Life, Liberty, the Pursuit of Happiness, and Catholic Values

In the United States of America, today is Independence Day, the day we remember the birth of our nation through the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which said that all people “are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Those words ring loud this year to those in the USA’s LGBT community and for Catholics who support them because of the recent Supreme Court ruling extending marriage equality to lesbian and gay couples as a guaranteed constitutional right.  Liberty and the pursuit of happiness were mentioned as guiding principles in the court’s opinion.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Catholic, wrote the majority opinion in this landmark case, and already, at least one theologian has noted how some of the principles he used to support the decision are very Catholic in their content and meaning.

Professor Lisa Fullam wrote a blog post for Commonweal showing the Catholic corollaries for the four main arguments Kennedy uses.  [I mentioned Fullam’s blog post earlier this week, but revisit it today for a more expansive understanding of it. ] After quoting the decision’s emotional concluding paragraph, Fullam describes the four arguments that show that marriage is a fundamental right to be applied equally to all:

  1. The right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy. (Here Kennedy cites Loving v. Virginia, which struck down interracial marriage bans.)
  2. The right to marry “supports a two-person union unlike any other in its importance to the committed individuals,” and same-sex couples have the same right “to enjoy intimate association.”
  3. Marriage “safeguards children and families and thus draws meaning from related rights of childrearing, procreation, and education.” This doesn’t mean that everybody has to procreate in order to marry civlly: “Precedent protects the right of a married couple not to procreate, so the right to marry cannot be conditioned on the capacity or commitment to procreate.”
  4. “[M]arriage is a keystone of the Nation’s social order,” and excluding same-sex couples is “demeaning” to them.

Fullam then provides specific Catholic statements which agree with these principles:

  1. It was Pope Paul VI who labeled marriage an inalienable right way back in 1967: “When the inalienable right of marriage and of procreation is taken away, so is human dignity.” (Populorum progressio, 37)
  2. The special bond between the married is so important in Catholic tradition that we recognize marriage as a sacrament.
  3. The safety and security of children has rightly been an important factor in the magisterium’s argument against marriage equality. However, it is clear from experience, scientific study, and simple common sense that marriage equality does not, in fact, harm children, and that providing children’s families legal protection can only benefit them. The opinion’s note that people are not required to procreate is also echoed in Catholic tradition: marriage does not lose its dignity if a couple cannot procreate, and Catholics are to exercise prudence in deciding when–and even if–they procreate. Pius XII explicitly noted that couples may practice (licit) avoidance of procreation “for a long period or even for the entire period of matrimonial life.” (Allocution to midwives, October 29, 1951) Catholic tradition also allows post-menopausal women and other sterile people to marry, asking only that they not deceive their partners as to their procreative capacity.
  4. The Church recognizes the equal dignity of all human beings, and says specifically of gay and lesbian people that “They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2358)

To Fullam’s argument, I would add the following quotations that I found in Kennedy’s opinion which strike me as having a distinct Catholic “flavor” to them:

“Since the dawn of history, marriage has transformed strangers into relatives, binding families and societies together.”

“Far from seeking to devalue marriage, the petitioners seek it for themselves because of their respect—and need—for its privileges and responsibilities. And their immutable nature dictates that same-sex marriage is their only real path to this profound commitment.”

“The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring
bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality. This is true for all persons, whatever their sexual orientation.”

Happy Independence Day to all!

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry



5 replies
  1. Terence Weldon
    Terence Weldon says:

    An important counter to the Church’s argument that gay marriage must be opposed for the sake of the children, is found in Kennedy’s opinion. One of the cases before the court, that in Michigan, was originally about adoption, not marriage. The evidence before the court in that case included extensive scientific research findings that gay parents are at least as good as opposite – sex parents. That was accepted by the court, and included in last week’s opinion – gay marriage benefits children.

    “Without the recognition, stability, and predictability marriage offers, their children suffer the stigma of knowing their families are somehow lesser. They also suffer the significant material costs of being raised by unmarried parents, relegated through no fault of their own to a more difficult and uncertain family life. The marriage laws at issue here thus harm and humiliate the children of same-sex couples.”

    Have a great 4th, you guys. After last week, you all deserve it.

  2. terryweldon
    terryweldon says:

    Reblogged this on Queering the Church and commented:
    4th July celebrations have particular importance for Americans, but the importance of the principles in the declaration, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” apply to all of us, wherever we are.

  3. Jerry Baumeister, PhD
    Jerry Baumeister, PhD says:

    I agree with everything written here. Good work Frank. I would like to point out one historical fact, since you started with a quote from the Declaration of Independence, there were no CATHOLICS in the congress at this time. As a result the church at the time and until the last century looked on this document as Potestant Political posturing. Happy 4ht ya’all


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