On Tuesday, December 13, 2022, United States President Joseph Biden signed the so-called Respect for Marriage Act (RFMA). The Act repeals the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which was effectively terminated by a pair of U.S. Supreme Court rulings in 2013 and 2015.
Redefining Marriage at the Federal Level
Following Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 Supreme Court case which held that the Constitution’s 14th Amendment requires all states to recognize same-sex marriage, DOMA became a dead letter. However, as part of the Court’s recent decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which returned the question of abortion legalization to the states, Justice Clarence Thomas opined in a concurrence that the Court should reconsider several earlier decisions, including Obergefell.
While it will forever remain an open question whether the Court would have eventually followed Justice Thomas’s line of thinking, Congress, in concert with the Biden Administration, opted to act by officially redefining marriage at the federal level while compelling all states and U.S. territories to recognize same-sex marriage. Although the RFMA laudably includes protections for interracial marriage, that is hardly a contested issue in American law and politics; their addition to the Act amounts to little more than a deflection from its true aims.
A Threat to the Catholic Church and Conscience
The RFMA claims that it will have “no impact on religious liberty or conscience,” but that is far from certain. There has been a flurry of legal challenges in recent years against businesses that have refused to extend their services to same-sex wedding activities. Moreover, the symbolic value of the Act may embolden further legal action against those who, as a matter of conscience, do not wish to support the perpetuation of same-sex unions on any level.
An amendment to the Act proposed by Utah Senator Mike Lee was narrowly defeated by a vote of 48-49. Had it passed, the Act would have included a section safeguarding the free exercise of religious beliefs and moral convictions. Without this protective language, religious observers fear that the RFMA will expose churches, including the Catholic Church, to legal challenges for upholding the time-honored definition of marriage as between one man and one woman. The Act may also contribute to a further stigmatization of individuals who adhere to the once-settled understanding of marriage for moral or religious reasons.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued a statement on November 17 opposing the Act. The statement reads in pertinent part:
The Catholic Church will always uphold the unique meaning of marriage as a lifelong, exclusive union of one man and one woman. In doing so, we are joined by millions of what the Obergefell Court called ‘reasonable and sincere’ Americans – both religious and secular – who share this time-honored understanding of the truth and beauty of marriage.
The bill is a bad deal for the many courageous Americans of faith and no faith who continue to believe and uphold the truth about marriage in the public square today. The Act does not strike a balance that appropriately respects our nation’s commitment to the fundamental right of religious liberty. Senators supporting the Act must reverse course and consider the consequences of passing an unnecessary law that fails to provide affirmative protections for the many Americans who hold this view of marriage as both true and foundational to the common good.
Archbishop Cordileone Responds
Writing for the American religious magazine First Things, Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco did not mince words. “Until a few years ago,” the archbishop observes, “virtually every culture in existence recognized the unique stake society has in affirming” the union of man and woman for the procreation and rearing of children. Despite decades of empirical data demonstrating the deleterious effects of fatherlessness on children, Congress has passed a law that makes fathers optional at best while ignoring the important benefits traditionally constituted families confer upon the young.
Like his fellow bishops in the USCCB, Archbishop Cordileone laments that this “curiously misnamed” Act does not “protect or treat equally the millions of Americans who believe the basic social good of marriage should be protected and promoted.” He also worries about potential litigating, recalling the numerous “vendors who have had to go to court to defend their right to live according to their conscience[.]” “We have,” according to Cordileone, “moved from ‘tolerance’ to imposing the dogmas of secular orthodoxy on the entire populace, stripping away the rights of those who believe differently to act according to those beliefs.”
In closing, the hierarch of San Francisco calls upon young people to get married, stay married, “and sacrifice your all…for the healthy upbringing of your kids.” Recalling, intentionally or not, several passages from Scripture (Rom. 12:1-2, James 4:4, and Our Lord’s words in Lk. 6:26 and Jn. 15-18-20), Cordileone closes with the following powerful statement:
True, you won’t fit in with the rest of society, so be forewarned: As someone once said, the world is hostile to those who don’t fit in. But you will make a difference, and a difference for the good. That’s far better than simply fitting in, only to be forgotten to history.
An Uncertain Future Looms
Catholics may not need educating on what the correct definition of marriage is, but many living under the banner of secular liberalism need frequent reminder that they owe their loyalty to Christ the King above all else. The secular orthodoxy decried by Archbishop Cordileone promotes the troubling prejudice that religion is a “private affair” that should be kept locked away behind closed doors. Religious beliefs, including the Catholic Faith, ought to have no say in public affairs, particularly when those beliefs run up against the ever-shifting tenets of secularism. The American notion of “separationism,” which was once intended to protect religion from the encroachment of the state by keeping the spheres apart, has now given way to militant imposition of non- or even anti-religious ideologies on persons of faith.
Since homosexuality is against God’s natural law, and is identified by Scripture as one of the sins crying to Heaven for justice, Catholics throughout the centuries have always condemned its practice. Now that an individual’s choices, including his sexual preferences, have been placed above the law of God—and so above God Himself—those who seek to defend God’s rights must be brought in tow. This is done today by using human law to “overturn” God’s law. Man legislates a new reality (one, in fact, that does not exist): a marriage between people of the same sex. Regardless of what the Senate and House have voted, and what President Biden has signed, God’s law remains.
For over 50 years, longstanding legal principles and social mores have fallen victim to political agendas fueled not by a commitment to the common good, but to the exaltation of the individual’s “right to choose” everything from whether to murder their unborn child to receiving a governmental imprimatur for unnatural desires. Men may choose to do evil, but they have no power to make their evil good. If the acts they perform are contrary to the nature given to them by their Father in Heaven, they will be wrong, even if the U.S. Government condones their actions with official legislation. Since sinful acts are also harmful acts, those actions will be destructive of the nature of those who commit them, in addition to shutting them off eternally from the God Who made them.
This is the greatest tragedy of this new Act which disrespects marriage: it is a call to turn away from God when we can only find our true happiness in God. Catholics, secure in the indefectible teachings of Holy Mother Church, must live according to God’s law, come what may. Catholics should also pray that their political leaders may seek to inform the laws of the land by what God has ordained for human happiness.