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It's Time to Separate Church and State Marriages the Church Should Focus on Marriage as a Sacrament and Leave Civil Marriages to a Local Judge

By Cones, Bryan | U.S. Catholic, February 2014 | Go to article overview

It's Time to Separate Church and State Marriages the Church Should Focus on Marriage as a Sacrament and Leave Civil Marriages to a Local Judge


Cones, Bryan, U.S. Catholic


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The June 2013 Supreme Court rulings that struck down portions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act and overturned California's Proposition 8 marked a major turning point in the debate over whether same-sex couples should have access to the civil institution of marriage. That debate, which began slowly with a Massachusetts State Supreme Court ruling; similar rulings in Iowa, California, and Vermont; and successive state legislatures' legal recognition of same-sex marriage or parallel civil union, is fast heading toward a conclusion.

The Internal Revenue Service's August decision to grant married filing status to married same-sex couples even if they live in a state that does not recognize their union is further indication that, on the national level, the question of whether same-sex couples can marry has largely been determined.

These developments, however, continue to expose wide divides in society about the definition and meaning of marriage, no less in the Catholic Church. The Catholic bishops of this country have been nearly univocal in denouncing any attempt to redefine civil marriage. Individual bishops have devoted large amounts of financial and other diocesan resources in political activity to oppose changes to the civil law.

Rank-and-file Catholics, meanwhile, seem to be leaning the other way on the issue. Poll after poll shows Catholics favoring legal recognition of same-sex couples--either in marriage or civil unions--by large margins. A Public Religion Research Institute poll in March 2011 found that 43 percent of Catholic respondents support full civil marriage rights, with another 31 percent in favor of civil unions; a poll two years later found that 54 percent support full civil marriage rights with 38 percent opposed, a complete reversal of the findings as recently as 2008.

Given the shift in marriage's civil legal definition to include same-sex couples, it is time that Catholic conversations about the issue recognize that we are talking about two different realities when we use the word "marriage"--a legal contract on the civil side, and a sacramental covenant between two baptized people on the other--and adjust our practice accordingly. Doing so would allow Catholics to have a fruitful intramural conversation about our theological understanding of the sacrament of marriage without being entangled in the question of whether families and couples who don't fit that vision should have access to the legal benefits and duties that go with its civil parallel. It would also acknowledge what should be obvious to everyone: Even if civil and religious marriage were once a single entity, the ties uniting those two dimensions have now almost completely unraveled.

One doesn't have to look far into Christian history to find differences between a general societal view of marriage and what became the Christian vision. Jesus' condemnation of divorce (Mark 10:2-12; Matt. 19:3-9) questioned the practices of some rabbis in his own Jewish community who permitted marriages to be easily dissolved. Paul's insistence that women had rights within marriage, to sex for example (1 Cor. 7:1-10), were revolutionary in a Greco-Roman culture in which women were treated as property and divorce was common for the sake of cementing family alliances. His repetition of Jesus' teaching against divorce (with some exception) made clear that marriage was practiced differently in the household of God than in civil society.

Despite the New Testament witnesses, ancient Christian practice around marriage does not become clear until about the fourth century, as the settlement joining the church to the Roman Empire was becoming firm. Once bishops and priests became civil authorities, the civil and religious dimensions of marriage also became joined--a situation that endured until the modern period.

Many liberal democracies in Europe and Latin America have long required a civil marriage first, followed by a separate religious ceremony, or convalidation, if the couple so desires.

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