Considering the Effects of Obergefell vs. Hodges in light of Catholic Doctrine on Marriage

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision legalizing homosexual marriage carries with it many questions varying in nature. One set of questions the ruling brings into high relief for Catholics concerns the relationship of the state-sanctioned civil marriage to sacramental marriage. To what extent (if any) and in what ways should the state regulate marriage, and given other legal practices such as divorce and contraception, does this ruling (or rulings about homosexual marriage in general) change anything significantly?

There are several ways one might answer these questions (for instance, considering and applying natural law), but the first thing faithful Catholics must do is turn to the teachings of the Church in this matter for direction. We are fortunate to live in a time where the Church has given a good deal of pertinent direction for just this sort of situation. We have, among many other resources, three encyclicals in recent history devoted to elucidating the Catholic teachings on marriage or particular aspects of marriage: Arcanum Divinae, Casti Connubii, and Humanae Vitae by Leo XIII, Pius XI, and Paul VI respectively.

Based upon these (Casti Connubii most of all), we Catholics must recognize three things at least which we are bound to hold according to the doctrines of our Faith. First of all, we are bound to defend the proposition that the nature of marriage, both natural and sacramental, is not under the authority of the state. Secondly, the state is obliged to protect and preserve the set-apart character of the family, and this for the sake of the state itself. Thus a civil institution usurping the place of the family is of grave import. Finally, based upon the nature of true marriage, we must recognize the full breadth of the problem presented by the legalization of gay marriage. While the legalization of contraception and divorce diminish our nation’s capability of understanding marriage – and while abortion is a greater evil in itself –the recognition and legalization of homosexual marriage destroys our nation’s capability to understand the nature of marriage. The former errors definitely – when accepted by the culture and sanctioned by law – oppose the ends of marriage, but the latter actively denies the essential nature of the marital union.

The following does not argue to particular remedies or policies that need to be adopted. It is ordered to the Catholic reader who wants to see more precisely, in light of magisterial teaching, what the problems with the ruling are, why they are problems, and the general principles which will underlie any particular remedies

The Nature of Marriage

The Catechism of Trent, using Scripture and St. Augustine as guides, declares that marriage is an institution created by God, not man,[1] and that it is ordered to the goods of offspring, conjugal faith (or spousal fidelity), and the sacrament — the signification of Christ’s love for the Church.[2] The encyclicals we are examining clarify and further define this teaching.

1)   Marriage is instituted by God

Pius XI first notes that this is indeed the Catholic understanding.

[M]atrimony was not instituted or restored by man but by God… This is the doctrine of Holy Scripture; this is the constant tradition of the Universal Church; this the solemn definition of the sacred Council of Trent, which declares and establishes from the words of Holy Writ itself that God is the Author of the perpetual stability of the marriage bond, its unity and its firmness. (Casti, 5)

A few paragraphs later, he states this again while explaining man’s role.

From God comes the very institution of marriage, the ends for which it was instituted, the laws that govern it, the goods[3] that flow from it; while man, through generous surrender of his own person made to another for the whole span of life, becomes, with the help and cooperation of God, the author of each particular marriage, with the duties and goods annexed thereto from divine institution. (Casti, 9)

Marriage is not something man-made; it is not something merely constructed by society for some level of convenience and stability (though it is a principle of stability). Rather, the Creator establishes it, and as such His are the laws that govern its nature even before Christ raises it to the level of a sacrament.

This is not to say, of course, that man’s will is of no consequence whatsoever in marriage. Man’s will is indeed involved through the “generous surrender of his own person to another for the whole span of life.” But this is to be a cooperating author with God in this or that particular marriage, not an originator or definer of marriage compacts. Man’s will is important in the institution of a particular marriage, because he freely must will to enter it, but he has no say over what marriage is and what it is ordered to.[4]

Thus, all marriage, even the natural marriage, is of divine institution, its essence beyond man’s power or authority to define.

2)   Marriage is ordered to Offspring

Of the three aforementioned goods (offspring, spousal fidelity, and the sacrament), the fundamental one is offspring:

[T]he child holds the first place. And indeed the Creator of the human race Himself, Who in His goodness wishes to use men as His helpers in the propagation of life, taught this when, instituting marriage in Paradise, He said to our first parents, and through them to all future spouses: “Increase and multiply, and fill the earth.” (Casti, 11)

This good is not to be understood to be completed in procreation, but rather:

[S]omething else must be added, namely the proper education of the offspring. For the most wise God would have failed to make sufficient provision for children that had been born, and so for the whole human race, if He had not given to those to whom He had entrusted the power and right to beget them, the power also and the right to educate them. (Casti, 16)

And thus it is clear that of the goods of marriage the child has priority, and not just the conception of the child, but his perfection as well. Moreover, this perfection is the responsibility of parents. They have the “power” and “right” to be the educators. This is true, again, in even the natural marriage. The perfection of offspring is the first good of any marriage, and the first responsibility of the parents. It is not to the state that we must look for the primary educators of children, but to the parents. This authority is theirs according to the nature of the institution.

