By Fr. Wilfred Emeh
The unsettling legalisation of same-sex unions by the Supreme Court of the United States on June 26, 2015, marked a stormy turning point in the history of the American people and for the Church. It was no less a thunderclap than the legalisation of abortion in 1973. The weekend following the declaration, the clergy, lay preachers, and civil authorities of diverse faith communities, spoke out loud and clear against the Court’s decision as a grave error of judgment.
To clear up this muddy question, I fell back to the faculties which the local ordinary of the diocese in which I am exercising my ministry has granted to me. The faculty permits me to prepare couples for marriage and to officiate at marriages, as required by Canon Law. It does not allow the same from me for ceremonies that do not fit canonical requirements.
Marriage, as instituted by God, is a faithful, exclusive, lifelong union of a man and a woman joined in an intimate community of life and love. They commit themselves completely to each other and to the wondrous responsibility of bringing children into the world and caring for them. The call to marriage is woven deeply into the human spirit. Man and woman are equal. They are created different from each other for the good of the other. This complementarity, including sexual difference, draws them together in a mutually loving union that should be always open to the procreation of children (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1602–1605).
According to the above definition of marriage, and in keeping with my religious beliefs, I am not obliged, de jure, to either prepare people for or officiate at any form of union that falls short of the Catholic meaning of marriage. As is admitted in the majority Supreme Court opinion, “The First Amendment ensures that religious organisations and people are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered.”
As logical as my position may be, a bone of contention remains. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas remarked, “Religious liberty is about freedom of action in matters of religion generally, and the scope of that liberty is directly correlated to the civil restraints placed upon religious practice.” Consider Christian-owned businesses such as event venues, wedding photographers, bakeries, and florists; they are expected to render their services to both homosexual and heterosexual couples without discrimination—not just in day-to-day dealings, but also in marriage ceremonies. This was the case with a seventy-year-old flower-shop owner, gentle-hearted Barronelle Stutzman, who was sued by a regular customer on grounds of discrimination because she politely refused to provide flowers for his gay wedding due to her religious beliefs.
The Supreme Court’s ruling hinges on an expansive redefinition of marriage in an attempt to degrade it to a mere abstract political concept. Justice Thomas, again in his dissent, highlighted this conflict:
“In our society, marriage is not simply a governmental institution; it is a religious institution as well. Today’s decision might change the former, but it cannot change the latter. It appears all but inevitable that the two will come into conflict, particularly as individuals and churches are confronted with demands to participate in and endorse civil marriages between same-sex couples.… The majority appears unmoved by that inevitability. It makes only a weak gesture toward religious liberty in a single paragraph.… And even that gesture indicates a misunderstanding of religious liberty in our Nation’s tradition.”
Given that this conflict is a reality now that cannot be ignored, another question that parishioners are asking is, “What do we do now?” My response is to stand up for your faith, to trust in God, to love one another, and above all, to fast and pray.
Stand up for your faith
The solidarity expressed so far among Catholics, Evangelicals, and other faith communities in decrying the Supreme Court’s ruling is eloquent testimony of their witnessing for the sanctity of marriage. But this is just the beginning of a long and painful journey, which brings to mind one of the Church’s hymns that is popular in Cameroon: “Stand up, stand up for Jesus, ye soldiers of the cross. Lift high his royal banner. Ye must not suffer loss. From victory unto victory, his army ye shall be, till every foe is vanquished and Christ be Lord indeed.” There is good reason to begin a “March for Marriage” every June 26! There is an African proverb that says, “When you pray, move your feet.” This means we should combine prayer with action toward the cause of our demands.
Speaking at a worship service on Sunday, June 28, Chief Justice Roy Moore of Alabama’s Supreme Court announced, “Welcome to the new world. It’s just changed for you Christians. You are going to be persecuted according to the U.S. Supreme Court dissents.” The President of our own Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, released a statement that included a call to courage and perseverance:
“I encourage Catholics to move forward with faith, hope, and love: faith in the unchanging truth about marriage, rooted in the immutable nature of the human person and confirmed by divine revelation; hope that these truths will once again prevail in our society, not only by their logic, but by their great beauty and manifest service to the common good; and love for all our neighbours, even those who hate us or would punish us for our faith and moral convictions.
