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Some notes on diaconal preaching and homilies

Fr. George Rutler’s essay on “The Art of Preaching” occasions some thoughts.

First, Rutler correctly notes that a homily is a form of preaching, but most of the rest of his essay uses these two terms interchangeably or in labored tandem (e.g., ‘liturgical preaching’). Having to check which word(s) is/are being used with almost every given assertion slows one’s reading.

A few of Rutler’s comments (in italics below) seem odd.

“The old Code of Canon Law called the homily a ‘legitimate interruption’ of the Mass … ” Where did the 1917 Code say that? Canons 1337-1348 of the old Code treat preaching in general and homilies in particular but I see no language in those canons suggesting that homilies are “interruptions” of the Mass. Laver’s Index Verborum does not show the words “homilia” or “interruptio”, etc., being used together in any canons of the old Code.

“ … but Benedict XV and Pius XII formally declared otherwise.” Again, assuming such a declaration was needed, where did these popes say that? In the only two places wherein modern canon law invokes Pius XII on homilies (it does not draw on B15 at all), homilies are not described as interruptions of the Mass. More than one Pio-Benedictine canon, however, imposes an obligation to offer homilies at most Masses (Canons 1344-1345).

“The great pulpits of the Counter-Reformation architecture show the importance of preaching the Word.” Maybe. But they surely show that most of the Mass was not celebrated so as to be heard by the faithful, this in contrast to the homily, which was typically delivered in the vernacular. In an age without electronic amplification, assisting the voice of the homilist or preacher by moving pulpits into the nave made practical sense.

“Blessed Teresa of Calcutta told me once after Mass, perhaps as a gentle correction, that the preacher should pray and then tell the people what Jesus had told him.” That’s a nice story, but it cannot serve as a guide for preachers or homilists. The new Code (Canon 768), as did the old Code (Canon 1347), directs the content of homilies. Catholic doctrine, not private revelation or personal inspirations, is at the top of the list.

“Yet so high was her appreciation of the priestly character of preaching that she never would have dreamed of preaching in the Liturgy.” It needs no appreciation of the ‘priestly character’ of (liturgical) preaching for a religious woman to decline giving homilies; appreciation of the liturgical character of the homily and its express canonical reservation to clerics (Canon 767) suffices.

“While Church law permits deacons to preach by exception during the Liturgy, diaconal preaching is essentially non-liturgical and catechetical.” Canon law does not prefer priests to deacons in preaching at Mass (Canons 764, 767), though liturgical law favors the celebrant (by definition, a priest) over a deacon for the homily. See Ecclesiae de Mysterio (1997), art. 3, § 3, and GIRM (2010) 66. That does not imply, however, that diaconal preaching at Mass is “non-liturgical” (nor that priestly preaching outside of Mass is “liturgical”); rather, this presbyteral preference respects the hierarchical nature of the Church in much the same way that the rubrics for some sacramentals prefer priests to deacons and deacons to lay persons in their celebration.

“Not every priest is a Chrysostom or Bernardino, so if he is pressed with many other legitimate pastoral duties and his imagination is lax, he would do well just by recounting the life of a saint.” Lives of the saints often illustrate important pastoral points, including some homiletic points to be made in accord with law as above, but that fact does not justify a priest simply substituting saint stories for homiletics at Mass.

“For a guide and source of ideas, I would cite the man whom I consider the greatest Catholic preacher of the twentieth century:  Ronald Knox.” Msgr. Knox’s work is a preaching and homiletics goldmine. But, to adapt a saying, “The question is not so much, what did Knox say in his day, but what would he say in ours.”

Addressing antinomianism requires recognizing it

Let’s use a little point to illustrate a large point.

Little point: Francis has appointed five more papal electors than Church law authorizes.

Large point: Antinomianism (ignorance of, disregard for, and sometimes contempt toward, law) is so pervasive in the Church (and in the State, for that matter) that almost no one notices it anymore.

Let’s back up:

Church law  limits the number of cardinals eligible at any given time to vote for a Roman Pontiff to 120. See Universi Dominici gregis (1996) n. 33. Now, UDG (issued by John Paul II, following the example of Paul VI) is an “apostolic constitution”, the highest form of legislative document used in the Church, and its cap on electors is set out by a negative subjunctive (Maximus autem Cardinalium electorum numerous centum viginti ne excedat) which construction, as the Canon Law Society of America notes in the introduction to its 1999 English language translation of the Code, is regularly used by the Church to express straightforward commands and prohibitions. There is nothing unclear* about the law in this area or ambiguous about Francis’ action in regard to it, so, yet again, the Vatican Press Office finds itself explaining away the discrepancy between law and action, this time, basically saying that the number of electors appointed by Francis is not ‘very much’ in excess of what is allowed—which it’s not, of course, though, if I were advising the VPO, I’d suggest they simply point the finger to John Paul II’s frequent practice of exceeding his own elector limits (if memory serves, at one time JP2 had authorized some 130 eligible electors!); it plays better, I think, to suggest that anomalous papal conduct is actually in line with past anomalous papal conduct than it does to try to say that papal conduct isn’t exactly what it is.

Anyway, my concern is for law, and here it is: most of the world and many in the Church do not realize that, although the Petrine office is of divine constitution, the papal election process is almost entirely a human construct, that popes write nearly all of the rules of that process, and that popes can change almost any of those rules (including, beyond any doubt, the elector limit of 120) virtually at will. Instead, most of the world and many in the Church only see law here—pontifical, promulgated, translated-into-the-vernacular-so-anyone-can-look-it-up law—yet again being used not as a vehicle to express binding norms of conduct, but rather, as a way to express what are at best papal predictors about what future papal behavior might be, these, to be observed or not as suits the man who wrote, or who could easily change, the law. No wonder so many now wonder so much about what other canon laws we might chuck when we feel like it.

That’s antinomianism, folks: laws mis-written in the first place, misunderstood and/or misapplied by administrators, and eventually ignored alike by leadership and those subject to it. But antinomianism (which, I grant, is as likely today to spring from ignorance about law as to come from contempt for it) does special damage in the Church. Why? Because the Church lacks most of the legal enforcement options available to States and so is even more affected by the example of respect for law being given, or not, by those in leadership positions.

Let me be clear: it does not make a fig’s worth of difference whether 120 or 125 cardinals vote in the next papal conclave, but it does make a fig’s worth of difference, I suggest, if yet another ecclesiastical rule, set out in a major legislative document using terminology indistinguishable from that which conveys many other considerably more important rules, is ignored because this leader or that doesn’t feel like abiding by it. We have processes to reform law in the Church; looking the other way isn’t one of them—at the very least, it’s a very dangerous way to change laws.

Antinomianism has been a long time spreading, and we are going to be a long, long time repairing the damage it has done to the Church (and the State). Where to start, then, except with the first step: recognizing that antinomianism is the default setting today. + + +

* Supposing, for a moment, that John Paul’s use of the subjunctive in this passage was merely hortatory (there are grammatical arguments for, and against, that interpretation), we would still have a problem: namely, popes deliberately using legislative documents to express wishes about how they might act in an important matter of ecclesiastical governance. Bad approach, that.

How much of Mass can I miss? You know, and it still counts?

Second only to questions on annulments, the above question—How much of Mass can I miss and it still counts for my obligation?— is probably the single the most common canonical question lay people ask.

Catholics have, I think, a right to have such questions answered without others looking down their noses at their supposed legalisms or getting a lecture about their alleged lack of piety (“If you really loved Jesus you would not think of it as an obligation” etc., etc.). So address it here I will try. By the way, my observations are that those asking such questions are more likely to “over-satisfy” their duties as Catholics than to skip out on them, but maybe that’s just my prejudices at work. Anyway.

Various answers to this Mass attendance question have been offered over the decades, a la: if you’re there for the first reading, or arrive by the Gospel, or before the Creed, or in time for the Our Father, or, going backwards, if you stay till Communion starts, or if you’re still there through the Our Father, or if you see the Consecration, and so on, you’ve satisfied your Sunday (or holy day) obligation.

I think all such answers are wrong; at the very least, I think they all miss the key point. Let’s back up.

