Marriage, the courts, and the amendment

Ironically, I got into my first protracted discussion about the Federal Marriage Amendment [FMA] at a wedding reception, a few years back. My interlocutors were two prominent political philosophers of a generally conservative (or, if the term hasn’t become unfit for family newspapers, neoconservative) temperament. Both were against amending the Constitution to define “marriage” as the union of a man and a woman, and their arguments were, in some sense, aesthetic: the Constitution is a beautiful text; amending it should only be done under the gravest circumstances; one shouldn’t amend the Constitution to resolve a policy issue that should be settled legislatively. To do so was to mar the text, like defacing a painting or taking a hammer to a sculpture.

The notion that we were governed by the text of the Constitution was a pious memory, I replied; we hadn’t been governed that way for decades. Yes, it was a shame that the Framers’ beautifully balanced text had to be subjected to amendments in order to resolve issues so obviously within the purview of the people and their duly-elected representatives. But, I argued, if the Constitution weren’t amended to defend the institution of marriage (in which both of my friends were, and are, devout believers) the federal courts were going to “amend” the Constitution for us by finding a right to “gay marriage” in the same way they had found a “right to abortion” – by inventing it, in an exercise in tortured jurisprudential logic.

While I haven’t talked to my friends since the FMA failed to get a simple majority in the Senate in June, my hunch is that they’ve both had second thoughts about the necessity of a federal constitutional amendment on marriage

Why? Because they’ll likely have had a chance to think through the implications of the Supreme Court’s decision – and Justice Anthony Kennedy’s decisive opinion – in Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 decision that struck down a Texas statute criminalizing sodomy. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts explicitly cited Lawrence in the Goodridge decision, by which the Massachusetts Supremes rejected that state’s practice of issuing marriage licenses to Adam and Eve, but not to Adam and Steve or to Eve and Bertha.

The way in which Justice Kennedy settled Lawrence is a wedge that threatens to open up a chamber of judicial horrors. Kennedy argued that the distinction between heterosexual and homosexual relationships did not meet the Court’s “rational basis” standard for judging what constitutes a discriminatory statute. But if that is true – as the Massachusetts Supremes understood – then there is no constitutionally serious basis for denying Adam the right to “marry” Steve, or Eve to “marry” Bertha. Justice Kennedy’s subsequent claim that his Lawrence decision didn’t have clear implications for the same-sex “marriage” debate won’t wash.

As for the chamber of horrors: if the standard that Justice Kennedy applied in Lawrence must, as a matter of logic, open the door to same-sex “marriage,” then what is to prevent its being used to create a “right” to polygamy? Or a “right” to a marital threesome? Or foursome? Or whatever? Critics of the FMA claim that raising such alarms is a matter of scare tactics. In fact, though, you can find arguments in favor of legalized polygamy, polyandry, polyamory, and all the rest in the leading law reviews of the country.

And what would be the result of a constitutional “development” in this direction? In a striking article in the June 5 issue of the Weekly Standard, Stanley Kurtz argues that it might well lead to the end of democracy. For the social mores attendant upon polygamy, polyandry, and the polymorphous perversity of polyamory are incompatible with the social mores necessary for a self-governing democracy. I won’t attempt to summarize Dr. Kurtz’s brilliant essay; suffice it to say that you should read it (, and then give it to every senator who says that the Federal Marriage Amendment is unnecessary.

Marriage, Kurtz writes, is about “sustaining the conditions in which freedom can thrive.” That’s what’s at stake in the FMA, and our representatives in the House and Senate must be made to know it.


COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.