What’s Natural Law got to Do With It?
Article 3 of DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act), which affirmed the federal definition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman, was overturned last month, further paving the way for “gay marriage” to become the law of the land.
Here’s the catch, and why I’m not overly distressed: the gay marriage movement can’t really “win.” That’s because the definition of marriage isn’t rooted in bigotry or in some antiquated religious ideal. It’s rooted in natural law, and natural law isn’t going anywhere.
To clarify, “natural law” is not “the stuff we see occurring in nature.” If we were to take animal behavior as the gold standard for human ethics we might find ourselves in a bit of trouble. Natural law refers to the moral code written on the human heart. It enables us to “read” the law that can be found in the very nature and design of things.
Marriage, as we’ve always known it, wasn’t invented by a group of bishops. It arose from the nature of our procreating bodies. Long before it was etched into legal documents or canon law, marriage was etched into our flesh.
At the risk of over-simplifying this: one can almost imagine, tens of thousands of years ago, cavemen “discovering” that the sex drive is ordered, by its nature, to the union of man and woman so that they can carry on the human race. Since children come from sex and demand so much responsibility, a caveman probably had to swear to commit to that woman before the other people in the cave, lest the cave chief hit him with a club for turning cave life into chaos—and marriage was born!
It’s no accident that marriage has been between a man and woman and has involved a public ritual in virtually every culture throughout history. (Even in ancient Sparta where homosexual activity wasn’t considered taboo, men didn’t marry one another.) That’s not because all cultures have been in intolerant or homophobic. It’s because marriage arose from the nature of our procreating bodies.
As important as the affection a couple shares is, that’s not why marriage has been enshrined and protected by public vows, rituals and laws throughout history—as if marriage were some glorified form of dating. Affection doesn’t require a lifelong, legally binding commitment. That’s overkill. Children do. The institution of marriage is about them. The reason the act that consummates a marriage speaks volumes isn’t because of strong feelings, it’s because, by its nature, it is ordered to new life which requires no less than the lifelong commitment of the parents. (And that “body language” between husband and wife remains, even if by some genetic accident conception is impossible.) Gay marriage is a final severing of that ideal. It’s the lifeless fruit of the sexual revolution. It’s all about us adults now.
Of course it’s easier for the proponents of gay marriage to overlook discussions of natural law or the good of children, label us “bigots” and be done with it. According to Justice Scalia, that’s exactly what the Supreme Court has done. “It is one thing for a society to elect change,” he said, “it is another for a court of law to impose change by adjudging those who oppose it hostis humani generis, ‘enemies of the human race.’”
Though we fail to live up to that label. In the 2,000-year history of the Church you won’t find a single bishop on record calling for physical violence against gays. I don’t “hate” or “fear” people with same-sex attraction. Nor does any Catholic clergyman I’ve ever met. I’ve had close friends who were living a gay lifestyle. While I disagree with some of their choices, judging their souls is above my pay grade. What we take issue with is the idea of gay marriage, not “gay” people. What we take issue with is a redefinition of marriage, not things like hospital visitation rights.
Those who fight for gay marriage tell us all they want is equality, and some of them are well-intentioned people who mean that sincerely. But equality isn’t how this will end, and the left wing of the gay movement doesn’t intend for it to end there. When you’ve beaten the opposition by labeling them “bigots,” they don’t end up being equals. What they’re after is a crushing victory of a new definition of marriage over a definition based on natural law and affirmed by divine law (Scripture). Don’t believe me? David Parker does. He was put in handcuffs for his unbending refusal to have his kindergartener taught about same-sex marriage in the classroom in Massachusetts. So does Pastor Stephen Boissoin who was sued for writing about marriage in Canada (it took him several years of costly legal battles to fight that suit). So do the good people at Ocean Grove Methodist Camp, which lost part of its tax exempt status for refusing to let its grounds be used for gay marriage in New Jersey. The list goes on and on.
The tragedy for the gay movement is that no matter how many laws we pass or people we silence, same-sex couples can never have “equality” if by equality they mean, “the same thing that mixed gender couples share.” They can never enjoy the one-flesh union that since the dawn of mankind has consummated marriage and carried on the human race. This act has profound meaning not just because it’s an expression of affection, but because—by its nature—it is ordered to something as profound as new life, which demands so much commitment. The act itself, which only man and woman can share, speaks a vow. And for all our attempts to re-write marriage law, we can’t re-write the language of our bodies. If that’s discriminatory, then nature is discriminatory.
And here’s the catch: thanks to natural law, we all kind of know that on some level.
When people claim that the natural function of our body parts seems, to them, wildly irrelevant when it comes to sexual ethics, or that they just can’t see the difference between the sexual union of a man and woman and the sexual “union” of two women, or that the complementarity of the sexes strikes them as utterly meaningless—they’re either kidding themselves, or they’ve done a lifetime of hard work to hide the truth from their intellects.
But our new social structures won’t erase the truth written in hearts and bodies. And the new “tolerant inquisition” gaining steam that seeks to silence us with accusations of “hate speech” and “discrimination” for talking about things like natural law and the common good won’t stop us from speaking the truth in love. (If we’re persecuted for that, so be it. We Christians live for persecution.)
In that light, very little has changed.
Chris Stefanick is the co-aothor of Do I Have to Go? (about the Mass), Raising Pure Teens, and Absolute Relativism. His written word also reaches tens of thousands monthly through his popular, nationally syndicated column. This 14-year Youth Ministry veteran served at a parish in the East LA area, as Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry for the Diocese of Lacrosse, and as Director of Youth, Young Adult and Campus Ministry for the Archdiocese of Denver. He is currently founder and President of Real Life Catholic—a nonprofit organization dedicated to reengaging a generation. Above all, Chris is proud to be a husband and father to six beautiful children.