When Opposing Sides Adopt the Same Strategy

I always find it both a little curious when people of opposing political positions end up adopting the same strategy to respond to a situation.

A case in point:  Before marriage equality became the law of the land in my home state of Maryland, a group of interfaith clergy got together to sign a pledge that they would no longer sign marriage licenses for heterosexual couples until they could also do so for lesbian and gay couples.  They would continue to perform the religious ceremony for these pairs, but they would not act as agents of the state until they saw marriage equality for lesbian and gay duos, too.

Recently, George Weigel, a conservative Catholic writer, has proposed a similar strategy for Catholic clergy, but for a different purpose.  In an article in First Things, Weigel, alarmed at the recent electoral successes for marriage equality and the growing social acceptance of this phenomenon, suggests:

“. . .it seems important to accelerate a serious debate within American Catholicism on whether the Church ought not pre-emptively withdraw from the civil marriage business, its clergy declining to act as agents of government in witnessing marriages for purposes of state law.

“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. Many thoughtful young priests are discussing this dramatic option among themselves; it’s time for the rest of the Church to join the conversation.”

Interesting.  Progressives and conservatives end up with the same strategy, but for different reasons.

Joel Mathis, a writer at PhillyPost.com, points out that Weigel’s application of this strategy doesn’t solve any problem.  If Catholic priests were being forced to marry lesbian and gay couples, then a boycott may be an appropriate response, but such is definitely NOT the case:

“This might make sense if the legalization of gay marriage would force the Catholic Church to act against its collective conscience—that is, if the law suddenly required priests to give their blessings to gay and lesbian unions. But we’ve got a First Amendment freedom of religion in this country, and there’s zero chance the any anti-gay-marriage church will ever be required to perform such ceremonies. What’s going on here is that the Church—or, at least the portion of it that listens to Weigel—can’t abide the rest of us having gay marriage, whether we’re Catholic or not.

“Which is kind of irritating.”

Mathis goes on to point out that Weigel’s strategy is bad for both the church and for the rest of society.  It’s bad for the church because some couples may decide that they might need civil marriage more than sacramental marriage, and simply forego the latter, thus hastening further decline in church participation.

It’s bad for society, Mathis says, because

“. . .society has long benefitted from the church’s wider participation in our civic life, from its hospitals to adoptions service to services for the poor. There’s been a growing inclination in recent years for the church to take its ball and go home—to stop providing services unless everybody involved is playing by Catholic rules. I’m not sure who benefits if the Church decides that, instead of undergirding and strengthening society, it exists in opposition to it. Probably nobody. But it’s possible we’re about to find out.”

He concludes by noting what I consider the essential problem of so many of the religious liberty arguments made by conservatives:

“The Catholic Church shouldn’t act against its conscience. But Weigel’s proposal of a civil marriage boycott suggests a rather more expansive vision of the boundaries of the Church’s conscience than is perhaps warranted. The Catholic Church is losing the fight over gay marriage in America; the question now is whether it will decide to lose in a manner that causes a great deal of harm.”

What I find most interesting is that even though the Maryland clergy mentioned above and Weigel may have landed on the same strategy, in the hands of the former, it appears as a civil disobedience protest, but in the hands of the latter, it looks more like biting ones’ nose to spite one’s face.   Worse yet, it is indicative of a destructive trend among some traditionalist Catholic leaders to build walls and fortresses around Catholic culture to “protect” it from the world, rather than building bridges to  the world to help both the church and the greater society to grow and develop.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

0 replies
  1. John McDargh Ph.D.
    John McDargh Ph.D. says:

    Ironically, the proposal of taking the church (all churches) out of the business of functioning as an agent of the civil government in the matter of contracting marriage would all around be a decent solution to the problem of conflicting definitions of what constitutes marriage. In many Europeans countries (Poland and France for example), all couples have a civil ceremony that constitutes the legal bond of marriage and then if they are religious and meet the criteria for sacramental marriage,they solemnize and sanctify their marriage in their local church. When John Winthrop and the Pilgrims arrived in the new world they were determined to uncouple civil marriage and religious marriage because they were acutely aware of the mischief that happens when a church serves as agent of the state. Thus in the early days of the Commonwealth marriages were performed by the magistrate and not by the pastor .

    • C. McAuley Hentges
      C. McAuley Hentges says:

      I agree with your comment. One of the most persistent objections I encounter to “gay marriage” comes from people, including my former state representative, who cannot distinguish between civil and religious marriage, no matter how many times you explain it. Note also that public opinion polls consistently show many more people will approve of same sex “civil unions” than same sex “marriage,” even though these are merely two terms for the same thing. I think if both opposite sex and same sex couples were required by civil law to go to city hall and sign and swear to a civil marriage contract, and then go to the church of their choice to request religious marriage, if they choose, the distinction between the two will, in time, become clear to all. In addition, a fee for civil marriage contracts, modest and sliding scale, but greater than the one now charged for marriage licenses, could be earmarked to support family and divorce courts which are currently overburdened and financially starved. The marriage contract could even include the option to form agreements in the event of divorce, sort of like a short form prenuptial agreement, or to register the prenuptial agreement attached to the marriage contract. I’m not a lawyer, or legally married, for that matter, so I don’t know how useful these ideas really are. But I thought I’d put them out there to raise more discussion. I’m nervous about agreeing with George Weigel for any reason, but stranger coalitions have formed to solve problems in the past.

  2. ermadurk
    ermadurk says:

    I am very grateful for postings such a this one–the quality of which is par for the course in Bondings 2.0. Thanks, Frank, for leading us to insight, clarity, and more informed activity. Someone has to do this, and you do it very well. Blessings.

  3. Tim MacGeorge
    Tim MacGeorge says:

    When I saw Weigel’s article, I found its logic somewhat lacking. First, no one would be “forcing” the Church to take a step that gets pastors out of the civil-marriage business and allows them to focus on the pastoral work with couples seeking a religious ceremony. Such a change in Church practice would probably be welcomed by overburdened clergy, eliminating some couples who come knocking on the rectory door simply because “it’s such a beautiful church” and “the pictures will be beautiful” .. even though the couple seeking a church wedding haven’t “darkened the door” of the church for years.

    I’m not sure what “witness value” Weigel speaking of, though perhaps this statement is rooted in the arrogance of his assertion, “…what the state means by ‘marriage’ is wrong.” Civil marriage is what civil society says it is; nothing more and nothing less. Weigel knows this! As it stands now, the only “civil marriage business” the Church is in is the business of solemnizing marriages that meet Church criteria anyway. These criteria will not change and Catholic officiants will continue to have little to no interaction on the marriage matter with those who aren’t eligible for marriage “in the Church.”

    Finally, I was struck by his statement that, “Many thoughtful young priests are discussing this dramatic option among themselves; it’s time for the rest of the Church to join the conversation.” I’d be curious to know who these young priests are and where these discussions are being held. I’m sure that many of us would truly love to join this conversation and have our voices heard.

    • John McDargh
      John McDargh says:

      Your comments Tim echo what I have heard from numbers of Episcopal clergy – they would rather not have to deal with couples whose major criterion for the church wedding is that the stain glass windows matched the color of the bridesmaid’s dresses. Now one could argue I suppose that this might be a proto-evangelion.. but for over worked clergy trying to instruct un-churched couples in the Christian understanding of marriage is, I suspect, a lot of work for not a lot gain.

  4. Ann Larson
    Ann Larson says:

    There seems to be an assumption that any clergy can be forced to conduct any marriage. As a protestant minister, I’ve encouraged straight couples to look elsewhere when I wasn’t comfortable working wtih them.


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