The Sunday and holy day obligation is an obligation to ‘participate in’ (c. 1247) or ‘assist at’ Mass (c. 1248). Words like “attend” or “hear” Mass get at the same idea. Now, these canons do not state that one must attend, say, 80% of Mass, or must be present at least for the readings or for the Communion rite, or for any other subdivisions or parts of Mass. The canons oblige attendance at “Mass”. Period. The canons know and respect Mass as an integrated whole—which, of course, is exactly what Mass is, an integrated, sequenced order of prayers and actions organized by the Church to render fitting worship to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. Miss any of that, and you have missed that much of “it”.

Thus, the question above, I suggest, should not be whether one can miss some of “it” and still have been there for the “it” as called for in the canon; for obviously, one cannot. Rather, the question should be, What excuse can I offer for having missed the part of the “it” that I missed and still be confident that I have complied with a very old and very important, canonized-in-the-Code, obligation of Catholic life?

That’s a very different question, no longer one about how much, but rather one about why.

Say I took a ‘conservative’ view under traditional analysis and said “If I am there by the first reading” (goodbye entrance rite, so long penitential rite, adios Gloria), and stayed till the end of Mass, “I’ve fulfilled the obligation.” Well, if that’s what a Mass obligation is, a conglomeration of parts or percentages, then, yes, with this criterion in mind, I’m okay in the eyes of the law and (though lawyers dislike going this far) in the eyes of God, if I arrive by the first reading.

Thus, if I arrive at Mass just as the congregation sits down for the first reading, late because one of my toddlers flushed a shoe down a flooding toilet, I need not worry, because I still made it for the readings. Nice result, that, under the traditional reckoning no less. But if, walking in the doors with me at exactly the same time, comes a man who sat in his car for the last ten minutes waiting to hear whether the home team scored with first-and-goal-from-the-six, well, he need not worry either because, under traditional reckoning, he too was there before the readings. Now, I trust no practicing Catholic is happy with that result, but, that’s the result one gets unless one sees the Mass, as canon law does, as a whole “it” and accepts the obligation to attend “it” as applying to the whole.

Granted, some variations on traditional reckonings of ‘tolerable lateness’ required some consideration of one’s reasons or excuses for lateness, but such approaches either still accepted certain points in Mass as absolute cut-offs (as if one might have a good excuse for missing the readings, but no excuse was even possible for missing the Gospel!), or they were trying to get at the approach I favor but with a deficient understanding of the integrated sequencing that holy Mass really is.

My approach, in contrast, says that missing any part of a gravely binding action (such as attending Mass), is excusable only, but surely, to the extent that one has a sufficient reason for missing that much of it. Again, it is not a question of how much did I miss, but why did I miss what I missed. Under my approach, if shoe-diving, flooded-toilet-fixing dad arrived after Communion, I’d tell him he satisfied his obligation that Sunday. If football guy walked into Mass one minute late because he wanted to wait for the scores, I would advise him to confess having missed that much of Mass on insufficient excuse.

When you think about it, traditional reckoning was, I suggest, trying to get at my point when it held certain factors (say, personal sickness, or the need to care for a sick dependent, or hazards of travel) as excusing all of one’s Mass attendance obligation. Clearly, the weight of such factors could excuse one’s missing Mass completely. Where traditional analysis falters is in handling our question, namely, late arrival for Mass. A snow-packed road, everyone admits, excuses Mass attendance, but if that same dangerous road only makes one late for Mass, there is suddenly all this angst about whether, because one arrived after, say, the Creed, one has to drive to another Mass and try again. That seems nonsense to me. I would say, driving conditions excuse part or all of one’s Mass attendance obligation to the degree that such dangerous conditions make one late for, or make one miss all of, Mass.

Now, the older system had this to say for it: it was clear. Technical disputes aside, if I was there by time whatever, I made it, and if not, I didn’t.  But clarity is not necessarily right. Sometimes, life requires a little honest thinking about one’s duties and one’s actions in fulfillment of those duties. And those tempted to cut themselves some slack on their reasons for being late for Mass (of all things!) need to remember that an accounting of their behavior is not going to be rendered to the Church, but to God who gave the Church authority to set out what is expected of his faithful, in this case, via Canons 1247 and 1248. And God is not going to be fooled.

