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This is not a good time to look at canonical form, but then, when is a good time?

November 19, 2014


I think we should have dealt with the problems associated with mandatory canonical form for marriage back in the 1960s (when, in the wake of the 1917 Code and especially the severe stiffening it experienced regarding form in 1948, good canon lawyers began questioning the legal and pastoral soundness of demanding canonical form), or in the 1970s and ‘80s (when the Code was being revised and things like “same-sex marriage” were on no one’s radar), or even in the 1990s when it was yet possible to talk about marriage doctrine and law with a significant Catholic demographic (if only in Rome) that still had a good idea as to what the discussion actually entailed. But discussion about the reform of canonical form was continually put off. As a result, now, when we really need to address canonical form (because it is interfering with assessing other matters), we find it so overgrown with complications rooted in multiple misunderstandings of issues long since eclipsed by circumstances that one is tempted to throw up one’s hands and say in despair, “Oh, just forget it.”

Well, giving up is someone else’s job. My job, today, is to try to explain some of the issues of canonical form in light of the mess being generated by calls for religious ministers to cease cooperating with civil marriage. And only light of that mess. A full treatment of the canonical and pastoral problems with canonical form, the various benefits of dropping it, and how to replace it with something more appropriate, is for another day.

Actual Blog Post

Some are countering my critiques of the Radner-Seitz Pledge this way: “Double wedding ceremonies are required in lots of countries, so what’s the big deal if we have it here?” To which I say, Lots of things. I mention just two.

First, to be very clear, double wedding ceremonies are NOT required by the State to get married.

The modern secular State couldn’t care less whether a couple goes through a prior or a later religious wedding ceremony. The only thing that matters in the eyes of the modern, all-powerful, State is the State’s wedding event. Now, the modern State’s usurpation of sole authority to control who is, and who is not, accorded recognition as “married” is a grave evil, a violation of natural law (in that natural law holds that eligible couples establish marriage between themselves, it is not a status granted or revoked by the State) and is a violation of Christian teaching (which looks to God as the author of marriage and to His Church as guardian of his provisions for marriage). To live under such laws is to live with a governmental usurpation of a fundamental human and religious right.

But that is not the situation in America! In America, while the State does claim the power to determine who is and is not married (and for people for whom religion is irrelevant, this authority makes some sense), the American State does NOT claim as EXCLUSIVE its power to determine who is recognized as married. In America, Deo gratias, the State still allows religious bodies to certify that such-and-such a couple entered marriage before them. Thus the situation in America is A FAR CRY from the omnipotent claims over marriage asserted by many other modern secular governments.

Incredibly, though, some want to throw away this opportunity for legitimate cooperation in an important matter of mutual Church-State interest, marriage, even if it means provoking the American State into concluding that “Okay, well, if you religious groups don’t want cooperate with us, fine, we won’t cooperate with you. So go ahead, have whatever little ceremony you want whenever you want. But henceforth no one can claim the rights of marriage—and they are many and they are important—until WE, and only we, say they can.” Who on earth can think that would be an improvement for marriage, for religious freedom, or for sound civil government?

Second, double-wedding ceremonies are required in certain places ONLY by the Catholic Church for certain weddings, and then ONLY because we still have the requirement of “canonical form” on our books (c. 1108), per which requirement, a civil wedding does NOT suffice for the exchange of marriage consent among Catholics, even though we require ALL other persons using these ceremonies to honor them fully as marriages, and even though the requirement of canonical form gravely burdens our own theology of marriage, specifically (long story made short) that the couple are the agents of natural marriage and the ministers of sacramental Matrimony. In other words, if a double-ceremony is required, it is required only because WE say it is, and not because the State demands it, and not because our own theology calls for it.

And make no mistake, in those lands where the State does not accept religious weddings as sufficient for civil recognition of marriage, Catholics bound by form, who in untold numbers go through a civil ceremony because of its huge practical implications for daily life and begin common life, are—solely because of the outdated requirement of canonical form—in an objective state of fornication/cohabitation unless and until they go through a “canonical form wedding”, a conclusion that serves no pastoral good but which cannot simply be ignored without doing damage to the rule of law and even to the notion of divine authority in the Church.

In any case, the double-wedding requirement does not apply in America (because American States still accept religious certifications of marriage), so it has no bearing on recent American calls to cease cooperation with the State regarding marriage, and, in nations where a double-wedding requirement does apply, it is purely the result of the Church’s requirement of “canonical form”, a requirement that lets thousands of Catholics each year walk away from weddings that we hold others to honor, and which hampers our defense of marriage as a natural institution under the primary control of couples eligible for it, and not as a status subject to the sole prerogatives of the State.

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

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