Back in the day, altar boys loved to serve weddings because it involved ready cash: minimally, $5 (which in those days meant something), often a ten-spot. Once in a great while, an exceptionally generous best man would slip each server an envelope with $25”a small fortune to a boy in the early 1960s.

Serving weddings should have enlarged more than the youthful exchequer, however. For wedding servers were exposed, time and again, to the prescribed “exhortation” the priest read to the couple before they pronounced their vows. That exhortation is worth recalling, now that the very idea of marriage is being contested on four state ballots, and in the national election, on Nov. 6:

My dear friends: You are about to enter upon a union which is most sacred and most serious. It is most sacred, because established by God himself. By it, he gave to man a share in the greatest work of creation, the work of the continuation of the human race. And in this way he sanctified human love and enabled man and woman to help each other live as children of God, by sharing a common life under his fatherly care.

Because God himself is thus its author, marriage is of its very nature a holy institution, requiring of those who enter into it a complete and unreserved giving of self. But Christ our Lord added to the holiness of marriage an even deeper meaning and a higher beauty. He referred to the love of marriage to describe his own love for his Church, that is, for the people of God whom he redeemed by his own blood . . . . It is for this reason that his apostle, St. Paul, clearly states that marriage is now and for all time to be considered a great mystery, intimately bound up with the supernatural union of Christ and the Church, which union is also to be its pattern . . . .

No greater blessing can come to your married live than pure conjugal love, loyal and true to the end . . . .

It’s impossible to imagine a Catholic priest pronouncing those words at a gay wedding. And that impossibility illustrates several Catholic theological objections to the notion that same-sex couples can marry. Gay marriage is opposed to the divine order built into creation and to the Gospel: for gay marriage, by its very nature, cannot be a fruitful one-flesh union, and gay marriage, which by definition involves grave sin, cannot be an image of Christ’s spousal love for the Church. Thus Catholics who support gay marriage are deeply confused about both Word and Sacrament, the twin pillars of Catholic life.

In public policy terms, the Catholic critique of gay marriage reflects the Catholic idea of the just state. Rightly understood, marriage is one of those social institutions that exist “prior” to the state: prior in terms of time (marriage existed before the state), and prior in terms of the deep truths embedded in the human condition. A just state thus recognizes the givenness of marriage and seeks to protect and nurture this basic social institution.

By contrast, a state that asserts the authority to redefine marriage has stepped beyond the boundaries of its competence. And if that boundary-crossing is set in constitutional or legal concrete, it opens up a Pandora’s box of undesirable results. For if the state can decree that two men or two women can make a marriage, why not one man and two women? Two women and two men? These are not paranoid fantasies; the case for polyandry and polygamy is now being mounted in prestigious law journals.

And if the state can define marriage by diktat , why not other basic human relationships, like the parent-child relationship, the doctor-patient relationship, the lawyer-client relationship, or the priest-penitent relationship? There is no principled reason why not. Thus gay marriage is another expression of that soft totalitarianism that Benedict XVI aptly calls the “dictatorship of relativism.”

Conscientious voters will keep this”and the Democratic Party platform’s endorsement of gay marriage”in mind on Nov. 6.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here .

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