Catholic response to the recent SCOTUS decision has been varied. Many who have been in the trenches for years were disheartened; some priests have come out in favor of it; one friend of mine suggested a “Jon Duns Scotus rehabilitation project,” because the man deserves to have his name used better. One response has been to minimize the loss: Hey, this Supreme Court thing just has to do with civil marriages, not the sacrament of marriage, so it doesn’t touch our Catholic thing.
That last response is understandable, but wrong. It would be a lot easier if we could write off the direction of our country as “their problem,” but the Catholic Church has always taught that there is such a thing as “natural” marriage, and that sacramental marriage is based on it. (Aside from the obvious go-to, the Catechism, I would recommend reading the first half of Pius XI’s Casti Conubii, a marvelously clear document that has been reaffirmed by subsequent popes.)
The basic challenge is to see that there is such a thing as “natural” marriage. Consider this analogy: Nobody seems to doubt that parents and children are naturally related to each other. What I mean is that no one thinks the parent-child relationship is something we just made up to suit our preferences. The government has to be involved in the relationship, of course, providing inheritance laws and protecting a parent’s special right over the child’s education and the child’s right to support from the parent and so forth and so on, but no one takes the government’s involvement to mean that the government just fabricates this relationship for convenience. We all see that a natural, biological fact relates parent to child and child to parent.
The reason it is particularly clear in the case of parent and child is that the child would not even exist were it not for his special relationship to a parent. If you have these two people, you have this relationship; and if you have this relationship, you have these two people. They aren’t separable, and so everyone can see that the relationship is no more an artificial arrangement than are the people themselves.
The Church’s teaching is that marriage is also a natural relationship, every bit as natural as the parent-child relationship. Once a man and a woman enter into marriage, they are, so to speak, blood relations; they are one flesh, one organism, biologically related. The government has to be involved in the relationship, of course, in order to protect the couple’s ability to live as one, to own property as one, and to inherit should one of them die, and so on, and the government has to arbitrate in cases where a marriage fails so badly that disputes arise over children and property and so on. But the government’s involvement does not mean that the marriage relationship is just fabricated by the government for the sake of preference or convenience.
The reason it is harder to see this relation as natural is that both man and woman exist before the relationship ever begins. Consequently, marriage can seem to be an accidental add-on, like membership at the country club or joining the Girl Scouts of America.
But in the Church’s view, something does exist as soon as the man and the woman exist, something without which the man and the woman would not exist themselves. Men are made in a way that obviously puts them in relation to women and women are made in a way that makes them obviously related to men. Being a man means having a certain relationship to woman, generically, and being a woman means having a certain relationship to man, generically. A man is made incomplete without woman, and a woman is made incomplete without man, each needing the other in a way to be a complete human unit.
What happens at marriage is not that something entirely new is created, but that this man’s generic relationship to woman is narrowed down to this woman, while this woman’s generic relationship to man is specified to this man. General complementarity becomes specific complementarity. This man could not be completed without woman, and now he is completed by this woman; this woman could not be completed without man, and now she is completed by this man. The structure of the relationship is already there, in masculinity and femininity, and the couple enter into that pre-existing structure by making it concrete in themselves.
That pre-existing structure is what the SCOTUS decision has denied, and yet that pre-existing structure is what Jesus took as the basis of the sacrament of marriage. It is precisely because marriage is a certain kind of natural thing that it was able to become a certain kind of supernatural thing.
There is a lot more one could say. The fact that marriage is natural ties in to the fact that society itself is natural, so to deny that natural marriage exists is actually to make a statement about the nature of the United States of America itself. Ultimately, if we push far enough this direction, we may even find ourselves saying that the parent-child relationship is a matter of preference. But for now I just want to make clear the Church’s position: even though a man and a woman enter marriage by willing to do so, their will does not create the nature of the thing they enter.