Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Questionable Idea

Over at First Things, R.R. Reno has posted a somewhat problematic proposal that clergy should cease serving as the civil (as well as religious) officiants and registrars of marriage -  

Others, also of a conservative political persuasion, have argued this before, in reaction to the new phenomenon of civilly approved same-sex marriage - as if modern marriage had been thriving just fine before this came along and is not endangered at least as much, if not more, by such contemporary practices as, for example, no-fault divorce! 

Of course, a separation between civil and religious marriage ceremonies is certainly possible. True, it came about in the West initially as a result of the French Revolution's hostility to the Church and its desire to reduce the Church's power and position in society. Still, the Church has learned to live quite adequately with such a system in many European and other states. However, we have our own history here, and for the present at least I would not expect to see the State initiating such a change. 

So what is being advocated is for the Church to initiate that change - or, in Reno's proposal, for clergy (apparently on their own authority) to join in a pledge "to renounce their long-established role as agents of the state with the legal power to sign marriage certificates." In today's feverishly polarized ideological climate, I could easily imagine a scenario in which some individuals might actually take it upon themselves to do just that - with conceivably catastrophic consequences for couples. 

Only a month ago,  conservative canon lawyer Edward Peters addressed this possibility on his blog and warned clergy who might be so tempted "that their unilateral failure or refusal to complete the civil registration of any weddings they witness can have very serious negative consequences for couples (re: tax liabilities, insurance coverage, property ownership and inheritance, assertions of spousal rights and privileges, and so on)". For this , see, http://canonlawblog.wordpress.com/2014/10/22/the-wrong-response-to-a-demand-not-made/.

Apart from the potential harm to couples, there is so much that is troubling about this approach to what is admittedly a problematic development in society's understanding of marriage. Note that the minister is not being required by the State to do anything morally objectionable in simply signing a marriage license. He is just doing what the Church has always done, witnessing that a marriage (which the Church recognizes) has taken place. It is the State that is sanctioning marriages which the Church does not recognize. But that too it has long been in the habit of doing - e.g., the civil re-marriages of divorced persons. It is one thing, for example, to say that a priest may not officiate at an attempted re-marriage of a divorced person whose spouse is still living. It is quite another thing to say that, because the State does this (and uses the same marriage license form for it), that a priest should never sign a marriage license!

In defense of his extreme position, Reno says, "I can't see how a priest or pastor can in good conscience sign a marriage license for Spouse A and Spouse B." But why can't he? Again, conservative canonist Edward Peters has already rebutted that argument. As he wrote in above post last month, "a marriage registration form that designates only Spouse A and Spouse B is clumsy, I grant, but it is hardly evil, certainly no more evil that is, say, signing a 1040 joint return that only indicates 'Spouse', instead of allowing one to specify 'Husband' or "Wife'."

Post-modern language may indeed be "clumsy," but it seems to be to be just fishing for outrage to propose blowing up the historic Anglo-American relationship between the religious ceremony and the civil registration of marriage on that account!

I am old enough to remember when a divorce was much more difficult to obtain - at least in most jurisdictions in the U.S. and I remember when the divorce laws were liberalized. At the time, the Church opposed that development. It lost that battle. But it didn't throw in the towel and treat Christian marriage as a purely sectarian affair. Elsewhere it has always been the State that has sought to marginalize the Church's role in marriage. The Church should not go out of its way implement that secularizing agenda on its own.

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