What is Marriage?: Part III

In the first installment of this three-part series, we looked at the union of man and woman as the foundation stone of life and civilization itself. In the second, we drew from 2000 years of Catholic teaching to formulate a definition of marriage. Here, I want to respond to some of the challenges raised by those who see same sex “marriage” as a matter of justice and equality.

Last Fall, movie star Brad Pitt made headlines when he donated $100,000 to fight Proposition 8 in California. The proposition sought to protect the definition of marriage as the life-long union of one man and one woman. Mr. Pitt’s public statement typifies the sentiments I want to respond to here: “Because no one has the right to deny another their life, even though they disagree with it, because everyone has the right to live the life they so desire if it doesn’t harm another and because discrimination has no place in America, my vote will be for equality and against Proposition 8.”

Who wants to deny people their rights? Who is for discrimination and inequality? It seems Brad Pitt has everything on his side. But let’s apply some critical thinking to his statement and see where it takes us. Admittedly, I will raise more questions than I will be able to answer in this short article. Still, I would argue that these are the questions that must be raised if we are to get to the heart of the matter.

No one has the right to deny another person his or her life, even though one might disagree with it. I assume Mr. Pitt is referring to denying a person his or her “way of life.” Actually, courts do this all the time. In fact, that’s what courts exist to do. Courts exist to uphold and defend a “way of life” that serves the common good and to dissuade us from any “way of life” that does not. The question at hand, then, is this: Is redefining marriage in accord with the common good? If not, the courts have an obligation to uphold the traditional definition of marriage and to dissuade us from any contrary “way of life.”

Everyone has the right to live the life he or she so desires if it doesn’t harm another. No reasonable person would agree to this statement without the disclaimer “if it doesn’t harm another.” The question then becomes: Is the homosexual “way of life” harmful? Brad Pitt simply takes for granted the widespread idea that it is not, and expects us to do the same. But the question remains: Is the homosexual way of life harmful? Courageous people need to ask this question and let the data — all the data — speak.

Discrimination has no place in America. Discrimination has become one of those buzz-words that is “indiscriminately” linked with injustice. It seems we have forgotten that there is such a thing as just discrimination. We “discriminate” — that is, we distinguish and discern by recognizing differences — all the time, and must do so. Discrimination is unjust when the difference recognized has no bearing on the matter at hand. Discrimination is just — and required — when the difference matters.

For example, it is unjust discrimination for the state to deny blind people the right to vote. It is just discrimination for the state to deny blind people driver’s licenses (there is no universal “right” to drive a car; one must qualify). It is unjust discrimination for the state to say a woman can’t enter the town hall. It is just discrimination for the state to say a woman can’t enter the men’s locker room at the local gym.

So, is denying marriage to those of the same sex just or unjust discrimination? The question at hand is this: Does the sexual difference have any real bearing on marriage? If it does not, any state denying marriage to those of the same sex would be drawing meaningless distinctions. But if the sexual difference is intrinsic to what marriage is, then we are dealing with just discrimination.

Finally, Brad Pitt implies that if one is “for equality” he must stand against those who see marriage only as the union of one man and one woman. Who in his right mind is opposed to equality? But what does Mr. Pitt mean by “equality”? Does equality mean a bland sameness? Is there no place for meaningful distinctions? I’d say Brad is using the word “equality” indiscriminately.

At the root of all of this societal confusion about marriage — what it is and what it isn’t — lies a deep-seated sexual confusion. We don’t know what the sexual difference means . We don’t know what it is for. We don’t know why we exist as male and female. Even good Catholics who want to stand up for the traditional definition of marriage often don’t know how to engage in meaningful conversation about the issue. So we end up looking foolish, bigoted, antiquated.

For such a time as this we have been given Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. This gloriously redeeming vision of the human person, human love, and human sexuality has been called John Paul II’s “masterwork,” a “theological time bomb,” and “the certain cure for the cancer that is eating away at our culture.”

But “having” the cure is not sufficient. We must inject it into our blood-stream in order for it to take effect. So take up a study of this revolutionary Theology of the Body. Inject it into your blood stream. Then share this cure with everyone you know and we will not fall short of renewing the face of the earth.

Christopher West


Christopher West is a Catholic author and speaker, best known for his work on Pope John Paul II’s series of audience addresses entitled the Theology of the Body.

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