Remember, the Children are Listening
Years ago, I lived in Mobile, Alabama, which was a wonderful cultural experience for a north eastern-raised, transplanted Californian. While there, I had the great fortune to meet someone I would call affectionately a character, a consummate Southern gentleman in his genteel mannerisms and language from a bygone era. I still chuckle to this day over his reference to the Civil War as “those recent unpleasantries.”
If your family is like mine, as holiday gatherings approach we are thinking of ways to avoid a civil war or any kind of conflict as the extended family gathers with all of their diverse opinions on religion, marriage, lifestyles and related issues of the day. There is always a tension between a sense of obligation to witness the Gospel, particularly for the sake of the children, and staying quiet for the sake of peace. Love and perservance may be the best course of action while saving delicate discussions for a better time and place.
However, if a debate does start, remember that you are not going to change anyone's mind. They have their beliefs and you have yours. The goal is to avoid a situation in front of the children in which you, in following your faith, appear to be prejudiced, unfair or unreasonable. Since we know how people who recognize the reality of marriage are characterized today, you may think such a goal is impossible. However, as counter intuitive as it may seem, it can be done by following the advice of the great theologian Frank Sheed. Don't debate to win; "Always debate to reveal truth."
In other words, as we emphasize in our workshops, remember the most important audience is usually those overhearing the conversation, rather than the person with whom there is a difference of opinion. Since you are not going to change their mind, the objective for members of the Marriage Reality Movement is to plant seeds of truth about love and marriage in ways that our children can understand and embrace. Be conscious of the audience.
The most important tip is to pick your battles and change the focus of the discussion, approaching marriage from the perspective of the child (c.f. Luke 10:21: "…You have hidden these things from the wise and the learned and revealed them to children”). Changing the frame of reference moves the conversation away from the loaded words and subjects that lead to conflict and exposes reality (truth) at the same time.
Here are some tips that may be helpful finding a way to plant seeds of truth that hopefully will provoke thought rather than conflict.
- Avoid the term "same-sex marriage"
Using the term "redefined marriage" instead of "same-sex marriage" reflects reality. There is no such institution in the law called "same-sex marriage". Same-sex couples can marry because marriage has been redefined as a committed relationship between any two people. This redefinition eliminated the only civil institution that was specifically geared to unite children with their own mother and father.
Opposing "same-sex marriage" as an institution is opposing something that simply does not exist in law. Also, it does not shed any light on what the reality of marriage actually is. Without a context that children can understand, opposing marriage for same-sex couples can appear to be arbitrary and insensitive. The required explanations to support opposing marriage for same-sex couples will invariably lead to discussions about sexual acts, sexual morality and will most certainly lead to unpleasant conflict. Do you really want to go there in front of the children or anyone else for that matter? There are better ways.
- Don’t fight old battles.
Accept the fact that the word "marriage" in law and in common usage no longer means what we know to be the reality of God's plan. The new battle is to help your family members and friends understand what marriage is in reality because it affects the choices they make in their own lives. Unless they are able to reconcile the conflict between the culture and Church teaching about marriage, it can also undermine their faith in Christ and his Church.
- Clarify the difference between the word "marriage" and the reality of marriage.
Don't argue about what the word "marriage" means, but reintroduce its reality by using the description that clarifies what the reality of marriage is from the child's perspective: "In reality, marriage is the institution that unites children with their mother and father." True, not all married people have children from their union, but every child has a mother and father who is part of their identity and whose flesh they will carry for all of eternity.
- Ask the key question.
Rather than argue, simply ask the question: “Since we no longer have an institution that is specifically geared to unite children with their mother and father, do we need one?” That will resonate with the children and everyone else around the table. Don’t seek an agreement, but turn it over to the Holy Spirit and let people think about it. That is what marriage is in reality. Again, not every married couple has children, but every child has a mother and father, i.e. their own mother and father. Asking the question is what frames the new issue, and an issue that has nothing to do with homosexuality. "Are you for or against having a civil institution that united children with their mother and father?"
- “But redefined marriage still unites children with their mother and father.”