I have, if you’ll pardon an imaginative detour here, a picture of two men at Last Judgment, standing before the Lord, reviewing their lives. The Lord says to one man, you were late for Mass on that Sunday. He answers “Yes, Lord, I was late, I was shoe-fishing in the toilet to get it to stop flooding.” The Lord says, “I know, I saw the whole thing. Thank you for washing up and getting the family to Mass when you could. My Father was very pleased,” Then the Lord says to the other man who walked into church at the exact same time, “You were late for Mass that Sunday.” He replies “Yes Lord I was late, I wanted to find out what the score was.” The Lord says “The score? The score? I’ll tell you what the score is. Step over there and you’ll see what the score is.”

A question on Mass-start times that warrants attention

Recalling, in the wake of some recent discussions of Mass obligations, that I had promised some time ago to set out some materials for use in reasoning through another Mass attendance question, I offer some of that now.

This question concerns, What is the earliest a Mass on the ‘evening of the preceding day’ (c. 1248 § 1) can start and still satisfy one’s Sunday or holy day Mass attendance obligation? This question is not another aspect of the ‘two-for-one’ Mass idea or what texts and readings need to be used for Mass to satisfy an attendance obligation. It is simply, What is the earliest Mass may start on the day previous to an attendance-obligation day and still count toward one’s obligation for that next day?

Now, it is very common, at least in English-speaking North America, to answer that question with “Four PM”, meaning that, only a Mass beginning after 4 PM on the day preceding that for which one is obligated to attend satisfies one’s Mass attendance obligation. The reason for this near ‘universal’ response is “Dr. John Huels says so.” And indeed he does: “‘Evening’ should be understood as anytime from 4:00 pm onward. The legislator uses the word ‘evening’ (vesper) not ‘afternoon’ (post meridiem); in keeping with the proper meaning of the word (cf. c. 17) an afternoon Mass before 4:00 pm is not an evening Mass and does not satisfy the [attendance] obligation.” CLSA New Comm (2001) 1445.

When Huels talks liturgy, people listen. And they should. But what qualifies as a ‘universal’ response in canon law goes considerably beyond what English-speaking North America might hold (even if it is held for very good reasons). Consider these overseas canonical commentaries, three of which hold for a noon start-time and one of which holds for a 2:00 pm start time (my emphasis in each).

From Spain: [A]s far as the [understanding of the previous] day is concerned [c. 1248 § 1] expands the schedule to twelve on the eve of the feast day.” Exegetical Comm III/2 (2004): 1901.

From Great Britain and Ireland: What is the ‘evening of the previous day’? Despite the view of some commentators that this [phrase] should be interpreted beginning only at 1400 hours (2 pm) on that day, it is the firm view of this commentary that the evening of the previous day begins at midday (12 noon) on that day itself. GB&I Comm (1985) 702.

From Spain: En cuanto a la expressión ‘el día anterior por la tarde’, oficialmente se aclaró: ‘Expresamente se utiliza una fórmula general para evitar casuismos y ansiedades. Con todo certeza se cumple el precepto mediante la participación en cualquier Misa del sábado por la tarde’. Código edición comentada (1985) 594.

From Italy: La celebrazione, però, della domenica e delle solennità inizia dai vespri del giorno precedente … ossia, secondo una fondata interpretazione, ab hora secunda post meridiem.  Chiappetta II (2011): 522.

Plainly, these scholarly authorities hold for a start-time much earlier than is argued for by Huels. But, even if these overseas authors are not correct (and Huels has some good arguments besides Canon 17 on his side, though, frankly, so do the others), they constitute, I think, a large enough school of thought to allow for doubt of law considerations to enter this discussion in support of Catholics who hold any Mass attended beginning at 12:00 noon of the day previous as satisfying their next-day attendance obligation.

Bottom line, this very practical question (over which, unlike the two mentioned above, there is no serious dispute among experts) needs to be investigated more fully, and settled authoritatively.

Have you been told that only ‘the right Mass’ counts?

Have you been told that only the Mass intended for a specific Sunday or holy day of obligation counts for the satisfaction of your obligation to attend Mass on that day? If so, I’m afraid you’ve been told wrong.

