Is it time to untangle Church and State weddings?
There are a range of reactions as Americans ponder the implications of the Supreme Court ruling that same sex marriage must be allowed. Many rejoice in the ruling and see it as a victory for equality and tolerance. Many more object to the ruling. Some are apocalyptical in their predictions. Others are practical. When faced with a state decree that contradicts the Catholic conscience, the American bishops have pointed out that it is necessary for Catholics not only to resist, but to find a way forward that allows proper obedience to the law of the land while not compromising the faith.
To do this it is necessary to take a long, hard look at the relationship between church and state and also to seriously analyze the state of marriage in American society today. Until recently, marriage in America was based on an agreed definition. For most Americans for most of our history, certain values and virtues were part of a common understanding of marriage.
Marriage was between a man and a woman for life. The bride and groom were expected to be pure before marriage. Co-habitation was a scandal. Marriage was about establishing a home where children would be welcomed, supported and nurtured. Marriage was an institution supported by both church and state, and the state’s understanding of marriage was forged in a Christian context with Christian assumptions. For the vast majority of people a wedding took place in a church, officiated by a Christian minister. Divorce was an outrage and re-marriage after divorce was even worse.
We must recognize that today, only echoes of this understanding of marriage exist. Virginity is vilified not valued. Cohabitation is the default setting—even for those who want a Catholic wedding. Quick, no fault divorce is commonplace and re-marriage expected. Contraception and abortion have robbed the sexual act of procreative meaning so that marriage has become no more than an erotic union of two sexual partners instead of the union of a potential mother and father. Weddings have the trappings of a traditional religious service, but they can happen anywhere with anyone officiating (as long as they have purchased an ordination certificate online) Couples make up their own vows or dispense with vows completely. Within the homosexual community it is commonly accepted that marriage does not mean monogamy, but partners often enter an “open marriage” still enjoying numerous sexual partners.
Christians lament the destruction of marriage through the Supreme Court’s decision, but the traditional understanding of marriage has slowly disintegrated and, in reality, has been dead for a long time. This fact forces us to re-examine exactly what our culture means by marriage.
Marriage in today’s America means whatever people want it to mean. It may include children and family, but for many that is an option not a necessity. Marriage in America today may include a religious dimension, but for many that means either the external trappings of some sort of do-it-yourself religion or it means the spouses have integrated a “spiritual dimension” to their wedding service.
Consequently, it is absurd for state officials to continue to conduct Christian-style wedding services with partners making life long vows. All this does is serve to perpetuate an old model of marriage which is now defunct. It is best to recognize that America has become secular and remove the quasi-religious dimension from civil marriage services.
At the same time, those religious people who wish to retain a traditional understanding of marriage and a traditional practice of weddings feel threatened by the encroachment of a secular state into the area of religion. The religious authorities and the state authorities should agree that the state should not meddle in religion and they should therefore get themselves out of the marriage business completely.
A way forward which guarantees complete religious freedom and freedom for anyone to form partnerships as they wish is to recognize that in the United States we already claim to have separation of church and state and we should follow through with this separation. There is a perfectly simple way forward which recognizes the changed understandings of marriage that have taken place in American society, while also securing total religious freedoms. The solution is simple and practical.
Individual state legislatures should quickly produce laws that remove state officials from any semblance of officiating at a marriage ceremony. Instead the state should operate a procedure of registering civil partnerships before a ceremony has taken place. This civil registration would require documentation to ensure that both parties are free to make such a union in order to avoid incest, illegal immigration and underage partnerships.
Once the registration has been secured, the couple may go on to have whatever sort of marriage ceremony they would like. Couples can be married by their favorite uncle in a hot air balloon, gays and lesbians can be “married” on a mountaintop, the beach or their local club, and if they are religious, couples can choose what sort of religious ceremony they want. Gays and lesbians can go to the Episcopal, Lutheran or Presbyterian church or couples can be married at Disney World by Mickey Mouse or go to the Elvis Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas. This is already happening. The new legislation would simply recognize the marriage free for all as it now exists and the civil registration would remove the state from the marriage business while providing the necessary civic recognition of a partnership.
In the meantime, those who wish to have a traditional religious ceremony can go devoutly to their priest, imam, rabbi, or pastor and be married in freedom and security as their faith demands.
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