Why Are We Afraid? Civil Marriage Is for Caesar to Decide, Not the Church

By Cafardi, Nicholas P. | National Catholic Reporter, July 8, 2011 | Go to article overview
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Why Are We Afraid? Civil Marriage Is for Caesar to Decide, Not the Church


Cafardi, Nicholas P., National Catholic Reporter


If you count the sayings of Jesus in the New Testament, a phrase he uses with some regularity is "Be not afraid." He says it to the apostles in all four Gospels, and he even tells it to Paul twice in Acts, once in a personal vision, and once in the voice of an angel.

Yet, today, his church finds itself afraid: afraid of movements by state legislatures to define civil law marriage in such a way as to allow same-sex partners to marry civilly. Why are we afraid?

Civil legislatures cannot define for the church what sacramental marriage is, what matrimony is. The First Amendment protects us from that. No legislature can tell the church who to marry or who not to marry.

So if the state wants to say that a man can civilly marry a man, or that a woman can civilly marry a woman, why should the church care?

The church would respond that, by taking this action, the state is devaluing the natural union of man and woman in matrimony. But we have long since abdicated that argument. What arguably could devalue the natural union of man and woman more than the fact that, in all 50 states, through no-fault divorces, any heterosexual spouse can walk away from the other, basically by filing an affidavit alleging that the marital bond is "irretrievably broken"?

I recall a late-night comedian saying, "Let gays get married. Why shouldn't they be as miserable as the rest of us?" Easy divorce is more destructive of marriage than anything else. And we have long since acquiesced in that, even rectifying its results in our annulment courts.

Obviously, in the same-sex marriage debate, the church feels a strong need to have the civil law reflect the church's teachings. Confronted in the public forum with that attitude, many might cry, "Foul!" But the church would respond: The nature of marriage is not just our teaching. It is a matter of the natural law, and civil law should reflect the natural law. That is a very strong argument. Human positive law should reflect the natural law and not go contrary to it.

There are two vulnerabilities with this argument, however. The first is scriptural. There is a patently clear warrant for polygamy in the record of the original covenant. By New Testament times, though, that practice was abandoned. But the patriarchs of the Jewish scriptures very clearly had multiple wives; so how "natural" is the one man, one woman definition of marriage? Natural law, to qualify as natural law, must be true in all times and all places.

The second flaw is bio-political. In an ideal world, human positive law would reflect natural law. But, in a democracy, that can happen only to the extent that civil society can perceive or interpret that natural law to the limit of its scientifically demonstrable knowledge.

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