Canon 1248 § 1 states that one who “assists” (or “attends” or “participates”, etc.) at a Mass “in a Catholic rite … satisfies the obligation of participating in the Mass.” Notice, there is no requirement in the law that the Mass be the “correct” Mass for the day, or that it be celebrated licitly (or that it be celebrated in a church, or on a certain type of all altar, concerns that at various times in history impacted satisfaction of the Mass attendance obligation), in order for assistance at that Mass to satisfy one’s Mass attendance obligation. It only has to be Mass “in a Catholic rite”.

Sure, priests are supposed to say the ‘correct’ Mass for the time they are celebrating, but the choice of which Mass to say is a matter of liturgical law, while Mass attendance obligations are a matter of canon law. The faithful have virtually no control over a priest’s choice of Mass, or about how he celebrates it, and so they should not be, and are not, held hostage by a priest’s choice of rites in fulfilling their own attendance obligations. This point was made during the revision of the canon law and the Mass attendance norm was revised with this concern in mind. As a result, the CLSA Comm (1985) 854 said, “Participation in any Eucharistic celebration fulfills the obligation” and, in even more detail, the CLSA New Comm (2000) 1445 says: “The precept [of attending Mass] may be satisfied at any Catholic Mass, i.e., not only when the texts are those of the Sunday or holy day. For example, attendance at a wedding Mass . . . on a Saturday [evening] fulfills the Sunday obligation.” Okay?

So, get to Mass for Sunday (even if it’s not ‘Sunday’s’ Mass), and get to Mass for Immaculate Conception (even if it’s not ‘Immac. Conception’s’ Mass), and you’ll be fine.

Two identical obligations require two distinct satisfactions

Every couple of years, when a holy day of obligation falls on a Saturday or Monday and is not transferred or dispensed, some wonder whether attendance at an evening Mass on the first day simultaneously satisfies both the obligation for the first day and the obligation for the second. Fr. Zuhlsdorf has just raised the topic again at his blog and argues that attendance at one ‘Super Mass’ (my phrase, not his) is able to satisfy two attendance obligations in a single rite. His post lets me makes some points not only about satisfying Mass obligations but about canon law and diminishment of moral culpability by mistakes.

Preliminary, I note that the question Fr. Z uses to introduce his dual-attendance blog post is NOT about dual attendance, it is rather about what kind of Mass is able to satisfy an attendance obligation. Fr. Z says that he and I disagree on this, but as he never answers the question actually posed, I don’t know whether we disagree. In any case, let me be clear about how I would answer the question: the kind of Mass one attends makes no difference whatsoever in respect of satisfying one’s Mass attendance obligation. If, say, Wednesday is a holy day of obligation, and I attend a funeral or a wedding or an ordination Mass that day, with nary a mention of the holy day, I have satisfied the obligation to attend Mass that day.

Now, to the matter.

Fr. Z writes:Can one Mass satisfy two obligations? I think so. Others don’t. The situation is at least doubtful, so I think we get the benefit of the doubt. At least I don’t remember ever seeing an official clarification about this point from the Pont. Comm. for Legislative Texts of from the Cong. for Divine Worship.”

Let’s unpack this. Carefully.

1. Can one Mass satisfy two obligations?” Sure, provided the obligations are of a different character. For example, a priest can satisfy his obligation to attend Mass on a holy day of obligation by celebrating Mass that day and, in the same Mass, he can satisfy the obligation of offering Mass for an intention for which he has accepted a stipend, why? because the obligation to attend Mass and the obligation to celebrate Mass for a specific intention are different kinds of obligations. Or, suppose a bishop directs (say by a precept, if you want, to make sure the obligation is canonical) a dean to observe a suspect priest in the deanery saying Mass. The dean attends Mass said by the suspect priest on a Sunday morning. The dean satisfies both the precept of observing the suspect priest and of attending Mass on Sunday in a single rite because the obligations in question (observing for abuses and hearing Sunday Mass) are different in character. Canon 1248 calls for attendance at Mass, and attendance is attendance. Two identical obligations require two distinct satisfactions.

