No one ever wants to live an era of conflict and division and difficult choices. Two 16th century Englishmen, John Fisher and Thomas More certainly didn’t. Fisher was the Bishop of Rochester and Thomas More was the royal chancellor and close friend and advisor to King Henry VIII. The King, desperate for a male heir, asked the Pope to grant him a divorce from his wife so that he could marry another. When the Pope refused, Henry went forward with his divorce anyway and declared himself Supreme Head of the Church in England. Failure to agree to the divorce and to the supremacy of the King was declared to be high treason.
Fisher and More were forced to choose between obeying the state or their conscience. They chose to follow their consciences, knowing that it would cost them their lives. Almost five centuries later St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher were canonized by the Catholic Church as martyrs for conscience sake. I was reminded of the example of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher while reflecting on the Supreme Court decisions last week declaring a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and, in effect, legalizing same sex marriage in California. While facing much less drastic consequences, last week’s decision does confront defenders of traditional marriage, including myself and the Catholic Church, with having to choose between the authority of the state, reason and divine law.
The Supreme Court has now ruled that sexual difference no longer matters when it comes to the definition of marriage. As a matter of right reason, faith and conscience, I must disagree. This new definition of marriage removes the very basis of marriage’s meaning as the physical union of a man and a woman, open to new life in the children born of their union. While the state recognizes marriage (and under the best circumstances supports and encourages married couples and families), marriage is a natural, not a state institution. Marriage predates both religion and government and is grounded in the very nature of the human person. It is the foundation of human society.
Marriage, despite cultural variations, understood as the sexual union of a man and a woman with purpose of procreating and rearing a new generation, is found throughout human society in every era of history. Although we regard marriage as a sacrament of our faith, we would argue that this natural meaning of marriage based in the complementarity of the sexes and the birth and rearing of children can be understood by reason alone.
Children are crucial in how we think about marriage, because this institution is not only about relationships between adults but is about creating families. By nature every child has a mother and a father, every child has a basic right to have a mother and a father united in marriage. But only a man can be a father. Only a woman can be a mother. Both men and women as fathers and mothers bring irreplaceable gifts to the shared task of raising a child. That said, it is important to acknowledge the many single parents in our society who, due to circumstances beyond their control raise their children without another parent. The many sacrifices they make to raise and provide for their children deserve our respect and support as a society. Yet, no child should be deliberately or intentionally deprived of having a mother and a father. A husband and a wife married to each other give to a child what no other relationship can: a father and a mother united to each other in an exclusively faithful relationship for life.
Regardless of this Supreme Court decision redefining marriage, I will continue to vigorously support traditional marriage as a matter of right reason, faith and conscience while respecting the authority of the government and abiding by all just laws. As St. Thomas More, referring to the conflict between law and conscience in his own day said so memorably, “I am the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”