A law was passed in 342 AD which banned same-sex “marriage” in ancient Rome. This came 29 years after Christianity was decriminalized by Constantine the Great. Fast forward to 2001 when the Netherlands became the first nation in the modern world to grant same-sex “marriages.” And now, the Supreme Court has decreed that it is legal in the United States. Of course, it could be that the Court is wrong in their opinion. This has happened before in our history. The Dred-Scott and the Plessy vs. Ferguson decisions come to mind. Morally, it got it wrong in Roe vs. Wade, as well. There may be legal challenges to the recent ruling, but I think those will be of little consequence in the long run. The bigger picture, at least for me, isn’t what is legal, but what is true. As George Weigel, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center says, “The marriage battle was lost in the culture long before it was lost in the courts.”
Loosely speaking, from 342 AD until Henry VIII, marriage in Europe was seen as a covenant relationship that was ordained by God and existed between one man and one woman. practically speaking divorce did not exist. The civil law and the faith Sacrament were essentially overlapping and complementary. Priests were sometimes also civil ministers and the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony was binding both in Church and in the civil courts of jurisdiction. In some places, a couple’s marriage was licensed by the civil authority only after it had been celebrated as a Sacrament in the Church. With Henry VIII, marriage first lost its sacramental identity when the king decided he wanted a divorce at any cost.
Popular culture long ago decided that marriage was merely a civil contract that, like any contract, could be dissolved through the courts. And most Christian churches went along with the culture, despite Jesus’ teaching on marriage (Matthew 19:3-6). While many denominations may discourage divorce and remarriage, it is not a formal impediment to membership in most cases. Over time, and through our own fault, marriage has become a fluid state, even among most Christians. What culture has declared, we have unfortunately accepted.
It should come as no surprise then that our country no longer believes that God’s word and will for our lives still applies to marriage. Americans like to define things for ourselves. We don’t like anyone telling us what to do, certainly not the Church and not some rather old-fashioned God. We define who we are, even which gender we are. We know what’s best for us and usually that means whatever we want at that moment. And if anyone disagrees with that, we should kindly shut up. We have no right to any opinion other than the groupthink of modernity.
And we Catholics, although we have continued to uphold the teaching of Sacramental marriage, have been too silent and too compliant for far too long. We’ve allowed the world to shove us into the corner of public debate. We’ve lost any credibility as moral leaders through scandals and lawsuits and our particular gift for making the Gospel seem boring and irrelevant. God has given us the fullness of truth, the Holy Eucharist, and two thousand years of fidelity to Jesus Christ, and yet we seem to have little impact on our culture. This is the challenge facing the Catholic Church in America today. How do we continue to live out our faith in a pagan world? How will we live the Gospel in a culture seeking our demise? The lessons of history foretell persecution, isolation, and martyrdom. We must be ready.
“A religion that doesn’t interfere with the secular order will soon discover that the secular order will not refrain from interfering with it.” —Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen