Thursday, November 20, 2014

More on the Marriage License Debate

Besides being criticized by me in this space, the proposal that Christian clergy should no longer serve as the State's official witness singing marriage licenses has also elicited other responses from much more prominent figures, whose opinions have much more social standing than mine - among them Andrew Sullivan, on one end of the spectrum, and conservative canon lawyer Edward Peters, on another. As I said earlier, whatever one's political opinion about same-sex marriage, I fail to understand how witnessing legally to the fact that a marriage which the Church recognizes has duly taken place poses a problem of conscience for anyone. And if it does, then the obvious question - as Peters himself has also noted - would be why doesn't it pose a problem for the couple themselves? If a minister thinks it unconscionable for him to sign a state marriage license, why isn't it equally unconscionable for the married couple to do so? 

What is actually at issue is the mistaken (so it seems to me) view that if a priest signs a New York City marriage license form, "then he’s signaling that what New York calls marriage is pretty much the same thing as what the Catholic Church calls marriage." Actually, all he is doing is legally witnessing the indisputable fact that the couple has been properly married in accordance with both ecclesiastical and civil laws. If, in fact, what Reno alleges were actually the case, then every time a priest signs a marriage license then he is ipso facto "signaling" that New York's (and, as far as I know, every other state's) legal arrangement according to which marriages are dissolvable by civil divorce "is pretty much the same thing as what the Catholic Church calls marriage." 

I understand that same-sex marriage is something radically new in human history. Even so - as an instance of civilly sanctioned forms of marriage that contradict "what the Catholic Church calls marriage" - it joins an already populated club that includes re-marriage after divorce, priests and religious vowed to celibacy getting civilly married, polygamy, etc. While the first is widely practiced legally in the U.S., and the second certainly happens on occasion, polygamy is no longer legal here, but it is elsewhere in the world. And, if, let us suppose, the US Supreme Court had not ruled as it did in Reynolds v. US in 1878 and if, say, Utah law allowed polygamy, would it therefore be wrong for a Catholic priest to sign a Utah marriage license witnessing that a monogamous couple had contracted a Catholic marriage in Utah?

One doesn't have to believe in or support or advocate for same-sex marriage to ask the obvious question, namely what is it about gay people attempting marriage that makes it so much more apocalyptic to some people than those other situations do and that seems to warrant such an extreme response?

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