3)   Marriage is ordered to spousal fidelity

The second good of marriage is that of the fidelity of the spouses. Again, Pius XI explains:

The second good of matrimony … is the good of conjugal honor which consists in the mutual fidelity of the spouses in fulfilling the marriage contract, so that what belongs to one of the parties by reason of this contract sanctioned by divine law, may not be denied to him or permitted to any third person; nor may there be conceded to one of the parties anything which, being contrary to the rights and laws of God and entirely opposed to matrimonial faith, can never be conceded. Wherefore, conjugal faith, or honor, demands in the first place the complete unity of matrimony which the Creator Himself laid down in the beginning when He wished it to be not otherwise than between one man and one woman. (Casti, 19-20)

Marriage, every marriage, is definitively between one man and one woman; it is therefore both an exclusive union of two spouses, and a union only of man and woman. The pope’s aim in this part of the encyclical[5] is primarily to demonstrate from Scripture and Tradition  that polygamy is not allowed to the Christian – or to the marriage instituted by God and restored by Christ – but he is also stating that one cannot have marriage without the complementarity of man and woman. Other popes repeatedly confirm this point,[6] as does Trent.[7]

Complementarity is important in its own right, inasmuch as it demonstrates that Catholics must indeed defend the truth that marriage can only take place between a man and a woman, of course, but it is also significant in that it denotes the unity of matrimony is first characterized by male-female complementarity.

Paul VI clarifies the nature of this complementarity, by considering the nature of the marital act in particular.

[T]he fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life—and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman. And if each of these essential qualities, the unitive and the procreative, is preserved, the use of marriage fully retains its sense of true mutual love and its ordination to the supreme responsibility of parenthood to which man is called. (Humanae, 12)

The union of husband and wife is a relationship uniquely oriented precisely insofar as it is a union that in its expression, its ‘making manifest’ the nature of the unity in question, renders the two capable of generating life. The unity of spouses is defined according to its natural openness to new life.

Moreover, as Paul is clear to state, this unity is ordered to not just procreation, but “responsible parenthood.” The perfection, not simply the existence, of the child is the end of the union. Paul confirms Pius’ earlier argument; the union of marriage brings with it the responsibility of perfecting offspring.

None of this is to deny that the love of spouses is for the sake of the spouses, or that their unity is not for their own sakes. The popes are adamant that this fidelity is for the sake of the spouses, for they are bound by it “to give one another an unfailing and unselfish help.” (Arcanum, 11) The popes, however, are concerned to make a deeper point. The unity of spouses –which is the good of conjugal fidelity – is in itself an openness to new life. The desire for the good of one’s spouse cannot be intrinsically separated from the good of offspring.[8]

It must here be remarked that infertile spouses, while their situation is deeply regrettable for accidental reasons, still have that unity “written into the actual nature of man and woman.” Infertility, even when it is foreseen, does not alter the nature of man and woman, nor of this man and this woman (husband and wife), and therefore it does not alter the nature of their relationship. (Humanae, 11) It is merely an impediment beyond anyone’s will that makes it impossible for them to conceive. Moreover, since as they are indeed man and woman, their unity can be ordered to the generation of life and therefore its perfection.[9]

Thus, to follow out the popes’ teachings in respect to the second good, we see that it connects to and completes our understanding of the first. The unity of spouses in any marriage is to be understood as that sort of unity that according to its nature renders the agents capable of generating and perfecting new life. The spouses’ love for each other and their conjugal faith is to be understood according to its life-giving and life-perfecting complementarity.

4)   Marriage is ordered to the Sacrament

Finally, marriage is a union ordered to the sacrament of marriage. What does this mean? It means that Catholics must understand even the natural marriage in light of and for the sake of the sacrament whereby the spouses symbolize the union of Christ and His Church.

Pius XI argues this by first clarifying what Augustine (and Trent) mean by saying that ‘the sacrament’ is a good of marriage.

