In the Gospel of St. Mark, the Lord Jesus teaches that “from the beginning of creation ‘God made them male and female.’” He then declares a great and beautiful truth inscribed in creation: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one flesh” (Mark 10:6–8).
For centuries, Christians have proclaimed these words at weddings, for they express the gift of marriage long recognized by all humanity and acknowledged by men and women of faith: Marriage is the union of a man and a woman. This truth is being obscured, even denied, today. Because of that, the institution of marriage, which is essential to the well-being of society, is being undermined.
As Christians, it is our responsibility to bear witness to the truth about marriage as taught by both revelation and reason—by the Holy Scriptures and by the truths inscribed on the human heart. These age-old truths explain why Christians celebrate marriage—the coming-together of a man and woman in a binding union of mutual support—as one of the glories of the human race. Marriage is the primordial human institution, a reality that existed long before the establishment of what we now know as the state.
As the most venerable and reliable basis for domestic happiness, marriage is the foundation of a just and stable society. Yet in our times this institution has been gravely weakened by the sexual revolution and the damage it has done to marriage and the family: widespread divorce; the dramatic increase in out-of-wedlock births; the casual acceptance of premarital sex and cohabitation; and a contraceptive mentality which insists that sex has an arbitrary relation to procreation. In this environment, families fragment, the poor suffer, and children are especially vulnerable and at risk. The decline of marriage culture is evident throughout the world, and where it is evident, the common good is imperiled.
Christians have too often been silent about biblical teaching on sex, marriage, and family life. Too many have accommodated themselves to the spirit of our age. As Evangelicals and Catholics who speak to and from our various communities of faith, we are committed to setting forth the Christian teaching on marriage. In a few matters, we do not speak with one voice: We hold somewhat different views about the morality of contraception, the legitimacy of divorce, and clerical celibacy. But on the crucial and fundamental truth that marriage is a stable union based on the complementarity of male and female, we are fully united.
In this statement we speak as Christians to Christians, using the language of the faith. Our hope is to clarify and reclaim the truth about marriage. If we are to remain faithful to the Scriptures and to the unanimous testimony of Christian tradition, there can be no compromise on marriage. We cannot allow our witness to be obscured by the confusions into which our culture and society have fallen. Drawing our confidence from the Lord’s own word, we take to heart the apostle’s injunction: “Preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2).
Marriage, Christianly Considered
God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply.” (Gen. 1:27–28)
Maleness, femaleness, and their complementarity are among the central organizing principles of creation. When, in the biblical flood account, Noah brings the entire animal kingdom onto the ark, he does so in pairs: male and female. Maleness and femaleness are essential components of our unique dignity as human beings created in the image of God, for through these realities we participate in the divine creativity and its fruitfulness. Thus, from a Christian point of view, sexual union must be approached with reverence and in recognition of its intrinsic potential for new life.
Our sexual acts have spiritual and moral dimensions; they are not merely physical or biological. The Old Testament often uses sexual imagery to describe how well or how poorly we are living our relationship to God (marital fidelity, nuptial joy, fertility, harlotry, sexual defilement, and childlessness). For good or ill, our sexual acts affect the image of God we bear. What we do sexually either honors or dishonors the imprint of the divine that is uniquely borne by human beings. As Jesus teaches, this is even true of sexual desire: “Everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28). Thus Christians, instructed by the Lord, have, from the earliest days of the Church, taught an ethic of sexual self-discipline, recognizing that sex involves our souls as well as our bodies.
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh. (Gen. 2:24)
Marriage creates “one body,” a new reality, ennobling the sexual union of a man and a woman by ordering it toward a common life that promotes the good of the couple, the family, and the community as a whole. Marriage creates a unique social union not based on blood relations or common descent (“a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife”); thus marriage is also the primordial institution of human society. Martin Luther called it the “first estate,” which precedes both Church and civil government. As such, the institution of marriage is a foundation of a just political order and the nursery of civic virtue, as spouses exercise mutual responsibility for raising their children.
