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Human Ecology & The Family: Strengthen Marriage Not Redefine It

by Cardinal John Tong

Descriptive Title

Cardinal John Tong's Pastoral Letter


On September 21, 2015, Cardinal John Tong of Hong Kong issued this pastoral letter on marriage. Citing Pope Francis’s remarks on integral ecology, the prelate criticized Justice Anthony Kennedy’s US Supreme Court opinion on same-sex marriage and said that “the truth of marriage as a human reality can be defended with natural reasons and as part of a genuine human ecology.”

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Diocese of Hong Kong, September 21, 2015

Dear Brothers & Sisters in Christ,

May you live and proclaim with love and joy the Gospel of the Family! That was the core message in my Pastoral Letter issued on 29 September 2014, the eve of the Extraordinary Synod which was convoked by Pope Francis to focus on the Pastoral challenges of the Family in the context of Evangelization1, I humbly request again your earnest prayers for the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops to be held in coming October to continue the discussions on the theme of the family. Please pray also for the World Meeting of Families to be held on 22-25 September this year in Philadelphia, USA.

I have in my said Pastoral Letter tried to identify some key challenges to family life and the mission of the Church. What I wish to do here is to follow up with a few reflections on what Pope Francis, in his Encyclical Letter Laudatio 51 ("LS"), has since said about "integral ecology" and the need to promote a "genuine human ecology" of marriage and the family.

Let me also say something about the recent us Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v Hodges2. The Court there, by a majority of 5-4, mandated the grant of marriage licenses to same-sex couples throughout the USA. In so doing it has effectively redefined marriage in all the 50 States. The resulting "climate change" in moral attitudes and conduct towards sex and marriage, if not properly addressed, can be as bad as and even worse than climate change in the physical environment.

What is "human ecology"?

Pope Francis points out that when we speak of the 'environment' what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it,3 Everything is closely inter-related and requires an integral vision of reality for its proper understanding. "Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it . . . ."4

The Pope says5: "Human ecology also implies another profound reality: the relationship between human life and the moral law, which is inscribed in our nature and is necessary for the creation of a more dignified environment. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of an 'ecology of man', based on the fact that 'man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will'6."

Pope Francis continues: "Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology. Also, valuing one's own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different..."7

These words echo what the Pope said at a General Audience in April this year. Referring to the so-called "gender theory" that aims to annul sexual difference, he declared: "removing the difference is the problem, not the solution".8

Relevance to sex, marriage and family

Marriage is rooted in the "two-in-one-flesh" conjugal love of man and woman and their complementarity in sexual difference. It is the natural as well as divine institution upon which the family is built.9 This biotic and moral reality at the foundation of marriage and family cannot be contradicted or ignored without seriously harming human ecology and the common good. Pope Francis tells us: "Human ecology is inseparable from the notion of the common good, a central and unifying principle of social ethics".10

Saint John Paul II, whose "theology of the body" has greatly enriched our understanding of human sexuality and the spousal meaning of the body, has also taught us that "the first and fundamental structure for 'human ecology' is the family"11. The family is the cradle and sanctuary of life and love and the first natural and basic vital cell of human society.12

Put simply, you cannot effectively protect the environment without adequately protecting the family. You cannot adequately protect the family without at the same time protecting marriage. You cannot protect marriage or family without protecting the truth and integrity of marriage —what marriage really means. Nor can you protect marriage or family or advance the common good without giving special love and protection to children, the future of humanity.

What is Marriage?

Marriage, according to the Common Law, means "a voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others."13 At the core of this definition is a primordial and objective truth, namely that marriage involves a union between a man and a woman, whatever else the marriage bond also entails or signifies.

This heterosexual union in marriage makes possible the type of comprehensive life partnership that allows spouses through conjugal love to become "one fiesh"14, and to procreate and bring up children of their own in a family and thus establish inter-generational ties (without excluding the adoption and loving care of less fortunate children who have lost or been deprived of one or other or both of their natural parents).

Marriage is not just a label, Nor is it a "genderless" institution.

Marriage is therefore not just a label that you give to any kind of relationship between people. It is not just a contract like any other contract. There are many types of relationships, including loving and caring ones, between two, or indeed, more than two persons, which are obviously not marriages. Love alone does not turn something which is not marriage into one. Otherwise you will end up, to use the Chinese expression, "pointing to a deer and calling it a horse".

Marriage is likewise not just any union between any two persons. I believe that to remove the central requirement of sexual differentiation and complementarity in conjugal love is to neuter marriage of its true essence. Redefining marriage by turning it into a gender-neutral or genderless regime is to undermine its very rationale, including why it should be restricted to two individuals15.

Obergefell v Hodges: The Neutering of Marriage

Mr. Justice Kennedy, in the majority opinion, speaks of the "transcendent importance of marriage" and accepts that marriage has "for millennia and across civilizations" been understood and recognized as involving, by its nature, a gender-differentiated union between a man and a woman; and that this view "long has been held — and continues to be held —in good faith by reasonable and sincere people here and throughout the world" (including those who are not "anti-gay").

He goes on to assert four "marriage principles", three of which are: that "the right to marry is fundamental because it supports a two-person union unlike any in its importance to the committed individuals; that marriage "safeguards children and families and thus draws meaning from related rights of childrearing, procreation, and education"16; and that "the Court's cases and the Nation's traditions make clear that marriage is 'a keystone of our social order'.

