Even if it wanted to, could the Church “withdraw from the civil marriage business”?

George Weigel’s latest column “The Crisis of a Second Obama Administration” has been making the rounds in the Catholic blogosphere today; receiving particular attention is Weigel’s contention that “it seems important to accelerate a serious debate within American Catholicism on whether the Church ought not pre-emptively withdraw from the civil marriage business, its clergy declining to act as agents of government in witnessing marriages for purposes of state law.”

At his blog In the Light of the Law, Dr. Edward Peters takes up this question of the Church’s possible “withdrawal,” from a canon law perspective:

First for precision: the Church is not in the civil marriage business, we are in the religious marriage business. Our clergy act fundamentally as ecclesiastical officers at our weddings. The few clerics who from time to time (notwithstanding 1983 CIC 285 § 3) attempt to act as purely civil agents at weddings do so with virtually no canonical support. …

Second and more important, it is not strictly speaking for the Church to “withdraw” from “civil marriage”, for the decision to accord civil recognition to ecclesiastical ceremonies like weddings is the State’s to make, not the Church’s. As Catholics we do what we do, namely, solemnize weddings as we think fit, while the State does what the State does, namely, accord civil recognition to those events (like, e.g., letting spouses file joint tax returns and inherit property) as it thinks fit. Now, I grant it’s very convenient for the State to recognize Catholic weddings, but if the State decides not to do so, well, okay.* Catholics are still going to marry in the eyes of the Church and ecclesiastical consequences will still flow from such religious acts—or not, as the case may be—but, in any event, independently from whether the State chooses to recognize that ceremony. In short, I’m not sure how the Church can “withdraw” civil recognition of its ceremonies or, for that matter, demand it.

It is painful, of course, to watch the State’s definition of marriage careen toward something unrecognizable under natural or ecclesiastical law, but eliminating true marriages from the pool of unions treated as marriage by the State is not the solution to the State’s errors.

Read the full post here.

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About Catherine Harmon 577 Articles
Catherine Harmon is managing editor of Catholic World Report.

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