Congress Dishonors Marriage

By Most Rev. Salvatore J. Cordileone

This article was originally published in First Things.

The union of husband and wife is unique: Together they make a baby, and their marriage is the best way to ensure that that baby grows up with both mother and father. Marriage is a good thing. Society needs this institution.

Until a few years ago, virtually every culture in existence recognized the unique stake society has in affirming these unions. Even cultures that condoned sexual relations outside the bond of marriage—including between people of the same sex—never confused these relations with marriage. And today, after five decades of consistent social science data showing the devastating social ills resulting from fatherlessness, you would think Congress would want to do something to put the family back together. Instead, last week, it took a decisive step in the opposite direction. 

They call it the “Respect for Marriage Act.” It passed both Houses of Congress and now goes to President Biden to be signed into law. It requires the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages as legitimate. Its cheerleaders celebrate it as an advancement in equality, liberty, and respect. But equality and liberty for whom? Respect for what?

Certainly not for children. The best thing we can do for children is give them a married mother and father in a stable, life-long, low-conflict relationship. Parents in other-than-optimal situations who make great sacrifices to do their best for their children deserve our esteem and support. But the lack of a father or a mother is always a loss. Paradoxically, many of those who advance and applaud this legislation claim to be fighting to help the poor, while undermining the one thing that most protects children from ending up in poverty: marriage and family unity. Do you want to help the poor? Then put the family back together, based on the life-long marital commitment of husband and wife. Anything else is sheer hypocrisy.

Nor does the curiously misnamed “Respect for Marriage Act” protect or treat equally the millions of Americans who believe the basic social good of marriage should be protected and promoted. It is bad enough that this legislation does not provide adequate protections for those of us in the new minority, but most offensive of all is that the purported protections are presented as a license to “discriminate,” saying, in effect, “We will give religious people a right to discriminate in this case, but no one else may.”

This is an inaccurate and appalling way to describe the right to religious freedom and the public exercise of one’s faith. Unjust discrimination is wrong all the time, by everyone. And, in point of fact, the vendors who have had to go to court to defend their right to live according to their conscience never ask their customers what their sexual orientation is before giving them service. What is actually happening here is that the legislation fails to protect a person’s right not to be forced to act according to the beliefs of another, beliefs with which he or she does not agree. We have moved from “tolerance” to imposing the dogmas of secular orthodoxy on the entire populace, stripping away the rights of those who believe differently to act according to those beliefs.

Another deceptive technique in the act: It claims that the view that marriage is uniquely between a man and a woman is somehow a religious belief. However, acknowledging the basic social good of marriage is not a question of faith, but of reason. Religious faith gives a deeper, spiritual understanding to this basic social good, but it certainly is not necessary to come to acknowledge it. Reason alone suffices for that.

How, then, should those in the new minority respond to these discouraging developments? By loving their spouses and their children enough to discipline their sexual desires (or their future spouse, if not yet married). By eschewing abortion, practicing chastity, staying married if already married, resolving family conflicts peaceably, and treasuring children as a gift from God—all to show that there is a better alternative to the now dominant narrative.

Congress just made this difficult challenge harder. But that doesn’t matter. By our example, we can show the world that there is a better way.

Young people: Do you want to make a difference? Then get married and stay married, have children, and sacrifice your all—your comfort and convenience, your desires and self-indulgences, your time and your treasure—for the healthy upbringing of your kids. True, you won’t fit in with the rest of society, so be forewarned: As someone once said, the world is hostile to those who don’t fit in. But you will make a difference, and a difference for the good. That’s far better than simply fitting in, only to be forgotten to history. 

Most Rev. Salvatore J.  Cordileone is the Archbishop of San Francisco.