SUPREME COURT DECISION: Rejecting four marks of natural marriage

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ sustain you! I am sure that you share my great disappointment in the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, two weeks ago. We may not perhaps be too greatly surprised, but we are still all wounded by the ongoing collapse of the culture of life and marriage in our society.

The erosion of any shared vision of the common good continues, and we are left only with competing visions of private good, and therefore only with a power politics in which might makes right. Therefore, we pray for peace – peace not only for ourselves, but for all, for only in the peace of Christ can we begin again to talk with others, to witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, instead of stridently talking past each other.

There is, of course, much to criticize in this decision, beyond even its result of legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states. One might point out its inconsistencies of logic and its contradictions of both constitutional theory and previous decisions, especially the 2013 Windsor decision in which these same justices held that the definition of marriage was assigned by the constitution itself to state law, not federal law.

One might point out, again, that it refuses to engage the serious arguments for marriage as the total union of one man and one woman for life, for the purpose of having and raising children. And one might point out that the strongest argument it can muster in favor of same-sex marriage is only the argument from emotion, namely, that those who wanted to marry their same-sex partner felt bad that they couldn’t.

But the most troubling and problematic aspect of the decision, to my mind, is what it simply assumes marriage to be, even prior to looking at it in the law. It just assumes that marriage is simply a personal relationship founded on sexual and emotional intimacy, with no other definable criteria. It does not pursue this thought, to wonder about what makes this relationship unique among all the possible sexual relationships in human experience. It makes no attempt to understand the historical interest civil law has taken in this sexual relationship, but not other possible ones, for thousands of years. It does not at all consider that only sexual complementarity of man and woman, made for each other, can produce children, or that the good of the children requires as much stability in home and family life as possible.

It therefore rejects at the beginning, merely by assumption, all four marks of natural marriage – complementarity (man and woman), exclusivity (total gift of self to one, and therefore not to any other), permanence (until natural death of one of the spouses), and fruitfulness (openness to the gift of children in the sexual union). And having rejected these four marks in its core assumption about what marriage is, of course it concluded that there could be no good reason apart to oppose calling other sexual unions “marriage.”

How could the court make such a short-sighted but unquestioned assumption?

Is it not because we, the mostly Christian people of this country, have spent the last three generations living as if the four marks of marriage did not apply to us? We have “sown the wind, and reaped the whirlwind” (Hosea 8:7). As a culture, we have embraced contraception, pre-marital sex, and divorce. We claim to be followers of Christ, yet in these ways we have lived our marriages as a fiction.

Just as Blessed Paul VI prophesied in Humanae Vitae, we have pretended that complementarity and fruitfulness can be controlled to our selfish will by pills and devices, and that no harm could come of this. Imagining that sexual satisfaction is the highest form of emotional intimacy, we have been promiscuous before and even after marrying. We have entered into contraceptive unions, making only a partial gift of self to the beloved, and when these unions have inevitably failed, we have shrugged and moved on.

We ourselves, collectively and culturally, by how we have predominantly chosen to live, have thus created the false and deeply damaging idea that marriage is merely what the Obergefell decision assumed it to be, instead of what it actually is.

Now, therefore, together as disciples of Jesus Christ, we have only two courses of action before us. We could continue to live in the worldly manner of contraception, promiscuity, and divorce, lamenting what we have lost but completely ineffectual to create change. This would mean, in fact, that we subordinate our faith to worldly powers and mores. We would therefore end up agreeing that our Catholic schools, hospitals and nursing homes, Catholic Charities, and perhaps ultimately even our parishes and clergy, must be silent and condoning about these sins.

Or, we could repent of these sins and live in the manner of the gospel. This would mean putting our faith first, even when there is social, political, or economic cost to doing do. This would mean living marriage according to what it truly is.

We would have to reject contraception and the promiscuity that accompanies it. We would have to reject easy divorce and work to save difficult marriages and for those whose marriage might still end in divorce, to accept that the bond of permanence and fidelity cannot be released by the civil law. We would have to be deliberate about using our schools, hospitals and nursing homes, our charities and parishes, to preach consistently what marriage really is, and how to live it faithfully, and why. We as clergy, especially, would have to become much more zealous about preaching on such topics. We would therefore end up re-evangelizing our culture and re-invigorating the church.

This is a much harder road, to be sure, but is this not what our savior chose in the garden, when he prayed for the cup of his holy passion to pass from him? “But not my will be done, O Father, but yours!”

May our most gentle Lord Jesus be merciful with all our sins, and give us grace and strength to live our faith as true witnesses to him as our only Lord and savior!

Your brother in Christ,


Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless

Bishop of Sioux City

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