Almost two weeks ago — hauntingly, on the Feast of the Birth of John the Baptist, whom King Herod would behead because the saint dared to defend the God-given truth about marriage — our state sadly attempted a re-definition of marriage. Is there anything left to say?
For one, thanks to those courageous millions who valiantly fought this unfortunate project of social engineering. You can hold your heads high. Sanely, civilly, thoughtfully, vigorously . . . you did not cave-in. The forces on the other side were a Goliath indeed — with tons of money, “glitterati” from entertainment circles, political powerbrokers, and the media — but you proved a worthy David.
You will understand my special word of gratitude to people of faith — evangelicals, Mennonites, Jews, Moslem, Catholics, Amish, and so many more, led often by African-American and Latino believers — who simply believe that marriage is a given, at the very foundation of civilization, which the state has the duty to defend and protect, not to mutate.
My brother bishops of New York were particularly prophetic. When I arrived here a little over two-years ago, they told me realistically that we faced a looming battle over the defense of marriage. They advised me that the odds were not in our favor, and that some experts were even suggesting that we give-in and not put up a fight.
But they were also resolute in their conviction that such would have been a dereliction of duty. As Blessed John Paul II often commented, the Church is “counter-cultural,” like Jesus, often at odds with what passes as chic, enlightened, and progressive. In their writings, sermons, personal lobbying, interviews, and our common statements — backed up by indefatigable efforts by our New York State Catholic Conference, bolstered by ecumenical and inter-religious cooperation, and, especially, supported by countless thousands of our faithful Catholic people (one legislator told me he received 47,000 e-mails against the measure from the Catholic Advocacy Network) — the bishops were on the frontiers. We have been bloodied, and bruised, and, yes, for the moment, we have been defeated. But, we’re used to that. So was the Founder of our Church.
Two, the Church neither has nor wants political “clout.” As Cardinal John O’Connor commented, “The only ‘clout’ the Church really has is God’s Truth, the assurance of His grace, and the simple yet sincere conviction of our people.” Blessed John Paul II again reminds us that “The Church never imposes, she only proposes.” And as our current Holy Father has often observed, all the Church wants is its freedom to serve humanity by bringing the light of the gospel to the world.
But, three, we do worry indeed about this freedom of religion. Editorials already call for the removal of guarantees of religious liberty, with crusaders calling for people of faith to be coerced to acceptance of this redefinition. If the experience of those few other states and countries where this is already law is any indication, the churches, and believers, will soon be harassed, threatened, and hauled into court for their conviction that marriage is between one man, one woman, forever, bringing children into the world.
Four, the real forces of “intolerance” were unmasked here. The caricature, of course, is that those defending traditional marriage were the right-wing bigots and bullies. However, as one out-of-state journalist, who was following the debate closely, commented to me, “From my read of the columns, blogs, and rhetoric, it’s not your side that’s lobbing the grenades.” A Catholic who wrote to criticize me for my defense of marriage still conceded, “But I must confess that I am sickened by the amount of anti-Catholic venom that has surfaced in this debate.” As one respected columnist has observed, the problem is not homophobia but theophobia — a hatred by some of God, faith, religion, and the Church.
Five, though, if we did hurt anybody in our defense of marriage, I apologize. We tried our best to insist from the start that our goal was pro-marriage, never anti-gay. But, I’m afraid some within the gay community were offended. As I replied recently to a reporter who asked if I had any message to the gay community, “Yes: I love you. Each morning I pray with and for you and your true happiness and well-being. I am honored that so many of you are at home within our Catholic family, where, like the rest of us, we try, with the help of God’s grace and mercy, to conform our lives to Jesus and His message. If I have offended any of you in my strenuous defense of marriage, I apologize, and assure you it was unintentional.
Point six, the Church has always stood-up for marriage — one man and one woman, united in lifelong and faithful love, leading to new life in children – whenever and wherever it was in danger. Veterans my age and over can remember sixty years ago when we fought widespread, no-fault divorce, convinced it would lead to a cheapening of the marriage bond and harm our kids (as, of course, scholarly studies now report has, indeed, happened). Recall how the Church resisted the “contraceptive mentality,” fearing it would rupture the sacred bond between love and the procreation of children. Then, remember how the Church sounded the alarm over rising rates of promiscuity, adultery, pre-marital sex, and cohabitation prior to or instead of marriage. And now we ring the steeple bell again at this latest dilution of the authentic understanding of marriage, worried that the next step will be another redefinition to justify multiple partners and infidelity. If you think I’m exaggerating, within days of the passage of this bill, one major newspaper ran a flattering profile of a proponent of what was called “nonmonogamy.” Apparently, “nonmonogamy” is the idea that society is unrealistic to think that one man and one woman should remain faithful in marriage, and that openness to some infidelity should be the norm!
Let me say it again. None of this is anti-anybody, but simply pro marriage.
(By the way, as Professor Robert George at Princeton University eloquently points out, in warning about promiscuity, divorce, cohabitation instead of marriage, adultery, and “same-sex marriage,” the Church is hardly some shrill, bitter, reactionary, naysaying prude, but actually prophetically right-on-target. Recent studies by people such as Myron Magnet and Kay Hymowitz show that the weakening of stable marriage and families is the cause of most social and cultural woes, especially burdensome on poor women and children.)
Finally, last point, for us in the Church, not much changes. We continue to hold fast to the God-given definition of marriage, and acknowledge that no unfortunate legislative attempt can alter reality and morality. Yes, we have a big catechetical challenge, in that we have to admit that quite a few people no longer hold to this timeless moral truth. (Although I still believe most people do; thus the fear of a referendum on the issue by those who still claim this is a “grassroots movement” sweeping the nation.) Yes, we do have our work cut out for us, as even some Catholics, and, scandalously, even political leaders who claim to be Catholic, tell us the Church is “out of it,” and has no claim on truth.
So, we try our best to witness to the truth, encouraging our married couples and their kids to be loving, radiant, “lights to the world.” We acknowledge that, as St. Augustine taught, if something is wrong, even if everybody else is doing it, it’s still wrong; and, if something is right, even if nobody else is doing it anymore, it’s still right. Like St. Thomas More, we’re willing to take the heat and even lose our head from following a conscience properly formed by God’s revelation and the teaching of His Church, even if it is politically incorrect, and clashes with the King’s demands to re-define marriage.