Marriage continues to be a high priority for the Catholic Church. I have some good news to report in the Diocese of Cleveland as more parishes are offering marriage enrichment for couples and, for the first time in many years, there was a 2.5 percent increase in the number of Catholic weddings. But two national threats have emerged that must concern us all, namely, government efforts to redefine marriage and subsequent laws and policies that threaten religious freedom.
Both threats were addressed at the Bishops' meeting in Baltimore last fall. Bishop William Lori, the Chairman for the newly formed Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Freedom, summarized the concerns he had already presented to the U.S. Congress in October 2011.
He reminded us that the religious liberty of individuals and organizations precedes the state and must be protected by the state. Until recently our government has protected these sacred freedoms and not imposed either special privileges or sanctions based on religious belief.
However, an aggressive secularizing trend threatens our freedom to follow our religious beliefs and consciences. Negative impacts are already being felt in Catholic healthcare, social services, migration services, adoption services and employment practices. On January 20, 2012, the Federal Health and Human Services Agency decreed that Catholic Charities, hospitals, and college health plans must pay for sterilizations and contraception.
Yet an even greater threat to religious freedom emerged in 2011 when the federal Department of Justice (DoJ) decided to no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA 1996) which legally defines marriage as a union of one man and one woman. Even worse, the DoJ has begun attacking the law by mischaracterizing it as an act of bigotry and sexual discrimination. If this federal DOMA law is repealed, the 41 state DOMA laws will also be in danger.
As Catholics we believe God defined marriage as the faithful, lifelong union of one man and one woman. This definition is built into our human nature by God. All societies have varying rituals, laws and customs that promote and protect what is unchangeable: marriage can only unite a man and woman. The definition of marriage is as much a part of nature as the law of gravity or the principle that water is only formed by a particular combination of hydrogen and oxygen. Human beings can discover and seek to understand these laws of nature, but we cannot change them. No one - no state, no church - can redefine marriage because it has a divine design.
But several states have expanded the definition of marriage to include same sex couples and have forced this redefinition onto all citizens and churches. Redefining marriage then changes thousands of other laws and policies, some of which punish or coerce Catholics to violate religious belief and conscience. To cite some examples: A Catholic college in Massachusetts was forced to allow a same sex couple to live in married housing; Catholic Charities in Portland, Maine was required to pay spousal benefits to same sex "domestic partners"; by insisting to only place adoptive children with a married mother and father Catholic Charities lost adoptive licensing and funding in Massachusetts and Washington, D.C.; in New York, county clerks face legal action for refusing to participate in same sex unions.
If courts succeed in attaching the label "bigot" to those who defend the true nature of marriage, lawsuits are likely to threaten what we teach in Catholic schools, preach in our churches or advocate politically. All are seroius threats to established religious freedoms.
Catholics are not alone in opposing these threats. In January 2012, Archbishop Dolan and other Catholic bishops were among the 39 religious leaders who published an open letter to all Americans, Marriage and Religious Freedom: Fundamental Goods That Stand or Fall Together. Pope Benedict himself has called for a well-formed Catholic laity to counter the secularism that threatens religious liberty and American society. He encouraged bishops to address these issues in the new evangelization efforts.
I encourage all Catholics and people of good will to inform themselves and act. Excellent information and resources are available on the website: www.marriageuniqueforareason.org. These will be beneficial for all including clergy, parents, teachers and catechists who have the responsibility to educate the young. The USCCB Religious Liberty website page http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/religious-liberty/ will continue to provide updates.
Finally, our Diocesan Social Action Office will be providing parishes with an information packet on marriage, religious liberty and other issues so as to inform voters to be actively involved in the political process.
This involvement must always be reasonable, respectful and charitable. We promote the dignity and civil rights of all people, including our brothers and sisters with same sex attraction. All of us are loved by God. We deplore and oppose any harassment or unjust discrimination toward any people. Yet, we must disagree with those who insist on redefining marriage. Marriage is a unique communion between a man and a woman that protects the sacredness of sexual relations, provides children with a mother and father and establishes stronger families which are the foundation of church and society.
We urge our elected leaders to address our serious concerns and act protect marriage and safeguard religious freedom. Finally, let us pray for God's protection, wisdom and grace in all that we do.