Why the Catholic Church should stay in the civil marriage business

A move to separate the sacrament of matrimony from civil marriage in the United States may mark the latest salvo in the culture wars. The thrust has left some Christians accused of retreating from the public square, an accusation denied by R. R. Reno, editor of the publication First Things, where a "Marriage Pledge" has been posted online for individual ministers and lay people to sign. What’s behind this pledge is a belief that in the United States “civil authorities have adopted a definition of marriage that explicitly rejects the age-old requirement of male-female parenting.”

The pledge states that “in a few short years or even months, it is very likely that this new definition will become the law of the land, and in all jurisdictions the rights, privileges, and duties of marriage will be granted to men in partnership with men, and women with women.”

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That the government wants to extend the civil contract to same-sex couples should not affect the church’s cooperation with the state to enable its ministers to offer the convenience of a marriage that is recognized by both church and state. Only if the state were to demand that priests as state functionaries marry same-sex couples would there be an excuse for severing the tie.

The Marriage Pledge declares that “To continue with church practices that intertwine government marriage with Christian marriage will implicate the Church in the false definition of marriage.”

It adds that those who sign the Marriage Pledge “will no longer serve as agents of the state in marriage. We will no longer sign government-provided marriage certificates. We will ask couples to seek civil marriage separately from their church-related vows and blessings. We will preside only at those weddings that seek to establish a Christian marriage in accord with the principles articulated and lived out from the beginning of the Church’s life.”

It is worth noting that currently there is no intertwining. The state is simply recognizing as valid for civil purposes what Catholics do. In fact, if Catholics marry only civilly without a dispensation to do so, the church does not recognize their union as a marriage. So much for intertwining! In other countries, including Catholic ones such as Spain, Italy and Mexico, nations already have two ceremonies. It does not seem to make their marriages any better or more religious than those in the United States.  

The issue of same-sex marriage aside, it is not as if the state stands for the same things the church stands for when it comes to marriage. State-sanctioned divorces and the ease with which they are granted stands pretty far from the church’s commitment to the indissolubility of marriage.

The Marriage Pledge seems like a Chicken Little exercise, an effort to rouse people in the culture wars, especially around anything related to gay rights.

Those considering the Marriage Pledge need to look at marriage today and the fact that fewer people choose any marriage at all. That is a huge problem. In 2011, Mark Gray, of the Georgetown University-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, offered an analysis that the number of marriages being celebrated in the church dropped nearly 60 percent since 1972. It went from 415,487 in 1972 to 168,400 in 2010. This marked a shift from 8.6 marriages per 1,000 U.S. Catholics in 1972 to 2.6 marriages per 1,000 Catholics in 2010. Throw up one more hassle, like the need to go through two ceremonies—a church one and a civil one—and one hears the start of a refrain “Why bother getting married at all?”

There also is the fact that many people are tired of culture wars where the sacraments become battle tools—like refusal of Communion to politicians who do not vote in accord with church teaching on such issues as abortion and same-sex marriage. Or like those who refuse baptism to children of gay unions or irregular marriages. For the church to drop out of the civil marriage business feels like someone taking his marbles and going home because he doesn’t like the way the game is being played. It is unseemly at best and an over-reaction.

Mary Ann Walsh, R.S.M., is a member of the Northeast Community of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas and U.S. Correspondent for America.

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Anne Chapman
3 years 5 months ago
Once again, Sr. Walsh, the voice of reason. You should have been head of the USCCB.
Kevin Clarke
3 years 5 months ago

Hah! Yes!