What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder. (Mark 10:9)
When challenged about the lawfulness of divorce, Jesus cited Genesis, stating clearly that the human act of joining together in marriage is at the same time God’s work. We leave our parents and cleave to our spouses—a human act encouraged by our sexual instincts and shaped by the historical institution of marriage—and God joins us together. Because God’s grace is at work in marriage, Jesus teaches us that our marital unions are capable of lifelong fidelity, signified by the prophet’s use of marriage as an image of God’s enduring covenant with Israel: “I have loved you with an everlasting love” (Jer. 31:3). In the union created by marriage, the Lord affirms, we participate in the power of God’s everlasting love. Though the dissolution of marriages is treated differently in various Christian churches, we together confess that marriage was originally ordained by God to be indissoluble.
This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Eph. 5:32)
Like Jesus, Paul the apostle quotes the teaching of Genesis that, when a man leaves his parents and cleaves to his wife, he is united with her in one flesh. But Paul also teaches that the bond between man and woman in marriage is a great sign of the union between Christ and the Church. It is, the apostle writes, a profound mystery that signifies the intimate relation between Christ and his bride the Church (Rev. 21:2) and proclaims Christ’s unifying power, which in his death and Resurrection “has broken down the dividing wall of hostility” between Jew and Gentile (Eph. 2:14), making the Lord himself “our peace.” In this bond of peace, the Church comes together as one body, sharing “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all” (Eph. 4:5–6). Marriage, similarly, is a bond of peace, in which male and female find their intended unity. In Christ Jesus, marriage serves as a redemptive sign that the great chasm separating creature from Creator has been bridged, and the original unity intended by God has been restored, both among us and between humanity and its Creator.
As Evangelicals and Catholics, we do not agree on the status of marriage as a sacrament of the Church. But we affirm strongly and without qualification, following the clear testimony of Holy Scripture, that marriage is a unique and privileged sign of the union of Christ with his people and of God with his Creation—and it can only serve as that sign when a man and a woman are solemnly joined together in a permanent union.
For two millennia, great Christian teachers have proclaimed the biblical understanding of marriage. In the early Church, Augustine defined the three goods of marriage. The first good is children: Marriage provides the fitting and proper context for us to fulfill our natural desire for sexual union, to respect the intrinsic possibility of fertility in that union, and to accept responsibility for the children that union produces. The second good is fidelity: As a social institution supported by cultural and legal sanctions, marriage encourages an exclusive commitment that expresses what is noblest in the human aspiration to solidarity and that calls us beyond the selfishness and self-centeredness that can erode, and ultimately destroy, social life. Augustine also identifies a third good, permanence: Marriage is a natural sign pointing toward a supernatural reality. He refers here to the mysterious way in which marriage creates an indissoluble bond that directs us toward God’s covenantal fidelity. As the prophet Hosea said: “I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy” (Hosea 2:19).
Martin Luther, too, saw marriage as a sign that points beyond itself to even greater truths, as he taught in his sermon “On the Estate of Marriage”:
The Church’s great teachers say that marriage is a sacrament. A sacrament is a sacred sign of something spiritual, holy, heavenly, and eternal. . . . It is an outward and spiritual sign of the greatest, holiest, worthiest, and noblest thing that has ever existed or ever will exist: the union of the divine and the human natures in Christ. The holy apostle Paul says that as man and wife united in the estate of matrimony are two in one flesh, so God and man are united in the one person Christ, and so Christ and Christendom are one body. It is indeed a wonderful sacrament, as Paul says (Eph. 5:32), that the estate of marriage truly signifies such a great reality. Is it not a wonderful thing that God is man and that he gives himself to man and will be his, just as the husband gives himself to his wife and is hers? But if God is ours, then everything is ours. Consider this matter with the respect it deserves. Because the union of man and woman signifies such a great mystery, the estate of marriage has to have this special significance.
Luther also addressed the question of who can marry, stressing the complementarity of male and female:
Therefore, each one of us must have the kind of body God has created for us. I cannot make myself a woman, nor can you make yourself a man; we do not have that power. But we are exactly as he created us: I a man and you a woman. . . . Each should honor the other’s image and body as a divine and good creation that is well-pleasing.
John Calvin understood marriage as a covenant based on God’s covenant with us. Like Luther, Calvin held that God is the author of marriage:
When a marriage takes place between a man and a woman, God presides and requires a mutual pledge from both. Hence Solomon in Proverbs 2:17 calls marriage the covenant of God, for it is superior to all human contracts. So also Malachi (2:14) declares that God is as it were the stipulator who by his authority joins the man to the woman, and sanctions the alliance. . . . Marriage is not a thing ordained by men. We know that God is the author of it, and that it is solemnized in his name. The Scripture says that it is a holy covenant, and therefore calls it divine.
