I regularly follow the wisdom on Msgr. Charlie Pope’s blog for the Archdiocese of Washington. Recently, he posted on the following question: “In the wake of the Supreme Court decisions of this week, are we coming to a point where we should consider dropping our use of the word “marriage?” A number of Catholic voices are arguing that we should disengage ourselves both with the word “marriage” and from allowing clergy to function as civil magistrates in witnessing them for the state. Certainly I am sympathetic with what they hope to accomplish. However, I am already on the record, from past discussions, as opposed to such a retreat. Both sides can play word-games. Towards the end, he poses a second question, “Should the Catholic Bishops disassociate Catholic clergy from civil ‘marriage’ licenses?” Again, I appreciate the underlying reasoning; we want to avoid guilt by association and giving apparent approbation. My fear is that any such move would be contrary to a well-ordered or structured society (which is a good in itself). It would also constitute a retreat that opponents in the public forum would exploit. It seems to me that our laity would bear the blunt of the suffering and challenge that would come from such a move.
I am not blind to the dire crisis we face. It is true that marriage as an institution has been largely redefined by our society. The movement on behalf of same-sex unions is a case in point; of course, if left unchecked it will not stop there. Next we will see the return of polygamy. Despite the many scandals faced by the Church, there are even depraved people pushing for pedophilia and pederasty. There is already a bizarre effort in Australia for a man to marry his pet goat, the degradation of bestiality. The U.S. bishops reminded us in their failed initiative that marriage is in trouble. While I am hesitant to criticize our holy shepherds; the fact is that marriage has been in trouble for some time now and we were largely silent. Contraception nullifies the consummation of the marital act. Millions of abortions seek to erase through murder the fruit of marital love. No-fault divorce allows for quick separations and remarriages. Prenuptial Agreements insert doubt against the vows and a lack of trust from the very beginning, thus making those marriages null-and–void. Couples fornicate and cohabitate, essentially saying that you do not have to be married to have sex. Well, when you separate sex and marriage, you also set the stage for infidelity and adultery. Once sex is disconnected from marriage it is very hard to reattach it with any kind of necessity. Our society is saturated by an erotic and pornographic media that destroys courtship and sexualizes relationships. This dilemma is so pervasive that the inner person has lost any sense of propriety or decency. Viagra gives the old stamina to neglect their coming judgment and condoms give the young license under the illusion of protection. Wedding dresses that once expressed modesty and femininity are increasing replaced with skimpy gowns akin to those on television dance contests. Ours is the generation where all rights, even the right to life, are supplanted by the emerging and absolute right to have sex with anyone regardless of promises and unions. The children are caught up in the middle of this whirlwind. This is so much so that we even dress our little girls like the prostitutes that walk the street.
Much Ado about a Word
Msgr. Pope makes the accurate observation that the Church and society-at-large mean very different things by the word, “marriage.” Of course, this is also the situation with many other terms as well. While language is fluid and hard to control; it can certainly be manipulated. Look at the word GAY. This expression for joy or happiness has become the source for giggling when used in old songs. It has now been exclusively usurped by the homosexual community. Another word in peril is RELATIONSHIP. When we hear teens or young adults use it these days, they generally mean a sexual friendship with a certain degree of exclusivity. The word that most troubles and saddens me today is LOVE. What precisely does it mean anymore? We do not want to cast it off and so the dictionary definition gets longer and longer. Look at how we use it. “I love my car. I love my dog. I love my job. I love my house. I love donuts. I love strippers. I love my wife. I love my children. I love God.” Then we have expressions like, “Let’s make love,” a euphemism for sex. We give it so many meanings that the word begins to mean nothing.
What does the word MARRIAGE mean? Is it just a civil contract to make having sex easier or more convenient? If that is all it is, it is no wonder that couples are cohabitating without it. Some states have argued for different types of marriage contracts, one more easily dissolved than the other. There was even an effort to impose marriage licenses with term limits. If after five years, if the spouses were unhappy, they could opt not to renew. The marriages would then automatically expire. The divorce epidemic, something which Protestant churches pamper by their failure to enforce Christ’s command in Matthew against divorce, has given us what is essentially serial or progressive polygamy, one spouse after another. Proponents of “open” marriages suggest that couples should still be able to have sex with others outside their bond. I know one instance where a man lives with both his wife and his mistress in the same house. The girls share him. Largely gone is the Catholic-Christian equation that marriage is an exclusive relationship between one man and one woman who are called to be faithful to each other until the death of one of the spouses. Marriages are rightly directed toward the good of the spouses and the generation of new human beings, children. Stripping marriage of its propagative element is to make marriage wholly something else. Even infertile couples must express their union in that act which by nature is directed to the generation of new human life. That is why something like condomistic intercourse is intrinsically evil, even in marriage, yes, even among older infertile couples. Too many couples feign the marital act and live in relationships that are not true marriages. The large cases of annulments are cases in point. People can share their bodies like cats and dogs but they are ignorant of the true parameters of marital love and union. Although a natural right, they have made themselves ill-disposed to the sacrament. Required six-month waiting periods and marriage preparation are attempts to remedy the dark situation. However, couples frequently go through the motions and tell the moderators and clergy what they want to hear. I recall one priest praising a couple he was working with for doing all the right things before marriage. On the way out one evening, I overheard the prospective groom tell his girl, “What a jerk!” Later I found out from parishioners that they had been cohabitating the whole time and only went to the priest’s Masses once-in-a-while to fool him about their religiosity. They spent a fortune on the wedding and we never saw them again. I heard a few years later they divorced because “they grew apart.” When Catholics marry outside the Church, in the eyes of God they do not get married at all. However, Catholics who marry in the Church might also start their unions with deception. Planting lies today often leads to weeds tomorrow.
