On marriage and the state

Since leading a civil wedding ceremony a few months ago (some thoughts on that experience here), I've been thinking a bit amount the many dimensions of marriage in our society, from the role it plays with families to the couples allowed to participate in the institution to the weakening state of marriages among all populations. So it was interesting when I came across this blog post from JR Daniel Kirk, a professor at Fuller Seminary, exploring the relationship between the church and state on issues of marriage. Kirk writes:

For all the ways that our country has moved toward separating church and state, one of the remaining points at which the two are bound is marriage. Churches marry people in the name of the state. They are therefore bound to marry only those whom the state approves to be married. This, of course, has some ramifications for the question of homosexual marriage (do ministers have to marry gay couples if their states allow it? must they not if their states forbid it?). But its ramifications reach further. For example, it leaves the church without a way to marry illegal immigrants.


Kirk then asks this:

We have lived so long with pastors saying, “…and through the power vested in me by the State of _____…” that we don’t even realize how weird that is.

Can you imagine Jesus performing a wedding and saying, “through the power invested in me by Caesar Augustus and his Governor Pontius Pilate…”?

Finally, he lays out a few options for the church, including the status quo with the church continuing to act as an agent for the state, a sort of middle ground where the church participates but makes known that the civil aspect of marriage relates to the state, and finally, “pastors could just stop marrying people on the state’s behalf.” He concludes:

We don’t have to wait for the state(s) to separate itself from our work as the people of the church. We can say, “No, thank you” to the state’s offer to allow us to function as its proxy.

We can put asunder what the state has strangely joined.

What do you think of this proposal? Would exiting from the state marriage business allow the church to focus on strengthening Christian marriages and leave civil marriages alone? Or, does the church have a wider interest in advocating for its own definition of marriage to society as a whole? What is the proper role for the church in marriage?

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David Pasinski
7 years ago
I know that civil marriage is required in at least some Latin American countries also before the ecclesiastical wedding and that, for a variety of reason, only a small percentge of Catholics avail themselves of it- even if clergy were available which they often are not!
 And, of course, even here one must have a civil divorce before an anullment process is initiated. In short, the histrory of marriage and divorce, civil and canonical, is rich in conflict as it has been been throughout church history. I think the confusion about "sacrament" and "informed consent" necessary with this particular sacrament only exacerbates this. I think a separation of the civil function from the religious would be welcome andbb mean an intersting dialogue among all religious traditions, but I can't imagine it happening here.
David Cruz-Uribe
7 years ago
I wonder if, from the Catholic perspective, instead of say that the State has deputized the Church, to say that the the Church has (tried to) deputize the state.  Church teaching holds that marriage and the family exist prior to and independent of the state.  We therefore hold that the state has a duty to uphold and protect these institutions, and in particular, must use its authority to legitimize and defend the Church's acts of marrying people and creating families. 

The problem, of course, is that the state does not (and perhaps never did) accept this subordinate role.  It has, particularly in recent years, taken "ownership" of this institution and sees itself (as the author argues) delegating the authority to marry to the Church.  This explains why the Church and the broader society seem to be talking past one another on the subject of gay marriage:  the state, having taken control of the institution of marriage, believes it can change it to suit the desires of society. 
Anne Chapman
7 years ago
Joe, according to my very current research for a family member who will be married in Italy next year, Catholic weddings must be registered with the state, but there is no requirement for an additional civil ceremony if a couple is marrying in a Catholic church. A civil marriage is required for most non-Catholic marriages, including most that are held in a non-Catholic church, although there are a few exceptions.
Amy Ho-Ohn
7 years ago
I would be in favor of abolishing civil marriage altogether and leaving the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony exclusively to the churches. It is now almost universally agreed that present social trends (contraception, cohabitation, no-fault divorce, nonsensical pseudo-matrimonial simulations, etc.) have left civil marriage pretty much a farce. But the farce incorporates a truly deplorable injustice: not toward those who wish to marry multiple or same-sex partners, or machines, or animals, but toward those who are born to unmarried parents.

Too much of the already too meager social policy which is supposed to ensure that children get a decent start in life is based on the antiquated assumption that most children are born to married parents. Health insurance policies, pension benefits for spouses, inheritance law, school selection systems, probate courts and many other institutions still provide substantial advantages to children in intact families, i.e., through the institution of civil marriage.

Of course, people should be encouraged to marry before procreating. But children should not be made to pay for their parents' bad decisions, and that is what the present system effects in too many cases. The idea that assistance to single parents should be avoided, lest it induce them to have more children is (1) unreasonably cruel to children, who do not choose their parents, and (2) rather ridiculous when one considers how reproduction is actually accomplished.

I say, the state should ditch civil marriage altogether and replace it with provisions that help all parents raise their children in safe, decent, healthy circumstances, without regard to the parents' marital status.
Michael Barberi
7 years ago
I am not an expert on civil law, but the issue of state versus Church with respect to marriage goes back centuries. In the 1800s, when Napoleon ruled, he instituted civil records. The only legal recognized marriage was a civil marriage. Catholics also married in a Church, but were required to get a civil marriage. It was only in the early 20th century that the state (Italy) accepted a Church marriage as a legal marriage. Any one familiar with Italian genealogy civil and Church records can attest to this fact.

