Archbishops Edwin F. O’Brien of Baltimore and Donald W. Wuerl of Washington, D.C., and Bishop Michael A. Saltarelli of Wilmington, Del., released a statement Jan. 5 supporting the traditional definition of marriage.
The statement, “Marriage in Maryland: Securing the Foundation of Family and Society,” was distributed to all parishes for inclusion in January bulletins by the Maryland Catholic Conference (MCC), the legislative lobbying arm of Maryland’s Catholic bishops.
In the upcoming legislative session, bills that will challenge the definition of marriage are expected in the wake of last fall’s decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals that upheld state law defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman. The Court of Appeals said that the state’s General Assembly could overturn the law and redefine marriage if it chose to do so.
“No legislative debate should prevent us from recognizing profound truths about men and women: They have equal dignity as persons and are mutually complementary as male and female,” said the bishops’ statement. “Nor should it keep us from grasping the truth about marriage: It comes about when a man and a woman make a mutual, exclusive and lifelong gift of themselves to one another in order to bring about a union that is personally fulfilling, open to the procreation and upbringing of children, and necessary to the formation of a stable and secure foundation for our society.” Mary Ellen Russell, deputy director of the MCC, pointed out that it was the state court – and not the Catholic Church – that upheld the vital role marriage plays in securing a stable society.
“This is a civil discussion involving state laws, and it resonates across religions, cultures and societies,” she said, adding that the existing law “is protecting the one relationship that’s protecting the next generation of society.”
“The health of marriage and of the family is critical for our whole society, so it’s not just a church issue,” said Lauri Przybysz, coordinator for marriage and family enrichment for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. “We have a responsibility to do what we can to strengthen marriage.”
Some 27 states have constitutional amendments protecting marriage, most of which were passed within the last five years. Forty-two states recognize marriage as between one man and one woman, while only four states recognize civil unions. The District of Columbia and four states recognize domestic partnerships. Only Massachusetts has legalized same-sex marriage.
The bishop’s statement said: “Society appropriately assigns the right to marry to heterosexual couples because of the uniqueness of the sexual relationship between a man and a woman. As the Maryland court stated in its recent decision, ‘In light of the fundamental nature of procreation … safeguarding an environment most conducive to the stable propagation and continuance of the human race is a legitimate government interest.’ Civil law considers other appropriate requirements for those couples who wish to marry, including their age, mental competence and blood relationship.”
Ms. Russell said the bishops released their statement in January because “before the session begins we want to get our position out so the full message is heard and not twisted into a sound bite.”
Several challenges to marriage are expected (see informational box), but the church opposes efforts, including a civil union bill, that alter the definition of marriage.
The church does not oppose efforts to allow unmarried couples access to certain rights automatically granted to married couples, such as the right to make to medical decisions, as long as those efforts are not a back-door attempt to redefine marriage. In fact, one concern of the church is that same-sex marriage bills ignore other family situations. For example, two elderly sisters who live together also want the right to make medical decisions in the event of a medical crisis.
Another concern is that it’s difficult to draw a line once you move beyond the traditional boundaries of marriage.
Marriage as a union of men and women “is a natural limitation, not a social limitation,” Ms. Russell said.
That’s why the U.S. Supreme Court in Maynard v. Hill viewed marriage not as a vehicle for satisfying the adult couple or individuals but as “the foundation of the family and of society, without which there would be neither civilization nor progress.”