Wednesday, August 10, 2011

What Catholics believe about 'same sex marriage'

(This is an upcoming bulletin insert I've prepared for my parishes. An earlier version appeared here; I thought I'd show you what I finally came up with.)

Recently, the legislature and governor of New York changed the definition of marriage, to apply to people of the same sex. In recent years, this has been at issue in several states, and in many state courts—and it may come before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Catholic Church opposes this redefinition of marriage. As a result, we’ve been criticized as against “progress” and even called bigots. Because this is so often cast as a question of “rights,” we may wonder why the Church teaches what she does.

Let me briefly explain what the Church teaches and why it matters.

First, a surprise: our stance is not based on religion; marriage existed before anyone wrote the first words of the Bible. Marriage arises from human nature itself. Human beings are designed to come together and make a family. This is part of being human and obviously necessary. Marriage is important to the well being of us all.

What’s the harm?

Still, many will say, “So what? Why not just change the law to accommodate the wishes of those who don’t fit this mold? What’s the harm in that?”

Here are four areas of concern:

1. This is a power-grab by government. This is a fundamental change in the whole of society being imposed by the government. To a great degree, we all must go along with it. We teach our children to respect the laws. Laws express the common values of society.

The Archbishop of New York asked a question we can all ask: Who gave the government the right to do this? Redefining marriage means redefining family and ultimately what it means to be human. This is social engineering.

2. This strikes at the peace and cohesion of society. A society isn’t just a collection of individuals, but a community with shared values. People often say, “we shouldn’t impose our values.” But there’s no avoiding it; this is what laws do—they reflect shared values and “impose” expectations on all of us.

What’s happening is new values are being imposed on all of us already. Consider…

> In 2004, the supreme court of Massachusetts redefined marriage to include same-sex unions; a 2005 law changed how “family” was viewed by the state. The Catholic Church, long involved in adoptions, was told that if it deemed only a man and a woman as “family,” that would be illegal “discrimination.” The Church stopped referring for adoptions, rather than comply. Something similar has happened in Washington, D.C.

> In California, the state now mandates public schools teach “gay history” beginning in kindergarten. Where is this leading? What will this mean in practice? Will this affect textbooks or other programs made available to Catholic schools?

> In Canada, we might see a glimpse of our future. A Protestant pastor was charged with a “hate crime” in 2002 when he wrote a letter to the editor saying homosexual acts are sinful. After a lengthy court process, and much expense, he was finally cleared. This was not an isolated incident; it happened to the Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Calgary.

3. Marriage and family are not merely private matters—society rests on this foundation as surely as our homes rest on their foundations. Can anyone seriously argue it has been good for our society in recent years to have marriage become fragile, to have children grow up in broken homes, or grow up without both parents married at all?

4. This is reckless tampering. In recent years, we are better appreciating the importance of treating our ecology with respect. It is complex system which we don’t fully understand; but we are realizing better that polluting water and air, and not respecting the climate, wetlands, and endangered species can ultimately threaten our future.

And yet, politicians are re-engineering marriage and family. As Catholic writer Mark Shea observes, “what can it hurt?” will eventually be followed by, “how were we supposed to know?”

This raises a much broader question:

What does our Faith say about same-sex attraction?

We don’t fully know why some people (1-5% from various studies) experience this attraction. For some, it is a phase, for others it’s deep-seated. Some feel an exclusive attraction, but others don’t. Some try to change and do, but not all. Coming to grips with this at a young age can be very difficult. Some never share this, others are open about it.

Sadly, teasing, cruelty and rejection take a terrible toll. Some young people go through awful trials, and make rash decisions with life-long or even fatal consequences. A lot of folks have serious soul-searching to do about attitudes and behavior toward gay people.

The truth is, our family and friends who wrestle with these feelings ask the same questions we all ask: who am I? Why did God make me? How do I fit in his plan?

The answers—for everyone—are: We are made in God’s image. God made us to know, love and serve him in this life, to be happy with him in the next. We spend our lives discovering our particular vocation, but we are all part of his plan.

