Archbishop William E. Lori
I recently attended a talk given by a gentleman who left his lucrative career to devote his talent and energies to defend marriage. He spoke of a young woman who, in 1970, filed a three-page complaint in a Dallas courthouse. At the time, her filing would have seemed inconsequential. Within less than three years, though, the complaint made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, paving the way for the high court’s disastrous decision that legalized abortion throughout the nation.
The speaker explained how today, 40 years later, Roe v. Wade is firmly ensconced in the vocabulary of a society that has witnessed the deaths of more than 55 million innocent, unborn children. This led him to wonder, “What if, in 1970, the Roe complaint had been more vigorously and effectively resisted?”
With critical challenges to religious liberty and the sacred institution of marriage fast becoming the watershed moments of our day, he observed, “It’s 1970 — again.”
THE ROLE OF RELIGION
Voters in four states — Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington — are set to vote on ballot questions seeking to redefine marriage, and a Supreme Court ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act is imminent. We have, indeed, reached another crucial moment in our nation, a moment that will define what kind of people we are.
Just as in 1970, people today downplay the consequence of changing the law. Those in support of redefining marriage suggest that concerns about the long-term impact of such a change are, at best, exaggerations or, at worst, a form of bigotry.
But to understand the true implications of redefining marriage, we need to look beyond the sound bites, slick advertising and clever ballot language. Instead, we need to peer beneath the surface to see what the acceptance of same-sex marriage as law truly represents: a massive threat to religious liberty.
For years, religion has been marginalized in Western culture, most recently by the federal government itself. We need look no further than the narrow, government-imposed definition of religion that emerged in the struggle surrounding the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ contraception mandate: In order to qualify for an exemption from having to provide morally objectionable services in employee benefit plans, the federal government has stated that churches must serve mostly their own members, hire mostly their own members, and exist mostly to propagate their own doctrine.
What role could such a church play in society? How could such a church serve and promote the common good if it can’t emerge from behind its own doors? Under this narrow definition, a church isn’t “religious enough” to quality for an exemption, allowing it to provide services according to its own teachings and values, if it runs a social service agency or a charity that serves or hires people of other faiths.
This brings us back to our 1970 moment. The government’s narrow, secularist definition — which seeks to confine the influence of religion on society — is likely to spread through every area of federal and state law. This single definition of “church” will be used by those in government to limit the role of churches in education, charity and public policy — a role that has been critical for generations. When the Catholic Church engages in those activities, it will be seen not as acting in the example of Christ, but as doing something secular; it will be told to disregard its own teachings and to “play by the rules” — the rules of a government that aids and abets the culture of death.
TIME TO STAND UP
Limiting the role of church institutions is also a goal of many of those in favor of redefining marriage.
The Catholic Church seeks to uphold marriage between one man and one woman because this is the relationship by which children are brought into the world and are best nurtured. Marriage is the very bedrock of society and essential to God’s design for humanity. The government has no right to contradict it.
What happens, though, if the government does so? In some places where same-sex marriage is legally accepted, the Church has been forced out as a provider of social services because Church teachings are deemed discriminatory. Since the government has the power to license and regulate social services and education, it has the power to marginalize the Church’s institutions.
In some places, the government has deemed Catholic Charities unfit to conduct adoptions because of its reasoned and faith-based conviction that children are best served in households where a mother and father are present. If the Defense of Marriage Act is repealed or struck down, or if states endorse a change in the law, there will be far-reaching consequences. The Church could be forced to decide whether to continue providing many social services — services that rely on government support in order to serve the common good — or to abandon its own teachings, which inspire such compassionate works in the first place.
This isn’t 1970 — it’s 2012. Now is the time for us to understand deeply what the Church teaches about religious liberty and marriage; to accept that teaching in our lives to the point of being willing to stand up for it; and to advocate for that teaching among our families and friends, and in the public square.