The bishops of Britain and Ireland have offered a clear and compelling argument in response to their government’s plan to usurp for themselves the right to define marriage (see my earlier post here). What is most interesting, and gratifying, about this is that the bishops do so not only by appealing to the Church’s tradition but also to Western culture and natural law. Doing so allows them to appeal to both believers and those without no religious faith. As a result the bishops present the Church as a partner and defender of a just civil order and not simply as a lobbyist for sectarian concerns.They write:
The permanent and exclusive union of one man and one woman, open to the procreation of children and ensuring the continuity of the generations and the stability of family relationships, has been the object of special societal, religious and legal recognition by virtually all cultures for thousands of years.
Again, this is no narrow appeal to sectarian self-interest but a sober acknowledgment of the importance of marriage as a natural relationship essential to the well-being of society. Marriage is the creation neither civil society nor religious tradition. Rather Church and State recognize marriage.
For this reason, the bishops argue,
The proposal to give equivalent legal status to the unions of individuals whose relationship does not correspond to the natural complementarity of the sexes is one that we cannot view with equanimity. We believe that such a change would only further diminish the understanding of marriage in our society, which already tends to see it mainly in terms of a contract between two individuals based on their feelings for one another, with little intrinsic reference either to children or to the wider community.
The challenge facing society is not same-sex marriage as such. Instead the bishops see the proposed changes in the law as symptomatic of the radical individualism that now frames our understanding of marriage AND is dissolving the bonds of society. And so they conclude
The proposed change is not, as is claimed, an extension of the high status and responsibilities of marriage to homosexual couples. Rather, it gives legal recognition to a radical change in the understanding of marriage itself that affects all married couples and hence society as a whole.
This last point is critical.
In changing the definition of marriage from a natural institution that Church and State recognize but do not as such create or define to a mere contract between individuals radically deforms our understanding both of marriage and society. Divorced from any normative understanding of human nature and so our life together, society becomes merely a collective of competing self-interested individuals who have no inherent meaning each for the other. In effect, the proposed laws are both rooted in and foster a radically individualistic anthropology that makes community life impossible.
May God bless their efforts!