Did God make me this way?

Many say this same-sex attraction comes from God. But can we really say that?

People have all kinds of sexual feelings or desires. Will we say every one of them is likewise “God given”—simply because people experience them? Throughout history, faithfulness in marriage has always been a challenge; and people have seriously claimed that they can’t help being unfaithful. Is being unfaithful also “God-given”?

Whether we look at what nature tells us about human sexuality, or what Scripture and Christian tradition say, the answer is the same: that human sexuality is meant for a permanent union of a man and woman, with procreation an inseparable part of this union.

This is why our Faith has always taught that sex before and outside of marriage (including by oneself and porn), and marital acts involving contraception or sterilization, or which deliberately exclude procreation, are all gravely sinful.

Do I matter to God?

Maybe what we’re trying to say is something different: that whoever we are, God loves us. We have worth and dignity. That is true!

Nothing in our Faith allows us to demean or devalue anyone, for any reason. If we’ve ever treated anyone that way, that is a sin on our part. When we present our beliefs about the meaning of human sexuality and the call to chastity, this isn’t to be “anti” anyone.

As Christians, we believe two things that apply here: that human beings are broken and wounded, because of Original Sin; and that Christ, who died to save us, gives us grace to become new people. Having same-sex feelings is just one form of brokenness.

Facing our own brokenness, and bringing it to Christ, are essential to our salvation. Many people can say, “why did this happen to me?” Many people face life long struggles and shame. Christ accepts us where he finds us, but loves us too much to leave us there.

The virtue of chastity

Jesus said, “Take up your cross.” Why did he say it? Maybe because he knew there’s no other way to become truly human.

Our culture ridicules chastity. A lot of heterosexual folks, even Christians, do not embrace chastity themselves; so it seems unfair to ask it of those with same-sex desires.

So, a reminder: Christ calls everyone to chastity, not just some.

Married people are called to be chaste in their relations with each other and with others. This, along with the dying to self that comes in marriage and family, is costly.

Some heterosexuals find they can’t make marriage work. They either attempt it and it ends badly; or they never marry. They also find chastity hard.

And our Lord specifically called some to be chaste for his Kingdom—which is what brothers, sisters and priests do.

We might recall the words of G.K. Chesterton: “The Christian ideal hasn’t been tried and found wanting; it’s been found difficult and not tried.” No one can seriously claim our culture is too “pushy” about chastity and self-control. Just the opposite: what we experience from all sides is the celebration of not just lust, but greed, gluttony, materialism and anger.

Is this set of values working for our society? For families? For children?

We need the virtue of chastity so we can truly possess ourselves; in order to truly give ourselves fully to others. A society that scorns self-denial cannot say “no” and sacrifice for the future—which is at the heart of both our nation’s fiscal woes and health problems, is it not?

But chastity isn’t just about what you say “no” to; saying “no” to something that feels good, or really is good, means saying “yes” to a greater good. This is what soldiers do; what faithful spouses and parents do. It is what Jesus Christ did! It’s what each of us is called to do.

What is our Catholic answer?

To those who experience same-sex attraction, you are part of the Body of Christ. You are always welcome. Your priests will readily help with the sacraments and spiritual support. (See below for a link to Courage, a Catholic organization of those with same-sex attraction living their faith.) Every Catholic should be equally ready to provide true friendship and support. I’m here to help: call me to speak confidentially if you wish.

It has never been easy to answer Jesus’ call. In every age, some part of his message has always been rejected because it was too challenging.

When the prophet Habbakuk asked God why society was not listening to God’s words, the Lord said, “Write down the vision…the vision still has its time…wait for it.”
—Father Martin Fox, Pastor, St. Mary & St. Boniface Parishes, August 2011


“Bishop Henry calls for overhaul of human rights commissions,” Catholic Civil Rights League, accessed July 28, 2011, online at:; “Bishop Fred Henry's letter to the Premier of Alberta,” Catholic Education Resource Center, 2008, accessed online at:

“California to Require Gay History in Schools,” New York Times, July 15, 2011, accessed online at:

Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1602-1605; accessed online at:; paragraphs 2337-59, accessed online at:

“Catholic Charities stuns state, ends adoptions,” Boston Globe, March 11, 2006, accessed online at:

Courage: Catholic Apostolate for those with same-sex attraction:

“Same-sex ‘marriage’ law forces D.C. Catholic Charities to close adoption program,” Catholic News Agency, February 17, 2010; accessed online at:


Anonymous said...