In the U.S., states recgonize a Catholic Church marriage as a legal marriage with all the privileges according to secular law. Some states require, or required, a civil marriage license.

In the U.S., the Catholic Church does not recognize a state or civil marriage as a sacramental marriage.

Many states now permit same-sex marriages. The Catholic Church does not.

It is an injustice to 'ditch' the state or civil marriage in the U.S. because many people are not Catholic or religious. Some are atheists. The law of the land is for "all", not just for Catholics. The fact that secular marriages are a "farce" (assuming the farce is that divorse is easily secured) is not a reason to abolish state marriages. The divorce rate of Catholics is proportionate to non-Catholics.

I agree with Jim McCrea, that the church should not be the determinate of secular marriage benefits, or mandated secular health benefits, funded in part by "all taxpayers". As for what religious organizations should be exempted from mandated secular health benefits, that was a subject taken up by another America Magazine article. It is a complicated issue.

Marie Rehbein
7 years ago
Amy, how many single parent households and cohabiting households are there in the US?  How many married with and without children households are there?
Joseph Nuzzi
7 years ago
I think that in the US we are all tied up in some strange traditions that are somewhat unique to our situation and history.  It's interesting to me that in a country with a strong tradition of separation of church and state that religious institutions have always been deputized by the state to perform one of the state's civil functions.  It is strange.  

I don't think it would be a big deal to change this.  I know in Italy, which is still officially a Catholic country, the Church cannot perform civil marriages. People must get married by the state to be legally married, and then seek a marriage in church if they wish.  It doesn't seem to bother anyone there.

Marie Rehbein
7 years ago
Not only are clergy permitted to perform marriage ceremonies that the state recognizes, so are judges, ship's captains, and other people.  The main requirement is that the marriage be registered after the fact by the officiating party.  It's not really an arrangement between church and state that violates the Constitutional separation, but an acknowledgment that the state mostly butts out of personal relationships.  Though this point was not a main feature of the gay marriage legal challenge, it could have been.
Jim McCrea
7 years ago
Civil marriage in the world currently


Today marriages in England must be held in authorised premises, which may include register offices, premises such as stately homes, castles and hotels that have been approved by the local authority, churches or chapels of the Church of England or Wales, and other churches and religious premises that have been registered by the registrar general for marriage.[2]
Civil marriages require a certificate, and at times a license, that testify that the couple is fit for marriage. A short time after they are approved in the superintendent registrar's office, a short non-religious ceremony takes place which the registrar, the couple and two witnesses must attend; guests may also be present.

United States

In all states in the United States, it is possible to obtain a civil marriage. Such ceremonies are conducted before a local civil authority, such as a mayor, judge, deputy marriage commissioner or other public official. It is not uncommon for these ceremonies make mention of a deity, but most do not reference any specific religion. Many of these ceremonies take place in the town hall or local courthouse. As part of such ceremonies, a religious official such as a rabbi, pastor, or qadi may be given the authority to conduct the marriage by the state, thus unifying the religious with the civil ceremony.

Countries with mandatory civil marriage

In most European countries there is a civil ceremony requirement. Following the civil marriage ceremony, couples are free to marry in a religious ceremony. Such ceremonies, however, only serve to provide a religious recognition of the marriage, since the state's recognition has already been given. In some of these countries (e.g. Belgium and the Netherlands) most couples get married without any religious ceremony at all. Full, formal weddings, complete with wedding gowns and the presence of family and friends, are usually conducted in special ceremonial rooms in the town hall.
Jim McCrea
7 years ago
The proper role for the church is in matrimony, a religious ritual governed by rules and regulations devised and defined by that particular religious group. 

Marriage, when recognized by the state, admits the couple to secular tatutory rights, priviliges, tax benefits and obligations.

There is NO WAY that the church should be a determinant in who is eligible for secular benefits funded by all taxpayers including those who have no involvement in any religious group, nor want any.
Amy Ho-Ohn
7 years ago
The reason to ditch secular marriage is that it is has become a meaningless category. It is like the "ethnicity" category, which people in many countries are required to have annotated on their ID's; after the population has become sufficiently admixed, the category becomes meaningless. Similarly, now that marriage no longer implies even a pretense of willingness or ability to procreate, expectation of life-long duration, sexual complementarity or even (we hear) fidelty, it is meaningless. Meaningless, expensive to the taxpayers and unjust to the offspring. Time to ditch it, IMHO.
Michael Barberi
7 years ago

What you propose has meaning if you are Catholic. This topic also falls under the topic of the Theology of Culture, a complex issue. Culture and religion impact each other. While I see your point, I quote the definiton of secular marriage.

In most states, secular marriage is the legal status, condition, or relationship that results from a contract by which one man and one woman, who have the capacity to enter into such an agreement, mutually promise to live together in the relationship ofHusband and Wifein law for life, or until the legal termination of the relationship. Public policy is strongly in favor of marriage based on the belief that it preserves the family unit. Traditionally, marriage has been viewed as vital to the preservation of morals and civilization.
Secular marriage applies not all peoples, religious and non-religious. While you may argue that same-sex couple are now permitted to be married under various state laws (and is forbidden by the Catholic Church), and that divorce is easily permitted in secular marriages, recognize that the divorce rate of Catholics are approximately the same as the divorce rate of the general population.

To abandon secular marriage based on religous beliefs of marriage, misses the point.


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