Marriage: What is the cultural definition of marriage?
By Deacon Ron Walker
The U.S. Supreme recently rendered its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, holding that a state must license a marriage between persons of the same sex. The court stressed several times in the opinion that its decision is based on “changed understandings of marriage,” which allows the court to distinguish the decision from prior decisions in which marriage was known to be a union between a husband and wife (man and woman). In a nutshell, the court says that the cultural definition or the cultural understanding of marriage has changed and because of that, states no longer have the right to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman.
So, what is this new cultural definition of marriage that the court repeatedly says is recognized or understood? Interestingly, this new understanding is not in the opinion. The court does not provide a definition to the American people, but it does say that states can’t deny the status of marriage, whatever that is, to persons of the same sex who want to marry.
One exercise for Christians that may shed some light is to compare the dimensions of the Christian understanding of marriage to the court’s opinion as to the culture’s understanding of marriage. Above is a brief chart and discussion that may assist. (Not all components are listed and each is generalized for brevity.)
After looking at the foregoing, it seems apparent that there really is no cultural definition of marriage. At most, the culture’s understanding of marriage is that it is an agreement between two adults who can make it anything they choose it to be. This leaves the culture with an illusory understanding of marriage.
This poses a challenge for Catholics. But with each challenge there is opportunity. The Christian understanding has a solid, unchanged definition of marriage, which we know most brides and grooms truly aspire to obtain. The historical reality is that the reason the American culture holds marriage in such high esteem is because of the Christian understanding of marriage. Bishop Joe Vásquez and his brother bishops in the U.S. reminded us that, “Regardless of the court’s decision, the nature of the human person and marriage remains unchanged and unchangeable. We will remain true and faithful to the Gospel and we will continue to call people to look deeply into the beauty and understanding of our theology of marriage. We will hope that these truths will once again prevail in our society, not only by their logic, but by their great beauty and manifest service to the common good.”
While states may not deny a license to marry to same-sex couples, questions remain about whether churches, ministers and even public employees (such as county clerk employees, judges, or justices of the peace) may refuse to be compelled to participate in marrying or issuing licenses to same-sex couples on the basis that such action violates their sincerely held religious beliefs.
It seems well settled that churches and clergy may be not be compelled to marry same sex couples as such compulsion will violate one’s religious freedom guaranteed under the constitution. Additionally, the Texas legislature recently passed and the governor signed into law the “Pastor Protection Act,” which protects the churches, clergy and employees of religious organizations from actions which compel them to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs in matters of marriages. Nonetheless, there may be legal actions challenging those rights.
It is not as clear for the public employees, judges, and justices of peace. Bishop Vásquez asks the faithful to continue to pray for our public officials and public employees.
Deacon Ron Walker serves as chancellor of the Diocese of Austin.