“Marriage Equality”?

By: Fr. Paul Scalia

In the public debate about same-sex marriage, we often hear the phrase “Marriage Equality.” Like the “Love is love” mantra, this one is brilliant propaganda.  A powerful one-two punch, it contains the perfect ingredients to silence the opposition: the traditional institution of marriage and the quintessential American ideal of equality.  Hey, who does not like marriage? And what American would ever disagree with equality? Put them together and you have a potent slogan. Indeed, this phrase suffers only one weakness: People do not really mean it. 

equality-question-draft2We know that people do not really mean “Marriage Equality,” or its companion “Freedom to Marry,” because they intend them only for a select group – namely, homosexuals.  If people really did mean equality and freedom, then they would clamor for an end to any and all restrictions on marriage.  After all, if these are so important, why limit them to one group, or even two?

And yet…no one is rushing to free adolescents from the draconian, iniquitous laws banning them from wedded bliss.  No one is clamoring to permit incestuous marriage (well, not yet).  No one is rallying and protesting in favor of legalizing polygamy (okay, almost no one).  So, as much as people parrot these pat phrases, they do not take them to their logical conclusion.  Of course, “Marriage Equality Except for Polygamists” is not as catchy. And “Freedom (sort of) to Marry” makes a bad bumper sticker.

The reason people cannot take such freedom and equality to their logical conclusion is because marriage is inherently exclusive.  The whole concept of marriage involves entering a binding relationship with some particular someone who is not some other particular someone.  Further, laws tend to do things like distinguish, define, and – yes – even discriminate.  If we have any marriage laws at all, they will say something like, “This is a marriage and that is not.” (Which is why the more honest participants in the debate call for an end to marriage altogether.) The purpose of laws is to draw lines and limits for public order and the common good. In the end, everyone draws the line somewhere – perhaps at same-sex marriage, perhaps at polygamy, perhaps at incest.  People simply resent the Catholic Church for drawing the line earlier than they want it.

So what phrase would serve as a good rejoinder? “Marriage Complementarity” would be a good response, bringing out what the current debate overlooks.  Problem is, it only gets at a part of the truth.  “Marriage Permanence” would be interesting because it would move the debate to a neglected issue of our culture’s decay. “Marriage Exclusivity” again only summarizes one aspect.  “Marriage Fecundity” would perhaps be the most fun – pushing the argument back to a prior and fundamental issue.

But none of these works for the simple reason that you cannot reason with sloganeering of any kind.  There is no neat response once people have emptied “marriage” of its intrinsic meaning.  Moreover, the entire truth about anything cannot fit on a bumper sticker or be captured in a sound byte.  In the end, “Marriage Equality” is intended for a very select group of people.  Far from an egalitarian push to extend the beauty of marriage to all, it is just a tool for a very particular kind of social engineering.

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