Monday May 5, 2022

In search of a happy ending: It takes only two people

By WILLIAM JOHNSON
Monday, May 5, 2022 - Page A15

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Is a "happy ending" out of the question for homosexuals? Or does it apply exclusively to a man and a woman in each other's arms?

The B.C. Court of Appeal went to the heart of human happiness last week when it ruled that Canada's long-standing common-law definition of marriage as "the lawful union of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others" violates the equality rights of gay couples wishing to marry. The court proposed this non-discriminatory definition: "the lawful union of two persons to the exclusion of all others." Parliament has been given until July of 2004 to change the Marriage Act accordingly.

This comes as a shock to many Canadians, particularly to the major churches. Intervening in the case against same-sex marriage was the Interfaith Coalition for Marriage made up of the Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver, the Islamic Society of North America, the B.C. Muslim Association, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, the Catholic Civil Rights League and the B.C. Council of Sikhs.

They argued that both the law of God and the well-being of society required that marriage be restricted to two people of the opposite sex. For them, the defining function of marriage was procreation, and only a couple of the opposite sex meets the criterion. They also maintained that the sanctity of marriage would be debased if the institution were extended to same-sex couples.

A secularized version of the same argument was presented in these pages on Friday. Katherine Young and Paul Nathanson of McGill's faculty of religious studies insisted that "the essential function of marriage has always been to provide the necessary cultural framework for straight couples and their children." Recognize the right of same-sex couples to marry, they warn, and "we would lack even the ability we still have to provide public cultural support for heterosexuality. It would become, at best, nothing more than one more 'lifestyle choice' among many, and could then no longer be propagated in the public square."

Nonsense. Even if the state legislates to extend the legal status of "married" to homosexuals, the great religions will continue to teach that only heterosexual marriage is sanctified. Most will continue to teach that homosexual acts are sinful. Such acts "are intrinsically disordered," states the official Catechism of the Catholic Church. "Under no circumstances can they be approved."

Romeo and Juliet will still be staged, Jane Austen will still be read. The vast corpus of love songs, love poems, novels and movies tell stories of heterosexual love. The happy ending will continue to be sought as one of life's major goals -- and for most, that will conjure the vision of love between a man and a woman.

But in a country that, in principle, separates church and state, the state has a secular objective in legislating marriage. Its concern is to promote public order and general welfare, not religious doctrine. Religions can continue to promote their respective views of marriage. The state will ensure their religious freedom, while also pursuing other values, including the equality of citizens, the dignity of all individuals, and the better public health that comes from encouraging more stable sexual relationships.

According to Genesis 2:18, accepted by Judaism, Christianity and Islam, God said: "It is not good for man to be alone." Must the secular state limit that universal statement of a condition for happiness to heterosexual couples?

For both Judaism and Roman Catholicism, the essence of the marriage ceremony is the consent of the couple to each other before witnesses. Around that grew secondary conventions and rituals.

According to the book Judaism,edited by Arthur Hertzberg, "Jews are essentially married by consent. The passing of a ring, or any object of value, from groom to bride represents a contract which is valid if it is witnessed by two other adult male Jews."

In the Catholic tradition, marriage is considered a sacrament, but it is conferred by the spouses on each other, not by the priest. In fact, in the early church, Christians accepted the Roman custom of marriage simply by a public declaration of the intention to live together as man and wife. It was only 1,500 years later that the church made a requirement of weddings officiated by a priest.

All this is to say that the court judgment, while departing from traditional religious teachings about marriage, maintains the most essential condition: that marriage is a legally enforceable contract of commitment between two people. And it only takes a step further the recent evolution of doctrine in the Catholic Church that marriage is about much more than procreation. It is about love.
Jesuit-trained William Johnson is a Quebec-based writer.