The cardinal's argument is along the lines of Abraham Lincoln's admonition: "How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it a leg." Says George, "Marriage comes to us from nature. . . . It is physically impossible for two men or two women to consummate a marriage, even when they share a deep friendship or love. Does this mean nature is cruel or that God is unfair? No, but it does mean that marriage is what nature tells us it is and that the State cannot change natural marriage."
But while calling a dog's tail a leg does no harm to the dog or to the well-being of any sensible dog admirer, Cardinal George sees trouble ahead should a same-sex marriage act become law. "We will all have to pretend to accept something that is contrary to the common sense of the human race," his letter predicts. "Those who continue to distinguish between genuine marital union and same sex arrangements will be regarded in law as discriminatory, the equivalent of bigots. This proposed legislation will have long term consequences because laws teach; they tell us what is socially acceptable and what is not. . . . When the ways of nature and nature's God conflict with civil law, society is in danger."
A longer and stronger presentation of Cardinal George's natural-law argument can be found in the latest edition of the archdiocesan newspaper, Catholic New World. Again he equates consummation with impregnation:
"No matter how strong a friendship or deep a love between persons of the same sex might be, it is physically impossible for two men, or two women, to consummate a marital union. Even in civil law, non-consummation of a marriage is reason for annulment." And therefore, "sexual relations between a man and a woman are naturally and necessarily different from sexual relations between same-sex partners. This truth is part of the common sense of the human race. It was true before the existence of either Church or State, and it will continue to be true when there is no State of Illinois and no United States of America." (Was George tempted to add, " . . . and no Catholic Church"?)
He continues, "A proposal to change this truth about marriage in civil law is less a threat to religion than it is an affront to human reason and the common good of society. It means we are all to pretend to accept something we know is physically impossible. The Legislature might just as well repeal the law of gravity."
Chris Pett, president of the Catholic gay-rights group Dignity Chicago, told the Tribune that George had chosen confrontation over dialogue and marveled, "I continue to be surprised that they use the same arguments over and over."
But who would wish for a slippery Church that keeps concocting fresh arguments as each old one is rebutted? That would be unwise and unworthy of a church that thinks of itself as eternal. The Catholic Church probably will lose this debate, and it will lose others, but so long as it remains intellectually serious its skeptical resistance to change will remain one of its most attractive attributes.