Supreme Court decision comes, coincidentally, at the beginning of an important meeting in Rome
Yesterday, the Supreme Court of the United States effectively extended same-sex “marriage” to another fifth of the nation, bringing to 30 the number of states where SSM has been permitted, or where bans against it have been struck down or are likely to be struck down.
Specifically, the Court refused to hear appeals from five states — Virginia, Oklahoma, Indiana, Utah, and Wisconsin – whose state prohibitions on same-sex “marriage” were held to be unconstitutional by three US Circuit Courts of Appeals: Utah’s and Oklahoma’s in the 10th Circuit, Indiana’s and Wisconsin’s in the 7th, and Virginia’s in the 4th. Other states within those jurisdictions that have bans against same-sex “marriage” include North Carolina, Colorado, Kansas, Wyoming, West Virginia and South Carolina. Their laws are effectively invalidated by Supreme Court’s action.
As in many cases, the high court’s refusal to do something can create effects every bit as momentous as a definitive ruling. In this case, the court may be signaling to the lower courts and state legislatures that it considers the issue of “gay marriage” settled. If those bodies take the hint — as they’re likely to do — same-sex “marriage” could well be legal in all US states and territories within a couple of years.
All of this follows from the logic of Windsor v. United States, the now landmark 2013 ruling in which the Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) which had defined marriage as the legal union of one man and one woman for purpose of federal benefits payments. The Obama Administration abandoned DOMA in 2011, refusing to defend it in the courts after the Barack Obama and his Attorney General, Eric Holder, concluded that it was unconstitutional.
Windsor v. United States was widely interpreted as giving homosexual couples a constitutional right to marry that is applicable in all 50 states. In fact, the decision was fairly narrow and didn’t really address the constitutionality of state bans. But by deciding this week not to hear appeals by states, the Supreme Court is letting stand lower court rulings on that very question. In other words, the court appears to have backed its way into a position that such laws are, in fact, unconstitutional.
For Catholics, the irony is that at this very moment an Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops is meeting in Rome to discuss marriage and the family. Both institutions are in crisis throughout the Western world, and indeed in every society that has been influenced by the atomizing, rights-obsessed force of liberalism.
Here in the United States, for instance, the cast of TV’s popular show “Sister Wives” successfully sued in federal court to have Utah’s law against polygamous “marriage” overturned. In Germany, a government ethics panel recently recommended that marriage between adult siblings be permitted on the grounds that incestuous couples have a “fundamental right … to sexual self-determination.” This individual right, said the panel, trumps any conception of the common good, including what it called “the abstract idea of protection of the family.”
“That is very similar to the rationales that have been used to uphold reproductive rights and to strike down bans on same-sex marriage throughout the United States,” wrote Damon Linker in a piece at The Week. “And we have every reason to think the same logic will eventually apply to bans on sibling incest in this country.”
The proponents of same-sex “marriage” have long dismissed such “slippery slope” arguments as a form of hysteria. That was the position of the Human Rights Campaign in 2011, for instance. “Granting same-sex couples the right to marry,” said the HRC, “would in no way change the number of people who could enter into a marriage (or eliminate restrictions on the age or familial relationships of those who may marry).” But in fact, proponents of same-sex “marriage” failed to show then or since why number, relation or even age – provided there is consent – should be factors in recognizing marriage any more than gender.
Of more concern (because it involves a far greater number of people) is what has happened to marriage among heterosexual men and women, including Catholics. A recent study by researchers at the University of Minnesota concludes divorce rates among people 35 and older have doubled in the past two decades. By 2010, 44 percent of Baby Boomers who had ever married had also been divorced — a staggering number considering the demographic enormity of the post World War II generation.
The study also shows that divorce is increasingly rare among young adults because they simply don’t get married. According to Pew Research, among adults 18 to 24, only 9% are married as compared to 45% in 1960. Among those aged 25-34, only 44% are or have been married. In 1960 that figure was 82%. The study notes that a majority of adults beyond 35 are married, but just barely. In 2010, only 51% of American adults were married, an all-time low.
Among Catholics the numbers are hardly better. According to a 2011 article by Mark Gray in Our Sunday Visitor, between 1972 and 2010, the Catholic population of the United States grew by 17 million, yet marriages in the Church fell by 60%, from 415,487 to 168,400. In 1972, 76% of adult Catholics were married. In 2010 that number had tumbled to 53%, just above the national average. Among Catholics aged 18 to 40, only 38% were married in 2010, as compared with 69% in 1972. These numbers are matched by declines in the birth and baptism rates among Catholics, which threaten to empty our pews in another 25 years.
Clearly, marriage — real marriage — is in crisis across the Western world, and that crisis in turn threatens both the health of the Church as well as her ability to evangelize the culture. We aren’t likely to turn the tide on same-sex “marriage,” which is quickly becoming a well-entrenched feature of modern life. We may not even hold off polygamous and adult incestuous marriage. But there remains an opportunity to turn the tide within the Church. And if the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family can find the key to doing that, their conference will have been extraordinary indeed.
Mark Gordonis a partner at PathTree, a consulting firm focused on organizational resilience and strategy. He also serves as president of both the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Diocese of Providence, and a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Mark is the author of Forty Days, Forty Graces: Essays By a Grateful Pilgrim. He and his wife Camila have been married for 30 years and they have two adult children.