I will echo Msgr. Pope in giving the definition of MARRIAGE from the universal catechism:
[CCC 1601] The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament.
What are we to do when the definition given to marriage in no way parallel’s the understanding of the Church?
Msgr. Pope proposes that we stop using the word “marriage” and substitute instead, “holy matrimony.” He explains:
“The word ‘matrimony’ also emphasizes two aspects of marriage: procreation and heterosexual complementarity. The word comes from Latin and old French roots. Matri = ‘mother’ and ‘mony,’ a suffix indicating ‘action, state, or condition.’ Hence Holy Matrimony refers to that that holy Sacrament wherein a woman enters the state that inaugurates an openness to motherhood. Hence the Biblical and Ecclesial definition of Holy Matrimony as heterosexual and procreative is reaffirmed by the term itself. Calling it HOLY Matrimony distinguishes it from secular muddle that has ‘marriage’ for its nomen.”
He readily admits that there are problems with trying to regulate language in such ways. If I recall correctly, I was among those unconvinced and “perturbed that we were handing over our vocabulary to the libertines.”
We can play word games but our opponents are not fools. They were not happy with the notion of “civil unions” and wanted “marriage.” Don’t be surprised that they will also be speaking of their bonds in terms of “holy matrimony.”
Marriage is a natural right. Opting to use another word is not going to change this fact. Homosexuals and lesbians can feign marriage and the state might recognize it; but, in truth such unions are a violation of the natural law. The debate or argument is best sustained by retention of the vocabulary. We must insist that same-sex marriage is a fiction. Surrendering the word would only grant them the false sense that they had succeeded in making their argument.
If we cannot even defend a word like “marriage,” then how can we defend all the ideas behind it? This conflict is not just about marriage; it is a fight over the hearts and minds of people. So-called same sex-marriage is just one weapon in the enemy’s arsenal. The goal of our critics is to redefine the Church out of existence. The government administration wants to become the sole arbiter of marriage; but more than this— it views Catholic Charities, Catholic schools, and Catholic hospitals as standing in its way. Threats to close would only make them nationalize these institutions and they would argue that such is a “necessity” for “the public good.” This is the goal of our antagonists. If American society is to be remade then the Church must either change to insignificance or be destroyed. This is the fight we face.
Ministers of the State or of the Church
My initial sentiments emerged as an aside to the courageous crusade of Bai Macfarlane against No-Fault Divorce. The question arose as to whether clergy compromised themselves by acting as witnesses for the state, signing the marriage licenses and returning them to the courts. Msgr. Pope continues to sign them, he says, out of holy obedience to the Archbishop. Speaking for myself, I think we would forfeit too much by surrendering this privilege to the state. I suspect that problems might escalate instead of get better. Further, if the Church should opt out, would not our couples still have to get their civil licenses before Church weddings? He seems to think not, arguing that they should “in no way consider themselves as wed, due to a (meaningless) piece of paper from a secular state that reflects only confusion and darkness rather than clarity and Christian light.” I recall arguing with a hippie years ago who regarded the marriage license as just a piece of paper. In response, I cited that it came along with the Church sacrament and that it also respected the state’s right to regulate marriages as an integral building block to society. The state is taking a wrong turn with these same sex unions but we should still take advantage of our rights as citizens. That piece of paper says that as a member of society, I still have a voice and that marriage is an institution that must be acknowledged, regardless as to whether others are given such acknowledgment wrongly (in the past because of divorce and today also because of same-sex unions). Opting out will undermine a structured society, its institutions, and the protections and rights we take for granted.
I have immigrants in my parish from Asia and Africa. Their home nations do not give the privilege that our clergy enjoy in being able to witness marriages. Some of them have only known tribal weddings. Others have licenses from a judge or notary public. While they should have immediately had their marriages solemnized by a priest, they put the process off. Children were conceived. Time went by, maybe years, and now they all need Church convalidations. Would we reduce all marriages in the Church to convalidations?
