The Rhode Island legislature is taking its turn amongst a parade of U.S. states to discuss the question of marriage, specifically who can enter into that legal estate. The proponents of the traditional understanding of the institution — reserved to the joining of a man and a woman — have been pressing firmly for a referendum on the matter, while those who wish to fundamentally change the definition of marriage — sensing a favorable political climate — hope to bring it to a swift vote, and settle it without deferring to the will of the people. Both sides recognize the fact that referenda consistently reject efforts to allow same-sex couples to marry, and that explains the current strategy of each.
While it is true that every state that has asked its citizens to decide who can marry has clung to the traditional arrangement, it is also true that few can explain the actual nature of marriage — nor can they adequately define its ends. The “Catholic Catechism” says: “The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring” (CCC, 1601). Or to put it more succinctly: marriage is a gift of God, given for the sake of babies and bonding.
The reason that such a foundational understanding of marriage has been called into question at this point in time is because our culture has cut marriage adrift from those two guiding principles. Decades back, the western world embraced the contraceptive mentality that separated the marital embrace from its natural fertility. The Protestant churches officially signed off on this fact as early as 1930 at the Lambeth Conference, eventually leaving the Catholic Church as the only religious body to stand firmly against contraception within marriage.
Just as Paul VI predicted in Humanae Vitae (1968), acquiescing to contraception — even within marriage — would have a snowball effect on the wider society, so that promiscuity could flourish with fewer visible consequences, and leading directly to acceptance of abortion as its natural corollary.
The other part of marriage — the lifelong bond — has also lost society’s censure, as the next generation incorporated the newer attitudes towards intimacy. Premarital sex and declining sexual fidelity led to more divorces, which gradually became easier to obtain. Whereas previously those who chose to end their unions faced a subtle form of shunning by the larger community, such attitudes are entirely foreign to us today. Long gone is widespread denigration of promiscuity, cohabitation, out-of-wedlock births, divorce or serial monogamy, and each has subsequently risen to shocking heights.
Such is the state of “traditional marriage” today. While the majority of people instinctively know that it should be reserved for one man and one women, very few would agree that it’s the foundational institution ordered to children and lifelong unions. Having already made peace with physical intimacy that is often meant to be sterile and non-exclusive, it is harder to exclude from marriage those whose unions are equally unstable and sterile.
Only when we recommit ourselves to embracing marriage as it was intended will we fortify our position on traditional marriage. Only when we open our embrace to the children that conjugal love naturally generates and then provide them with the lifelong care that only a mother and father can offer will we really understand what God intends for family life.