In his 2015 Erasmus Lecture, Archbishop Charles Chaput called on America’s bishops to reconsider the Church’s role in the civil solemnization of marriage: “Refusing to conduct civil marriages now, as a matter of principled resistance, has vastly more witness value than being kicked out of the marriage business later by the government, which is a likely bet.”
In the ensuing two years, that reconsideration has gained traction, as threats to the religious liberties of Christians continue to emerge and the current administration offers lip service rather than relief. As the American bishops of the Catholic Church gather next week in Indianapolis for their annual spring meeting, this topic may well be a point of their discussion. But there are several reasons why the Church should wish to avoid separating herself from the civil recognition of marriage.
First, “getting out of the civil marriage business” would perpetuate the modern notion that marriage is a creation of the state, and subject to the definition of the state. In Catholic theology, there really is no such thing as a “civil marriage.” There is simply marriage, the foundational social relationship of human society. The family precedes and undergirds the nation, and by extension, the civil state that governs the polity. Marriage establishes the family, families establish communities, and communities are organized into civic entities. The state no more creates marriage than she creates human persons.
The Catholic Church recognizes some marriages—those which exist between baptized people—as sacraments. But the sacramentality of those unions is a kind of elevation of their natural reality. The sacrament of matrimony, in the Catholic view, is not something completely different from the natural reality of marriage; it is instead simply a unique attribute of some marriages. In the Catholic Church’s view, sacramental matrimony is a subset of marriage, not a different kind of thing altogether.
The Church has an obligation to regulate the marriages of Catholics—to set out norms for their celebration and common life—because of her responsibility for the spiritual health of her members. But the Church has an interest in all marriages, because of their critical and foundational role in achieving the common good.
The state has an obvious obligation to recognize and regulate marriages. The state’s duty is to ensure that marriage has a well-ordered and well-supported place in public life, to ensure that is not subject to abuse, and to ensure that children, the natural fruit of marriage, enjoy the benefits of their parents’ nuptial union. The Church herself has made that argument, courageously, in the fight against marriage’s redefinition.
Separating the state’s recognition of marriage from the Church’s fosters confusion. It implies that “civil marriage” is only a contractual relationship established by positive law, and subject to change according to the whim of the people. It implies that the state’s interest in matrimony and the Church’s have no relationship with one another. It implies that we have no right to expect the state to support the vocation of married people. And it undermines the Church’s ability to hold the state accountable to its duties.
Without question, our states have failed married people. No-fault divorce robs spouses of the protection the state owes them, and enables consequence-free, unilateral abandonment. And the redefinition of marriage undermines support for the unique place of the natural family in our common life, and the rights of children to be raised by their natural parents. But if the Church washes her hands of “civil marriage,” she will lose the credibility to advocate for married people and their children, and set the state further adrift from the obligations of justice.
There is also a practical consequence to separating religious marriage ceremonies from civil recognition. The number of people who marry in a sacred context—in the rituals of the Church—has declined dramatically in this country. If a new inconvenience is introduced, the decline is likely to continue. Couples who were already reluctant to have a “Church wedding” will use this as an excuse to forego the religious ceremony and be married on the beach, or in the mountains, or at the reception hall, as their friends are doing. From the perspective of Catholic theology, this means they’ll be deprived of sacramental grace—a heavy price to pay for the possibility of giving witness.
Ceding ground to libertine sexual values won’t stop their advance. The Church in America will continue to face persecution for living according to basic Gospel values. She should continue, courageously and prophetically, to live as she has always lived. She should call the state to justice, witness to the truth of our humanity, and accept persecution as Christ did, looking boldly and lovingly into the eyes of her persecutors.
J. D. Flynn is a canon lawyer in Lincoln, Nebraska.