Skip to main content
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Gay Marriage: Theological and Moral Arguments

Theological and Moral Arguments

Fred Parrella

Fred Parrella, associate professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University, and Gerald Coleman, S.S., President of St. Patrick's Seminary, offered these remarks as part of a panel on Gay Marriage held Jan. 28, 2004.

It is a pleasure to be here with members of the University community today. It is a special pleasure to be with Father Jerry Coleman and my colleague, June Carbone. I was first going to call my comments as "A Straight Eye for Some Queer Guys," but I see that the name has been taken.

While George Bush calls for 1.5 billion dollars to bolster the sanctity of marriage—especially among the lower classes of society—we live in an unprecedented time of transition with reference to marriage and the family. According to the New York Times, only 56% of Americans are married today and, even more surprising, only 26% of all households are the traditional married-couple-with-children homes. One need only look at the recent one-day marriage of pop idol, Brittany Spears, and the shenanigans of "Benifer" about their on-and-off nuptials to realize that tradi-tional marriage between heterosexuals is in deep trouble.

Social conservatives are not only concerned about marriage, but also the rise of a gay and lesbian culture. Statistics suggest, however, that gays and lesbians are not increasing in number, if we accept the best research data of Edward Laumann, who puts the number at about 5% of the population1. What has grown is a much greater acceptance of gays and lesbians in our culture, as well as the social and economic freedom for gays and lesbians to emerge from the closet that has confined them for so many generations. The recent addition of same sex commitment ceremonies in the Sunday New York Times wedding and engagement announcements and the popularity of shows as "Will and Grace" and "Queer Eye…" indicate a shift in our culture's attitude toward gays and lesbians.

Let me share a brief personal note: I have been teaching Theology of Marriage at Santa Clara since 1983. In every class, for the past 20 odd years, I have invited a gay former student, Lee FitzGerald, to speak on gay relationships. My intent was two-fold: first to invite students into dialogue with people different from themselves; second, to work to eliminate, in whatever small way I could, homophobic attitudes on our campus and in our community. Lee's classes over the years have been uniformly successful and very worthwhile. The attitudes of Santa Clara students have evolved significantly in the last two decades vis à vis gay and lesbian relationships.

My purpose today is not to support or defend gay and lesbian marriages—indeed, many gays and lesbians do not want to marry—but simply suggest a theological approach that might open up the possibility for greater Christian acceptance of, and ecclesiastical approval for, same sex unions. Let me begin by suggesting a tentative definition of marriage, even if such a definition is, as my dear friend Ted Mackin said, "an elusive enterprise. Even the married find it so." Marriage is an unconditional, life-long commitment between two persons who promise to share all of life and love, home and hearth, body and soul; marriage necessarily involves both the fullest of communication, the deepest of understanding, and the strongest of personal loyalty and trust between two people.

In this definition, the unconditional element is most striking. Marriage is unconditional in two senses: first, the commitment is not conditioned by other commitments, no matter what they may be. Such commitments include parents, friends, one's psychological needs, career goals, spiritual interests, sexual drives, addictions of any sort, and the like. Second, in the marriage relationship, both partners confront the unconditional dimension of life and find it deeply and profoundly personal. This means that in and through one another, each partner confronts the ultimate meaning of his/her life precisely by sharing life unconditionally with another person; put differently, husband and wife discover the presence of God in the sharing of daily life with another.

Marriage is exclusive in so far as everyone else is excluded from the innermost circle of intimacy, both sexual and personal, shared between the two partners—no one else has access to the inner heart and mind, as well as the body, of the partner in exactly the same way. For this same reason, marriage is also inclusive because all of one's life—one's finances, career, leisure time, friendships, relationship to family friends, even one's other so-called soul-mates—must be understood from the stand-point of, and in light of, the marriage commitment. Put differently, the whole of one's life, history, successes, failures, hopes and dreams, joys and sorrows, are included in the relationship between two people.

