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I guess one in three Americans don’t know a good thing when they see it

December 4, 2014

The gist of a recent poll is that one in three Americans do not want religious ministers to “sign marriage licenses as representatives of the state” so as to avoid, I guess, a connection between “civil marriage” and “religious marriage”, as if, you know, those are two fundamentally different things. Let me rephrase the poll findings: one in three Americans don’t understand what clergy signing marriage certificates are doing (and aren’t doing!) and so don’t know a good thing when they see it.

The call for ministers to boycott civil wedding certificates proposed under the wrongly-named “Marriage Pledge” (it is actually a Pledge Not to Acknowledge Real Marriages) probably would have gone nowhere except that it found an ally in the journal First Things. Well, that’s their responsibility. Mine is to make sure that as many people as possible see that the Radner-Seitz “Marriage Pledge” rests on a faulty understanding of what makes marriage and, in turn, of what ministers of religion do in certifying that a given marriage took place before them. I am not going to review all of the problems inherent in Radner-Seitz’s proposal, though they are many. Here I address just two points.

In the West (yes, I know Eastern Christianity thinks differently, but that problem is for another day), it has been settled matter among all Christians (though secular elements of the West do not realize that Christian thought has permeated their consciousness, too), it has been, as I say, settled matter in the West that the consent of the parties establishes marriage. If you think that the State made up marriage and confers it on a couple, or if you think that the Church created and bestows marriage on believers, or that God, or Zeus, or the Big Cosmic Other sends this thing called marriage on two people who want it, or if you hold any other theory of marriage whatsoever, besides that the consent of the parties makes marriage—then you need to stop reading this blog post and start studying solid treatises on marriage going back to the ancient Romans in some cases, and virtually everything since the 13th century, secular and religious alike.

I’m serious. If you do not really see that the couple’s consent makes marriage then you don’t understand what’s at stake.

Now, for those who do know that the consent of the parties makes marriage, the fundamental supposition of the Radner-Seitz Pledge—namely, that the State has changed the definition of marriage (which it can’t do and, even by its own count, has not succeeded in doing yet!) and, as a result, ministers who care about real marriage should not confer or cooperate in conferring marriage (as understood by at least some States), that supposition, I say, collapses: The State does not confer marriage on couples, couples confer marriage on each other! All the State does, and for that matter all the Church does, (and, for that matter, all that God does between baptized persons, but that discussion is more complex and is not immediately relevant to a discussion of Church-State cooperation in the matter of marriage), is to recognize what the couple did, namely, they married. If, therefore, a given couple has entered what natural law knows as marriage (a life-long, sexually exclusive, union of one man and one woman, etc.), it is right and even necessary that the State recognize their consent as initiating a marriage irrespective of whether that marriage was entered into before government officials or—and here we get closer to the concerns of Radner-Seitz—before the officials of a religious body.

But, here’s the key: the role of a state official and a religious minister is, as far as the couple entering marriage are concerned, identical—both are merely public, reliable witnesses of the couple’s action; neither the State nor the Church is the actor or the agent or the instigator behind marriage. The crisis that Radner-Seitz see in ‘civil marriage’ (I’ll use their term for now, though it can be misleading, for I agree with them that there is a crisis in ‘civil marriage’) is that the State also thinks it can witness a ‘marriage’ between two persons of the same sex. That error needs urgent correction, of course. But the mere fact that the State thinks it can witness “same-sex marriages” does not disqualify it from witnessing the marriages of people eligible for marriage! A witness (whether State or Church) is a witness, not an actor or an agent—a role reserved by natural law to the couple in marriage. That the American State accepts, besides it own officers, religious ministers certifying that two people entered marriage before them is a welcome and, these days, rather uncommon accommodation to religious practice (!), but, I say again, whether before a lowly justice-of-the-peace in the town clerk’s office or the Cardinal Archbishop in his cathedral, it’s the couple who brought about that marriage, and no one else. The witness(es) from city hall or the cathedral, literally, had nothing to do with it!

Which brings me to point two: as it is the couple who brought about their marriage, the minister’s refusal to confirm for the State that they are married is, first, to deprive the State of information it has a right to have (the just regulation of marriage is a civil responsibility), and second, it is at least to importune the couple with the obligation of a second ceremony if they wish to enjoy the benefits and protection that the State accords married couples. More gravely, though, bifurcating the ‘spiritual marriage’ from the ‘secular marriage’ introduces serious problems in determining which wedding ceremony actually united the couple in marriage—and that’s assuming all couples undergoing one ceremony will undergo two. And for what? A minister’s refusal to certify a couple’s marrying before him does not harm the State, it does not send some bold message of defiance, it does not do much of anything, except deprive a truly married couple of the benefits that would have been accorded—and still are accorded to other couples whose ministers decline Radner-Seitz’s proposal—simply upon the minister’s declaration that what really happened really happened.

Scholion on the phrase: “By the power invested in me by the State of [whatever], I now pronounce you husband and wife.” This line is recently being quoted by some as a sort of ‘gotcha’ to prove that religious ministers are acting as state officials in conferring marriage. Hardly.

First, as would have been apparent had this proposal undergone any serious ecumenical discussion prior to appearing in First Things, Catholic wedding rites feature no such language. This phrasing is, therefore, solely a non-Catholic minister problem.

Second, recalling that the couple’s consent makes marriage, the phrase can (if others insist on using it) easily and rightly be understood to mean that “I, a religious minister, am recognized by the State as being able to verify for it that this man and this women entered marriage, and that they have done exactly that before my eyes” etc. The State does not have the power to marry people, so it cannot confer that power on others; the State does have the power to witness to the marriage of people, and it can confer that power on others. Ministers using this language are simply declaring that they have the power to witness and communicate to others that two people married.

At this point, I don’t think that there’s much to be gained by discussing with Radner-Seitz proponents a list of “what if” and “what then” scenarios regarding where marriage seems headed in America (they have their hunches, I have mine, and our lists likely overlap in many places), not until we get settled about who brings about a marriage between two people eligible for it, and what the role of the witness(es) to that wedding really is. If folks aren’t clear on that, well, … + + +

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

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