Thomas Reese, writing about gay marriage in the National Catholic Reporter, argues that the Catholic bishops of the United States should “admit defeat and move on.” They’ve done this before, he claims: Think of “their predecessors who opposed legalizing divorce but lost,” and who then “accepted divorce” in practice if not in theory—for example, by hiring divorcées. “Today, Catholic institutions rarely fire people when they get divorced and remarried,” and the divorced and remarried “get spousal benefits.” “No one is scandalized by this,” he writes.
This is like saying: “The patient has been taking this poison for years, getting sicker and weaker—so let’s triple the dose.” The argument is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Further, there are manifold reasons why gay marriage is a different and greater threat than divorce, and why acquiescing in it would gravely damage the Church. Here are four.
First, virtually no one celebrates divorce or regards it as a positive good. There is no “Divorced Pride” parade. At most, some think of it like abortion rights: a tragedy and an evil when it happens, but a necessary escape hatch. No one is clamoring for prelates to praise divorce. In contrast, gay marriage is trumpeted as a positive good, and the Church will be shown no mercy by its advocates until bishops, too, march in the parade. We should have no illusions about the way cultural forces (and, soon, legal coercion) will aim to compel the Church not only to be silent on gay marriage, but to praise it and to integrate it into the Church’s life—or else.
Second, while divorce negates an important element of marriage, it doesn’t change the kind of relationship we’re speaking about. With divorce, we recognize that the old bond should have endured, but didn’t. A new legal act is needed to sunder what was joined. But even in this, we still grasp the nature of the bond itself: between a man and a woman, of a kind that generates children, implying permanence, if only for the good of the kids. Gay marriage undermines true marriage in a different and much more dangerous way: It hollows out its very essence, applying the word to something else entirely, a relationship that itself has no potential to generate children, and so cannot itself (without help from the law or from outsiders) form a family. Gay marriage makes it increasingly hard even to talk about what is essential to true marriage. To accept gay marriage as a genuine expression of marriage—and to treat it as such in the parish office, even if we could then keep it out of the parish church—would be vastly more destructive than accepting divorce (which has been bad). It changes the very essence of the institution.
Third, divorce and remarriage is often hidden from view. One often doesn’t know if someone was divorced years ago—and it’s even more rare to know whether there was an annulment. Gay marriage is obviously different, and the threat of scandal is much greater.
Fourth, it is not true that no one is scandalized when church institutions hire divorced and remarried people. Reese’s argument implies that no one will be shocked if we have divorced sacristans (or gay-married parish receptionists), since everyone understands that it’s just the world we live in. But scandal, as Jesus spoke about it, is not a psychological shock. It is rather a skandalon, a stumbling block to others who will then be tempted to sin. “It is impossible that stumbling blocks should not come, but woe to him through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck . . .” (Luke 17:1–2). Is it plausible to claim that widespread acceptance of divorce has not contributed to more divorce? The effect will be even more powerful with gay marriage. If the Church accepts the new cultural and legal norms on gay marriage in its institutional life, even if not in its worship, it will say (especially to the “little ones” Jesus was talking about) that gay marriage is no big deal. Even today, it is a grave scandal when a Catholic teacher gets divorced and shows up at school with a new last name. Every kid in the school knows it. It teaches a lesson more powerful than any textbook. Accepting gay marriage would do much more damage.
Yes, we may have lost the battle in civil law about the civil definition of marriage. That is all the more reason that the Church must now speak ever more clearly and firmly about the truth of marriage, or her “little ones” will soon weaken and fall. That would be the true scandal.
Dominic Legge, O.P., is a Dominican priest and a professor of theology at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.