SAINT AUGUSTINE once said: "Unity in essential things, freedom in nonessential things, and charity in all things." The debate on the redefinition of marriage is one that demands unity in our opposition but charity in the way the debate is conducted.
The recent Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling attempting to redefine marriage does society a great disservice at many levels.
First, it weakens an institution that has enjoyed a privileged status precisely because of the importance of marriage as the human institution that best provides a venue for procreation and the raising of children. People seem to forget that ideas have profound effects on our society. A casual attitude toward divorce and cohabitation has had serious consequences for the institution of marriage in the last 20 years. Redefining marriage in a way that reduces it to a financial and legal arrangement of adult relationships will only accelerate the deterioration of family life.
The other disservice the court has done is to promote divisiveness in society by charging that opposition to same-sex marriage is simply a matter of prejudice and of denying people their civil rights. This is not the case. People can be opposed to discrimination and to curtailing people's legitimate civil rights and still find the redefinition of marriage unacceptable. It is a question of apples and oranges.
Still, there is the issue of the church's pastoral care for those who are homosexually oriented and the matter of marriage.
From the first discussions on the redefinition of marriage I have called on Catholics to defend the institution of marriage regardless of what one's sexual orientation might be. We want to call all Catholics to a faithful following of Christ. This means that we have love for one another and treat each other with respect. The church does not countenance hatred of homosexuals or violence against them. We invite all people in the church to unite in discipleship and fidelity and to work for the common good in society.
The question of same-sex marriage is an emotional issue and has lent itself to some heated exchanges. The church is not an enemy of homosexuals, and we do not want people to hate or mistreat others; nor do we want Catholics who are defending the institution of marriage to be demonized as homophobic or bigots.
I realize that some people might oppose same-sex marriages out of an animosity for homosexuals. I appeal to our people to avoid harboring such prejudices.
Our task as Christ's disciples is to build a civilization of love. We must see each person as an irreplaceable gift from God. Each time we pray the Lord's Prayer we begin "Our Father," reminding us that as God's children we are all brothers and sisters. That does not mean that we must endorse everyone's opinion or accept everyone's behavior, but it does mean that we must care about each other and be concerned about each other's well-being, spiritual as well as material.
Doubtless, many Catholics who are homosexual or have friends and relatives who are homosexual find the present climate of debate on same-sex marriages distressing. We need to assure them that we disagree with the way the debate is being framed to exploit people's emotions.
The church would like people to focus on the institution of marriage, the contributions that it makes to the common good, and the impact of separating childbearing and rearing from marriage. Already one-third of all children in our country are born out of wedlock -- a result of a weakening of marriage over the last two decades.
Concern about further weakening the institution of marriage is what motivates the interest of the church in this debate. We have to defend not only the word marriage but also the special character of the marriage union. Both same-sex marriage and the concept of civil unions undermine the unique position of marriage in society and diverts resources from marriages and families.
I hope that those who advocate for same-sex marriages will try to hear what we are saying about marriage, family, and the common good. They may not agree with what we are saying, but they should be reassured that the church wants all people to live in harmony and mutual respect and to have everyone's legitimate civil rights guaranteed.
We hope that Catholics will defend the institution of marriage with courage but with charity.
Sean P. O'Malley is the Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston.