Protestantism and Evangelicalism, unlike Catholicism, often are prone either fulsomely to endorse social trends or apocalyptically denounce them as harbingers of societal collapse. There is among Protestants and Evangelicals often too little of the Catholic sensibility that understands the subtleties and tragedy of our fallen world while also confident of God’s ongoing redemption of the world.
A recent example is Evangelical commentator David French’s support for the “Respect for Marriage Act” (RMA) codifying the U.S. Supreme Court’s “Obergefell” affirmation of same-sex marriage. He believes that, with its ostensible religious liberty protections, it’s the best arrangement in a pluralist society in which religious doctrinal beliefs cannot be imposed in civil law. French wrote that his views on church marriage as male and female remain unchanged.
Liberal Mainline Protestants of course back same-sex unions both in the church and in civil law. But some traditionalists like French distinguish between Christian teaching and social application. A Christianity Today article enthusiastically reported about the U.S. Senate’s RMA passage: “All in all, RMA is a modest but good day’s work. It shows that religious liberty champions and LGBT advocates can work together for the common good.”
Cardinal Dolan of New York, speaking for the U.S. Catholic bishops, responded differently:
“The Catholic Church will always uphold the unique meaning of marriage as a lifelong, exclusive union of one man and one woman. In doing so, we are joined by millions of what the Obergefell Court called ‘reasonable and sincere’ Americans – both religious and secular – who share this time-honored understanding of the truth and beauty of marriage.”
Dolan called the bill’s religious liberty protections inadequate, but the objection transcends just that issue. The Catholic Church does not support redefining marriage in civil law. Protections for the church are desirable only as a tragic necessity. Supporting the redefinition of marriage is not an option for Catholicism, nor should it be for any orthodox Christian. (Catholicism, as a global church, often has a broader perspective than Protestant national denominations or parachurch groups.)
Christianity has always taught that marriage is not only a church rite, like baptism, but a public institution transcending cultures and religions, rooted in creation. Christianity has always affirmed marriage while also, across centuries, working to refine it in society, banning polygamy and concubinage in law, elevating wives as legal equals in society, and protecting children.
It has never been the universal church’s position that society’s laws about marriage are inconsequential, and that the church should only defend its liberty to define marriage inside the church. The church does not exist for itself but to serve and uplift humanity. Christianity’s insights about marriage as a lifelong union of male and female, sustaining family and nurturing children, have benefitted hundreds of millions across 2000 years. The church cannot be the church if it rejects its own teachings, protects only its own, and celebrates a “pluralist” approach in which marriage has no concrete definition, leading society astray.
No, the church must be the church, and proclaim the truth about marriage in society, as about so much else, even when unfashionable and dangerously controversial. Of course, the church usually exists in situations where some of its ethical and social insights are unpopular. These situations gift the church opportunity to shine its light amid public disapproval. Some of the church’s greatest moments are when its witness is steadfast in adversity.
Church teaching on marriage in society is currently the minority view in American and Western society. But the church with all the more vigor should proclaim what it knows to be true, which will eventually prevail in the fulness of God’s own time. Its minority witness in the interim will convict and redeem many who heed the church’s message.
Christians should never surrender to the supposed consensus of any time or culture. Nothing of this world is permanent, and the church’s perspective is eternal. Too often, Christians, especially Protestants, in their haste to be relevant, want to sanctify the present moment. These efforts, which seem urgently imperative at the time, never age well, and later are recalled with embarrassment. The church must always expect and be comfortable as a minority witness in every society.
While some Christians shortsightedly see support for redefining marriage as a protection for the church, others see the redefinition of marriage as signaling societal collapse. Civilization is ending! The church will be severely persecuted! Advocates of redefining marriage want to kill Christianity!
There are certainly many radicals today who want to marginalize traditional Christianity. Every society has plenty of powerful people who resent the church’s message on particular issues and who work to sideline or even persecute the church. There has never been a time anywhere, even at the height of Christendom, that all of Christianity was universally applauded. The Gospel’s demands are nearly always exacting and controversial. Yet the church survives, and its message prevails.
The redefinition of marriage is harmful but is not likely our civilization’s finale. (Only about one third of one percent of Americans are in a same sex marriage, signifying that the debate is about much more than just marriage.) We have endured and will endure far worse. The church should defend its liberties, and freedom of expression for all, while striving for approximate social harmony. But self-protection and social toleration are not the church’s ultimate goal, which is to proclaim the Kingdom of God. An authentic social harmony cannot be purchased by the church’s self-censoring its own witness to the Gospel.
Christians in all places and times must live in the tension of witnessing to society, and gradually, by divine grace, transforming society, but also incurring controversy, unpopularity and even danger. We entrust the vindication of our witness not to immediate public opinion but to Divine Providence.
We live in troubled times, as all times are troubled. But most of us who live in the year 2022 in America and in Western society, or even in most of the world, are living with more comfort, advantages, and freedom than nearly all humanity in previous times. As we approach Thanksgiving, we can thank God for all His undeserved bounty. And we can ask His mercy and wisdom as we strive to live up to His standards and witness to them in a world that is always in, some sense, rebelling against them.