In the end - as always - Natural Law will prevail . Excellent position statement Father.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the clarity and the empathy in your bulletin insert. I will be showing this to some earnest, sincere, young Christians who are unclear on the dangers of redefinition and its effects on our culture.


Pat said...

father, I find this post a little confusing. Perhaps I would understand your post better if you told us - do you believe in civil marriage? That is, do you believe that our government has the right to grant marriage rights - to determine the parameters for forming and dissolving a civil marriage, or should only the Roman Catholic rules for forming and annulling a marriage apply to State citizens.? Thank you.

Fr Martin Fox said...


As I tried to explain, marriage existed before the Catholic Church. It existed before the Bible. Marriage is NOT--N-O-T--the creation of religion.

That doesn't mean it doesn't have an added meaning within Christianity, but I emphasize, and added meaning. The meaning of marriage as a sacrament is in addition to it's reality as a natural institution.

So, marriage precedes government.

Government is not all-powerful. Government cannot do whatever it wishes. The government, for example, cannot redefine the value of Pi, so that it does not have endless remainders. Believe it or not, a state legislator actually proposed a bill to define Pi in just such a way.

So government cannot redefine marriage. It can regulate it, but it cannot change it's essence; just as government can regulate people; but it cannot define what a human being is.

At least, that's what government ought not to be able to do. We live in a time in which government is claiming the right to do anything.

Pat said...


Thank you for your additional thoughts, but they raise more questions for me than answers. Like marriage, many such important institutions and relationships predate government. Two examples would be simple agreements between 2 parties and property rights. So, it's not clear how it informs the discussion to identify marriage as existing "before goverment". We allow goverment to define what is a contract - or what is a property right, andd those concepts also predate government.

And my understanding of human history is that we do, in fact, allow government to redefine marriage. For example, what could be defined as a marriage in Montana - the marriage of 2 first cousins, is not defined as a marriage in New York, where 2 first cousins may not marry. I understand there were similar "fake" marriages that happend in the dark ages when one married a dead brother's spouse.

To be fair, redefining marriage to be something that can occur (with government approval)between 2 women is certainly new (10 years old), but prior changes in the marriage laws were, to my understanding, certainly redefinitions of marriage.

Lastly, what about my specific question: do you believe in civil marriage? Another way to ask the question is can government create a marriage law that flies in the face of Roman Catholicism; to wit, allowing 2 perfect strangers to marry who are adamant about never having children? Our civil laws allow that and define that as a marriage. and many argue that our divorce laws are also redefinition of marriages. That is, when we change the divorce laws, for example, allowing wives to bring divorce actions at no fault, that acts as permitting the government to define marriage. On Monday this relationship is a marriage. On Friday this relationship is not a marriage. The defnition of what is a marriage has changed because on Tuesday, we expanded divorce laws and allowed the wife to bring an action.

Thank you for considering these complex issues and sharing your knowledge

Fr Martin Fox said...


I'm sorry I wasn't helpful enough.

Your question puzzles me; of course I "believe" in civil marriage--that's what my entire article was discussing!

If you look at my article, I didn't say a single word about sacramental marriage, which presupposes natural marriage.

The thing is, natural marriage is, I think, a more meaningful term--because it makes clearer that marriage is a natural reality, not something government creates.

foolish Canadian said...