For their part, a joint statement organised by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention reads, “While we believe the Supreme Court has erred in its ruling, we pledge to stand steadfastly, faithfully witnessing to the biblical teaching that marriage is the chief cornerstone of society, designed to unite men, women, and children. We promise to proclaim and live this truth at all costs, with convictions that are communicated with kindness and love.”
In God We Trust
Paradoxically, this battle for same-sex marriage is a battle against God, to whom the founding Fathers entrusted this great nation and succeeding generations with the motto: “In God We Trust.” And it is the same God whose blessings are implored again and again by political leaders when they say, “God bless America.” Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules on same-sex marriage, abortion, immigration, or other issues, God remains sovereign. The numerous attempts so far to erase Him from the public square have been futile. It is therefore no coincidence that on the very Sunday following the legalisation of gay unions, the opening prayer at Mass (as found in the Roman Missal) all over the world read: “O God, who through the grace of adoption chose us to be children of light, grant, we pray, that we may not be wrapped in the darkness of error, but always be seen to stand in the bright light of truth.”
O yes! God is not dead, so there is no cause for alarm! His sovereignty is eminent:
Why do the nations conspire? Why do the people plot in vain? The kings of the earth brace themselves and the rulers together take their stand against the Lord and his anointed.…Now therefore, earn wisdom O kings; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Sere the Lord with fear and fall at his feet; lest he be angry and you perish when His anger suddenly fares. Blessed are all who take refuge in Him (Psalm 2).
Love One Another
Though the initial reaction of outrage and panic were expressive of the gravity of the offence, we must transcend a hostile approach to maintain our Christian identity at this sobering time: “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). To nurse thoughts of anger or hate against the government and people who disagree with our religious and moral precepts in general is evil. I have come across young people from African countries where the mere thought of gay rights is an abomination, yet they now identify as gay themselves. I equally encounter and serve the spiritual needs of American people who not only practice a homosexual lifestyle, but also speak out in favour of gay-marriage rights. These too, are God’s creatures, and after the example of the Good Shepherd, they deserve God’s love and care. When I speak about the divine plan for men and women and other related issues with LGBT proponents, I also listen carefully to what they have to say. Love is our mission and the truth must be spoken with charity.
For the purposes of a clean fight, we should not lose sight of our own sinfulness and our need for repentance. This is in fact the best time to address our own sins, as we mourn for the sins of the whole nation. American Baptist pastor Warren Wiersbe is quoted as saying, “Truth without love is brutality, and love without truth is hypocrisy,” and I agree. One without the other is detrimental to all.
Fast and Pray
Fasting and prayer are more important than speeches and protests. There is no better time than now to heed St. Paul’s call: “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16), especially if we are to be engaging in discussions about gay marriage. Sodomy, sexual perversion, and immorality were the root cause of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the antidote to sin is prayer and the sacraments. The Church’s present suffering in the United States is a painful wound inflicted on the entire body of Christ, and prayers for healing are warranted. While this intention should be constantly a part of the faithful’s prayer in Churches across the globe, it should also become an integral part of family prayers.
Indeed, marriage is a basic human and social institution. Though it is regulated by civil laws and Church laws, it did not originate from either the State or the Church, but from God. Therefore, neither the State nor the Church can alter the basic meaning and structure of marriage. Marriage can only be the union of a man and a woman and ought to remain defined as such in matters of law. In a manner unlike any other relationship, marriage makes a unique and irreplaceable contribution to the common good of society, especially through the procreation and education of children. The union of husband and wife becomes, over a lifetime, a great good for themselves, their family, their communities, and society. Marriage is a gift to be cherished and protected.