Church must defend marriage against societal onslaught, speaker says

By Nancy Frazier O’Brien
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Despite clear evidence that traditional marriage benefits couples, children and society, legal and other challenges against it continue to mount, a law professor said March 11.

Helen M. Alvare, an associate professor at the Columbus School of Law at The Catholic University of America in Washington, spoke about “The Current Showdown on Marriage: What Can and Should the Church Offer?” in the annual Catholic Daughters of the Americas lecture on campus.

Alvare said she deliberately chose the word “showdown” because marriage as it has been traditionally understood is being “directly and very boldly challenged today.” But her comments did not focus, as she said some might have expected, on efforts to legalize same-sex marriage. Instead she highlighted the gradual erosion of respect and societal support for the institution.

She told her audience, which included all but one member of the national board of the Catholic Daughters of the Americas, that she hoped “to attract your energy, your commitment to the cause of marriage” by the end of the talk.

Among the “fundamental qualities of marriage” — all under challenge today — are that it is between a man and a woman and that it is permanent, exclusive and open to child-bearing and child-rearing, Alvare said.

She divided the legal history of marriage in the United States into three periods — from the colonial period to the late 1950s, the 1960s to the late 1980s, and since the late ’80s to the present.

During the first period, she said, U.S. laws prohibited or discouraged fornication, cohabitation, adultery, contraception, divorce and out-of-wedlock births. Children born to unmarried women, for example, “were not given the same rights” as those born to married couples, she added.

Adoptions were only permitted by couples in stable marriages, and as assisted reproductive technologies were beginning, only married women were allowed to be inseminated with donated sperm, Alvare said.

But as the 1960s began, society continued to give “lip service” to the value of traditional marriage, “while at the same time the law retreated from its stance” of supporting marriage and punishing behavior that devalued it, she said.

This period saw approval of “no-fault” divorce laws in every state; the legalization of abortion; encouragement of the use of contraception by single women, including teens; and the widespread commercialization of reproduction with little societal oversight, she said.

“In the name of avoiding suffering by married couples and their children, and more and more of avoiding singles having unwanted children, laws encouraging high standards in marriage, or banning behaviors threatening marital stability, fell,” Alvare said.

But in the third period, since the late 1980s to the present, “the mask is off,” Alvare said, with direct challenges to the permanence of marriage and its procreative purpose. That set the stage for challenging “the traditional requirements that marriage be an opposite-sex institution” and promotion of same-sex marriage, she added.

“But at the same time the empirical literature is showing a robust consensus in favor of the Catholic view of marriage,” Alvare said, showing that couples and children are happier and healthier in traditional marriages.

She urged her audience to continue raising the church’s vision of marriage in public debates and legislative forums. “Attack the notion that laws on the family can be separated from morality, attack the notion that children do not need special protections,” she said.

Alvare warned that promoters of traditional marriage will be criticized as racist, homophobic, sexist, anti-poor, as “religious zealots wishing to impose their will on others” or as “all of the above.”

“But we (Catholics) understand marriage and the family to be as central as they are,” she said, adding that the church has “never wavered in this even when society discounted it.”

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