Dear Father, it might also be useful for Pat to distinguish between prudential impediments, such as consanguinity or exogamy, and matters that touch at the nature of marriage itself. Prudential impediments can be wise or not, but do not 'redefine' marriage. Another useful concept to keep in mind is the notion of protecting the good of marriage by governing it loosely. Thus a marriage of an elderly man and elderly woman might not be expected to result in children, but prudentially it would be extremely difficult to decide exactly at what age that would happen.
And one last distinction: between marriage and a civil contract. Marriage includes matters of contract, but in its heart is not a contract.

Pat said...


So sorry, but the answers just keep raising more questions. I guess that's why this IS an important topic of discussion for all christians and I truly appreciate your thoughts here.

What is "natural marriage"? Your last post was the first reference to it, but I don't know that such a thing exists and have never before heard of the concept. I would think marriage is unnatural, although it seems harsh to say so. I could see that the single state is natural, as we are all born into it, but marriage does not arise from or out of nature, does it? It is something that man affirmatively decides to do or to undo. And aside from man, no other natural being, plant or animal has a marriage. (Mating is natural, but marriage is much more than mating, I am sure.) Also, I understand that some people are naturally drawn to love another person and care for that person until death (hopefully) but that is also not marriage, is it?

Foolish Canadian, I am sure that you are incorrect about prudential impediments. Laws on consanguinity and divorce absolutely redefine marriage. If you undergo a marriage ceremony with your first cousin, and you live in every way as husband and wife for 20 years, and she then tries to divorce you, she can't, because there never was a legal marriage. There is no marriage to dissolve. The NYS or Calif. or Ohio law books say what a marriage is under those laws and the above relationship is excluded from the meaning of marriage. However, the same situation in another country or jurisdiction could operate differently because those marriage laws may include, as marriages, a relationship like the one described above.

Fr Martin Fox said...


I am sorry my original post was not clearer. I'll try to answer you as best I can.

What is "natural marriage"?

What I talked about in the first part of the post: marriage between a man and a woman. Please go back and read what I said about marriage arising out of "human nature." Nature.

Your last post was the first reference to it, but I don't know that such a thing exists and have never before heard of the concept.

Where do you think marriage comes from? Men and women somewhere along the lines both thought about, and felt the desire for: (a) sex (b) children and (c) stability. Somewhere along the lines folks figured out really quickly that sex, done the right way, and often enough, produces children; and then someone figured out that the couple should stay together.

All that thinking quickly leads to what we call marriage, either monogamous or polygamous.

I would think marriage is unnatural, although it seems harsh to say so. I could see that the single state is natural, as we are all born into it, but marriage does not arise from or out of nature, does it?

Sure: somewhere along the line a man wanted something the woman can give, and she figured out that it was in her best interest to say, in so many words, "not till there's a ring on my finger"; or maybe her father said it.

The point I am hammering here is that government didn't invent marriage, and certainly religion didn't. Anthropology--not that I'm any expert--shows that marriage between men and women is universal throughout the world, regardless of religion and race and culture. Sometimes it's not "till death"--and I wouldn't argue that a natural marriage must, by nature, be "till death," although the logic of that is clear enough--but it is enduring.

Thus, "natural" is implicit in the term "marriage." This is what marriage IS.

When the Church teaches that marriage is a sacrament, it means a natural marriage is also sacrament, under certain conditions: when two baptized persons, free to marry, give valid consent, etc. Two Muslims can enter a valid, natural marriage, but it's not a sacrament of the Church.

Pat said...

Father, with all due respect, it sounds very nice but I think what you are describing is merely your opinion.

I do not think that marriage is a natural state and I don't think that it informs the discussion to try to see marriage in terms of natural or unnatural. I think it is a human institution, unique to humans, but it does not occur naturally or arise from or out of nature.



Fr Martin Fox said...


It's not my opinion. It is what the Church teaches. Here, for example, is what paragraph 1603 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: "The vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator."

The idea of Natural Law is also not my opinion, nor is it the invention of the Church. Natural Law is a longstanding, accepted feature both in civil law, as well as Church practice, and has its roots in pre-Christian societies. It has manifested itself in different ways, as it intersects with different cultures and religions--because it inevitably gives rise to moral insights--but the basic idea is the same: that human reason can discern, in human nature and behavior, certain "laws" or norms.

Natural Law is a huge subject, not talked about much in ordinary conversation, but there's quite a history to it. You can start, if you like, by googling "natural law" together with "civil law" and I think you'll get some places to start.

There's a very good reason why this matters; if marriage is not something that arises from human nature itself, then where does it come from? Is it the gift of government? Can government legitimately take this away? Does that mean people cannot enter into marriage unless government exists to confer or recognize it?

Further, is marriage merely something someone thought of? How then does one explain it's universality? Yes, I know, not in exactly the same form, but even in so many forms, a central notion of marriage is, indeed, universal.

Fr Martin Fox said...


That marriage is unique to humans doesn't mean it's not natural. Is there no such thing as "human nature," distinct from the nature of other creatures?

Pat said...


Thank you very much for the citation to the Catechism. It is clear andd concise and yes, illustrates that your words here are not merely your opinion as I had feared but consistent with RC catechism.

Unfortunately, the use of the cite as binding authority tells me that your article is not really about civil marriage (as you stated on 8/15), but about religious marriage - in fact, RC marriages.

I find Natural Law argumenst both helpful and unhelpful here. They are helpful where they support our society's understanding that love and mutual support are at the center of a explaining marriage. And our laws and our public policies are consonant with that view. But NL arguments are unhelpful to the extent that they may place procreation at the center of marriage as its true fulfillment.

And ddon't get me wrong - I do believe (to address your question) that we are informed by our nature to marry, but I don't think you can go so far as to say that marriage is nature or arises from nature. And yes, I think it does require the imprimatur of society to be a marriage. So, while I would not say it is "the gift of government," I would say that it is not a marriage without the official approval of society. So then yes, I think society could take away marriage rights and yes, people cannot enter into marriages unless society (your word is government, but I choose a much broader term) exists to confer or recognize it.

Fr Martin Fox said...

Well, Pat, I appreciate your gracious words; but it seems we're approaching this matter from very different starting-points.

In no way was I attempting to describe "religious marriages" in my article, but all marriages. A marriage between two atheists is not a "religious marriage"--but it is a "natural marriage."

I suppose you may mean, well, you're describing marriage as the Catholic Church sees it; but of course, I thought that was obvious! But not merely the Catholic Church, but as marriage has been understood, throughout the world, through a very long time. Do you contest that assertion? If so, on what basis? I.e., without being an anthropologist, I'm reflecting what has generally been brought forward by their research. Marriage is male-female. That's what it IS. Not just "religious marriage"; marriage, period.

That said, I think you are giving Natural Law short-shrift. It's not something I, or some Catholic thinkers, simply invented in a positivistic way to suit our purposes. It has a long history, before the Church even, and it's the product of thousands of years of reflection and critical thought.

No question, Natural Law is one of those things post-modern man thinks he can jettison, a relic of the old days; and as a result, a lot of folks know very little about it. I don't know if that's you, but if you aren't familiar with it, I can understand why.

But, I think, it's rather like when you're a kid, and mom tells you something, and you roll your eyes, thinking--if not saying--that mom's old-fashioned thinking no longer holds.

Then--either soon or later--you realize mom's common sense still holds. It's like an iron law; how does she do it?

That's how we learn there is a wisdom, and a way things work, and we rebel against it at our peril.

In any case, I might turn around and ask what is your basis, your authority or basis for your assertions about marriage, such as:

> It's not essentially about procreation...

> It's about "love and mutual support"...

> It requires "the imprimatur" of society;

> Society can take away someone's right to marry;

> Marriage doesn't arise from nature?

Finally, I think there is a huge difference between the terms "government" and "society," and conflating them is a frightening idea!

Government is a subset of society, it hardly encompasses it. Sometimes it legitimately expresses social values, but not necessarily; sometimes it acts illegitimately. In my view, New York's actions in this matter are illegitimate.

I am not against talking about society's interest in marriage, but in this article, and in this thread, when I said government, I meant government.