“It is not you who shape God; it is God that shapes you. Offer the Potter your heart, soft and tractable, and keep the form in which the Artist has fashioned you. Let your clay be moist, lest you grow hard and lose the imprint of the Potter’s fingers.” – Saint Irenaeus
Charlie Brown, Lucy and young Linus are lying in the summer grass, looking up into the sky. “If you use your imagination,” Lucy suggests, “you can see many things in the clouds. What do you think you see?” “Well,” responds Linus, “the clouds look like the map of the British Honduras in the Caribbean. And that formation over there looks like the profile of Thomas Eakins, the famous painter and sculptor. And those over there give me the impression of the stoning of Stephen.” ?? “Wow,” Lucy exclaims, “that’s amazing! What do you see in the clouds, Charlie Brown?” “Well,” sheepishly responds the chief protagonist of the famous Peanuts comic strip, “I was going to say a ducky and a horsie . . . but I just changed my mind.”
What does contemporary society see when it examines the skyline of its ever-changing cultural mores? More specifically, what did the Supreme Court of the United States perceive as it recently deliberated the thick legislative clouds that had spawned over its chambers by the controversial Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)? When confronted with his own political billows, David, the Old Testament psalmist, king and judge, gazed upward and saw God. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” he insisted, “and their expanse reveals the work of His hands” (Psalm 19:1). Unfortunately, our nation’s supreme magistrates did not adjudicate by such a method. Rather, they most recently chose to recast the time-honored clay of marriage – the handiwork of God – by looking downward to the wisdom of their own epitomes. In so doing, the Supreme Court demonstrated a most supreme silliness!
The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was passed overwhelmingly by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996. By rejecting certain sections of DOMA, the Supreme Court significantly advanced the redefinition of marriage. Marriage between a man and woman predates both religion and government and is grounded in the nature of a human person. By striking down the Defense of Marriage Act, the Supreme Court actually corroded this most sacred union, sending the wrong message to society by saying that sexual complimentarity is not important. Although marriage, understood as the union of a man and a woman, existed prior to the institution of any governmental authority, the High Court’s opinion further evolves a worldview that is increasingly hostile to Judeo-Christian faith and traditional morality.
The very language used by Justice Anthony Kennedy (writing for the majority) characterized those who would defend DOMA’s traditional definition of marriage as people who “interfere, injure, harm, and stigmatize others.” On the other hand, in defense of groups and individuals that uphold traditional values, Justice Antonin Scalia included the following statement in his dissenting opinion. “It is one thing for a society to elect change,” he stated. “It is quite another for a court of law to impose change by adjudging those who oppose it as enemies of the human race.”
According to Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), and Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, chair of the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage, the Supreme Court’s June 26th decisions mark a “tragic day for marriage and our nation . . . as the common good of all, especially our children, depends upon a society that strives to uphold the truth of marriage. The Court got it wrong,” the bishops declared, “ now is the time to strengthen marriage, not redefine it.”
Understandably, the American citizenry will be divided over the issue. Nonetheless, an intelligent and civil conversation that is sympathetic and not emotionally hostile to the reasons why Faith-based institutions balk at the Supreme Court’s DOMA decision should be encouraged. Herein, Christians, Jews and Muslims would specifically contend that God, and not political, legislative or even religious authorities, have the right to circumscribe the defining characteristics of marriage. As such, no judge or court has the authority to recast what God has sculpted as a legislative means to make citizens “whole” or confer public “esteem” according to sexual preference.
Marriage is not a creation of legal fiat. As such, the High Court could have provided a legislative compromise by differentiating between traditional heterosexual marriage and “same-sex” civil unions. While a number of states have, in fact, changed the legal definition of marriage, government is ultimately powerless to redefine human nature and what describes the exclusive and lifelong union of one man and one woman with the possibility of generating and nurturing children. Unfortunately, by presumptuously donning such sovereignty and brushing aside millennia of moral attitudes about marriage, the Court has in fact rebuffed the Scriptural exhortation, ironically proclaimed at religious as well as secular wedding ceremonies, namely, not to separate “what God has joined together” (Mk 10:6-9).
