Washington, D.C. — “We love you.”
The words warmed the chill during the first of two days of Supreme Court oral arguments on the future of marriage law in the United States. The scene outside the Supreme Court building, where most of the media were camped out, was reminiscent of the Tower of Babel in the Bible. Only here all were using the same word. They just couldn’t quite agree on what it meant and were unlikely to communicate their different meanings to one another in an agreeable way anytime soon.
But closer to the Washington Monument, a pastor had a prayer.
Salvatore Cordileone is the archbishop of — of all places — San Francisco. He started his brief remarks at the March for Marriage, which was organized by the National Organization for Marriage, in an attempt to talk to more than just the choir, diverse though it was. And so he addressed, as a father and a leader, “those who disagree with us on this issue” of marriage. “We are your neighbors,” he said. “We want to be your friends. And we want you to be happy. Please understand that we don’t hate you, that we are not motivated by animus or bigotry. It is not our intention to offend anyone, and if we have, I apologize. I would ask that you please try to listen to us fairly and calmly. And try to understand us and our position, and we will try to do the same to you.”
It might have been the most important thing that was said during the two days.
Archbishop Cordileone went on to explain why the political fight for marriage is worth it: “Marriage is the only institution that does this, that connects children to their parents, and parents to their children and to each other.” He acknowledged that that can’t always be — sometimes a marriage won’t produce children. Sometimes a father leaves, or a mother dies. But the debate we’re having “isn’t about parenting skills. . . . We know that sometimes kids can do well in less-than-ideal circumstances.” The political debate is about “rebuilding a marriage culture,” and that begins — and this is only a beginning, and not remotely sufficient — “with preserving in the law the principle that children deserve a mother and a father and that society should do everything it can, and offer all necessary support, to help insure that children get what they deserve,” he said. “Only a man can be a father and only a woman can be a mother, and children need both, and no matter how happy their childhood may be, to grow up without one or the other is always a deprivation,” he explained. “This is not discrimination; on the contrary, marriage benefits everyone, including those of us who are not married and those who disagree with us.”
His posture of loving clarity in the public square is the work of Catholics for the Common Good. To hear its president, William B. May, is to realize that those who seek to preserve marriage as the union, in law, of a man and a woman is not to seek to exclude. Theirs is not a position born of hatred or bitterness.
The confusion and the pain hit a climax when seemingly everyone started to use the phrase “same-sex marriage.” “Most people don’t realize that marriage is being redefined, and the consequences have not been considered,” May, author of Getting the Marriage Conversation Right, points out. “The question is always framed as participation of same-sex couples in marriage and whether it is fair or, in the case of the proceeding this week, constitutional to exclude them. The use of the term ‘same-sex’ or ‘gay’ marriage only reinforces this false perception. In reality, there is no such thing as ‘same-sex marriage’ in the law. The law is changed to remove ‘man’ and ‘woman,’ and ‘two persons’ is substituted. This redefines marriage, as much as opponents try to deny it, and has the consequence of eliminating the only institution geared to unite kids with their moms and dads.”
If the consequences of our linguistic confusion is a Supreme Court ruling of the likes of Roe v. Wade, one that puts the Supreme Court in the role of culture-changer, mandating social change by judicial fiat rather than letting democracy work it out, this is where the discrimination will begin.
“The marriage crisis is specifically related to a decline of men and women marrying and of an increase of fatherless homes, with severe human and societal consequences,” May emphasizes. “If the only institution that unites kids with their moms and dads is eliminated, it would become legally discriminatory to promote the unique value of men and women marrying before having children,” he explains. “It would require teaching children that families deprived of mothers and fathers united in marriage are role models for families to aspire to.”
Which is why now is a time to get down to the business of working out together just what it is we are talking about. This linguistic confusion is not a rhetorical quirk of the age but the consequence of the upheaval of recent decades: what technology and competing, confusing ideas about freedom have wrought in the lives of men and women and children, in the way we find ourselves relating to one another, and in what we have come to expect from one another.
We all want, need, and deserve love. The debate over marriage isn’t about questioning this — or denying it. It’s about what marriage is and what common good the law serves in being involved with it. We won’t have a prayer at rebuilding a marriage culture until we help clarity and love to prevail.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association. She is a director of Catholic Voices USA.