Mike Evans
3 years 5 months ago
Perhaps if we had married priests, the issues raised in premarital preparation would be more real, more to the point and successful at re-establishing connections between the church and the couples wishing to marry. We dare not set up a Mexican marriage system where there is both a civil and church wedding. One or the other will dominate to the detriment of both ceremonies. Let's invite couples back to celebrate their long-lasting love in a blessed ceremony, with proper prayerfulness, with blessings abundant, and fullness of sacramentality. We can do much, much better. And we can certainly ask far more from our priests as they help and assist the couple. Lots of rules? Why?
Cody Serra
3 years 5 months ago
Coming from Argentina where the legality of marriage is given by a state civil union ceremony, same as in Spain, Mexico, Italy and most Latin American countries, if not all, the separation of State and Church in the US laws, and the legal power of the church in marriage ceremonies, seems strange to many of us. I wonder how Francis thinks about the issue. There is nothing wrong with separating the legal validity from the sacramental, in my opinion. I disagree with Sr. Walsh conclusion. Her last sentence: "For the church to drop out of the civil marriage business feels like someone taking his marbles and going home because he doesn’t like the way the game is being played. It is unseemly at best and an over-reaction" sounds like a criticism to the laws and Catholic church tradition in so many Catholic majority countries in the West. (I am not sure how is it in other parts of the world). It has nothing to do with the cultural wars in this country.
Tim O'Leary
3 years 5 months ago
Sr. Walsh says "Only if the state were to demand that priests as state functionaries marry same-sex couples would there be an excuse for severing the tie." I do not think we are very far from that pressure already. Already, Catholic businesses are being asked to act as state functionaries in providing insurance for abortion and other immoral procedures. It is sad that so many couples are just cohabiting and refusing to choose to marry, but when we look at the epidemic in divorces, it hardly seems a "pretend" or provisional commitment marriage is really working either.
Bill Freeman
3 years 5 months ago
This is a usual knee-jerk conservative reaction that priests/ministers would be required to marry a same-sex couple in a state where civil gay marriage is legal. This, of course and as widely understood, is false. No religious ministry is compelled to marry a same-sex couple against the doctrines of their respective faith. Further, no same-sex couple wants to be married by a discriminatory, homophobic faith community. The entire point of access to civil marriage and marriage equality is for the same protections and rights afforded to opposite-sex couples. That's the law and the protection afforded by the 14th Amendment.
Tim O'Leary
3 years 5 months ago
Bill - homosexual activists try to pretend that there will never be pressure on conscientious religious objectors to the homosexual agenda, but that is just a lie. Not only have people been fired for just voting to uphold the long-standing and rational definition of marriage (the famous Mozilla CEO case), or had death threats, or had their restaurants damaged or picketed, but people have been sued for not participating in the ceremonies (whether photographers, hotels, etc.) and, in England, Anglican priests are being legally pressured to preside at these non-weddings, which directly contradict their Christian faith. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protests_against_Proposition_8_supporters I wish that those who insist that the state recognize their homosexual relationships were willing to leaving conscientious Christians out the process, but that is not the case. The very fact that they want the Church to bless their sin is evidence they are not sure of their righteousness in their actions. Furthermore, they fail to see the collateral damage to the family that they are promoting. Before he was pope, Cardinal Bergoglio described the political movement to legitimize homosexual marriages as follows: "At stake is the identity and survival of the family: father, mother and children. At stake are the lives of many children who will be discriminated against in advance, and deprived of their human development given by a father and a mother and willed by God. At stake is the total rejection of God’s law engraved in our hearts...Let us not be naive: this is not simply a political struggle, but it is an attempt to destroy God’s plan. It is not just a bill (a mere instrument) but a ‘move’ of the father of lies who seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God." http://www.ncregister.com/blog/edward-pentin/cardinal_bergoglio_hits_out_at_same-sex_marriage
Bill Freeman
3 years 5 months ago
The issue here -- try to follow the post please -- is forcing faith communities to marry same-sex couples. Despite your banter, that has not changed. Specifically, the Roman Catholic Church can discriminate away without any fear of legal reprisal since there are already those protections in the law.
William Rydberg
3 years 5 months ago
I think that the question really boils down to is Covenant. I don't get your point of introducing statistics. Its seems to suggest that since more people are deviating from the ordinary, the definition of sin ought to as well. Not sure I comprehend the use of "culture wars" or is the word shorthand for "the other side"?
Rick Fueyo
3 years 5 months ago
