The New York State Legislature may have voted to legalize same-sex marriage, but Catholics still know that marriage is a life-giving union of one man and one woman, according to a June 24 letter from New York’s eight Catholic bishops.
The Assembly passed Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Marriage Equality Act June 15 in an 80-63 vote, and the Senate approved the act June 24 in a 33-29 vote, despite strong opposition from New York Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan and the New York State Catholic Conference. After the bill was passed Archbishop Dolan praised Catholic New Yorkers for their vocal opposition to the bill and urged them to continue supporting traditional, sacramental marriage.
The new legislation amends the state’s Domestic Relations Law to state that:
- A marriage that is otherwise valid shall be valid regardless of whether the parties to the marriage are of the same or different sex.
- All marriages, including same-sex marriages, shall receive the same government treatment, status, effect, right, benefit, privilege, protection and responsibility.
- All relevant gender-specific language in the state’s laws shall be construed in a gender-neutral manner.
- No application for a marriage license shall be denied on the ground that the parties are of the same or a different sex.
The legislation affirms that no member of the clergy can be compelled to solemnize any marriage, and guarantees that religious institutions and benevolent organizations — like the Knights of Columbus — remain free to choose who may use their facilities for marriage ceremonies and celebrations, consistent with their religious principles. It grants equal access to the legal institution of civil marriage while leaving the religious institution of marriage to its own separate and fully autonomous sphere, according to Cuomo’s June 24 press release about the law’s passage. It ensures religious entities will not be subject to legal action for refusing marriage ceremonies and states that if any part of the legislation is deemed invalid through the judicial process and after all appeals in the courts, the entire act would be considered invalid.
These protections, however, do not change the fact that the passage of this bill has forever altered humanity’s historic understanding of marriage, according to a June 24 statement from Archbishop Dolan, Bishop Matthew H. Clark and the state’s other six bishops. The bishops were deeply disappointed by the legislation’s passage, they wrote, noting that they strongly uphold the Catholic Church’s teaching to always treat homosexual people with respect, dignity and love.
"But we just as strongly affirm that marriage is the joining of one man and one woman in a lifelong, loving union that is open to children, ordered for the good of those children and the spouses themselves. This definition cannot change, though we realize that our beliefs about the nature of marriage will continue to be ridiculed, and that some will even now attempt to enact government sanctions against churches and religious organizations that preach these timeless truths," the bishops stated.
The bishops are worried that the passage of this legislation will undermine the institutions of marriage and the family, which are cornerstones of civilization, they continued.
"Our society must regain what it appears to have lost — a true understanding of the meaning and the place of marriage, as revealed by God, grounded in nature, and respected by America’s foundational principles," the bishops stated.
Catholic leaders across the state had been speaking out against the Marriage Equality Act for weeks. Richard Barnes, executive director of the New York State Catholic Conference, issued a statement of opposition to the legislation immediately after Cuomo introduced it June 14. Barnes said the religious-exemption language was not adequate, and the Catholic conference fundamentally opposed the legislation because it would redefine the institution of marriage. In a June 14 blog post, Archbishop Dolan said he approached the issue not only as a Catholic who believes God settled the definition of marriage a long time ago, but also as an American citizen who doesn’t appreciate the government tampering with life’s most basic values. And the Catholic conference posted a statement on its Facebook page at 6:21 p.m. June 24, just before the Senate vote took place, urging Senators to vote against the bill.
Although the Marriage Equality Act passed in spite of this opposition, the state’s bishops encouraged Catholics not to dwell in despair. In a June 24 letter issued after the legislation was passed, the bishops said they were heartened by the vigor with which so many Catholic New Yorkers fought to preserve the true meaning of marriage. Many proponents of same-sex marriage likely believed Catholics would simply shrug their shoulders and go along with the measure, but they were wrong, the bishops said.
"Together with people of other faith traditions, you spoke out. Thousands of you, by phone, e-mail, letter or in-person visits to your legislators, and through social media like Facebook and Twitter, as well as hand-signed petitions in the back of your church, let your convictions be known," the bishops wrote.
The bishops are grateful to these Catholics and to the Senators and Assemblymen who voted against the bill despite enormous pressure to embrace it, the bishops wrote. Many were accused of bigotry simply for defending the timeless, traditional understanding of marriage.
"There is a particular disappointment with those elected officials who publicly profess fidelity to our Catholic religion but whose public stance is at odds with a fundamental teaching of that faith. The definition of marriage resides in the plan of God for humankind. It is at the very least presumptuous for the state to attempt to redefine it," the bishops wrote.
The bishops also noted in their statement that proponents of same-sex marriage portrayed their cause as a matter of "civil rights."
"Redefining marriage has nothing to do with civil rights," the bishops stated. "Today’s debate focuses on a small group of persons, whose human rights must always be respected and defended by us all, but who claim a civil right to redefine marriage for all of society based on a private and personal preference."
The bishops said they hope and pray that this "sad moment in our state’s history" actually might trigger a new appreciation for authentic marriage as revealed to humans by God through nature, and called all Catholics to be models of what is good, holy and sacred about authentic, sacramental marriage.
"Let this moment where marriage is being attacked from without become a moment of renewal from within — in our church, in our communities and in our families — where marriage is indelibly marked by fidelity, sacrifice and the mutual love of husband and wife leading to children," the bishops wrote.
The Catholic Church doesn’t seek to be at odds with society and culture, yet it must speak up when society and culture attempt to define a relationship into being what it is not, the bishops continued. All Catholics are called to do so now.
"We know well that marriage always has been, is now and always will be the life-long, life-giving union of one man and one woman," they wrote. "No act of government can change that reality. With respect for the dignity of every person, we proclaim this truth and we will be faithful to its meaning and its observance in all that we say and do."