But this accumulation of benefits is completed and, as it were, crowned by that good of Christian marriage which in the words of St. Augustine we have called the sacrament, by which is denoted both the indissolubility of the bond and the raising and hallowing of the contract by Christ Himself, whereby He made it an efficacious sign of grace. (Casti, 31)

This indissolubility, to be clear, is characteristic  of all marriages (even non-sacramental). Pius first notes that there is an inviolable bond which belongs to every marriage:

And this inviolable stability, although not in the same perfect measure in every case, belongs to every true marriage, for the word of the Lord: “What God hath joined together let no man put asunder,” must of necessity include all true marriages without exception. (Casti, 34)

Immediately after this, he points out that the seeming “exceptions” to this permanent character (he is thinking of the Petrine and Pauline Privileges) do not contradict the inviolable stability in the nature of all true marriages:

And if this stability seems to be open to exception, however rare the exception may be, as in the case of certain natural marriages between unbelievers, or amongst Christians in the case of those marriages which though valid have not been consummated, that exception does not depend on the will of men nor on that of any merely human power, but on divine law, of which the only guardian and interpreter is the Church of Christ. However, not even this power can ever affect for any cause whatsoever a Christian marriage which is valid and has been consummated, for as it is plain that here the marriage contract has its full completion, so, by the will of God, there is also the greatest firmness and indissolubility which may not be destroyed by any human authority. (Casti 35)

Hence, even natural marriages cannot be dissolved by any natural authority. Catholics must recognize that the consummated, sacramental marriage is the completion of the marriage contract and is indissoluble simply speaking, but even the natural marriage is unable to be dissolved by any human authority and therefore indissoluble by any natural power.

The indissoluble character of all marriages is explained by the good introduced when Christ raised marriage to the level of a sacrament, since it is in the raising of the institution to the level of a sacrament (and to the “mystical signification of Christian marriage”)” that one sees the “intimate reason” (Casti, 36) in the decree. All true marriages, in other words are in themselves naturally inviolable for the sake of making it a fit institution to bear the sacramental character Christ now bestows upon it in a Christian context.

Thus it is clear that even the natural marriage is in itself inviolable, and Christians must see the good of the sacrament in all marriages. Even the true marriage of unbelievers bears a certain implicit testament to the relationship of Christ and his Church (though it does not symbolize this relationship).

5)   Marriage defined

The four points above set out a definition of marriage that is totally beyond the power/authority of man. Marriage is the naturally indissoluble institution, established by God through the wills of the spouses, wherein a man and a woman are made one in such a way as to render them capable of generating and perfecting life, for the sake of offspring, conjugal fidelity, and the sacrament. Without all these aspects being respected (at least implicitly), there is no marriage, natural or sacramental.

The Authority of the State

6)   The State has no authority over the nature of any true  marriage

It is evident from the above that the nature of marriage is in no way under the authority of man, for it is established by God. Whatever authority man has, it is as a participating agent in God’s plan.

The popes also argue that the authority of the state extends neither over the nature of marriage, nor over rights of individual men and women seeking real marriages. Recall, first of all, that the perpetual bond of any true marriage is beyond the power of civil law. .

[I]n such a marriage, inasmuch as it is a true marriage there must remain and indeed there does remain that perpetual bond which by divine right is so bound up with matrimony from its first institution that it is not subject to any civil power. (Casti, 34)

The perpetual bond of marriage is beyond civil power because it is bound up with the very institution of marriage. The civil power, in other words, does not extend to the nature of the institution of marriage.


To take away from man the natural and primeval right of marriage, to circumscribe in any way the principal ends of marriage laid down in the beginning by God Himself in the words ‘Increase and multiply,'[8] is beyond the power of any human law.” (Casti, 8)

So also, then, are the ends of marriage – the goods and purposes for which it exists according to the nature of its institution – are similarly beyond the power of the state.

Finally, Pius Xi states that a civil power that seeks to claim authority over the faculty of marriage, is in reality “arrogat[ing] to itself a power over a faculty which it never had and can never legitimately possess.” (Casti, 68)

Thus, the state has no power to define marriage (for it is only God’s to define), it has no power to circumscribe the ends of marriage, and it cannot claim authority over the faculty of marriage.

Therefore, Catholics must recognize that the intrinsic goods of marriage (offspring, spousal fidelity, and the Sacrament) cannot be stripped away from any true marriage and that the state has no power to do so or to re-define the marital union (whether it be the natural or the sacramental union).

7)   The State has authority to act against the vices opposing marriage

Yet, the state does have obligations in regards to this holy institution. For, while it has no power over it or the marriage faculty, it does have authority to preserve and protect society. And the popes clearly argue that marriage and family are the foundation of society.

