Bishop Richard Malone’s pastoral, “Marriage: Yesterday — Today — Always,” defines traditional marriage well, if brief, in discussion of mutual love and sanctification and long on procreation and parenting.

But Malone’s main argument is against same-sex marriages and their legalization. For those who ignore the gaps in his argument, he may succeed. For those of critical intelligence, his argument fails.

For Malone, the “created order of nature” — natural law — is determinative: a single man and a single woman marry. Only in a monogamous heterosexual relationship is the unitive, complementary, spiritual bond of love between a man and woman realized, a union that bears fruit in procreation and nurture of children.

What Malone calls the “truth of marriage” sounds unarguable until one remembers that, in the East, the “created order” includes a long history of multiple wives or husbands. And until one takes into account the millions of fellow human beings whose gay or lesbian sexual orientation is also part of the created order of nature and who experience a love for another human being that seeks a spiritual and bodily union akin to heterosexual marriage.

Rome largely ignores polygamy and polyandry. It ignored — possibly accommodated — homosexuality for centuries. But as homosexuals came out of the closet, the Vatican weighed in: it declared respect for gays’ and lesbians’ human dignity but found them “objectively disordered.”

Eugene Kennedy has memorably observed that “Rome has never gotten sex right” — since Augustine frowning on sex, exalting celibacy, emphasizing procreation to the neglect of love, condemning wives (sometimes husbands) to a lifetime of violent spousal abuse, rejecting birth control but approving Natural Family Planning — on an overpopulated planet.

Arguably, Rome is wrong again, refusing to apply John Paul II’s theology of the human body, that humans by nature seek union with another, to same sex love. Refusing to honor the voices and experience of the faithful, Malone dismisses the possibility of unitive love in same sex relations and ignores possible bodily expression of that love. Outside the “created order of nature,” they can and must turn off their sexuality.

Catholics today have become acclimated to the hierarchy singing solo. But theologians and the wisdom of the faithful are part of the Church’s teaching authority. What light does theology and life experience provide? Christian mercy? Christian charity? The informed consciences of the faithful? Malone’s letter is indifferent to these voices. Nor does he walk one step with gays and lesbians in their life journeys.

Malone regularly ignores the complexity of reality. He recognizes two vocations, celibate service of God or a loving, fruitful marriage, ignoring centuries of priests marrying, centuries of economic or political marriages, and good reasons not to have children.

Fathers and mothers contribute distinctly to parenting, as Malone observes, but two-parent families are a minority, broken marriages or unfit parents more common, and the evidence confirms that loving same sex couples are as successful as heterosexual couples in raising children. For Malone, preventing same sex marriage would both safeguard the traditional definition of marriage and obstruct same-sex parenting.

What of legal recognition and protection of same sex relationships? Malone trumpets Maine law defining marriage as “one man and one woman,” as if part of the Ten Commandments. That anti-gay definition was adopted into Maine law when support of gay rights could be political suicide.

Here the bishop’s posture (also Benedict XVI’s) is untenable: Vatican II’s recognition of separation of church and state, religious liberty, and freedom of conscience oblige the Church to respect the state’s considered judgment that recognition, regulation and protection of same sex relationships is necessary and that only marriage can accomplish that. Religious liberty includes differing with Rome on marriage’s boundaries.

Finally, why is Bishop Malone so spooked by recognition of same-sex relationships? Is it decades of Catholic aversion to gay and lesbian differences, of rejection and bullying, of bigotry that overshadows respect for religious liberty? He sees marriage endangered — needing protection, children put at risk, health and retirement benefits threatened — just by recognition of same-sex unions as marriages!

“Marriage: Yesterday — Today — Tomorrow” makes no compelling moral argument against state recognition and regulation of same-sex unions, only for distinguishing such marriages from heterosexual ones. The Church remains free to define sacramental marriage.

William H. Slavick of Portland is member of Pax Christi Maine, the Catholic peace and social justice movement that endorses same-sex marriage. He has been married for 57 years and is the father of seven children.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.