In just a few paragraphs, George Weigel summarizes matters as they now stand with marriage and the State in the U.S., with an eye toward the big picture:
And that brings us to the totalitarian temptation. As analysts running the gamut from Hannah Arendt to Leszek Kolakowski understood, modern totalitarian systems were, at bottom, attempts to remake reality by redefining reality and remaking human beings in the process. Coercive state power was essential to this process, because reality doesn’t yield easily to remaking, and neither do people. In the lands Communism tried to remake, the human instinct for justice—justice that is rooted in reality rather than ephemeral opinion—was too strong to change the way tastemakers change fashions in the arts. Men and women had to be coerced into accepting, however sullenly, the Communist New Order, which was a new metaphysical, epistemological, and moral order—a New Order of reality, a new set of “truths,” and a new way of living “in harmony with society,” as late-bureaucratic Communist claptrap had it.
The twenty-first-century state’s attempt to redefine marriage is just such an attempt to redefine reality—in this case, a reality that existed before the state, for marriage as the union of a man and a woman ordered to mutual love and procreation is a human reality that existed before the state. And a just state is obliged to recognize, not redefine, it.
Moreover, marriage and the families that are built around marriage constitute one of the basic elements of civil society, that free space of free associations whose boundaries the just state must respect. If the twenty-first-century democratic state attempts to redefine something it has neither the capacity nor the authority to refine, it can only do so coercively. That redefinition, and its legal enforcement, is a grave encroachment into civil society.
If the state can redefine marriage and enforce that redefinition, it can do so with the doctor-patient relationship, the lawyer-client relationship, the parent-child relationship, the confessor-penitent relationship, and virtually every other relationship that is woven into the texture of civil society. In doing so, the state does serious damage to the democratic project. Concurrently, it reduces what it tries to substitute for reality to farce.
Read the entire essay, "It Ain't Homophobia" (August 9, 2011). I'll harken back here to my 2009 Ignatius Insight interview with James Kalb, author of the excellent book, The Tyranny of Liberalism (ISI, 2008); near the end of that interview, Kalb said the following:
Ignatius Insight: What can be done, first, to better recognize the effects and goals of liberalism, and, secondly, to live a life as free as possible from the poisons of liberalism?
James Kalb: The basic point is that freedom and equality aren't ultimate goals. When they're presented that way something's being hidden.
Freedom is freedom to do something, and equality is equality with regard to some concern. If people wanted freedom simply as such they'd go crazy, because freedoms conflict and they wouldn't know which to choose. Freedom to marry requires constraints that define marriage and give it its significance and function. Without them, you can't be free to marry.
The same applies to equality. If you want people to be equal in some way, some people must decide and enforce what that requires. Those people won't be equal to the rest of us.
So freedom and equality have to be part of a larger scheme of life to make sense at all, and it's that larger scheme we should be looking at. To understand liberalism you have to understand the scheme of life its version of freedom and equality goes with.
Basically, present-day liberalism wants freedom and equality with regard to career, consumption, and private hobbies and indulgences. It offers us a world that promotes a life centered on those things and treats it as normal, justified, valuable, and praiseworthy.
The result is that other ways of life lose out. For example, the freedom to choose a normal family life suffers. People want to marry and stay married, and they want to raise their children in a setting that helps them grow up as they should. They want marriages and families that work and turn out well. That's an absolutely fundamental human desire, but social statistics and everyday experience show that liberalism severely interferes with the ability to satisfy it. Why call that situation freedom?
Liberals understand that kind of point in connection with economics. They'll tell you that economic freedom is fraudulent when it's freedom to starve. Unless the social order makes goods available that are worth choosing, freedom to choose whatever happens to be on offer isn't worth much. That point gets lost in connection with lifestyle freedoms. What good are they when they create a situation in which short of moral heroism there aren't any lifestyles on offer worth choosing?
Still, we're stuck with liberalism right now. As things are, to live a life as free as possible from its poisons probably does require moral heroism. Certainly it means a break with the usual middle-class lifestyle. I can't give a lot of useful advice to moral heroes, but it seems likely that a better way of life today will require things like homeschooling and other forms of intentional separation. We need settings in which a different pattern of life can be established. We all do the best we can, though.
