The Church and “the marriage business”

As the national debate over same-sex marriage rages on, it’s not uncommon for Catholics – online and elsewhere – to float the idea that the Church needs to get out of the marriage business altogether.

Msgr. Charles Pope is among the latest to entertain this argument:

Right now we clergy in most of America sign the civil license and act, as such, as partners with the State. But with increasing States interpreting marriage so differently, can we really say we are partners? Should we even give the impression of credibility to the State’s increasingly meaningless piece of paper? It may remain the case that the Catholic faithful, for legal and tax reasons may need to get a civil license, but why should clergy have anything to do with it?

Canon lawyer Dr. Edward Peters has responded to Msgr. Pope, arguing that no, the Church should not abandon marriage, as it is part of natural law and “one does not just walk away from natural law”:

Marriage was not abolished by Jesus, it was (under certain circumstances the Church has worked out over the centuries) raised by Him to the level of a sacrament we call Matrimony. But before anything else, Matrimony is marriage, and it never ceases to be marriage, and if whatever we’re talking about is not marriage then it CANNOT be Matrimony. …

The vast majority of the world enters marriage (not Matrimony), and if the Church stops defending and promoting marriage, she abandons most of the human race to whatever havoc the Evil one feels like waging in its regard. …

Look, I wish everybody were Catholic, that all marriages were sacramental, and that we could spend our time helping Catholic married couples better live out their vocation. But as long as marriage is ABSOLUTELY essential to the Church’s teaching on Matrimony, as long as most human beings enter marriage and not Matrimony, and as long as some Catholics live in marriage and not Matrimony, the Church has to stay in the marriage business and defend marriage itself.

Dr. Peters has objected to the “get us out of the marriage business” position before; last November he responded to George Weigel’s suggestion that the Church consider this option, arguing that it isn’t clear that the Church could make such a move, even if it wanted to:

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.

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