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Distinguish civil marriage from sacramental? Of course. Divide them? No!

November 25, 2014

Attorney Mark McCall’s essay on New York marriage law offers another defense of the oddly-named “Marriage Pledge” that, I fear, fails to appreciate what the Pledge actually calls for and, worse, misconstrues the fundamental relationship between so-called civil marriage and Christian matrimony. Let me deal with the latter problem first for it goes to a central point of confusion.

Like so many Pledge supporters McCall thinks there is a categorical difference between marriage per the State and marriage per the Christian Church. Says McCall:

The differences between Christian and civil marriage in New York could hardly be more stark. Christian marriage is a lifelong union created by God between a man and a woman; New York civil marriage is a contract between any two eligible people—no bigamy or incest—with terms specified and amended from time to time by the legislature and courts of the state of New York.

Good grief. Where to start? How about with Catholic canon law that expressly recognizes marriage as a contract between legally eligible persons (c. 1058)? No? Okay, we’ll back up.

“Christian marriage” (I assume McCall means sacramental matrimony between two baptized persons) was not, repeat not, “created by God” if by “created” McCall means that God made something new for Christians out of a prior nothing, because that is not what He did; instead “Christian marriage” is the restoration of natural marriage by Jesus Christ to its pristine form and its elevation by Him to the status of a sacrament between baptized persons. “Christian marriage” does not destroy, replace, supplant, etc., natural marriage any more than baptism destroys, replaces, or supplants human nature; rather, “Christian marriage” perfects natural marriage between (and, to be clear, only between) Christian spouses. “Christian marriage” is a specification of natural marriage and not a radical other from it. For most of the world, “marriage” means natural marriage, and Christians married to non-baptized persons are in natural, not sacramental, marriages.

Now, natural marriage (without which there can be no matrimony!) is, among other things, possible only between a man and woman; thus, the occasion of the Pledge’s appearance, namely the rise of “same-sex marriage”, is first and foremost an affront to the natural law of marriage and it is on the grounds of human nature, not theology, that the Church opposes recognition of “same-sex marriage”. But taking seriously the nature of marriage in regard to the man-woman requirement means taking seriously other aspects of natural marriage, too, including the basic right of eligible persons to enter marriage as they see fit (before witnesses, to keep things simple), respecting the State’s power to serve as witness for men and women who choose to marry so, and acknowledging the State’s need to know who else has entered marriage as part of its duty to care for the common good.

Cutting directly to the chase: if a minister accepts as married a man and a woman who solemnized their wedding only before an official of the State, does not that minister necessarily accept the authority of the State to officiate at the so-called “civil marriage” of persons who exercise their natural right to enter marriage that way? And if the minister accepts such couples as truly married (as he should, though McCall avoids considering that scenario) then why on earth ought he suddenly refuse to inform the State that an eligible man and woman came before him and entered marriage?

Opposition to “same-sex marriage” must be grounded primarily on the nature of marriage and not on the theology of matrimony, but even the latter is threatened when, as McCall and others insist, “Christian marriage” is severed from its natural (or as it is sometimes expressed ‘civil’) foundations.

Which brings us to another problem with McCall’s defense of the Pledge, namely, his dismissal of a key objection to the Pledge (specifically, that it hypocritically calls upon the faithful to do something that ministers find objectionable). As dismissed by McCall: “Clergy taking the Marriage Pledge are leaving the distasteful actions to the couple rather than doing that work themselves and getting their hands dirty.” Okay, I’ll concede that Radner-Seitz never said that signing the form was “dirty”.

Instead, here’s what Radner-Seitz said: “To continue with church practices that intertwine government marriage with Christian marriage will implicate the Church in a false definition of marriage. Therefore, in our roles as Christian ministers, we, the undersigned, commit ourselves to disengaging civil and Christian marriage in the performance of our pastoral duties … We will no longer sign government-provided marriage certificates.” Now, c’mon, if that does not mean that, in Radner-Seitz’s view, a minister’s signing of “government-provided marriage certificates” is unacceptably to “implicate the Church in a false definition of marriage”, then I confess I don’t know what it means. But neither, I suspect, would anyone else.

So, Radner-Seitz, men of obvious principle, have declared that they can no longer in conscience (my term, but surely a fair description of the character of their call) sign any “government-provided marriage certificates” and they have invited others (presumably, others who care about the fate of marriage) to join in their refusal to “implicate the Church in a false definition of marriage” by signing said forms, only to immediately invite laity to sign those very same forms themselves!

I say it again, Good grief. + + +

PS: Responding piecemeal to the rash of poor thinking surrounding the Radner-Seitz Pledge is not a good use of my, or my readers’, time. I will therefore try to write an overview essay of points that, I think, must be understood by any who would effectively defend natural marriage and with it Christian matrimony against the assaults being levied by a world going mad. Deo volente. Given how little time I have to carve out for such a project, it will probably be too wordy.

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

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