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November 15, 2003
Column #1,159

Catholic Bishops Begin a Fight for Marriage

     America's Catholic bishops have taken on a cause that can win broad public support - beginning a fight to "support marriage," as Savannah Bishop J. Kevin Boland put it.

     The debate at the moment is focused on whether homosexuals should be allowed to marry. Howard Dean, the Democratic front runner for President, signed a law as Vermont's governor in 2000, that legalized same-sex unions for the first time in America. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is expected to declare that gays or lesbians can marry. That sparked a Constitutional Amendment, gaining support in Congress, that would limit marriage to "the union of a man and a woman."

     Without saying so directly, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) supported the amendment by voting 234-3 to publish a pamphlet explaining why they oppose making same-sex unions "the legal equivalent of marriage."

     First, they defined marriage as "a faithful, exclusive lifelong union of a man and woman" who "commit themselves completely to each other and to the wondrous responsibility of bringing children into the world and caring for them. The call to marriage is woven deeply into the human spirit. Men and women are equal. However, as created, they are different from but made for each other."

     They explained why marriage can exist only between a man and a woman:

     "The natural structure of human sexuality makes man and woman complementary partners for the transmission of human life. Only a union of male and female can express the sexual complementarity willed by God in marriage."

     The bishops note that "The marital union also provides the best conditions for raising children: namely the stable, loving relationship of a mother and father present only in marriage."

     Further, they argue that law plays an educational role on what is socially permissible and acceptable. "In effect, giving same-sex unions the legal status of marriage would grant official public approval to homosexual activity and would treat it as if it were morally neutral."

     Some bishops wanted to add language of the Vatican that homosexual acts are "intrinsically evil" and "disordered." Others wanted to call it "sinful." By voice vote, those amendments were defeated. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops avoided pouring salt into the wound, in hope of gaining support not only of Catholics, but "other people of good will who are trying to understand what is at stake."

     Bishop Boland, chairman of the committee that drafted the statement, is correct that "Marriage is in crisis." However, the crisis is not so much the possible impact gay marriage might have - as it is the actual destruction of heterosexual marriage by divorce.

     In a press conference, I asked him, "While you define marriage as a lifelong union between a man and a woman, the fact is there have been 38 million divorces since 1970 affecting almost as many kids. What is your position on reforming No-Fault Divorce laws which make it possible for one person to unilaterally divorce another? Shouldn't a marriage that was entered into by two people, be exited only with the mutual consent of both people, unless there is a grievous fault such as adultery or physical abuse? Would you support a change from No-Fault Divorce to Mutual Consent Divorce?"

     Boland replied, "Marriage is a permanent intimate relationship between one man and one woman. The fact there are many divorces does not take away what marriage is. Both the state and the church can regulate marriage, but they can't change its definition. It's the basic unit of society and we have become very cavalier about it. Does that answer your question?"

     I responded, "No. I am talking about the civil law which at present makes divorce very easy. Catholic bishops regularly take stands on the need to change other laws. Do you think No Fault Divorce Laws should be changed to require the mutual consent of husband and wife if there are no major faults involved, especially if children are involved?"

     While he had clearly never considered it, Boland gamely replied, "We should look into it. We should do everything we can to support stable marriages. Marriage is in a very real crisis situation in our nation."

     After the press conference, he added, "I agree there must be change of civil law. The states make it easy to divorce, which is a tragedy, creating conflict for the children and a whole quagmire of fights over property and custody."

     If America's Catholic bishops called for a well-designed reform of No Fault Divorce, they could put the issue on the agenda of every state legislature.

     Most Catholics and Protestants would applaud such an initiative.

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