Well, let's start with the meaning of marriage, or should I say the various meanings of marriage. From a Catholic perspective, marriage is a sacrament, one of seven. The Catechism (#774) defines the sacraments as "signs and instruments by which the Holy Spirit spreads the grace of Christ the head throughout the Church which is his Body". Speaking directly to marriage (#1601):
"The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by is nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament."This is a high standard! The sacrament is only valid if there is consent, defined as the "human act by which the partners mutually give themselves to each other" (#1627). There are many reasons why a marriage might be declared null and void. This means the marriage never existed.
Of course, the media gets its knickers in a knot every once in a while when a high-profile Catholic gets an annulment (think a Kennedy or Nicole Kidman). You will see all kinds of nonsense about how a callous church declared the marriage never existed, even after so many years, even with so many children etc etc. The confusion lies in the definition of marriage. The Catholic notion of the sacrament is very different from the concept of civil marriage. Civil marriage is basically a legal contract, which grants various rights and responsibilities to the spouses. The state regulates it to prohibit injustice (under-age marriage, polygamy etc.). But that is all. If the parties want out of the contract, they get a divorce, divide up the assets and walk away.
Note that Protestantism does not recognize marriage as a sacrament. So in a protestant country like the United States, the natural instinct is to see the state as the final arbiter of what makes a valid marriage. This feeds directly into the gay marriage debate. If you distinguish between the sacrament and the secular contract, the Catholic arguments against gay marriage become far weaker. The vast majority of secular marriages probably would not pass muster with the Church. In the most extreme care, think of Britney Spears's drunken 24-hour Las Vegas marriage. And yet this "marriage" came with all the rights and responsibilities of any secular marriage. My question is this: if the state can call this a marriage, what are the reasons for opposing a union between two people of the same-sex, who love each other, and who are involved in a serious monogamous relationship?
Note a belief in the immorality of homosexual acts is not necessarily a barrier to gay marriage. Again, using the law to enforce morality is more of a protestant than catholic tradition. The Catholic approach to more concerned with justice and the protection of the common good. Thomas Aquinas himself favored the legalization of prostitution, while he viewed the act itself as immoral. It therefore boils down to the prudential question of how it would affect the common good of society. In this regard, many (including Andrew Sullivan) have been arguing for a long time that gay marriage would actually strengthen the institution of marriage more generally. This is certainly a debate worth having.
In a sense, the Church has already tilted in this direction without explicitly acknowledging it, when it comes to civil unions. Recently, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington DC, in the context of a the debate surrounding the constitutional ban on gay marriage, noted that:
"It seems to me that we really have to continue to define marriage as we've defined marriage for thousands of years as a union between a man and a woman. Now, I think the legislation as it is proposed would not throw out the possibility of a civil union. And I think we can -- we can live with that if this is what -- if this is what the Constitution will provide for. But to say that you can take this concept of marriage, this word of marriage and use it in ways that it has never been used before, as far as I know, in the history of the world, I think that makes no sense."McCarrick was thinking about legal rights such as hospital visitations. Although he doesn't say so explicitly, he is making a firm distinction between secular marriage rights and the sacrament. Of course, the usual right-wing Catholic McCarrick haters immediately jumped on this, proclaiming:
"More significant is what goes unmentioned, viz., that souls are imperiled by giving consent to a life of mortal sin -- something you'd have thought a Catholic might have an opinion about."Of course, the subtlety of using the law for enforcing morality versus the common good is totally lost of them. And, of course, McCarrick's remarks were nothing new. Cardinal William Levada, when he was Archbishop of San Francisco brokered a compromise on civil unions with the city of San Francisco in 1996. All who did business with the city were required to provide domestic partnership benefits. Levada allowed church groups to comply, as long as the domestic partner could be anybody, not just a same-sex partner. Of course, the right was unimpressed, but Pope Benedict was not: upon his election, he appointed Levada to his old job (the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) and made him a cardinal.
To conclude, I would propose that Catholics envision a complete "divorce" between secular marriage and what the church recognizes-- valid sacraments and other bonded marriages. The sticking point seems to be on the word "marriage" which is why McCarrick and other can favor civil unions and at the same time support a constitutional ban on gay marriage. Given given the low civil standards, I'm not really sure that even holds up. I don't think it would be inconsistent with Catholic teaching. Of course, the church is never going to change its opinion of sacramental marriage, so Andrew Sullivan can forget about that one.
Of course, Republicans are using this (surprise, surprise) as a wedge issue to prove their "moral values" credentials. Are they really concerned with protecting the institution of marriage? If so, maybe they would be talking more about the huge rates of divorce and marital breakdown. In this regard, in the context of the recent debate, one Democrat, Rep. Lincoln Davis (D-Tenn.), exposed the hypocrisy brilliantly (source: Carpetbagger Report). He said:
"Marriage is for life, and this amendment needs to include that basic tenant. Therefore, Mr. Speaker, I think we should expand the scope of the amendment to outlaw divorce in this country. Going further Mr. Speaker, I believe in fidelity. Adultery is an evil that threatens the marriage and the heart of every marriage, which is commitment. How can we as a country allow adulterers to go unpunished and continue to make a mockery of marriage? Again by doing so, what lessons are we teaching our children about marriage? I certainly think that it shows we are not serious about protecting the institution and this is why I think the amendment should outlaw adultery and make it a felony.....We should also prevent those who commit adultery, or get a divorce, from running for office."
No, for the right, this is not protecting the institution of marriage from attack, but rather using the law to impose personal morality. And, at the end of the day, that is not a Catholic position.