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Should the Church Preemptively Withdraw From the Civil Marriage Business?

BY Matthew Warner

| Posted 11/16/12 at 11:10 AM

 

George Weigel had a thought provoking post-election piece where he proposes that the Church "pre-emptively withdraw from the civil marriage business." And what he means specifically is that our clergy should decline "to act as agents of government in witnessing marriages for purposes of state law." In other words, don't sign the civil papers, deny the role of also acting as government witness, etc. 

He went on to make the case:

"If the Church were to take this dramatic step now, it would be acting prophetically: it would be challenging the state (and the culture) by underscoring that what the state means by 'marriage' and what Catholics mean by “marriage” are radically different, and that what the state means by 'marriage' is wrong. If, however, the Church is forced to take this step after 'gay marriage' is the law of the land, Catholics will be pilloried as bad losers who’ve picked up their marbles and fled the game—and any witness-value to the Church’s withdrawal from the civil marriage business will be lost."

This proposal has the serious consideration of many weary culture warriors, anxious to mix up the terms of a political battle many perceive as a likely loser in the short-term. After all, the cultural trends seem to indicate a slide away from traditional marriage and the same-sex "marriage" arguments are easily winning water cooler conversations all over the country.

Let's be clear though, this is not a suggestion to throw up our hands and say, "ya know what, State? You can have your civil unions and you can redefine a marriage as whatever you want. We'll define it how we want." Boom. Done.

This would be a problematic stance for a Catholic. The overall state of marriage affects every bit of society (i.e. the common good), so we don't get to just wash our hands of its civil manifestations. Rather, Weigel's is a political tactic that would perhaps help in maximizing our ability to impact civil marriage in a positive way while further distinguishing sacramental Marriage as something different.

Here are the problems I see with all of this, though.

First, Catholic clergy declining the chance to (also) act as the government official for a wedding ceremony seems ultimately counterproductive to me. Ed Peters put it well:

"It is painful, of course, to watch the State’s definition of marriage careen toward something unrecognizable under natural or ecclesiastical law, but eliminating true marriages from the pool of unions treated as marriage by the State is not the solution to the State’s errors. [...] I see no need to surrender societal goods (such as the convenience, and even meetness, of civil recognition of Catholic weddings) that have not yet been demanded of us." - [source]

Second, Marriage is something that brings a lot of Catholics back to the Church who haven't otherwise been in a long time. If their sacramental Marriage ceremony is no longer going to count for (or would be more difficult to get recognized as) their civil marriage also, we could see a significant chunk of them opt out of the sacrament. Perhaps that's a good thing for couples who clearly would not have valued or understood the sacrament in the first place. But I'm more disposed toward using those moments as opportunities to help couples value and understand Marriage, rather than to push them away to make a political point.

Finally, I think it's again important to remember that, in the battle for Marriage in this country, the front line is not the legal one.

Here's the deal: This ship has been wrecked for decades...and it's like we're arguing over whether floating debris should be defined as a lifeboat or not. This confusion on civil definition is not the root problem, it's a product of the wreckage. People aren't really changing how they feel about Marriage based on the civil definition. They are changing the civil definition because their hearts have already long changed about Marriage.

We've already twisted marriage into a contracepted, childless, self-serving, partnership of convenience that lasts until one person gets bored. Now we want to get picky about which genders can participate, but can't really remember why that matters either.

Whatever our political tactics at this point, the ship has long been wrecked. You can redefine a floating casket and call it a lifeboat, or you can redefine a wrecked ship as a civilly wrecked ship, and it's not going to fix the real problems. Fighting for sanity and integrity in our civil definitions is certainly a good and worthwhile battle, but it's only a small part of the war.

If folks put as much energy and fervor into their own Marriages as they did into these political battles, we wouldn't be having this conversation. It doesn't mean we shouldn't stand our ground and fight politically. But we should recognize that such political efforts won't be what primarily moves the needle.

As soon as we start showing by example how different a traditional marriage is from a same-sex relationship, the tides will start to turn. When Americans become once again dedicated to the Truths that surpass our tiny existence and awed at the infinite dignity of every person, things will change. True conversion of hearts is what we need. Until then, the ship is still wrecked.

This is a great opportunity for us to search our souls as to what got us here. To pray. To live out loud the life we vote to protect. To remove the plank in our own eye before we pout and point fingers at the splinters in our brother's.

Weigel acknowledges this great opportunity in the final words of his post:

"As for the opportunity embedded in this crisis, it is nothing less than to be the Church of the New Evangelization, full-throttle. Shallow, tribal, institutional-maintenance Catholicism is utterly incapable of meeting the challenges that will now come at the Catholic Church from the most aggressively secular administration in American history. Only a robustly, unapologetically evangelical Catholicism, winsomely proposing and nobly living the truths about the human condition the Church teaches, will see us through the next four years. Radically converted Christian disciples, not one-hour-a-week Catholics whipsawed by an ever more toxic culture, are what this hour of crisis, in both senses of the term, demands."