In defining marriage this way, I am also defining what Catholicism calls a sacramental marriage. For the Catholic tradition, marriage is a commitment between a man and a woman that is modeled on the commitment of Christ and his Church, on a commitment of unconditional love. Ted Mackin defines sacramental marriage this way:

This then is what it means for a Christian man and woman to live their marriage as a sacrament: that they find in one another's habitual attitude and conduct evidence of the presence of the Creator; more particularly that both believe, and rule their conduct by the belief, that they are held in existence by divine creation and that they are drawn to God by their love for one another and the intimate sharing that acts out this love; in short that they are instruments, willing instruments, of the Creator.

More particularly still, a man and woman live their marriage sacramentally if they believe that in loving one another they are responding to the Creator's call to intimacy with Godself, into a communion consisting of knowledge and love that begins in their lives this side of death but can continue through and past their deaths into unending communion with the divine life; [if they believe that this invitation to intimacy is at the same time the Creator's effort to rescue them from their sinfulness, their powerful tendency to protect themselves, to distrust the other's invasion of their privacy and freedom, and to stay closed off from intimacy, using one another merely for pleasure and security.

In this unconditional relationship, the quality of relation is unexceptional—the good husband and father will also be the good friend, priest, son, or daughter; the mediocre man or woman will be mediocre in all of his/her relations. This is just as true if the person is gay, lesbian, or straight. Being a person means understanding that he or she is only one individual among others and not the center of the universe, that his/her will can not always be satisfied but must often be subjected to the will of others for the common good. Without this awareness of self, the individual will never be able to come out of his/her inflated self-importance and share his/her life with another. Marriage offers us the ideal human setting for us to surrender our own self-importance and discover, through intimacy with another, the real heart and center of the universe in God—whether one uses the word God or not. This unconditional giving of one's self is at the core of a sacramental marriage in the Catholic tradition.

My question is this: In the ideal order, what would prevent this sacramental understanding of marriage from being applied to two persons of the same sex in the same way these words can be spoken about a man and woman? One need not use the word "marriage," but the reality is the same. A gay or lesbian orientation is not a matter of choice but simply the way an individual is. A person is born gay and lesbian and grows up this way; it is not a matter of decision, one possibility among others for the mature individual. The Pastoral letters of the Catholic bishops realize this fact.

While it is not likely that official Roman Catholic theology will sanction same sex relationships in the near future, two significant changes have taken place in the last half century in our understanding of marriage. First, the concept of marriage has moved from a legal contract to a personal covenant between two people in the pres-ence of God. Marriage is rooted, in the words of the Second Vatican Council, in "the conjugal covenant of irrevocable personal consent." Second, the act of procreation within a marriage (until recently seen as a duty so the race may survive) is no longer the only purpose of marriage. In marriage, the partners, as the Council says, also "render mutual help and service to each other through an intimate union of their persons and their actions." Since not all marriages between a man and a woman end in offspring due to physical problems or personal choice, it is clear that the concept of procreation as essential to the marriage bond should be explored in a wider sense and include the creative spheres of the spiritual, moral, and cultural. Likewise, our understanding of family has broadened. In a 1980 statement, the Catholic bishops of Western Washington suggest that "whenever a relationship is formed based on mutual caring and interdependency, family is not merely a metaphor but the proper term to describe such a relationship." The Catholic theologian Rosemary Haughton suggests that perhaps the most important thing about a family is not the blood relationship, but the fact that it is a community, a group of people sharing their lives."

In this context, then, the possibility exists for a broader and more inclusive understanding of marriage and family. Such an understanding may ultimately include same sex relationships. The norm ought not to be gender but the quality or unconditional love and commitment that exists between two people. If Jesus as God's face among us could reach out to the Samaritan woman at the well and promise her living water, I cannot imagine a God who would not be pleased by deep and intense love and commitment in any of its forms. For Jesus reveals a God who wants more than obedience to the law but a God who wants nothing less than our whole hearts and minds and souls. All that matters to God is what is in the hearts and souls that God has given to us and that we seek to give to one another.