I'd add that we all need to work together to build settings in which a normal good life is possible and indeed likely in the normal course of events. That, I think, is what Catholic social action should be about.
A more recent expression of similar thoughts can be found in an essay, "Government, Natural Law, and the Modern State" (Aug. 8, 2011) by Jeff Mirus of CatholicCulture.org, in which he comments on the importance of natural law in face of amoral statism:
It would be impossible to create a culture which did not reflect such [natural law] principles to some significant degree. But it is possible for a government deliberately to foster a culture which denies the force of the natural law so that it can more easily justify its choices against it. I am quite sure that anyone reading these words has direct experience of that sort of culture, and that sort of government. It is the culture of the modern State.
This, of course, is immensely convenient to those who wish to reshape society in their own image. As with Humpty Dumpty’s use of words, the law “means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less,” and certainly not less. It is bad enough when human law fails to reflect the law of nature; but it is far worse—a fearsome thing indeed—when human law fails to reflect the law of nature deliberately. The modern State has gradually evolved into a direct opponent of the natural law, conceiving itself as an all-encompassing sovereign entity, its own ultimate justification for everything it does.
This problem is so endemic to the modern State that, were modern culture to be converted, I am convinced that something very different from the modern State would have to evolve in its place. That is why I see the financial troubles of modern states as opportunities; that’s the idea with which I began a week ago. The State now tends to represent modern opposition to reality, with huge resources to expend on both indoctrination and direct social engineering. Thus, the weakening of the hold of the modern State, for any reason, would make it significantly easier to recover meaning in the post-modern world.
And guess what? Before you ask what your bishops have often rightly told you to ask, consider this: Even the poorest of the poor, so often used as an excuse for Statism in our time, cannot be helped significantly until we recover the real meaning of life. It is a complex issue, but the modern State now stands almost uniformly as a major obstacle to this critical task.
For more about some basic truths about marriage as taught by the Catholic Church, see the section, "The Value of Marriage", in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church:
215. The family has its foundation in the free choice of the spouses to unite themselves in marriage, in respect for the meaning and values of this institution that does not depend on man but on God himself: “For the good of the spouses and their offspring as well as of society, this sacred bond no longer depends on human decision alone. For God himself is the author of marriage and has endowed it with various benefits and purposes”. Therefore, the institution of marriage — “intimate partnership of life and love ... established by the Creator and endowed by him with its own proper laws”  — is not the result of human conventions or of legislative prescriptions but acquires its stability from divine disposition. It is an institution born, even in the eyes of society, “from the human act by which the partners mutually surrender themselves to each other”, and is founded on the very nature of that conjugal love which, as a total and exclusive gift of person to person, entails a definitive commitment expressed by mutual, irrevocable and public consent. This commitment means that the relationships among family members are marked also by a sense of justice and, therefore, by respect for mutual rights and duties.
216. No power can abolish the natural right to marriage or modify its traits and purpose. Marriage in fact is endowed with its own proper, innate and permanent characteristics. Notwithstanding the numerous changes that have taken place in the course of the centuries in the various cultures and in different social structures and spiritual attitudes, in every culture there exists a certain sense of the dignity of the marriage union, although this is not evident everywhere with the same clarity. This dignity must be respected in its specific characteristics and must be safeguarded against any attempt to undermine it. Society cannot freely legislate with regard to the marriage bond by which the two spouses promise each other fidelity, assistance and acceptance of children, but it is authorized to regulate its civil effects.
Read the entire section. More about natural law, marriage, and statism on Ignatius Insight:
• What We All Know--And Why We Can't Not Know That We Know It | An Interview with J. Budziszewski
• The Scandal of Natural Law | Interview with J. Budziszewski
• Pope Benedict XVI On Natural Law | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
• The Mystery of Marriage | Jorge Cardinal Medina Estévez
• Entering Marriage with Eyes Wide Open | Edward Peters
• Human Sexuality and the Catholic Church | Donald P. Asci
• Who Is Married? | Edward Peters
• Marriage and the Family in Casti Connubii and Humanae Vitae | Reverend Michael Hull, S.T.D.
• Male and Female He Created Them | Cardinal Estevez
• The State Which Would Provide Everything | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
• Rerum Novarum and Seven Principles of Catholic Social Doctrine | Barbara Lanari
• What Is Catholic Social Teaching? | Mark Brumley