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The situation regarding marriage and family life in the United States

The following is an address delivered by Archbishop Elden Francis Curtiss to the Pontifical Council for the Family, Vatican City, on May 12, 2006.

Pope Benedict XVI greets Archbishop Elden Francis Curtiss last month while the archbishop was in Vatican City for a meeting of the Pontifical Council for the Family. Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, center, president of the council for the family, also was on hand to greet the archbishop, who spoke at the council meeting. Photo courtesy of the Vatican.


In his landmark 1995 Encyclical 'Evangelium Vitae," Pope John Paul II spoke vigorously against what he called the 'culture of death" pervasive in our world today. He said that in this force 'a kind of "˜conspiracy against life' is unleashed. This conspiracy involves not only individuals in their personal, family or group relationships, but goes far beyond, to the point of damaging and distorting, at the international level, relations between peoples and States" (12).

These prophetic words come from a man keenly aware of the sanctity of human life, a man who spent his life tirelessly confronting this culture of death. There is no doubt that Pope John Paul II was a man profoundly and passionately in love with God; and because of this, he understood on a deep level, the connection between the Trinitarian God whose familial love pours forth from himself to bring human life into existence in his human creatures who receive that life-giving love. Marriage and family are not merely sociological constructs, as some would argue. Rather, they are divinely inspired manifestations of God's own inherently relational nature. As creatures made in his image and likeness, God has imbued us with these same attributes. Thus, any attack against marriage and family life constitutes an attack on human nature and the way God intended us to live and relate to each other. This forms the basis for Pope John Paul's appeals to the world to defend marriage, family and human life. This was not just an academic exercise for our late pope. The stakes could not be higher.

That Pope John Paul II, and now Pope Benedict XVI, would lead the effort to defend these basic human rights is not original in itself "” the Church has been involved in this struggle throughout her existence. John Paul's unique contribution to this fight, however, was the way in which he tailored his message to a modern audience and spoke fearlessly, even in the face of relentless criticism. He realized all too clearly that marriage and family life were under serious attack and that the Church's teachings put her squarely in a war to save the basic unit of society from gradual disintegration.

We are in a culture war

In his 1998 ad limina address to the bishops of California, Nevada and Hawaii, Pope John Paul II cast the defense of life in the context of the very survival of democracy. He said, 'Democracy stands or falls with the values which it embodies and promotes (cf. 'Evangelium Vitae," 70). In defending life you are defending an original and vital part of the vision on which your country was built. America must become, again, a hospitable society, in which every unborn child and every handicapped or terminally ill person is cherished and enjoys the protection of the law." Because they are inextricably linked, and because the same forces seeking to undermine the sanctity of human life attack them as well, it is clear that marriage and family life are part of this necessary defense that the Church must make.

In the United States, we speak of the 'culture war" as a struggle between human secularists who want all references to God removed from the public area versus those who believe that our country was founded on Judeo-Christian values and principles. The Church insists that religious people have a right to express their religious views publicly, promoting the values that flow from them. In recent years, because of the principle of separation of Church and state, these battles have often ended up in the judicial system. Recent hot button issues have included displays of the Ten Commandments and Christmas crèche scenes on public property, abortion rights, homosexual marriage, religious expression in schools, and anti-Catholic bigotry exhibited in the arts and the media.

While the advent of 24-hour news programs and the Internet have magnified these issues and made the general population more aware of them, anyone acquainted with American history realizes that the Church has always struggled with those who resist her teachings. In times past, the main issue was anti-Catholic bigotry, especially in the public school system. Today, however, the challenge facing the Church is even more daunting because there is a rift in the very core values that Americans used to take for granted regarding marriage and family life.

As with every struggle the Church has encountered throughout her history, this is fundamentally a spiritual war that is expressed in political and cultural terms. As St Paul says, 'Our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens" (Eph. 6:12). Faith teaches us that Christ will ultimately triumph through his Church, but the battle must be fought over and over again. Pope John Paul II understood this struggle and has left us an example of singular courage and tenacity mediated always by love for God and humanity.

It is in this context that I now turn to some specific challenges the Church in the United States faces in her fight to defend marriage and family life.

Current challenges

The two central threats to marriage and family in the United States today are legalized abortion and the battle to redefine marriage.

1. The struggle caused by Roe vs. Wade.

On Jan. 22, 1973, seven justices of the Supreme Court declared in the landmark case Roe vs. Wade that the U.S. Constitution contains a right to have an abortion on the basis of personal privacy. Almost immediately, laws protecting the unborn became unconstitutional and therefore unenforceable. The Supreme Court, which admitted not knowing when life begins, decided against those who opted for the safer course of granting the possibility of personhood to the unborn.

More than 33 years have passed since that infamous decision, and while the Supreme Court has subsequently allowed states to enact some narrow restrictions on abortion, we as a country still have some of the most liberal abortion laws in the world.

Abortion is arguably the most divisive social issue in the United States today. The reason is that it exposes two diametrically opposing value systems. One system, cleverly called 'pro-choice," prizes personal license above all else. It is egocentric to the core: 'My rights, my body, my wants, my dreams, my desires are paramount. No one has the right to interfere with my personal choice." In this value system, marriage, family, and even the lives of the unborn have no inherent value; their value lies only in one's personal subjective attitude toward them.

On the other side stand the Church and her allies. We declare that life begins at conception and therefore demands legal protection. The Catholic Church has been the most outspoken and most consistent advocate for the unborn throughout the centuries, and the Church in the U.S. is fighting this battle with determination. The effort to defend the lives of the most vulnerable members of our society has not always earned us friends and accolades, but it is at the very heart of who we are as Church, the Bride of Christ, the Word through whom all things, including all human life, have come to be (cf. John 1:3).

This serious conflict between the culture of life and the culture of death in the U.S. today ends up producing legal contradictions, uneasy compromises, and cultural confusion that permeates our legal system. On the one hand, the unborn are legally chattel, the property of the mother until the moment of birth. On the other hand, many states have passed fetal homicide laws, which make the homicide of an unborn child illegal. Although the coexistence of these laws clearly demonstrates our cultural confusion about abortion and the personhood of the unborn, we are grateful that more and more states have passed fetal homicide laws and that these laws have passed constitutional muster. This battle will not be won without much struggle; consequently, it demands our constant, prayerful vigilance and unremitting efforts.

2. The struggle to prevent same-sex marriage.

The other great challenge facing the stability of marriage and family life in the United States is the conflict over the very definition of marriage itself. We have come to the point where people openly and vigorously debate whether marriage should be legally recognized for two members of the same sex.

The roots of this problem were sown many decades ago with the publication of the now discredited Kinsey Report, which promoted gravely distorted data regarding the sexual practices of Americans, especially regarding the number of people who claimed to be homosexual. For some 20 years, these ideas germinated and began to grow during the sexual revolution of the 1960s. This is when the U.S. public began to be exposed to 'gay culture" for the first time through a massive media effort.

At first, the stated goal of the 'gay rights movement" was to make homosexuality tolerated in the U.S. Very cleverly it was done under the banner of toleration. After all, we are a nation that prides itself on accepting all kinds of people and permitting all kinds of views. Homosexuals presented themselves as a persecuted minority and began to gain the sympathy of cultural elites and powerful Hollywood executives and producers. Over time, Americans were exposed to positive portrayals of homosexuality in movies, television shows and even legislative proposals. Fairness demanded that homosexuals, as citizens, should be allowed to pursue their lives as they pleased. Those who opposed 'gay rights" were branded intolerant and homophobic. Intolerance became the one mortal sin of the cultural elites. Gradually, anyone who rejected these libertine, non-traditional cultural trends was considered un-American, since, as a nation of immigrants, Americans have always been welcoming of differences among us.

This set the stage for the argument that homosexuals should be entitled to the same rights as anyone else. Who could argue with this? Who wants to deny rights to a law-abiding citizen? Marriage was then redefined as a civil right, and therefore to forbid homosexuals from getting married was a violation of their rights. In order to do this legally, however, marriage and its ends would have to be redefined by our society.

The Church teaches that the ends of marriage are procreation and the permanent union of the spouses. These ends are reflections of God's inner Trinitarian life, and are imbedded in human nature. God therefore was the author of marriage and only He can set its terms. This has caused the Church to argue strongly against the legalization of marriage between members of the same sex, because it would leave marriage completely devoid of its primary ends. For this stand, the Church has been publicly attacked as being cruel, insensitive and abusive of homosexuals' rights. We expect this battle to be waged for many years to come.

There are many other threats to marriage and family life that the Church confronts on a daily basis. But there are also signs of positive developments taking place, which provide us with some hope and encouragement for the future.

Positive developments in support of life

Despite the power of the abortion lobby and the support it receives from many major media outlets, there are some positive signs for those who work to protect the unborn.

1. Modest gains against abortion on demand.

In the 33 years since Roe vs. Wade, many states have passed legislation designed to place modest restrictions on abortions. One recent example stands out, however, among these efforts. In February of this year, the state of South Dakota enacted a measure that would ban virtually all abortions in the state. Critics charge that this move was merely symbolic since this low population state records 'only" 800 of the more than one million abortions performed each year in the U.S. It is almost certain that this law will eventually make its way through the judicial system and end up being adjudicated by the U.S. Supreme Court. Some pro-life people hope that with the appointments of Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito, both Catholics who appear to support the Church's teaching on the sanctity of human life, that Roe vs. Wade might be seriously modified or even eventually overturned. [Interestingly, for the first time in history, a majority of the Supreme Court Justices (five out of nine) are Roman Catholic.] Since our battle is fundamentally spiritual, we pray for the day when all human life from conception to natural death will be protected in our country. We see signs of hope in gradually changing attitudes toward abortion among many people in our country.

2. Growing opposition to redefining marriage.

A second positive development stems directly from reactions of people to the effort by some to redefine marriage. In 2003 the Massachusetts Supreme Court ordered the state legislature to pass a bill legalizing marriage between members of the same sex. This was a wake-up call to the majority of people who support marriage exclusively between a man and a woman.

First, it alerted the American public to the imminence of serious efforts to legalize same-sex marriages. This possibility was no longer something that might happen in the distant future. A state legislature had been forced by the judiciary to redefine traditional marriage. Secularists had succeeded in disconnecting marriage from its natural and spiritual moorings. Any two people living together would constitute a marriage with no regard for stability or children or morality.

Second, the effort to legalize same-sex marriages launched a movement throughout the country to protect the traditional understanding of marriage. To date, 19 states have passed amendments to their constitutions that define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Seven other states will ask the voters to decide this issue in the upcoming November elections. It is encouraging that voters have overwhelmingly supported codifying heterosexual marriage in their state constitutions. This is all the more important in light of the substantial pressure that the media and cultural elites have exercised to influence voters to reject these amendments.

This grassroots effort has also mobilized some legislators on the national level to propose an amendment to the United States Constitution defining marriage as 'only the union of a man and a woman" (Senate Joint Resolution No. 1, the 'Marriage Protection Amendment"). The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops strongly supports this effort, recently releasing a second strong statement in support of the federal marriage amendment, and encouraging bishops in key states to pressure their senators to support it. While this amendment's chances of passage are in doubt, the fact that it has been introduced in Congress is a clear sign that many Americans do not support the undermining of marriage between a man and woman as the basic unit of society. People are beginning to understand the negative consequences of calling same-sex unions 'marriage."

3. Growing support for natural family planning.

The third positive development in our country is the development of scientifically reliable methods of natural family planning. For example, the work of Dr. Thomas Hilgers at the Pope Paul VI Institute in Omaha provides a foundation for women's health care that truly respects the intrinsic value of human sexuality. Thirty years of research in the menstrual and fertility cycles of women culminated in the 2004 publication of his 1,244 page medical text book The Medical and Surgical Practice of NaProTECHNOLOGY. The response to this new medical textbook by Dr. Hilgers has resulted in a rapidly growing interest in natural sexual reproductively on the part of physicians "“ to date 350 physicians trained in this new technology at the Pope Paul VI Institute have abandoned prescribing the birth control pill, and now provide NaProTECHNOLOGY services in the United States and other countries.

Work to be done

While there are many reasons to be encouraged about the state of marriage and family life in the U.S., the Church continues to face serious challenges. In order to meet these challenges, the Church must continue to engage the culture at every level. I would like to suggest three ways to accomplish this task.

1. The education component.

Central to its mandate from Jesus himself, the Church is charged to preach and teach. When it comes to proclaiming the sanctity of marriage, family and human life, the Church must continue to speak out on the moral, political and spiritual issues of the day. Jesus spoke the truth "“ everything He heard from the Father (cf. John 15:15). The Church, as his representative on earth, must continue to defend marriage and the family, no matter what opposition she may face. St. Paul left us a powerful example as a man who preached the Gospel in season and out of season, heedless of the opposition he often faced (cf. 2 Timothy 4:2). We have to use all the means of communication at our disposal to transmit our position on life issues to as many people in our country as possible.

2. Personal commitment to the cause.

Although the Church does not endorse particular parties or politicians, she must work more effectively through her leaders, institutions and individual members to bring about a change in our society. Every member of the Church is also a member of civil society. We must all work together to
effect significant change in our culture. This means that, first of all in the household of the faith, we have to work at healing our internal divisions so that we can be more effective in presenting a unified message about life issues to the general public.

3. Grounding our efforts in prayer.

At the same time we have to acknowledge that our primary battle is not sociological or even political "“ It is spiritual. If we are to protect marriage and family life in the years and decades to come, we must above all be men and women of prayer. Ultimately, it is Jesus who is victorious over sin and death, and it is He who will triumph over the assaults of those who seek to promote personal choice and self-love over an unconditional and completely selfless love for others.


There's an old saying that I think summarizes our pro-life, pro-family efforts today"”we must work as though everything depends on us, and we must pray as though everything depends on God. If we do this, we can be sure that in our individual countries and in the world around us there will be a gradual transformation of this culture of death into a culture of life. I know from personal experience that a few dedicated people can make a difference in their communities. I think that we few gathered here from all over the world can be part of the leaven that will help make the Kingdom of God more evident in our kingdoms of men. This is the strength of the Church, the persistent, prayerful efforts of her members to lead people to embrace the will and plan of God for the human family. We are aware that our cause is being undermined constantly in our pervasive secular cultures; but in the long run the human spirit will triumph over darkness because Jesus has embraced our world.

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