The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council sounded similar themes in their teaching on marriage in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World:
God himself is the author of marriage and has endowed it with various benefits and with various ends in view: all of these have a very important bearing on the continuation of the human race, on the personal development and eternal destiny of every member of the family, on the dignity, stability, peace, and prosperity of the family and of the whole human race. By its very nature the institution of marriage and married love is ordered to the procreation and education of the offspring and it is in them that it finds its crowning glory. Thus the man and the woman, who are “no longer two but one” (Matt. 19:6), help and serve each other by their marriage partnership; they become conscious of their unity and experience it more deeply from day to day. . . . Christ our Lord has abundantly blessed this love, which is rich in its various features, coming as it does from the spring of divine love and modeled on Christ’s own union with the Church. . . . Authentic married love is caught up into divine love and enriched by the redemptive power of Christ . . . with the result that the spouses are effectively led to God . . . and together they render glory to God.
Our Situation Today
Marriage is in crisis throughout the Western world. The data from the United States alone tell an unmistakable—and unmistakably sad—story. Fifty years ago, some 70 percent of American adults were married; today the figure is just over 50 percent. Then, close to 90 percent of children lived with their natural parents; today fewer than two-thirds do. The birth rate has declined, and the abortion rate has climbed from less than 1 percent of live births to over 20 percent.
Everyone suffers from the current crisis in marriage, but some suffer more than others. A growing class divide is becoming alarmingly clear. College-educated men and women marry and are unlikely to get divorced. The less educated are less likely to marry, and those who do so are three times more likely to get divorced. Rates of illegitimacy are even more striking. A very small percentage of college-educated women have children out of wedlock (6 percent). Nearly half of women without a college education now have children out of wedlock.
In considering the demise of marriage culture and the decline of the institution of marriage, we are profoundly aware of the challenge posed by the Lord, that “whatever you did to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40). The effects of the decline of marriage on children are dramatic, unequal, and deeply disturbing. Among the well-educated and economically well-off, the traditional family remains the norm. This is no longer true for children born to less educated and less affluent women. By age fourteen, nearly half of these children no longer live with both parents, posing dire consequences for their futures. Young men raised in broken families are more likely to go to prison. Young women in these circumstances are more likely to become pregnant as unwed teenagers. The dramatic decline of marriage is a major factor in the misery of many in our society.
The erosion of marriage degrades our common culture as well. A contraceptive mentality encourages the notion of sex as purely recreational, a matter of private pleasure. Widespread divorce and serial cohabitation undermine our sense of stability and commitment in human relations.
Christians are implicated in this decline. Evangelicals and Catholics are more likely to divorce than they were fifty years ago. Moreover, Christians have adopted to no small extent the contraceptive mind-set that in society at large has separated sex from reproduction and so weakened the centrality and attraction of marriage.
Too often, Christians lack the courage to which both the Cross and Resurrection summon us. Like the disciples taken aback at Jesus’s strong words about divorce, we shrink from the full truth and deny the nobility of Christian teaching on sexuality, making excuses for our own failures and for those in our communities. We fail to hold each other and our communities accountable. We forget that the covenant of marriage carries obligations of fidelity and mutual love and is morally binding on the spouses. We forget that the Bible again and again reminds us we must die to sin and live solely for Christ.
The words of the Ten Commandments, “Thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exod. 20:14), are reaffirmed in the New Testament (Rom. 13:9). Drawing on the Scriptures, Christian teaching about human sexuality seeks to respect the sanctity of marriage and to guard its potential for a deep and lasting union. We cannot reclaim marriage unless we reclaim the clear Christian witness that our sexual desires must be ordered to their proper end: male-female union in the context of marriage.
A Parody of Marriage
The crisis of marriage culture in our times now poses a direct and fundamental challenge to the very nature of marriage. By redefining marriage to allow a union between two persons of the same sex—Spouse 1 and Spouse 2—a kind of alchemy is performed, not merely on the institution, but on human nature itself. In such a world, the distinction between men and women is denied social recognition and marriage is no longer a unique bond uniting male and female. It becomes an instrument created by the state to give official status to the relationship between two generic human beings.