If we attempt to marry people in Church who are not legally married; we will be facing all sorts of headaches. We would be opening the door to rampant bigamy where people would be civilly married to one person and married in the Church to another— without the recourse to the legal fiction of divorce. At present the state recognizes all Church unions even though the Church does not acknowledge every civil union. The last thing we should want is to segregate the Church into her own private ghetto where there are “us” and “them.” We have every right to a place in the public forum and should fight for it. Our married couples have every right to the protections insured by law (tax incentives, inheriting property, healthcare and insurance, custodial issues with offspring, hospital visitation and the right to make medical decisions for a sick spouse, and sharing a name). Marrying couples without civil licenses would once have opened our couples to prosecution for cohabitation. Even if this is a bygone concern, there is still the prospect of scandal. Some will view “married in the Church” but “not in the state” as NOT being married at all. The children from such unions could be labeled as “bastards” by our critics.
The Church has a responsibility to be fully integrated into civil society as a constitutive part. There will be conflicts but accommodations will have to be made that will not compromise our message and mission. Maybe there is a need for different types of licenses from the state for religious weddings, distinguishing them from civil ones? Indeed, there are different theologies between the churches. Some view the clergy person as the one who performs the marriage. Catholics view the spouses as the ministers of the sacrament to which the priest witnesses. Episcopalians and others will probably even allow and celebrate same-sex unions. We may become a minority voice in this society but we should not allow that voice to be silenced. Taking our toys and going home angry will not fix the situation. The retreat of the Church would be precisely what our enemies want. I fear that it would further erode the foundations of our civilization. Caesar’s empire might be pagan, but the Christian and the Church still have obligations to maintain a society that would protect our rights and freedoms.
I would maintain the status-quo with priests witnessing marriages for the state. However, there may come a day when that is taken away from us. We can cope with that when it comes. Civil disobedience might then take many forms, some of which could be extremely bizarre. One priest suggested that all our religious houses claim same-sex unions so as to get the marriage benefits and healthcare. I know one case already where a married couple got divorced but still live together so as to have better retirement benefits. I suspect that laws will be passed to force couples and the Church to behave. How far do we want to press it? Speaking for myself, I really hate retreating.
The Larger Challenge
It is my hope that we will have courageous shepherds and a supportive flock. I foresee priests facing fines and jail time for hate-speech in regard to teaching and preaching against homosexuality. After all, the Church’s language about marriage in the recent Supreme Court case was appraised as bigotry. Hum, we might have to take priests entirely out of the marriage scenario if all our clergy are locked up. Already, while the Church is currently protected, and we cannot be forced to marry homosexuals, organizations like the Knights of Columbus are not safeguarded. At this writing the free-standing Knights of Columbus halls in Maryland have been notified that due to their state charters they must rent for the wedding receptions of homosexuals and lesbians. The pressure is already on.
Our public schools are teaching that any reservation about homosexuality is discrimination. What will our children then think of their churches? Must we extract all our children from the public schools? Who will pay to place them into Catholic institutions? Homeschooling is an option for some but not for all. Where are we going from here? If the government and the media are more successful than the Church in forming consciences and teaching values; then what avenues are left? The issue is far more complex than any nomenclature of marriage or whether priests are authorized as civil magistrates. The question is how does the Church function and survive in a non-Christian society?
Catholics did not unanimously support the U.S. bishops in the Marriage Matters campaign. Indeed, large numbers were vocal in opposition. We hesitate to name names and are always fearful of our tax-exemption status. But if we are going to be shunned in a matter similar to racists over the issue of homosexual acceptance; then we will no doubt forfeit such benefits in the days ahead. I know I sound pessimistic and cynical. But that is what I see coming. The Church waited too long to find her teeth. She is an old dog grown weak from inactivity and abandoned by her pups. There are wolves coming. They want the Church out of the way. Look at the various initiatives of the current administration. Starting with appointments in religious churches and schools, then forcing churches to violate their basic principles and next pressing upon us what was once an unthinkable depravity— all these are attempts to redefine the Church out of existence. The president’s view of religion is seen through the prism of secular humanism. Anything else is judged as extraneous and must go.
There are some who are pawns to those who hate the Church. Others actually think that they are catalysts for positive change in the Church and society. Look at all the Catholic politicians who oppose the U.S. bishops and who dissent on Church teaching. The chief advocates in Maryland and in Washington are baptized Catholics. Like Msgr. Pope, I have my opinions; and like him, in obedience we both defer to the Archbishop and the national shepherds of our Church. We share our ideas, pray for courage and know that God will not abandon his children.
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