but rights come not from ancient sources alone. They rise, too, from a better informed understanding of how constitutional imperatives define a liberty that remains urgent in our own era.”
Our Catholic Church teaches that marriage is sacred and based on God’s ordering of creation. Male and female complement each other and through their fruitful union humankind continues and flourishes. Marriage joins one woman and one man in an exclusive, permanent partnership open to conceiving and bringing up children.
Kennedy, who is Catholic, assured those opposed to same-sex marriage because of “decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises” that “neither they nor their beliefs are disparaged here.” Unfortunately, disparagement seems to be the one thing that supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage share in common. More than one media outlet has senselessly referred to opponents of same-sex marriage as bigots while some Catholic hotheads have told same-sex couples that they’re going to go to hell.
We are struck by the heartfelt, insightful writing of both Justice Kennedy and Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote an eloquent statement of dissent to the majority ruling. “Marriage did not come about as a result of a political movement, discovery, disease, war, religious doctrine, or any other moving force of world history — and certainly not as a result of a prehistoric decision to exclude gays and lesbians. It arose in the nature of things to meet a vital need: ensuring that children are conceived by a mother and father committed to raising them in the stable conditions of a lifelong relationship,” Roberts observed.
In the shrill cries of supporters and opponents — focused solely on each other’s attitudes about the meaning of sex — we lose sight of human beings, made in the image of God, and called to be Christ to one another. Our church teaches that “every person is precious, that people are more important than things, and that the measure of every institution is whether it threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person.” But our church also teaches that sexual relations between two people of the same sex violate the true purpose of sexuality. Many in our society — even some Catholics — disagree. They say the church has failed to respond to the evolution in an understanding of human relationships. Our church says that God’s natural law is unchangeable.
In the midst of the disagreement and acrimony, we would all do well to remember that religion and faith cannot be reduced to sexual morality. As Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson wrote in a column published June 30 in The Quad-City Times: “Those who believe that religion in America is about old white men telling them who to sleep with really don’t know much about religion in America. They might visit, for example, Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans, which, in the wake of Katrina, helped a community crawl back to functionality…”
We can also reflect on this excerpt from the Iowa bishops’ statement concerning the Court’s decision: “Notwithstanding this ruling, we will continue to lead people to live under the Gospel, which requires us to be humble and loving to all, regardless.