1. We must call the court’s ruling in Obergefell what it is: judicial activism.
2. We must protect our freedom to speak and live according to the truth about marriage.
3. We must redouble our efforts to make the case for it in the public square.
The two-thousand-year story of the Christian Church’s cultural and intellectual growth is a story of challenges answered. For the early Church, there were debates about who God is (and who is God). In response, the Church developed the wonderfully rich reflections of Trinitarian theology and Christology. In a sense, we have the early heresies to thank for this accomplishment. Arius’s errors gave us Athanasius’s refinements on Christology. Nestorius’s blunders gave us Cyril’s insights. In truth, of course, we have the Holy Spirit to thank for it all. He continually leads the Church to defend and deepen its understanding of the truth, against the peculiar errors of the age.
A thousand years later, with the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the Church saw renewed debates about salvation—building on those Augustine had waged with Pelagius, no less. Whichever side you favor in the debates of the sixteenth century, they left the Church as a whole with a much richer theology of justification, ecclesiology, and soteriology.
Debates about the nature of God, of salvation, and of the Church never disappear, of course. But today, the most pressing heresies—the newest challenges for the Church’s teaching and mission—center on the nature of man. The tribulations that marked the twentieth century and continue into the twenty-first—totalitarianism, genocide, abortion, and the sexual ideology that has battered the family and redefined marriage—have sprung from a faulty humanism. I don’t mean to equate each of these human tragedies with the others, but they all spring from faulty anthropology, a misunderstanding of the nature of man.
Before he became a bishop, a cardinal, and eventually Pope John Paul II, Karol Wojtyła was an academic philosopher. He thought deeply about the crisis of culture then enveloping the West and determined its cause: a faulty understanding of the human person. Shortly after the Second World War, he wrote to a friend about his main intellectual project:
"I devote my very rare free moments to a work that is close to my heart and devoted to the metaphysical sense and mystery of the person. It seems to me that the debate today is being played out on that level. The evil of our times consists in the first place in a kind of degradation, indeed in a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person. This evil is even more of the metaphysical order than of the moral order. To this disintegration planned at times by atheistic ideologies we must oppose, rather than sterile polemics, a kind of “recapitulation” of the inviolable mystery of the person."
Commenting on this passage, John Paul II’s biographer George Weigel explains:
"That radical humanism—that life-forming commitment to “the inviolable mystery of the person”—was, and is, Karol Wojtyła’s response to a century in which false humanisms had created mountains of corpses and an ocean of blood, Auschwitz and the Gulag, abortion as a widespread means of fertility regulation, and the prospect of the biotechnical remanufacture of the humanum."
If we are seeing in our own time challenges to the truths that we are created male and female, and that male and female are created for each other in marriage, it is because we have lost sight of the true nature of man. We must respond to false humanisms with a true humanism committed to the unique and irreplaceable value of each person.
This false humanism in John Paul II’s time was on powerful display in the political order, where totalitarianism grew. Today, blindness to the truth about the human person has led to a crisis of family and sexuality. But then as now, we see clearly the Church’s latest intellectual and cultural challenge: not the nature of God or redemption, but of man and morality. Our task is to explain what human persons most fundamentally are, and how we are to relate to one another within families and polities.
For us, as for John Paul II’s generation, nothing less than authentic freedom is at stake. For a freedom based on faulty anthropology and morality is slavery. Only a freedom based on the truth is worthy of the name. As Weigel explains:
"Freedom untethered from truth is freedom’s worst enemy. For if there is only your truth and my truth, and neither one of us recognizes a transcendent moral standard (call it “the truth”) by which to adjudicate our differences, then the only way to settle the argument is for you to impose your power on me, or for me to impose my power on you. Freedom untethered from truth leads to chaos; chaos leads to anarchy; and since human beings cannot tolerate anarchy, tyranny as the answer to the human imperative of order is just around the corner. The false humanism of the freedom of indifference leads first to freedom’s decay, and then to freedom’s demise."
In the realm of sex and marriage, we have seen the unfettered desire of the strong—adults, the affluent—pursued at the expense of the vulnerable—children, the poor. To avoid the tyranny of sexual desire, which in the name of freedom and dignity breaks hearts and homes and spawns loneliness, we must commit to witnessing to the truth of human nature. These debates, seen from the inside as they are under way, may seem intractable, but in the long run this is how our age will develop a richer anthropology and a richer morality. As we are challenged to defend the truths of human nature—male and female created for each other in marriage—we will discover a deeper reflection on human nature and our fulfillment.
- Ryan T. Anderson is the William E. Simon Senior Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation and author of the just-released book, Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom, from which this essay is adapted.
Originally appeared in First Things