Catholics, Marriage and Race

Catholics Lead Effort to Overturn Bans on Interracial Marriage

by Robert A. Destro

Most Californians know that the Catholic bishops of California strongly supported Proposition 8 that restored the definition of marriage between a man and a woman in November 2008.  Most do not know that Catholics also strongly opposed race-based marriage laws and argued strongly for their abolition. The motives and logic of Catholics and their bishops have not changed.  Society arises from marriage. Marriage is a reality that unites a man and a woman with each other and any children born from their union. It is obvious on its face, that race is totally irrelevant to the reality of marriage.

See: Bans on Interracial Marriage were About Eugenics, Not Redefining Marriage

In 1967, two Catholic social services agencies and eleven bishops in the states that still had laws prohibiting interracial marriage used a “friend-of-the-court” brief in Loving v. Virginia to urge the United States Supreme Court to strike down the laws in Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia. It is difficult to believe now, but it took courage to stand against the political culture of those states in 1967 because racism and a concept of racial purity was so strongly imbedded in the local populations.

What people are surprised to learn, however, is the extent of Catholic involvement in the California Supreme Court decision that led the Nation away from institutionalized racism when it held in Perez v. Sharp (1948) that the state's constitution prohibits race-based marriage laws. Professor Fay Botham tells the story of Perez in “How a Catholic Theology of Marriage Crushed California’s Anti-Miscegenation Law.”

Sylvester Davis, an African-American, and Andrea Perez, a Hispanic woman of Mexican descent, were members of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Los Angeles.  They became engaged and asked Father Joseph Della Torre about getting married in the church.  He told them that the county would not issue them a license because the bride-to-be was a white woman and her fiancé was a black man.

The couple and their priest turned to Daniel Marshall, president of the Catholic Interracial Council of Los Angeles, a group that met at St. Patrick’s.  Marshall became their lawyer. Their case gave the California Supreme Court the opportunity to score a victory for racial justice by reaffirming the meaning of marriage.

Davis knew that a frontal attack on racism was impossible. Racism and eugenic theory were deeply embedded in American law. In a spring, 1947 letter to Auxiliary Bishop Joseph McGucken, Marshall explained that his case against the law would rest on religious liberty, not racial equality. 

Ms. Perez and Mr. Davis were Catholics. Pope Pius XI’s 1937 encyclical, Mit Brennender Sorge, had expressly condemned eugenic theories of racial purity as a “myth of race and blood.” (MBS 17) The encyclical pleaded with Germans to remember that the “real common good ultimately takes its measure from man's nature,” and argued that any law or policy that ignores human nature will “shake the pillars on which society rests, and … compromise social tranquility, security and existence.” [MBS, 30] The 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia made the same point. Governments cannot define and regulate marriage in a manner inconsistent with human nature because “human society … originated by marriage, not marriage by human society.” A religious liberty approach would allow Davis to use Catholic teaching to argue that racism is inherently irrational.  

All four justices in the Perez majority accepted Davis’ argument that marriage is “something more than a civil contract subject to regulation by the State; it is a fundamental right of free men.” Quoting Skinner v Oklahoma, which said "Marriage and procreation are fundamental to the very existence and survival of the race," they made clear that the fundamental right was related to the fundamental right to procreate. They accepted his argument that racism is based on a “myth of race and blood.”  But the all-important, fourth (and deciding) vote in Perez, cast by Justice Edmonds, rested on “a broader ground”: the “fundamental principles of Christianity.”

Catholics are rightly proud of their collective efforts in the long fight for social justice.  Over a half century ago, the Church argued that race-based marriage laws are fundamentally inconsistent with our instinctive, human understanding that “marriage was intended by the Creator for the propagation of the human race and for the mutual help of husband and wife.” 

Marriage, the reality unites a man and a woman with each other and any children born from their union, expresses the right of adults and the right of every child to know and be cared for by his or her mother and father in an environment conducive to the child development and flourishing. It is an immutable institution to can only be recognized by individuals, cultures, states and religions as it has since the begining of time.

Robert A. Destro is a Professor of Law in the School of Law at The Catholic University of America, and is the director and founder of the Interdisciplinary Program in Law & Religion. He is an advisor to Catholics for the Common Good.

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