Breaking Silence: Catholics, Contraception, and Same-Sex Marriage

ssmAs the dust settles on the Supreme Court’s marriage rulings, Catholics and other defenders of traditional marriage have stepped forward with new energy and comprehensive strategies to preserve marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

On Redstate.com, Ryan T. Anderson sees the dissenting opinions of Supreme Court Justices Alito, Roberts, and Scalia in the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) ruling as “flares signaling the path that marriage proponents must take from here.”

From those dissents, Anderson sketches his own vision for strengthening marriage. We need “to start living out the truth about marriage…to insist that the government respect those who continue to stand for marriage as the union of a man and a woman…[and] to redouble our efforts at explaining what marriage is, why marriage matters and what the consequences are of redefining marriage…We should frame our message, strengthen coalitions, devise strategies and bear witness. We must develop and multiply our artistic, pastoral and reasoned defenses of the conjugal view as the truth about marriage, and to make ever plainer our policy reasons for enacting it.”

A huge task, to be sure, but a cogent vision nonetheless.

Let me offer a few thoughts on one part of that task, the challenge of bringing the marriage message home to Catholics.

Anderson highlights Justice Alito’s view that the marriage debate is a contest between two ideas, “the conjugal view of marriage: a ‘comprehensive, exclusive, permanent union that is intrinsically ordered to producing children,’” and “the consent-based idea that marriage is a commitment marked by emotional union.”

These dueling ideas square off in Supreme Court briefs, intellectual spaces like Public Discourse or First Things, and in the ‘New Conversation about Marriage’ at the Institute for American Values.

But for many ordinary Americans—already conditioned by the sexual revolution to separate babies from sex and sex from marriage—Justice Alito’s ‘contest of ideas’ over marriage is all but invisible. (And in this respect, Catholics are no different from their fellow Americans.)

Sundering Sex and Procreation 

Heterosexual marriage has been functioning for decades now as a commitment based on love. Children? Optional. It’s a mindset primed to accept homosexual coupling and same-sex marriage.

Back in 2005, liberal historian Stephanie Coontz observed that the deconstruction of traditional marriage (and the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage) was a predictable consequence of the separation of sex and procreation. She wrote:

 ”Heterosexuals were the upstarts who turned marriage into a voluntary love relationship rather  than a mandatory economic and political institution. Heterosexuals were the ones who made procreation voluntary, so that some couples could choose childlessness, and who adopted assisted reproduction so that even couples who could not conceive could become parents. And heterosexuals subverted the long-standing rule that every marriage had to have a husband who played one role in the family and a wife who played a completely different one. Gays and lesbians simply looked at the revolution heterosexuals had wrought and noticed that with its new norms, marriage could work for them, too.”

If Coontz, Co-Chair of the Council on Contemporary Families and a supporter of same-sex marriage, could name the problem (the separation of sex from procreation) back then, why couldn’t we? More precisely, why didn’t we?

Our priests didn’t preach and our teachers didn’t teach because contraception was the unmentionable sin-that-wasn’t. Why risk alienating parishioners (and donors) by condemning The Pill and other sundry methods? Makes things a tad awkward over coffee and donuts later in the cafeteria. Besides, no one wants to be “that guy,” the rube at a Manhattan cocktail party, bumbling, ridiculous, and very uncool.

So our congregations sat comfortably in their pews, undisturbed by truth. Let’s own this fact: Silence paved the way for Catholics’ ‘progressive’ march from yesterday’s contraception to today’s same-sex marriage.

Perhaps that’s an impolitic thing to say.

But until we name the problem correctly, we can’t fix it. At least in Catholic circles, if we hope to defend “the conjugal view as the truth about marriage,” we’ve got to teach anew the truth about sex. Why? Because the truth about sexuality is the basis for the truth about marriage.

Successful arguments in the public square may or may not begin in the same place.

But within our own families, parishes, and Catholic communities, Catholics need to hear that gender matters–that sexual complementarity, designed by God, tells us something about the sexual act, its purpose, and the moral norms that govern it. Catholics need to reconnect sex and reproduction, to realize that all ‘kinds’ of sex aren’t “equal” (some, in fact, are immoral), and to understand marriage in relation to these truths.

Catholics need to hear the big picture, to see the coherence of the entire truth. They need to know that the Church’s teaching against contraception is not an outlier among Catholic teachings, an outdated asterisk with little relevance to modern sexuality. (Nor is it some patriarchal plot to ensure that Catholic women produce lots of little Catholics.) On the contrary, the Church’s teaching on contraception flows from an integrated view of the human person, human dignity and sexuality—and that same truth provides the reason why marriage can only be the union of one man and one woman.

According to the Catholic women I’ve been interviewing over the past year, few Catholics hear much of anything from the pulpit about the Church’s teachings on sexuality and contraception. Although an increasing number hear the Church’s message that marriage is the union of one man and one woman, many aren’t buying it. The latest Barna Group polling shows that only 50% of practicing Catholics define marriage as the union of one man and one woman. (Barna defined “practicing Catholics” as those who attend Church at least once a month and consider their faith very important in their lives.)

We’ve got to understand why these Catholics don’t accept the truth about marriage: it’s because they don’t accept the truth about sex. And that’s the underlying problem we must address.

Today’s Catholics, especially younger Catholics, are by and large the products of public schools and a sexually corrupt culture. They’ve been taught (without hearing any countervailing voices in their parish) that gender is fluid and sex is only about pleasure. Every kind of sexual activity—anal, oral, vaginal, twosomes, threesomes, etc. —becomes an equally valid choice for consenting adults. (Newly released Gallup data shows that 68% of Catholics overall say that gay and lesbian sexual relations are morally acceptable, while just 29% believes those relations are morally wrong. Even among weekly church-goers, almost one-third believes homosexual sex is moral.)

Today’s Catholics also have learned—often from Catholic voices—that reproduction is a deliberate add-on to the sexual relationship, not an intrinsic aspect of sexual love, and indeed might be accomplished best in a petri dish miles away from the marriage bed.

It doesn’t take much, then, for Catholics to see marriage through minimalist eyes, as society’s validation of a couple’s commitment status and, not incidentally, as a vehicle that confer benefits. From that perspective, restricting marriage to one man and one woman seems little more than a hoary tradition—the vestige of a less enlightened era—that becomes hurtful and discriminatory to those excluded from it. And that’s where a huge percentage of Catholics are today.

Defending marriage is a vast and vital task. We need to work on all fronts, asRyan Anderson argued so persuasively. But in our outreach to the larger society, let’s not overlook the extensive “in-house” work that needs to be done with our fellow Catholics.

If silence paved the way for Catholics’ ‘progressive’ march from yesterday’s contraception to today’s same-sex marriage, then it’s not hard to see the remedy. Catholics, be not afraid to teach, preach, and live the truth—especially the truth about sex and contraception.

Mary Rice Hasson is a Fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.  A lawyer, writer, and thinker with substantive expertise in the areas of women, family, media, and education, Mary and her husband, Seamus Hasson, are the parents of seven children. She blogs at http://wordsfromcana.wordpress.com.