Same-Sex Unions, Marriage and Catholic Teaching

A Context:

  1. Astonishing in today's "postmarital" scene with so many problems facing marriage: e.g., high divorce rate; single-parents; abuse of wives and children; living together without a civil/church wedding.
  2. Central question: intimacy; loneliness; recognition by society?
  3. 2003: the Vatican's concern about heterosexual marriage as "the front line of the cultural wars:" e.g., in Anglicanism: rite of blessing in New Westminster, Canada; consecration of Gene Robinson as an openly gay bishop.
    1. "Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Public Life" (CDF): cohabitation cannot be seen on the same level as marriage.
    2. "Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons" (CDF): cannot promote any form of civil recognition of same-sex unions, formally or materially.
  4. State of the Union Address, 20 January 2003, President Bush: defend the sanctity of marriage, even if it calls for a constitutional amendment.
  5. Catholic insistence: one can uphold the dignity of homosexual people while not upholding their right-to-marry; no unjust discrimination towards homosexuals is acceptable; they must be treated with respect, and their rights defended.


  1. Proposed federal marriage amendment (a basic repeat of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act [DOMA]): marriage is an exclusive union of a man and a woman joined together for: permanent, public, sexual, emotional, financial, and parenting "goods."
  2. A intimate love as an expression of sexual complementarity, permanent commitment, and generativity.
  3. Is not: a voluntary union for life of two persons who love one another; the mere right to intimate relationships recognized on "parity" with marriage; a private choice.
  4. Advocates of same-sex marriage generally do not wish to undermine heterosexual marriage; but rather to be "included" and share in its benefits (e.g., property rights; adoption rights; medical insurance and decisions; custody rights).

A Secular Perspective

  1. Marriage is a union that enhances the community/society and anchors the family.
  2. Marriage encourages stability over transient relationships; and ensures for the proper care for children.
  3. Marriage is the best place for nourishing children; an untested assertion that same-sex couples equal this "best place."
  4. Marriage provides a link to procreation and binds together the couple: a weave among heterosexual intercourse, marriage, procreation and child care.
  5. Civil benefits are not given to individuals who are married, but rather to help establish a nourishing environment for children.
  6. It is parenthood in marriage that makes sex fully accountable.
  7. Marriage comprises four interlocking dimensions: consummation (structural), companionship (social), consent (subjective), and covenant/total commitment (anthropological): this is its inherent unitive and procreative nature.

A Theological Perspective

  1. John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio (On the Family), 1981: from "the beginning" and "in the garden" God called a man and a woman to form a community of persons to serve life and society, and share in the mission of the Church.
  2. Sexuality is not merely biological but rather a means of creating a total human bond (the una vita of Genesis).
  3. The crowning gift of this totality is the family, wherein couples become cooperatores Dei in the begetting and care for children: it is not good "for the man" to be alone: thus,
    1. "the other," and
    2. children.
  4. Marriage is thus more than a personal commitment; it is a community promise to beget a new community; marriage is never a private affair (this is individualism which leads to the belief that the loss of sentiment toward the spouse equals the loss of the marriage).

A Catholic Perspective

  1. The belief in "men and women created in the image and likeness of God" (intimacy and procreation) is a bedrock Catholic teaching.
  2. Marriage is a "form of life" created and missioned by God, enabling one to
    1. leave home;
    2. cling to the other;
    3. and be fruitful.
  3. Conclusions:
    1. The relationship between male and female is an essential part of being created in God's image and likeness; it is not an accidental factor.
    2. Complementarity is at the heart of the sexual image: physical, moral and spiritual: oriented toward the good of the spouses and the family (why Jesus raised the marriage of the baptized to a sacrament).
    3. The bonding of the male and female, whole in themselves, adds up to more than "one:" they enrich each other through their complementarity.
    4. Heterosexual marriage is the most basic unit of society in its singular dimensions of consummation, difference, complementarity, and covenant.


1 See Edward O. Laumann, John H. Gagnon, Robert T. Michael, and Gina Kolata. Sex in America. A Definitive Survey. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1994; and Edward O. Laumann, Robert T. Michael, John H Gagnon, and Stuart Michaels. The Social Organization of Sexuality. Sexual Practices in the United States. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Jan 8, 2004