Acknowledge it is true that redefined marriage can be used for that purpose, but the Supreme Court has changed its purpose. Since its new purpose is the benefit of loving couples, it is now discriminatory to promote the unique value of men and women marrying before having children. In fact, now children must be taught that having more families with children deprived of their own mother and father united in marriage is a good thing. How can that be? Go back to the question: "Wouldn’t it be good to have a civil institution that can be used to encourage men and women to marry before having children?"1
- “But what about same-sex couples who are parenting?"
Remember, children parented by same-sex couples have suffered great misfortune – they have lost their mother, father or both. This has nothing to do with marriage reality, the institution that unites children with their mother and father.
Avoid criticizing and have compassion for the parents of the children in irregular family situations. The past is the past; mistakes have been made by all of us. As Pope Francis said, “Who am I to judge?” Whatever the circumstances, remember those children love their parents, and their parents love them. Always charitably presume, like every parent, that they are trying to do the best they can to love and raise their children.
The goal of the marriage reality protagonist is to focus on the future, i.e. to teach the current generation the reality of love and marriage in God’s plan so as the strengthen their faith and avoid mistakes by following the lies of the culture that marriage has nothing to do with children, marriage and family.
- The truth about donor conception.
This topic can come up in the context of the increasing trend for same-sex couples and single people to have children by donor conception. The reality of the harm with donor conception is revealed by looking at it from the perspective of the child. It is conceiving a child with the intention of depriving him of the fundamental human right to know and to be in relationship with his own mother, father or both - his own flesh and blood; part of his identity. This view of reality can be shocking to many because they have never thought of it that way before.
This is a very sensitive subject depending on the experience of those at the gathering. Many, including married men and women, have privately used donor conception to solve an infertility problem without considering the consequences for the child. It can be a source of shame for the adults when they realize this reality, and can give voice to the questions that a child may have been harboring but has been conflicted over expressing. Be sensitive about saying things that will provoke guilt for those who have made mistakes that can't be undone.
The goal should be to help inform consciences of people who may be considering donor conception or may be in a position to witness its grave consequences to others in the future. A gentle way of handling the subject may be to simply say something like, “It would be a shame that the child would never know his father (mother)." This is a non-judgmental way of raising a concern that no one can deny because of the common desire we all have to know where we came from. "Who do I look like? Who are my relatives?" After planting the seed of truth, it may be best to just drop the subject and let people contemplate the reality.
- Homosexuality and gay lifestyles.
Notice that in all of the suggestions for witnessing the truth about marriage reality and the human rights of children related to it, issues related to sexual behavior and lifestyles are not relevant.
Avoid scapegoating people with same-sex attraction because of concerns you have about the attacks on marriage and the family. As our friend Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse of the Ruth Institute reminds us, the real cause is the sexual revolution that started in the 1960’s or even before, and there are many victims who have fallen into its traps. Extended family gatherings are for building relationships and making connections that can lead to opportunities for ongoing conversations and evangelization.
Protesting the gay lie: Personally, I have developed a habit of remembering that the terms "gay" and "lesbian" are lies: there are no gay or lesbian persons in reality. That may sound shocking, but in reality there are only persons who are infinitely and unconditionally loved by God and are destined for eternal life. The recognition of sexual identity obscures the fact to them and to us that they are much more than that identity, as Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) taught. My way of protesting the lie that the term gay or lesbian represents and witnessing to the person’s dignity is to simply substitute the phrase, “a person who has taken on a gay identity.” As St John Paul II taught, the only proper and adequate response to the human person is love.
Many of the concepts in these tips may be new. They are meant to be thought-provoking as part of a process that helps people discover the reality of God's plan for marriage and the family. I hope they will be helpful, not only at Thanksgiving, but at any family gathering.
The final tip is to turn to the Holy Spirit to guide you prayerfully in what you say and how you respond. Pray for peace in knowing that our role is limited to witnessing reality (truth) at times and in ways so that people can hear it, then shut up and turn the rest over to the Holy Spirit.
1 Since marriage has been redefined, it can not be claimed that it has any purpose for uniting a man and woman with each other and any children born from their union. That is no longer its purpose and to claim other wise violates the principle of marriage equality.