By Bishop Richard J. Malone
Recently, our Holy Father, Pope Francis, offered the following challenge: "But nowadays who is making an effort to strengthen marriages, to help married couples overcome their problems, to assist them in the work of raising children and, in general, to encourage the stability of the marriage bond?"
This probing question by Pope Francis in The Joy of Love (Amoris Laetitia, no. 52) is for all of us: every family, community, and nation. The Holy Father is firm: "No one can think that the weakening of the family as that natural society founded on marriage will prove beneficial to society as a whole" (Amoris Laetitia, no. 52).
If we care about addressing poverty, promoting the well-being of children, building stronger communities—we must at the same time care about strengthening marriages and families. The social science is clear on this point.
But a decisive question must be faced in order to move forward: What is marriage?
Today on June 26, people will be marking the U.S. Supreme Court's decision one year ago in Obergefell v. Hodges. Some, following the Court's majority opinion, see this decision as a victory for equality and freedom. But that opinion is remarkable for what it lacks: a coherent account of what marriage is and what it is for. What makes marriage different than any other type of relationship? Why should the state have an interest in marriage? Why should marriage be between only two people?
The Court fails to offer substantial rationale here. It also fails to consider seriously the fact that our culture over the last several decades has been progressively declining when it comes to strengthening marriage and the family—a decline that leads to cultural breakdown: "There is a failure to realize that only the exclusive and indissoluble union between a man and a woman has a plenary role to play in society as a stable commitment that bears fruit in new life" (Amoris Laetitia, no. 52).
The pope keenly observes that "many countries are witnessing a legal deconstruction of the family, tending to adopt models based almost exclusively on the autonomy of the individual will" (Amoris Laetitia, no. 53). Unfortunately, this has been the case in the United States. Our laws have tended not to put families and children first but instead have made an idol of individual autonomy at the expense of truth and the common good, and even God himself. Civil law is meant to reflect what is true and just, not create or reconstruct it.
Obergefell has changed the law, but it has not changed the truth. Some may think that Obergefell concludes a conversation, but that conversation is only beginning, because the central questions at stake still need a hearing. And truth, ultimately, cannot be silenced.
So what is marriage? How is society protecting a child's basic right to be welcomed, raised, and loved by a mother and father if the law no longer recognizes man and woman as necessary to marriage? With malice toward none and with charity for all, we must advance this conversation and witness.
Today, I encourage those who have not read the Obergefell decision to begin reading the majority opinion and then the dissenting opinions carefully. Take time over the next several weeks to reflect upon Pope Francis' The Joy of Love and to peruse other resources that shed light on the meaning of marriage, like those available on www.marriageuniqueforareason.org. Consider how you and your family can advance a renewed conversation about marriage in your community.
Lastly, today let us pray that our hearts be open to one another and to God's healing grace. May respect and kindness guide our conversations with one another, especially in our families, communities, and nation. And let us pray for a deeper understanding of the tremendous gift that marriage and family life is to the world: a warm and welcoming home where a husband and wife, father, mother and their children, strive to know, love and serve the Lord and one another. May the Holy Spirit inspire in us renewed confidence to witness to the truth of God's plan for marriage and the family, attracting others by our own striving to grow in love.
Bishop Malone is chairman of the committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth for U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.