Marriage: Sacraments and Politics

Article excerpt

Catholics have sacramental understandings of marriage and ordination to which they are entitled. But the institutional church is not entitled to foist those on the rest of the population. On ordination they do not even try. On marriage I suspect they will fail.

Marriage is a many-splendored thing. There are myriad definitions of what is a dynamic and changing phenomenon. It is not hard to recall when women were considered inferior partners in marriage, when marriage between persons of differing racial groups was not allowed, indeed when rape was permitted in marriage. Social institutions change, but the need for community and the imperative of finding loving, just and generous ways of organizing ourselves as a society remain constant. Marriage is one among several ways to do that.

The American Anthropological Association studied marriage. Its 2004 "Statement on Marriage and the Family" reported that "anthropological research supports the conclusion that a vast array of family types, including families built upon same-sex partnerships, can contribute to stable and humane societies."

From a feminist Catholic theological perspective, I consider marriage a way of lifting to public expression the love and commitment of those who choose one another as life partners. There are echoes of Catholic sacramentality in my description. But because marriage takes place in the public forum, my personal definition coheres in a wide context, not simply in a parochial one.

The world's governments respect marriage as a legal contract, and the world's religions, according to their various teachings, hold marriage up as one important, though not the only, way to live in a committed relationship.

Two examples illustrate the difference between legal and religious understandings of marriage. Welton Gaddy, a Baptist minister and president of the Interfaith Alliance, wrote, "In the United States marriage is a legal institution--sanctioned by government and restricted by government in the number of partners allowed in a marital relationship and the minimum age of those partners." Catholic moral theologian Daniel C. Maguire offers this religious definition: "Marriage can be defined as the unique and special form of committed friendship between sexually attracted people."

The difference between their approaches is telling. Law is not religion, and vice versa. But together law and religion are useful building blocks for a common approach as same-sex marriage gradually becomes legal around the country and good people struggle to find ways to live with it.

The distinction between marriage as a legal contract that two persons of a certain age can enter into and marriage in the range of religious understandings that form part of our multireligious landscape is an important one. Separating the civil and religious aspects of marriage is a necessary first step in this contested arena, a fundamental of religious freedom in a democratic society.

By so doing, states, and eventually the federal government, can embrace same-sex marriage, as some do already, and thus offer equal benefits and responsibilities to their citizens. Religious institutions are free to carry out their own role--to bless, sanctify, affirm spiritually, or not, those who wish to marry. This is how it is done in many other countries and it works just fine. It is society as a whole and not disparate religious groups that decide who will marry legally. …