The Marriage Pledge is not spiteful, as Andrew Sullivan suggests. Nor is it an act of aggression designed to destroy the “middle ground” Sullivan would like us to agree to occupy as members of a liberal society. On the contrary, it is an effort by Ephraim Radner and Christopher Seitz to encourage the Church to act in a way that is true to the meaning of marriage.
When New York passed legislation in 2011 redefining marriage as between any two consenting adults, it made marriage into something very different from what the Bible teaches and Christianity has promoted for two thousand years. In fact, this new marriage was different from anything any human society had ever imagined as marriage until only very, very, very recently.
I was opposed to redefining marriage in New York. Had I been a legislator I would have voted against the bill. But it passed and in New York men can marry men and women can marry women. This does not mean the world has come to an endobviously. Nor has this ruined my life. Nor has it caused a crisis in the churches.
But when a legal contract calls itself marriage and sanctions same-sex marriage, then it’s not marriage, at least not in the ordinary meaning of the word, and certainly not in the Christian meaning. And if my pastor signs a New York City form at my wedding (were I not already married and thus capable of getting married), then he’s signaling that what New York calls marriage is pretty much the same thing as what the Catholic Church calls marriage.
This is obviously falseand it causes a bit of a crisis of conscience when one does something that signals a falsehood. It also works against a minister’s vocation. His job is to teach the Gospel, which includes marriage. Given high divorce rates among Christians, it’s pretty clear we’re not doing a good job. Muddling up the new government-defined marriage with the biblically-defined marriagewhich is the symbolic consequence of signing a government marriage document in New York todayonly makes things worse. Thus the need to get out of the government marriage business. Sometimes we need to teach with actions, especially when our words aren’t working very well. As St. Francis is said to have put it: Preach the Gospel. Use words if necessary.
Sullivan anguishes that renouncing the power to witness to government marriage is “just one more thread removed from our commonality.” Well, yes, but that thread was removed when New York redefined marriage, which must not have seemed very important to those who pushed to have marriage redefined.
Does this mean we can’t compromise or engage in “the given-and-take that makes a liberal society possible”? Of course we can! I’ll still be paying my taxes and arguing with Andrew Sullivan about how they should be spent. I’m more than happy to engage in give-and-take with him about American foreign policy or immigration reform. I’m also quite capable of debating with him about whether or not government marriage in New York should allow no-fault divorce or whether married couples (as defined by the state!) should receive preferential tax treatment to encourage more people to enter into government marriages. Perhaps we can find some common ground on these issues. I hope so.
The point is that nothing in the Marriage Pledge prevents us from sharing the public space of civil society. What it does do is prevent the illusion that the legal regime in New York shares the same view of marriage as Christianity’s