Faced with hostility and/or indifference to such a worldview, Church leaders could choose to simply disengage from the public and political dialogue concerning the issue of marriage. Such a knee-jerk reaction, however, would be tragic, insulting and injurious to religious institutions as well as societal health. Throughout its history, the Church has been challenged to interrelate with society as “salt and light” (Matthew 5:13-16; Phil. 2:15). Any withdrawal in favor of political correctness or media sympathy would make the vital message of the Church appear increasingly irrelevant and meaningless.
Alternatively, faith-based institutions might swiftly yet prudently respond to the Supreme Court’s ruling by utilizing lawful resources to civilly defend and/or regain the pan-generational highground of marriage. This is not the time to redistribute previously developed encyclicals and dogmatic pronouncements. Religious leaders should choose to also employ every effort to simultaneously: (a) empower Christian couples to more authentically witness the joy of their marital unions, and (b) articulate the essential characteristics of the Judeo-Christian understanding of marriage. In so doing, society will be in a better position to more sensibly differentiate between the benefits of traditional marriage and the consequences of its post-modern representations.
Marriage can exist inside or outside the parameters of a religious institution. It can be established on strictly human terms (1 John 4:16). Couples who choose to have their union “blessed” by the Church, however, have the opportunity to add another dimension to their marital relationship that points beyond their own needs and desires. Such sacramental intimacies celebrate and nurture faith in God, thus having the potential of becoming “signs” of self-sacrifice and generous love to the world.
When compared to its secular and more conditional counterpart, Christian marriage is best understood as a life-long covenant (pledge) rather than a legal contract. Although the rate of marital dissolutions within the Church may, at first glance, resemble that of non-religious unions (Barma Research Group), Christian couples are nonetheless challenged to view their relationship as permanent, based on unconditional fidelity, forgiveness, and fruitfulness. When the factors of serious religious commitment and practice are considered, couples that regularly attend church, read scripture and spiritual materials, pray privately and together, actually enjoy significantly lower divorce rates than mere church members, the general public and unbelievers (ChristiaNet).
The following are ten (10) vital characteristics of Christian Marriage. While not exhaustive, inevitable, or consequential, the list of “Ten C’s” identifies distinctive marital attributes that couples should prayerfully seek to develop. While the majority of distinctive attributes may in fact be found in non-Christian marriages, complimentary may only be possible in heterosexual relationships. An excellent website with answers to frequently asked questions concerning DOMA and traditional Marriage has been developed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (CLICK HERE).
Apart from defending the aforementioned characteristics of traditional marriage, Religious institutions would be wise to prepare themselves to face future legal hurdles if and when they are compelled to regulate their internal structures to accommodate the Supreme Court’s majority decision concerning DOMA. Such governmental challenges might include the obligation to: (a) provide wedding-related services to same-sex “couples,” (b) extend any/all special ecclesial benefit to same-sex “marriage,” and (c) accept that any preaching, political action, or conversation reflecting moral opposition to same-sex “marriage” will be understood as actionable harassment, discrimination, or hate speech. Rejection or non-compliance of any of these and other regulations might result in revoking the accreditation and licensure of religious institutions. Finally, by facing the loss of, heretofore, accredited status, religious institutions that chose to disregard the definition of marriage as defined by the state will also forfeit their tax exemptions.
As a result of these and other challenges, Christians must guard against the temptation of either distributing simple pronouncements or withdrawing from the public debate into self-hewn contemporary catacombs. On the contrary, as salt and light, the Church should strive to sagely exert a double influence on society by arresting its decay (function of salt), and guiding its future steps (function of light). Fundamentally, religious leaders should inspire society to look away from itself and upward. Rather than deciphering the clouds according to provisional fads and opinions, the Church should supply the guidance of reasoned stability and the compass of common sense.
When the famous Italian sculptor Michelangelo was asked to explain the source of his creativity, the painter, architect and poet of the High Renaissance suggested that the best artist has but one goal – “to discern the thought (truth) contained within the marble.” A sculptor’s hand, he insists, “must strive to break the spell and free the figure slumbering in the stone.”
This too should have been the primary goal of the Supreme Court. Rather than re-chisel the hardened clay of marriage to resemble a cast of their own ideals, it would have been wiser for the magistrates to have sought the timeless truths slumbering therein. It is now, more than ever, imperative that religious leaders direct society’s gaze heavenward – not to reinterpret the clouds – but to discern God’s eternal handiwork therein!