One would have thought that these "marriage principles" strongly support the case for not tampering with traditional marriage. Instead Mr. Justice Kennedy makes use of them to do the opposite —without averting to the fact that it is precisely because marriage is a specific type of union between a man and a woman to begin with that it has become a "keystone of our social order" and has "related rights" of procreation and education of children, among other things.

Moreover, although not every marriage produces children, every child has or had a biological father and mother. The law must not ignore the child's need for Dad and Mom nor the child's basic rights. To do so would be thoroughly unjust. Marriage is the unique institution that naturally connects children to both their mother and father.

Furthermore, to speak intelligibly of "marriage equality" or to assert a "right to marry" equal to and on the same conditions as everybody else requires an understanding of what marriage (the noun) and "to marry" (the verb) truly mean. What if marriage, by its very nature (as recognized and understood for millennia and as also taught in Sacred Scripture) requires that the couple be respectively male and female? Mr. Justice Kennedy's solution for same-sex couples is to remove this pre-condition by in effect redefining marriage for everybody. In so doing he has also contradicted or removed much of what he ostensibly seeks to rely on as justification.

Mr. Justice Kennedy makes use of another "marriage principle", which he has set out as the first, namely "the right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy". He says that this entails that "two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality. This is true for all persons, whatever their sexual orientation". I note that he speaks of "two persons together".

But, surely, the freedom to choose regarding "marriage" does not give the right to compel the state to publicly recognize or force others to recognize any and whatever form of sexual expression or thing chosen as constituting "marriage" even if limited to two persons. This is particularly so when what is asserted is a freedom or right to "marry" that is supposed to be "equal" to the freedom or right of everybody else.

What, then, gives the Court the right to redefine marriage in the first place? Chief Justice Roberts, giving the leading minority opinion, is in no doubt that the Court has no such power, He says:

"This court is not a legislature—Today, however, the Court takes the extraordinary step of ordering every State to license and recognize same-sex marriage...The majority's decision is an act of will, not legal judgement. The right it announces has no basis in the Constitution or this Court's precedent... As a result, the Court invalidates the marriage laws of more than half the States and orders the transformation of a social institution that has formed the basis of human society for millennia... Just who do we think we are?"

Those Judges who handed down the judgment are not God. None of us are. The truth is no human being has the power to change the true nature of the human person or override the truth of marriage. In the words of Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, President of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, "the unique meaning of marriage as the union of one man and one woman is inscribed in our bodies as male and female" and "the protection of that meaning is a critical dimension of the 'integral ecology' that Pope Francis has called upon us to promote".17

Concluding Remarks: Protecting Marriage integrity and Family

Strengthen marriage; not redefine it

To begin with, we should protect "marriage integrity". By this I mean the truth of marriage in all its dimensions. That truth has to be authentically lived out, in what the Pope calls "the ecology of daily living"18. It has to be proclaimed and defended by speaking the truth with courage but always also with charity. The Church will fight against any attempt to restrict its freedom, and mission, to do so.

It is particularly important that those who do not share, or fully share, our vision of God's plan for humanity know also that the truth of marriage as a human reality can be defended with natural reasons and as part of a genuine human ecology.

It is likewise important to make it clear that the Church's efforts to uphold the unique institution of marriage do not demean true love wherever it is found or attack the dignity that belongs to every human being as such regardless of their sexual orientation or beliefs.

Pray that the Holy Family will help us, in the words of Pope Francis, to be "more mindful of the sacredness and inviolability of the family and its beauty in God's plan"19.

May the Lord bless you and your loved ones!

+ John Cardinal Tong
21 September 2015, the Feast of St. Matthew

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1 Available at
2 No. 14-556, decided 26 June 2015, Kennedy J delivered majority opinion of the Court, in which Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan 3.3 joined. The dissenting judges were Roberts, C.J., Scalia J, Thomas J. and Alito I. http://www.suprernecourtgoviopinions/14pdf714-556_3204.pdf.
3 L.S., para. 139.
4 Ibid.
5 L.S., para. 155.
6 See also Address to the German Bundestag, Berlin (22 Sept 2011) AAS 103 (2011) 668.
7 L.S. para. 155.
8 Catechesis (15 April 2015): L'Osservatore Romano, 16 April 2015, p.8.
9 Cf. Gen 2:2.4; Mt 19:5; Eph 5:31,
10 L.S., para. 156, citing Gaudium et Spes, 26; and see LS, para. 159, which refers to care for children and future generations as an aspect of Intergenerational justice.
11 John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, 39: MS 83 (1991) 841.
12 CF John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici, 40:AAS81 (1989) 469.
13 Hyde v Hyde [LAI 1 P.0.130.
14 Cf. Gen 2:24; Mt 19:5; Eph 5:31.
15 For an example of "married throuples", see
16 He relies on the Due Process Clause, adding that a prior decision has held that "the right to 'marry, establish home and bring up children' is a central part of the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause". He also relies on the Equal Protection Clause, asserting that its interaction with the Due Process Clause tells us what freedom "must become", in this a case, a positive "right to marry".
17 countryweighinonSCOTUSrulingUPDATED.Aspx.
18 L.S., paras. 147-155.
19 Words taken from the Prayer composed by Pope Francis for the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops (4 -25 October 2015).

© Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong

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