In these circumstances, what the state defines as marriage no longer embodies God’s purposes in creation. An easy acceptance of divorce damages marriage; widespread cohabitation devalues marriage. But so-called same-sex marriage is a graver threat, because what is now given the name of marriage in law is a parody of marriage.
We are today urged to embrace an abstract conception of human nature that ignores the reality of our bodies. Human beings are no longer to be understood as either male or female. Our culture encourages us to exalt our personal desires and choices over the created order. Instead of freely accepting God’s gift, we seek to dominate (and even alter) nature, constructing our own moral truths. The result is a deceptive pseudo-freedom that degrades our humanity. Genuine freedom is found in obedience to God’s order: in freely choosing, as a matter of grace and moral habit, what is good and what makes for true beatitude.
No one should doubt or deny what is at stake here. To sustain the fiction of same-sex marriage, the natural family must be deconstructed. Birth certificates will no longer list “father’s name” and “mother’s name” but “Parent 1/Parent 2,” a change already made on certificates issued in some jurisdictions that recognize same-sex marriage. In this brave new world, the family—the institution on which our social order rests—is being redefined as a socially constructed unit, constituted by our sovereign will, not by nature itself. And if a “family” is anything I want or choose it to be, the corrosive individualism that already leaves too many people lonely and disconnected in twenty-first-century Western society is intensified.
For centuries, parents of adopted children have been acknowledged as legal parents. And we warmly commend the generous practice of adoption. But this was understood as a humane exception to the more fundamental rule of natural descent. Today, however, the most basic principles of family life are being reconstructed around exceptions. Because the male-female difference must be erased to make way for same-sex marriage, the procreative potential of the male-female union must be set aside as well. A child’s parents are whomever legal documents designate as Parent 1 or Parent 2—or, as California documents now allow, Parent 3 or Parent 4. Thus, children are exposed to the risk of coming into the world as strangers, in which the biological ties that form the natural family are arbitrarily broken. The law no longer recognizes the primordial, complementary natural roles of mother and father. The natural family as the fundamental context defining where we have come from and who we are is set aside. The family becomes a creation of the state, and where the family is a creation of the state, children become, in important legal respects, the property of the state.
The revolution in our marriage and family law, already well advanced, marches under the banners of freedom and equality. But these noble ideals are here gravely misapplied. When society systematically denies the difference between male and female in law and custom, our fundamental dignity is diminished, the image of God within us is obscured, unreality becomes legally established, and those who refuse to conform are regarded as irrational bigots. Further, as same-sex couples are granted the right to marry, they will inevitably assert a “right to children” as well. But children are a gift, not a right. Forgetting this adds powerful pressure for the expansion of radical forms of reproductive technology—such as sperm and egg donation along with surrogacy, which involves contracting with a woman for the carrying of a pregnancy for intended parents.
Freedom itself is severely compromised when our speech about the difference and complementarity of male and female must be policed, and any dissent from the new orthodoxies assiduously suppressed. It is increasingly difficult to affirm that marriage is the union of a man and a woman without being ruled outside the boundaries of reasonable public conversation. And once opposition to same-sex marriage is judged to be discriminatory, no institution that declines to substitute unreality for reality will remain unaffected. Some individuals are already being censured and others have lost their jobs because of their public commitment to marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
As Christians, we must state, unambiguously, that same-sex marriage contradicts the Gospel. As we have noted, Holy Scripture teaches that marriage, as ordered by God, is a mysterious sign of the union of Christ and the Church. This sign is dependent on the profound complementarity of male and female. A conception of marriage that allows for same-sex unions denies this element of difference, rendering it unable to signify the mystical union of Christ and his Church.
As Evangelicals and Catholics committed to the Gospel’s invitation to discipleship, we are acutely aware of many ways in which our broken lives need the healing and reconciling power of God’s grace. Moreover, we share the widespread and proper desire of Christians today to repent of injustices against those who experience same-sex attraction, and to discern more effective ways for all single people to participate in the life of the Church. However, faithful Christian witness cannot accommodate itself to same-sex marriage. It disregards the created order, threatens the common good, and distorts the Gospel.
A Clear Witness
We, Evangelicals and Catholics together, affirm the truth and the reality of marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman, established by free and mutual consent and by God’s action. This marital union is intended to be permanent and is fully consummated in consensual sexual intercourse open to procreation.