2. Can one Mass satisfy two obligations? I think so. Others don’t. The situation is at least doubtful …” Doubtful? Not canonically, it’s not. Disagreement among persons does not amount to “doubt of law” (the condition Fr. Z needs to make the rest of his theory work), else, virtually every canon over which two intelligent people reasonably disagree would be rendered doubtful and, long story made short, would be unenforceable. ‘Doubt of law’ is (again, l.s.m.s.) usually recognized only after a substantial number of qualified experts have adduced weighty arguments for conflicting views. Alas, Fr. Z and I do not make up a substantial number of qualified experts (and throwing in a few bloggers or even an occasional Q&A columnist does not change matters). It is, instead, to major canonical commentaries that one must look to determine whether Canon 1248 § 1 is regarded as laboring under “doubt of law”. Now, granted I am away from most of my tomes just now, but among those several yet at hand, not a single one suggests any “doubt of law” on Canon 1248 in this regard. Not one. Indeed, the GB&I Commentary (at 702), on its way to making a different point, observes that “when a Sunday and another holy day of obligation occur on two successive days, assistance at no more than an evening Mass on the first of two such days does not fulfill the dual obligation” (my emphasis).

3. “…so I think we get the benefit of the doubt.” Benefit of the doubt . . . about what? About the possibility of satisfying two Mass attendance obligations at a single liturgy? No, for the “doubt of law” needed to support such a conclusion has not been demonstrated. But, a “benefit of the doubt” about incurring personal culpability for having failed to satisfy one of the two Mass attendance obligations? Probably, Yes, for anytime the faithful to take action based on the advice of generally trustworthy sources, such action, though it might have been objectively wrong, is not fully imputed to the actor precisely because he tried to find out how to act and acted in accord with the advice given. Fr. Z and I have both spent much time over the years helping the faithful to pick up the pieces after receiving and relying on mistaken advice from ‘experts’; it is common in such circumstances to assuage those involved by noting, quite correctly, that one’s ‘responsibility’ for having followed bad advice is diminished, though the action must cease upon acquisition of better advice.

4. “I don’t remember ever seeing an official clarification about this point from the Pont. Comm. for Legislative Texts of from the Cong. for Divine Worship.” Nor do I. So what? Curial silence is always a suspect source of interpretation, but I venture to suggest there’s been no Roman clarification on this point because virtually no one thinks there is any doubt about whether attendance at one Mass fails to satisfy two Mass attendance obligations. Perhaps someone wants to look through the questions-received sections of Communicationes to see whether a dubium has even been submitted, but I suspect it would be a waste of time.

Well, there are other things* that could be said about dual-attendance problem (Fr. Z did not raise what I recall was his background reason for reading Canon 1248 as he does, so I’ll not address it), and even this dual-attendance question frequently gets confused with ‘kind of liturgy’ questions (Fr. Z confused them above) and ‘time of liturgy’ questions, but here’s not the place to walk thru those as well.

I’ll just say, Sunday and Immaculate Conception are two days on which Catholics are canonically required to attend Mass. The only plausible canonical excuse from attending Mass twice in those two days, namely, “doubt of law” about what satisfies the obligation to attend, has not, in my opinion, been met in this case. Not even close. + + +

* Okay, I’ll mention one more (but that’s it!): there are 10 holy days of obligation in Canon 1246. The US bishops have, with Rome’s okay, arranged it so that almost none of them bind on back-to-back days. Why? Because attending Mass two days in a row is (l.s.m.s.) a serious burden on the faithful. But, if a single evening ‘Super Mass’ on day one would satisfy two attendance obligations, doncha think the bishops (here and around the world!) would have suggested that option long, long ago? But they didn’t; in fact, it’s never crossed their minds—why? because they know that two Mass attendance obligations can’t be satisfied in a single rite.

Update 6 dec 2014: A canon law student sends me word that, in November 1974, the Congregation for the Clergy addressed the possibility of satisfying two Mass attendance obligations in a single rite. The dicastery answered, Negative. The picture looks like “Thirty Five Years of the BLC Newsletter” p. 450, and he indicates it is lifted from an earlier Notitiae. No wonder no one even raised the question under the 1983 Code.

So, that about wraps this one up, eh?

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

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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