Just laws must be made for the protection of chastity, for reciprocal conjugal aid, and for similar purposes, and these must be faithfully enforced, because, as history testifies, the prosperity of the State and the temporal happiness of its citizens cannot remain safe and sound where the foundation on which they are established, which is the moral order, is weakened and where the very fountainhead from which the State draws its life, namely, wedlock and the family, is obstructed by the vices of its citizens. (Casti, 123)

Leo XIII also points out that the effects of marriage must be protected, to ensure that no harm comes to the children. (Arcanum, 40) The perfection of offspring is the principle of conjugal unity; it is the responsibility and therefore the right of conjugal pairs to work for that perfection. The very union of marriage is ordered to the upbringing of children, and therefore the formation of citizens. This means the state must take an interest in the safety and security of marriage, if only for the sake of its own stability. It has no authority over the essential nature of marriage, as demonstrated above, so its power lies in protection. The moral law must be promoted, vices must be opposed, especially those vices and anything else that threaten the life of marriage and the family.

Leo XIII further clarifies the basis of the state’s authority in relation to marriage by noting that it consists first and foremost in a state’s recognition of true marriages.

Further, the civil law can deal with and decide those matters alone which in the civil order spring from marriage, and which cannot possibly exist, as is evident, unless there be a true and lawful cause of them, that is to say, the nuptial bond. (Arcanum, 40)

The state is concerned with those aspects of marriage that connect to civil order, but the state must order itself to the nuptial bond as it is in itself; any laws for the sake of civic order must be based upon a recognition of the truth.

In sum, though the state cannot assume authority over the essence of the institution, it must strive to preserve and protect it insofar as it may. The popes urge, first and foremost, that laws be made that protect chastity and aid conjugal fidelity (some easy examples of such laws would be anti-pornographic laws, or laws against prostitution). Furthermore, any legitimate authority the state has in relation to marriage must begin with a recognition (in the laws themselves) of the true nuptial bond.

The Significance of the Legalization of Homosexual ‘Marriage’

In light of these statements and reasons, Catholics must recognize the grave dangers this ruling compounds, and those it introduces.

8)   The state’s legal recognition of homosexual ‘marriage’ confirms and adds to the errors already present in our culture

The state has long been failing in its duty inasmuch as the legalization of such things as divorce, contraception, and abortion solidifies and lends credence to false notions of marriage. Among other moral problems, these notions make it harder for true marriages to be entered into by would-be spouses who are formed according to these errors. The state should be defending the institution precisely against these errors, but we find in our nation the laws rather confirm them. Since the culture of the nation supposes that marriage is what it is not, these would-be spouses’ wills have obstacles to true union. For example, if one goes into a ‘marriage’ with the explicit notion that it is dissolvable, or explicitly intending never to have children, one is not truly married.

For all this, however, a non-believer who goes into a marriage intending it to be for the rest of his life and for the sake of raising children still aims to enter that union which renders him generative and perfective of life. The basic character of marriage is retained in the midst of the errors promoted by divorce and contraception. The non-believer may not fully grasp what he is doing, but he may indeed intend the reality.

The acceptance of homosexual ‘marriage,’ however, compounds and adds to these errors against the holy institution by putting forth the notion that the complementarity of the sexes is not intrinsic to the sexual union. The marital act, and through it the marital union, is stripped of all the intrinsic characteristics that allows for the direct link to acting with God in generating new life, and therefore also the intrinsic responsibility and right for perfecting new life. Thus, not only is marriage seen to be merely a state sanctioned promise of living together and sharing in sexual matters (and other vague ways), but society explicitly loses sight of the sacred, set-apart union responsible for the upbringing of children. The state again fails in its duty to protect marriage by confirming society in this error, and it sets the nation against true marriage in an even more fundamental way by denying the life-giving nature of the marriage union.

The ‘spouses’ (even those who are male-female) set in this false understanding will not be intending to have the sort of union that is the context for the family. They may want a family, but the mutual promise comprising their union will not be defined according to the end of family. The will of man works through his understanding (we can only desire what we in some way know), and thus when one’s understanding of the character of marriage is so flawed as to admit of a relationship totally devoid in itself of openness to new life (and of the perfection of new life), one’s will is severely impeded in making the vows of a true marriage.

Hence, the errors of earlier legalizations are compounded and added to (i.e. a difficulty for would-be spouses to enter into marriage).