This argument is removed from any practical consideration of how the world actually works. My wife and I were married in the Church, that was the solemnization which I recognized as creating a valid marriage. However, we also needed to have our marriage registered with the state to gain the legal rights which flow from that legal status, including the ability to own our property as tenants by the entireties, along with a host of other legal rights which flow from the legal status of marriage. It was a matter of convenience that the wonderful Msgr. Higgins could function in that capacity as well and register us so that our marriage was also recognized by the state and provided the legal rights which promote marriage. The only effect of such a separation is to inconvenience those couples who want their marriage to be within the Church, who go to pre-Cana, and who otherwise undertake the steps necessary to have their union recognized as a sacred sacrament. This will simply require them to have to go to a next step of also having to go before a notary public or some other equivalent measure which will feel as if it devalues the same sacred commitment they have just made.
Sharon Whitley
3 years 5 months ago
The other issue is that if a pastor refuses to sign a civil marriage license, then the couple is not married under the law. That means that legally they have no right to claim married status for taxes, no right to social security marriage benefits, and if the marriage ends in divorce, such things as spousal maintenence, alimony, or community property. Those are the unintended consequences visited on innocent couples by the shortsighted protest by small minded ministers. BFY
Bill Freeman
3 years 5 months ago
This reply was to Tim below -- The issue here -- try to follow the post please -- is forcing faith communities to marry same-sex couples. Despite your banter, that has not changed. Specifically, the Roman Catholic Church can discriminate away without any fear of legal reprisal since there are already those protections in the law.
Sandi Sinor
3 years 5 months ago
Following the actual post and discussion is not done by some posters - they have a way of slightly bending reality to fit a personal agenda, bending the discussion while at it to provide a platform for their views, rather than remain on topic... In this case, someone trying to promote misguided fear changes the location from the US to the UK. Then the poster changes the church from the Roman Catholic to C of E. Finally, the poster uses innuendo instead of fact. The Church of England does not conduct gay marriages in their churches. They define marriage as being between a man and a woman. Innuendo about "pressure" has no place in discussion, but innuendo and bending facts to suit the bully platform sought by the poster is a tactic often used by some.The Church of England's teaching on marriageThe Church of England's long standing teaching and rule are set out in Canon B30: 'The Church of England affirms, according to our Lord's teaching, that marriage is in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side, for the procreation and nurture of children, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity."Fact - nobody is forcing the C of E to perform gay marriages. Fact - US laws have specific language that exempts churches/religious groups from performing gay marriages unless the church itself decides to.
Tim O'Leary
3 years 5 months ago
Bill (and Sandi below) - I agree that Christians in formal institutions in the US are currently not forced by law to bless marriages, although there is one case in Idaho where a couple is being threatened by fines and jail time to perform homosexual weddings http://www.adfmedia.org/News/PRDetail/9364 Here is an article about a couple of rich homosexuals suing the Anglican Church to marry them http://thelibertarianrepublic.com/millionaire-gay-couple-suing-force-church-hold-wedding/#axzz3KQge119q. I think most people would interpret a suit as a form of pressure. In Denmark, there is actual legal pressure. Under the law, individual priests can refuse to carry out the ceremony, but the local bishop must arrange a replacement for their church. Of course, I'm sure your argument will be that it could never happen in America since we still have religious freedom. But, when people interpret a religious position as discrimination, they are half-way to wanting them forced to go against their religion. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/denmark/9317447/Gay-Danish-couples-win-right-to-marry-in-church.html
David Pasinski
3 years 5 months ago
Leaving aside the issue of same-sex weddings, it is time for the Church to get out of the civil marriage business so that more couples can marry. This sounds absurd, but the idea of the "church wedding" has been going by the boards as statistics show and marriage in general is in trouble. The Church can do more to promote civil unions to establish a sounder basis for coupled and family life by not creating the expectation that one must have the sacrament of matrimony and then offer a "blessing" to those who at some time want a quiet sacramental encounter. This is, of course, heresy and would take a radical rethinking of the sacrament, but that's nothing new since it wan't til about the 11th century that marriage was so recognized and not until the Council of Trent that it was recognized that it must be in its present canonical form. And the canon laws are complex and long evolving regarding validity, etc. as the very uneven international annulment processes demonstrate. So... radical and crazy notion... get out of the "matrimony trap" (with all that entails in the Church celebration) and find way to promote the real commitment between two people. That would be "blessing" enough...heretical, I know.
Bill Freeman
3 years 5 months ago
To quote Presbyterian writer, Anne Lamott, who has said, "You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do."
William Atkinson
3 years 5 months ago
The way the GAME is being played show's exactly sister Walsh's view on the civil and sacramental nature of marriage. She needs to reread the teaching of Jesus to the apostles on what is the realm of the Father and is Caesar's. Think how Jesus spoke of the why's where's and what's were Moses and what were His fathers. He made a distinct difference in the earthly animal/human natures and the human/divine natures.

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