The recent confirmation in Australian law of the heterosexual meaning of "marriage" with the passing of the Marriage Amendment Bill 2004 through the Senate on August 13 was very welcome. Despite this, how long can we preserve the true meaning of marriage?
We need to take up Pope John Paul II's words that ours "is the task of contributing with the light of the Gospel to É a world fully in harmony with God's plan" (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 20). We need to explain why marriage should be restricted to the union of one man and one woman.
During the recent debates about marriage, some people were upset that the word "marriage" could not be extended to include homosexual unions. But perhaps we should focus not on the word "marriage" itself, but on the relationship which that word has customarily conveyed.
The union "of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life" is a relationship with unique qualities to be found in no other sexual relationship.
This relationship allows its participants to give everything to the other. Only with permanence can one give the other the whole of one's future. Only with exclusivity can one give the other the whole of one's heart. Only with the complementarity of the sexes can one directly give one's fertility to the other. No other relationship is capable in the same way of directly giving to the other everything one has to offer.
At the same time, some paradoxical opposites are joined: firstly, the biological and psychological diversity of a member of each sex; the making of love with the making of life; the totally faithful love for one person alone, with the generous love for many; personal fulfilment with lifelong self-sacrifice; private decision with vital public interest; men and women with mothers and fathers in law - social cohesion at its most challenging!
Further, this relationship sets up a uniquely beneficial environment for children. The two who do the love-making are the two who do the child-making: there is no third person. This creates an all inclusive, total explanation of the children's historical and biological origin and identity. The mutual love of the biological parents explains the children's beginnings and promises to exist for as many years as the parents' biological life makes this possible. This in turn gives children a unique potential for security and peace.
While there are failures to attain the possibilities of this relationship, there is always the potential for all these child-enriching elements, a potential non-existent in non-permanent, non-exclusive and non-heterosexual relationships.
The union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life, has unique benefits for society. Just as it can give to children unequalled possibilities of life and love, so too can it give to society as a whole population and security, with unequalled reliability.
Pope John Paul II has written, "The family based on heterosexual marriage, has vital and organic links with society, since the permanent, exclusive and voluntary union of one man and one woman, is its foundation and nourishes it continually through its role of service to life. It isn't just one lifestyle choice among others. Rather 'the future of humanity passes by way of the family'." (Familiaris Consortio, 1981).
To the family based on heterosexual marriage society owes its past and present and future, its existence and its stability. A great collection of sociological evidence of the benefits of the permanent, exclusive union of one man and one woman is contained in the very recently published booklet, 21 Reasons Why Marriage Matters, launched at the National Marriage Forum, Parliament House, 4 August 2004.
Governments need to preserve and improve the conditions for this relationship to flourish. Laws and definitions are clarified not only to support those who are already living this relationship, but to make it possible for the unmarried to more easily appreciate, and choose if they wish, this relationship, with all its elements: exclusivity, permanence, a limit of two, and - man and woman.
Governments must increase the likelihood that citizens will cherish this unique relationship, or else increasingly fewer people will choose it or stick to it, and our society will be the loser. The freedom and ability of citizens to choose this unique relationship would be compromised if the specificity of its name is compromised.
Will Australians continue to allow the word "marriage" to clearly communicate in English and in legal language the meaning of this relationship so that it continues to inspire and capture people's imagination to the obvious benefit of our country?
Our Senators, on 13 August, acted wisely - and nobody was discriminated against. In fact an act of injustice against marriage and a failure in responsibility for the common good of our country were avoided.
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: "The importance of the family for the life and well-being of society entails a particular responsibility for society to support and strengthen marriage and the family. Civil authority should consider it a grave duty 'to acknowledge the true nature of marriage and the family, to protect and foster them...' (2210).
Michael Casanova works at the Thomas More Centre, Melbourne.