9)   The legal recognition of homosexual marriage directly opposes the security of the family

Further, in damaging the notion of marriage so profoundly, the legalization of homosexual marriage directly opposes the correct understanding of the role of husband and wife as parents and primary educators of their children. The popes (as shown above) all point to the connection between the generation and perfection of offspring. Insofar as the perfection of children is the first responsibility of married couples according to the nature of marriage, the state must see itself as secondary to the parents in regards to the education of children, and this because of the nature of the institution of marriage.

Yet, as soon as one denies the essential connection between marriage and the rights and responsibilities of parenthood, there is no longer an intrinsic protection of these rights and responsibilities. As marriage becomes (in the view of the state) an institution without intrinsic connection to the generation and perfection of children, the parents’ role with their children is no longer clear. The state must be concerned with the welfare of children, since children are citizens in need of formation. With a healthy understanding of marriage and the family, the state can recognize its secondary role with respect to children’s formation. But insofar as marriage is no longer considered to be an institution beyond the authority of the state, the state has no clear limits in its authority over the formation of children. The parent is no longer seen as intrinsically the primary educator. (

In brief as society further holds (beyond the errors of divorce and contraception) that the homosexual union is a marital union, it cannot but abandon the most basic good of marriage, namely the generation and perfection of offspring. The essence of marriage, whereby it is the origin of the family, consists in it being the sort of union that renders the spouses capable of generating life. With that generation comes the right and responsibility of raising children as the primary educator. If one denies by law this aspect of marriage, one denies the rights and responsibilities of parents, and directly opposes the security of the family. Consequently, the security of the family is not merely attacked by this law as by previous laws and permissions, but in a real sense destroyed.


This much, then, Catholics must in conscience hold concerning civil and sacramental marriage, and particularly the recent ruling on marriage. (a) The state cannot determine the nature of marriage, and (b) it is in fact bound for its own sake to preserve the institution as inviolate. (c) Finally, the Supreme Court’s decision directly violates the principles enumerated above. It takes an authority not its own, and it acts directly against what is – as indicated by the Church – the very foundation of society and the state. Not only, then, is the truth at stake, but the truth about the first principles of society. Catholics must recognize and work assiduously to combat these errors – they are of enormous significance. The Church’s teaching explicated above does not, perhaps, give us all the precise laws (or remissions of laws) concerning marriage we must promote, but it does give us the general principles according to which we must apply ourselves. And it demonstrates the significance of the evil we are presented with. This recognition must be clarified to our brothers and sisters in Christ, and through them to our nation.

[1] The Council implies it at the beginning of Session Twenty-Four, and the Catechism of Trent states it explicitly.

[2] This is again, explicitly in the Roman Catechism (the Catechism of Trent).

[3] I use all the English translations taken from the Vatican website.However, I have substituted ‘good’ as a translation of the Latin ‘bonum’, which was rendered in the original with the word ‘blessing’. While I think bonum can be translated as ‘blessing,’ it loses something of the notion of an end, which is fundamental for understanding what the pope will later be talking about.

[4] This does not, by the way, make marriage a non-natural relationship, for it arises out of that love which is “according to nature” and a “naturally indivisible union.” (Arcanum, 9) The union is a “foreshadowing of the Incarnation,” in which there is something “holy and religious…implanted by nature.” (Arcanum, 19) This will be clearer when considering some of Paul VI’s passages later on, but in proving that marriage is instituted by God, the popes are not so much declaring it outside of nature as they are showing that it is part of the fundamental nature of things.

[5] Casti, 20-21.

[6] Arcanum, 5, 9, 24; Humanae, 8-9, 11-12.

[7] Council of Trent, Session 24, Doctrine; Roman Catechism, Definition of Matrimony.

[8] The depth of this conjugal love is infinitely deepened by the sacrament, and it is in the sacrament that one best understands the good of conjugal faith. For, as all the popes point out, the Christian couple image Christ’s relationship to His Body, the Church.[8] Thus, the Christian couple is ordered to the spouses’ mutual salvation, and through that ordination they also intend, not accidentally, the salvation of new life.

[9] It is in these points that one must recognize the essential, natural law problem with homosexual activity.  The agents are attempting to express a unity their act simply and by its ‘nature’ cannot express. There is no impediment, for there is no marital complementarity in the agents. No matter how much one may want it, it is intrinsically absent. Thus, when one also considers the good of children and the perfection of children, it is also clear that a homosexual couple cannot parent. Their relationship cannot be the life-generating unity context that children are to be raised in. The love that members of the same sex can have for each other, while great, cannot be the love of parents.