In affirming this we do not dispute the evident fact of hormonal and chromosomal irregularities, nor of different sexual attractions and desires. As Christians, however, we must insist that our sexual desires, orientations, and proclivities do not provide a basis for redefining marriage. As is the case in all aspects of human life, our inclinations, desires, and actions must be judged by the Word of God (Rom. 1:21–24).
We must also reject the contemporary presumption—which is widespread and even influences our churches in many ways—that human fulfillment requires the satisfaction of sexual desire. While the Bible calls all Christians to chastity, it also holds up the celibate life as one honorable vocation in light of the example of our Lord himself and his teaching that there are some who are “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:12). Thus, with two thousand years of Christian tradition, we affirm that the integral development of the human person is possible without sexual intimacy. In the early centuries of the Church’s history, the presence of men and women committed to a celibate life had already become a distinctive mark of the Christian community. Freely choosing celibacy or living the single life in faithfulness to Christ offers a unique kind of service to the Church and the world.
Finally, in our witness to the truth about marriage we reject the canard that the Christian view is based solely on “sectarian” religious truths. Throughout history and across all cultures, marriage has been understood to be the union of male and female and is organized around the procreative potential of that union. Rituals and forms of marriage are extraordinarily diverse, and conditions for dissolution vary widely. But across all cultures marriage seeks to establish a permanent bond that promotes marital fidelity, not least for the raising of children. All this evidence testifies to the truth that marriage as the union of male and female is part of the created order, “from the beginning,” as Jesus himself teaches (Mark 10:6).
The truth about marriage, accessible to all and ennobled by revelation, is being systematically dismantled and dismissed as hoary prejudice. Within the span of a decade, same-sex marriage has not only been legally recognized, but its acceptance has been declared an index of one’s status as a citizen committed to liberty and justice for all. How and why such a cultural and legal revolution has taken place so quickly is for historians and sociologists to explain. Our task is different. We must say, as clearly as possible, that same-sex unions, even when sanctioned by the state, are notmarriages. Christians who wish to remain faithful to the Scriptures and Christian tradition cannot embrace this falsification of reality, irrespective of its status in law.
Light and Salt
A society that seeks to erase the difference between male and female in marriage is asking us to believe something we know is not true and cannot be true. If the truth about marriage can be displaced by social and political pressure operating through the law, other truths can be set aside as well. And that displacement can lead, in due course, to the coercion and persecution of those who refuse to acknowledge the state’s redefinition of marriage, which is beyond the state’s competence.
The same exaltation of false freedom used to justify abortion—the liberty to redefine the very nature of the human person—is now at work in the revolution of same-sex marriage. When the autonomous will of man dictates morality—and even reality—life will be defined for the benefit of the powerful and at the expense of the weak, the order of creation will be violated, and the Gospel itself will eventually be declared an enemy of society. And if Christians discard the most fundamental, visible, and universal fact of our bodies—that we are created male and female—we can no longer confess the words of the Creed: “I believe in one God, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.”
We thus face a difficult and dangerous situation. A society that identifies the two parties in marriage as Spouse 1 and Spouse 2 has lost sight of a deep truth of human nature. We must do everything in our power to distinguish this falsification of marriage from its true form as the lifelong union of a man and a woman. In some contexts, consistent testimony to the truth about marriage may require clergy to refuse to serve as officers of the state by signing marriage licenses. Whatever courses of action are deemed necessary, the coming years will require careful discernment. All Christians and men and women of good will must work to rebuild the culture of marriage and live lives that attest to the joy and beauty of marriage. On this basis alone can we succeed.
This will not be easy. The proponents of these so-called marriages are powerful, and they do not hesitate to use the tools of calumny to defeat their opponents. Keeping in mind the obligation to speak the truth in love, we must find ways to distinguish true marriage from its distortion, and we must do so without abandoning the public square. We owe our fellow citizens a socially engaged witness to the truth about marriage, which, with the family, is the unalterable foundation of a healthy, humane society.
The time is approaching—indeed, in some instances it has already arrived—when Christians in this country will suffer abuse for upholding the truth about marriage. We encourage our fellow Christians to stand firm in obedience to Christ, for that obedience is the most compassionate service we can offer society. In doing so, we must strive to heal the wounds of a confused and broken culture, to foster human flourishing, and to honor the God who created human beings in his own image, male and female. For Christ said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
Soli Deo gloria.