Catholics must start treating marriage as though they actually believed what the Church teaches
The Supreme Court’s decisions last month to remove all federal protection for natural marriage and deny the people of a state their right to define it were the most momentous events for the Church’s safety since the Russian Revolution. We will spend the next several years working out how far the laws of our country will be turned against us.
How much of our freedom of religion, of association, of contract will survive the rising demands for “equality,” “fairness,” and “tolerance” – words that have been handily redefined to justify using the guns and jails of the state to impose a secular standard on faithful citizens and their churches? Will Catholic schools be forced to hire partners in homosexual couples? Will seminaries? Will Catholic cemeteries be forced to bury same sex couples side by side? Will churches themselves remain exempt from the social and legal pressure to perform such ceremonies? (Already in England and Denmark, state churches are being pressed by governments to conform. How long will Catholics there be exempt?)
Americans are not immune to these threats. Some say that it’s outlandish to imagine a future Supreme Court – duly packed by Democratic presidents with more judges like Sotomayor and Kennedy – ruling that churches’ free exercise of religion must be “balanced” against the interests of “fundamental rights” like marriage, that refusing to marry same-sex couples is no more protected by the First Amendment than Indian tribes’ use of peyote in their rituals. But then, 20 years ago, few would have predicted a Supreme Court overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, either. We like to think of the Court as a solemn arbiter of timeless principles and historic precedents, but in fact, it’s a more like a lap dancer that chases elite opinion like a stray $100 bill.
What should we do to push back and defend our institutions and our freedoms? I made an extended argument last week in The American Conservative that in the light of these crushing defeats, we need an entirely new strategy – one which concedes the fact that the public laws of marriage have utterly ceased to mirror the natural law. That battle is lost for now and for many reasons, the chief one being that few outside conservative Christian circles even believe in natural law. We once thought that human nature was designed, by a Designer, and that we were bound to respect the purposes mirrored in its design – for instance, the fact that sex organs were intended to help us reproduce. Those who believe that we are, like cancer cells, a random result of blind and meaningless mutations will hardly defer to such “design.” We still think that we have “rights,” though we’re hard put to say why or where they might have come from, and we’re keen on Photoshopping the rights of the weak, the sick, and the young to match our current convenience.
As long as a vulgar Darwinian “just so” story explains for people what humans are and how we got here, we cannot expect to win the public over by pointing to traces of natural order. In fact, I don’t believe we can use political means to win the public over at all – not in our lifetimes. Instead, in the realm of politics, we should switch gears right away and strive to limit the power of the state to interfere in our lives and institutions. If we cannot win over majority opinion, then we must fight like wildcats for the rights of minorities – not so much ethnic minorities, whom the state defends well enough – but religious and ideological minorities, like us. (Yes, I mean to include Muslims and Mormons; we need all the friends we can get, and our principles must be consistent.) We must carve out exceptions to anti-discrimination laws, to protect all religious believers from the steamroller of the state.
We need to wean our institutions entirely off government aid. We ought to abandon entirely the project of promoting “social justice” through the state – this state, anyway, in its secular senile dementia – and become the most aggressively anti-government force this side of bomb-throwing anarchists. The secular state is our enemy, as the Communist Polish government was the enemy of its people, and the larger and stronger it gets, the easier it will find the task of persecuting our clergy, closing our churches, and re-educating our children. No, we don’t want the government offering health care, or haircuts, or collecting one more penny in tax than it takes to protect innocent life, guard the borders, and keep the roads free of fallen meteorites.
Instead of using the Church’s money to lobby Congress to pass Obamacare, or hire lawyers (as some dioceses do) to represent illegal immigrants, we ought to pour every penny into keeping our school doors open, running our own soup kitchens and hospitals, and fighting Leviathan’s tentacles wherever they try to reach. (As a symbolic gesture and a nice payback for all that the U.S. government is trying to do to our Church, the Vatican ought to offer asylum to Edward Snowden.) Our enemy is the state – this state. We’ve seen that we cannot ride the beast; it is time to break its kneecaps and bring it to heel. Just as we once joined with Jews to fight religious teaching in public schools because it was Protestant, now we must make common cause with libertarians to cripple the state because it is Jacobin.
Our other task is harder: if we wish to stand up for marriage, it’s time for our Church’s institutions to start acting as if they believed in it. I have a simple, painful, five-point plan for Catholics, which if undertaken would make of believers prophetic witnesses to the reality of marriage in the face of the pale, pansexual temporary sex contract that our laws call by that name. Consider this a gauntlet thrown down before our bishops:
- Each pastor should require of couples who wish to marry that they be trained in the methods and moral underpinnings of Natural Family Planning. This should be a non-negotiable part of Catholic marriage preparation. (It would help with credibility if some NFP instructors could step forth who have fewer than seven children; I’ve never met one, but I’m sure they’re out there.)
- A boilerplate “covenant” prenuptial agreement should be drawn up by our bishops and provided to pastors, which binds Catholic spouses to lifelong marriage, renounces divorce and remarriage, and awards all community property to the wronged party in any civil divorce. In states where “covenant marriage” is on the books – as it should be in all 50 – pastors must require that couples contract one, or find some other fancy building for their ceremony. I don’t know that our corrupt courts would enforce any such agreements, but forcing people to sign them will weed out the unserious. Anyone who objects is admitting in advance that he lacks sacramental intent. Give him directions to City Hall.
- A civil divorce should no longer be a prerequisite for an annulment, but its legal aftermath. Catholics unsure of their marriage’s validity should be required, on pain of excommunication, to await the Church’s judgment before they seek the remedies of the state.
- Annulment tribunals should, of course, be much stricter in their application of canon law, especially with marriages contracted after measures 1, 2, and 3 have been enacted. While the ease with which a Catholic marriage can be annulled is scandalous, the state of catechesis and marriage prep has been so abysmal for 40 years that many of the marriages our bishops are annulling might really deserve it; if either party, going into a marriage, secretly thinks that divorce and remarriage might be an option, that might be enough to invalidate the bond. That’s the seed of the cancer which we must root out; it’s not so much the annulments we approve that are scandalous farces, but many of the weddings.
- The party whose intent was found to be defective in any annulment should have to wait 3-5 years before contracting a Catholic marriage, complete a rigorous marriage prep that fully explicates the conditions of the sacrament, and, of course, sign a “covenant” pre-nup so that this never happens again.
In other words, put plainly, instead of trying to direct traffic in the public square while our own house is in disarray, we should fight off Caesar’s soldiers and make of our Church a beacon and an example. I seem to remember that one major world religion spoke of being a “city on a hill.” That sounds like a good idea.