Everybody loves marriage. We’re taught to adore it from the time we are kids. In fairy tales Prince and Princess Charming’s wedding begins the Happily Ever After. Countless people are avid followers of the latest celebrity marriages. And many spend outrageous amounts of money attempting to imitate them, trying to construct a perfect beginning to their own Happily Ever After.
So in the recent Supreme Court case on marriage, Justice Kennedy isn’t breaking new ground when he writes: “Rising from our most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations.” It seems as though Justice Kennedy is equating marriage with happiness and fulfillment itself.
Since, in Justice Kennedy’s opinion, marriage is “essential” for our hopes, aspirations, and happiness, it’s no surprise that homosexual couples “seek it for themselves because of their respect – and need – for its privileges and responsibilities.” If marriage is essential to happiness, then it must be redefined to fit anyone’s romantic proclivities. After all, it would be unjust to exclude anyone from happiness.
Because of this astonishing idolization of marriage, a Catholic response to same-sex attraction can seem like an unjust obstruction of a person’s happiness. How can a merciful God doom someone to celibacy? Why would a loving God want someone to be unhappy?
But the Church’s teaching only makes sense within the larger framework of Catholic moral teaching, which is ultimately ordered towards living a life of virtue united to Christ to attain eternal beatitude in heaven and happiness here on earth. Beatitude in heaven and happiness on earth is found, not in pleasure or sex or wealth, nor in any earthly good that fades away. It is found in Christ. And so He commands us:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal. (Mt 6:19-20)
Marriage is not a treasure in heaven, “for in the resurrection they shall neither marry nor be married” (Mt 22:30). We will all be chaste celibates in heaven. Marriage is a fading good of this world: a real good and a real means to attain those heavenly treasures, but not a heavenly treasure itself. And it can even be a distraction. St. Paul counsels:
I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs – how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided. (1 Cor 7:32-34)
Some are chosen for celibacy to be specially consecrated through the priesthood or religious life. Such a consecration is a path of more direct service of Christ. That is not to denigrate marriage or to deny that it can be a powerful means of attaining sanctity. Neither does the excellence of the celibate vocation ignore the truly heroic virtue of many married couples. Its excellence is simply put by St. Paul: the married man must be concerned with the things of the world and his interests are divided; his attention is not directly concerned with the Lord’s affairs.
Marriage cannot bear the load we often place on it. It is not, contrary to popular culture and Justice Kennedy, “essential” to our happiness. Marriage is not necessary to achieve happiness in this world or beatitude in the next. If you ask too much of marriage, if you expect a certain Happily Ever After or presume that a spouse will be able to fulfill your deepest needs and desires, you will only be disappointed. It’s only when we value marriage for what it can actually provide – an image of Christ’s love for his Church and the most common but not the surest path to sanctity – then we can recognize and esteem marriage for what it truly is.
And once we recognize marriage as the limited good it is, then we can examine the Church’s counsel of chaste celibacy to those with same-sex attractions. God calls some men and women to be especially his own in an uncommon and extraordinary way. They receive this call as a vocation to the priesthood and consecrated life. Most of our greatest saints were so chosen. For others who experience persistent same-sex attraction, God asks them as well to embrace celibacy. In either case, celibacy is not easy; it depends upon supernatural graces. But if this is what God asks of us, it will be our path to perfection, fulfillment, and happiness.
Those with same-sex attraction are not doomed to celibacy. Rather, they can be graced by it.
Image: Albert Bierstadt, Rainbow over Jenny Lake, Wyoming