November 28, 2014


The Church and civil marriage

Should the Catholic Church get out of the civil marriage business?

It should be obvious that the Church and some segments of our secular society no longer have the same definition of marriage. The Church believes and teaches that marriage is a permanent partnership between one man and one woman ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of children.

Our secular society believed that, too, at one time, but many in it no longer do. Now marriage seems to be whatever people want it to be. It’s still between two persons (so far), but they can be of the same sex, the marriage can last for as long as the persons want it to last, and it has no direct relationship with children.

There are Catholics, therefore, who are questioning whether Catholic clergy should participate in civil marriages, which they do when they sign civil marriage certificates. Clergy would continue to witness the sacrament of matrimony, of course, but would no longer exercise the government’s power to declare the marriage legal.

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput is the highest ranking member of the hierarchy to suggest that the bishops consider the Church’s role in civil marriage. During a lecture in New York on Oct. 20, he warned that the government might require clergy who officiate at weddings to do so for same-sex marriages.

“It’s hard to see how a priest or bishop could, in good conscience, sign a marriage certificate that merely identifies spouse A and spouse B,” he said. “This dramatizes, in a concrete way, the fact that we face some very hard choices in a new marriage regime. Refusing to conduct civil marriages now, as a matter of principled resistance, has vastly more witness value than being kicked out of the marriage business later by the government, which is a likely bet.”

He added that he didn’t necessarily agree with this approach, but thought that the bishops should discuss it. We don’t know if they did so during their annual fall meeting in Baltimore. If they did, it was in private.

The ecumenical and conservative periodical First Things is doing more than just discussing the matter. It has on its website a pledge to be taken by Christian ministers to disengage civil and Christian marriage.

The pledge says, in part, “We will no longer serve as agents of the state in marriage. We will no longer sign 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.”

R. R. Reno, First Things’ editor, wrote in the magazine’s December issue that we should drop the term “civil marriage” and adopt the term “government marriage,” since the courts have redefined marriage, making it an institution entirely under the state’s control.

Therefore, he wrote, he believes in separation of Church and state. “The Church may participate in civil marriage. It should not participate in government marriage.”

In the Nov. 16 issue of Our Sunday Visitor, Helen Alvare, a law professor at George Mason University and a popular speaker, presented both sides of the argument over whether or not the Church should remain in the civil marriage business. She concluded, “I would rather that the Church be ordered out of the conversation on the meaning of civil marriage than that we step aside voluntarily.”

We agree. If Catholic clergy no longer signed legal marriage certificates, couples wishing to have both a religious and a legal marriage would have to have two ceremonies. This is common in many countries in the world, but not here. How many couples would do that? Too many Catholic couples are already skipping the sacrament of matrimony—if they bother to get married at all.

Besides, we really doubt that the courts or other parts of the government will force clergy to perform same-sex marriages. But then, the way things have been going lately, we could be wrong.

The Church should make every effort to spread its beautiful teachings about the meaning of matrimony, not give in to possible threats.

—John F. Fink

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