The nation's Catholic bishops approved a broad new document on marriage Tuesday, laying what its writers described as the foundation for the American church's efforts to promote the institution as the joining of one man and one woman.
"Thank goodness this is out there, clearly stated, with ample documentation and very reasonably put forward," said Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien of Baltimore, which is hosting the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops this week. "I think it's going to be a very positive document."
While "Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan" does not represent new Catholic teaching, bishops said the pastoral letter would address a need for an authoritative source to which church leaders may refer as they campaign against divorce, unmarried couples living together and same-sex unions. The bishops, meeting through Thursday at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront, are scheduled to hear details of that campaign on Wednesday.
"We have the need to defend marriage within our culture," said Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, a member of the committee that wrote the document. "This pastoral letter will also serve as a foundational document as we seek a direction and a strategy to defend marriage over these coming years."
Before the session, the bishops circulated statistics showing that American couples have grown less likely to marry and more likely to live together. Those who do marry tend to do so later in life, and the probability that they will divorce or separate is between 40 and 50 percent, according to a University of Virginia report.
"People are entering into marriage probably without an adequate appreciation of the beauty of marriage and the gift that it is," O'Brien said. "The document is meant to strengthen Christian marriage, to prepare people who are going to be married before they enter that bond to appreciate what the commitment is, and also to open a discussion in our culture as to what the differences are today and to try to reach some common ground."
The letter defines marriage as "a natural institution established by God the Creator" and called it "a permanent, faithful, fruitful partnership between one man and one woman" that has two purposes: "the good of the spouses" and "the procreation and education of children."
It says "Male-female complementarity is essential to marriage" and "attempts to make same-sex unions the equivalent of marriage disregard the nature of marriage.
"Since marriage and same-sex unions are different realities, it is not unjust discrimination to oppose the legal recognition of same-sex unions," the letter says. "These unions pose a serious threat to the fabric of society that affects all people."
O'Brien said the letter "reflects pretty accurately what most of Western culture has believed for several millennia."
A coalition of liberal Catholic groups responded Tuesday with a call for an "inclusive pastoral."
"There can be no doubt that, as the bishops' pastoral letter states, marriage is a blessing, both special and natural," the coalition, including Dignity USA, made up of gay Catholics, Catholics for Choice, which supports abortion rights, and the Women's Ordination Conference, said in a statement. "It is worthy of affirmation and support from both religious and secular institutions.
"At the same time, our church and society can fully celebrate this blessing only when all those who are called to marriage can indeed marry, when couples are able to exercise their conscience to make moral decisions about their lives, and when those who are remarried are still welcomed at the table.
"As Catholics, we must adhere to those principles of love and justice that are core to our faith as central to any marriage. We must also lift up the freedom of conscience of every person in a loving relationship."
O'Brien, who describes himself as a traditionalist, said "the conference does not shy away from issues.
"The whole culture, I think, is in a kind of confusion right now," he said. "We have to put our face forward, our foot forward and say, 'Here's what we've inherited as to what marriage is, what human life is, and what the context of human life is,' and be proud of it and be willing to be defend it."
Also Tuesday, the bishops reaffirmed a moral obligation to maintain nutrition and hydration for patients in a persistent vegetative state and approved a document on reproductive technology.
"Life-Giving Love in an Age of Technology" reaffirms Catholic teaching against in vitro fertilization, egg, sperm and embryo donation, surrogates and cloning. For infertile couples, the church counsels hormonal treatment and other medications, surgery to repair reproductive organs, and other means.
The bishops meet little more than a week after their successful lobbying effort to strengthen restrictions on abortion in the House version of healthcare overhaul. That effort led Rep. Lynn Woolsey, a California Democrat, to suggest that the IRS review the church's tax exemption.
The bishops have long called for universal access to healthcare, but oppose abortion. O'Brien and others have said it is appropriate for Catholics to join the healthcare debate.
In a statement Tuesday, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, the president of the conference, said they "remain deeply concerned about the debate that now moves to the Senate, especially as it will affect the poor and vulnerable, and those at the beginning and end of life."