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The wrong response to a demand not made

October 22, 2014

I share Philadelphia Abp. Charles Chaput’s deep frustration at how confused the Church was made to appear at Synod 2014.  I share the prelate’s concern for the future of marriage in this country. But Chaput’s opining that a general clergy refusal to sign civil marriage certificates would “as a matter of principled resistance, [have] vastly more witness value than being kicked out of the marriage business later by the government” is to offer the wrong response to a demand that has not been made.

Before anything else—even though the archbishop avoided calling for such refusal at this time—we need to make extremely clear to clerics that their unilateral failure or refusal to complete the civil registration of any weddings they witness can have very serious negative consequences for couples (re: tax liabilities, insurance coverage, property ownership and inheritance, assertions of spousal rights and privileges, and so on). Clergy must not seize upon the archbishop’s remarks as the occasion to launch their own private resistance to the deterioration of marriage in America. It would be very helpful to have that point clearly reiterated by ecclesiastical leadership.

Now, as to the content of the archbishop’s suggestion, the idea of refusing ecclesiastical cooperation with civil marriage is not new, and I am on record as favoring such cooperation under present circumstances (First Things, April 2014, p. 38). Seeing as yet no refutation of my arguments I see no reason to change my position though I am happy to consider others’ views. But in the meantime, who says ‘better to quit than to lose’? The Church’s abandoning of civil marriage would simply relieve the State of having to decide not only what marriage really is, but also, what religious freedom means in America and where conscience lines should be drawn in a great society. If Chaput is right that a crisis such as that now raging over marriage “clarifies the character of the enemies who hate” the Church and the truth—and Chaput is right about that—how does the Church’s walking away from that crisis force the State to confront its current evil trajectory?

At present, the State does not require Catholic clergy to assert anything contrary to truth and conscience in completing the civil registration of marriages over which they officiate (a marriage registration form that designates only Spouse A and Spouse B is clumsy, I grant, but it is hardly evil, certainly no more evil than is, say, signing a 1040 joint return that only indicates “Spouse”, instead of allowing one to specify “Husband” or “Wife”). If the day comes that the State demands clerics to assert something false or evil—and Chaput is right to worry that such a day might come—then will we say “Thus far and no further.” But that day has not come, it might not come, and if it does come, let the State be seen to have acted evilly and not the Church be seen to have made it easier to happen.

Update: A chronology of (mostly) my comments on ecclesiastical cooperation with civil marriage.

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