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Responding to an immoderate proposal

September 25, 2006

On the chance that some conscientious Catholic clergy might consider heeding Prof. David Carlin’s startling call “for Catholic priests to abandon their practice of performing civil marriages” lest, by performing a religious wedding ceremony recognized by civil law, they necessarily become complicit in the state’s laxist attitudes toward divorce, I offer some correctives.

First, in an area requiring canonical and theological precision, Carlin often stumbles. For example, he assumes that all marriages are performed by “priests”, despite the fact that deacons and even lay persons can officiate at Catholic weddings (1983 CIC 1108, 1112). Are all official ministers held to the same standards, or not? Carlin writes that priests should officiate only at “sacramental” weddings, contrary to the obvious implications of Canons 1055 and 1086. Is he suggesting that “valid” and “sacramental” marriages be treated differently? Carlin makes no reference to the practice of some Catholic clergy performing so-called “civil” ceremonies. Does he believe this practice differs from the scenario he proposes and if so, how? But on to more substantive matters.

I must directly contradict Carlin’s central assertion. Catholic officials at Church weddings recognized by civil law do not perform their religious duties in dereliction of Church teaching on the permanence of marriage. Catholic wedding officials perform their functions under ecclesiastical authority and proclaim thereby, among other things, the permanence of marriage; nothing in the liturgical celebration of Catholic marriage remotely suggests otherwise.

True, in America, in praiseworthy recognition of the importance of religion in public and private life, the state grants civil recognition to weddings performed under religious auspices. But it is crucial to understand that this civil recognition of marriage is granted by the state and for the state’s reasons; it in no way implies any obligation on the part of religious officials to compromise their own beliefs about marriage, divorce, or anything in between to obtain it.

On the other hand, some nations (one need look no further than Mexico) do not recognize religious weddings and instead demand that Catholics go through a separate ceremony for a civilly-recognized marriage. Anyone who knows anything about the numerous negative pastoral consequences suffered under such conditions would, I am sure, be shocked to read that Carlin wants the Catholic Church in America to surrender its enviable rights precisely in this regard!

Beyond this, did Carlin consider what would happen if parish priests actually took him up on his challenge and announced, for example, “today’s wedding is in no way intended as a ceremony with civil effects, I disavow any alleged civil effects, and I have advised the happy couple to stop by City Hall for a civil wedding ceremony afterwards if they want the state to recognize their wedding”? At a minimum, such a religious ceremony would, by its plain terms, pretend to be “a marriage which cannot be recognized or celebrated according to the norms of civil law (1983 CIC 1071 § 1, 2°)” and thus would require permission from the local ordinary. But what response could an ordinary give that would satisfy the conscience-imperative (wrongly) asserted by Carlin without compromising the rights of tens of thousands of Catholic Americans who want civil recognition of their weddings, to say nothing of addressing the wider Church-state implications that would be provoked by such unilateral action?

Obviously Prof. Carlin grieves over the divorce mentality among Catholics and he is acutely aware of the state’s contribution to this social disaster. But while looking for ways to bring Church teaching on marriage more directly to bear on state policies in this area, we must avoid destroying one of the few areas wherein the state and the Church cooperate correctly in marriage, and that is in the civil recognition long accorded to religious wedding ceremonies.

Update, Oct 2: Jimmy Akin takes apart “A Stunningly Bad Article

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