Separating Civil and Sacramental Marriage–Part 2

Yesterday, I noted that I had recently read two opposing essays on marriage equality, both written by priests.  Though they came to different conclusions, both of them based a good deal of their argument on the idea that we have reached the point where civil and sacramental marriage need to be considered as separate institutions.   Yesterday, we looked at the essay supporting marriage equality, written by an Australian Jesuit law professor.  Today, we will examine the essay of Msgr. Charles Pope,  pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Parish, Washington, DC.

Msgr. Charles Pope

Msgr. Charles Pope

On a blog for the Archdiocese of Washington’s website, Msgr. Pope posted an essay with a title which asks a question, “Do we need to set aside the Word ‘Marriage’ and use ‘Holy Matrimony’ exclusively?”  His answer to that question is a “Yes.”

Msgr. Pope recognizes that society has already gone through a major shift in the definition of marriage:

“It is a simple fact that word ‘marriage’ as we have traditionally known it is being redefined in our times. To many in the secular world the word no longer means what it once did and when the Church uses the word marriage we clearly do not mean what the increasing number of states mean.”

Noting that the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines marriage as a permanent commitment, open to procreation, and involving a man and a woman, Msgr. Pope explains that society has shifted from this definition over time:

“The redefinition has actually come in three stages:

  1. “In 1969 the first no-fault divorce law was signed in California. Within 15 years every state in this land had similar laws that made divorce easy. No longer did state laws uphold the principle which the Catechism describes as a partnership of the whole of life. Now marriage was redefined as a contract easily broken by the will of the spouses.
  2. “The dramatic rise in contraceptive use and the steep drop in birthrates, though not a legal redefinition, amount to a kind of cultural redefinition of marriage as described in the Catechism which sees the procreation and education of offspring as integral to its very nature. Now the American culture saw this aspect as optional at the will of the spouses. Having sown in the wind (where we redefined not only marriage, but sex itself) we are now reaping the whirlwind of deep sexual confusion and a defining of marriage right out of existence.
  3. “This final blow of legally recognizing so called gay “marriage” completes the redefinition of marriage which the Catechism describes as being a covenant, …which a man and a woman establish between themselves. Now secular American culture is removing even this, calling same-sex relationships ‘marriage.’ ”

Msgr. Pope concludes that these departures for the Catechism’s definition of marriage warrant the use of separate terms:

“So the bottom line is that what the secular world means by the word ‘marriage’ is not even close to what the Church means. The secular world excluded every aspect of what the Church means by marriage. Is it time for us to accept this and start using a different word? Perhaps it is, and I would like to propose what I did back in March of 2010, that we return to an older term and hear what you think.

I propose that we should exclusively refer to marriage in the Church as ‘Holy Matrimony.’ ” [emphasis, his]

Msgr. Pope goes further with his recommendation, suggesting that Catholic priests and deacons no longer perform marriages as agents of the state:

“A secondary but related proposal is that we begin to consider getting out of the business of having our clergy act as civil magistrates in weddings. Right now we clergy in most of America sign the civil license and act, as such, as partners with the State. But with increasing States interpreting marriage so differently, can we really say we are partners? Should we even give the impression of credibility to the State’s increasingly meaningless piece of paper? It may remain the case that the Catholic faithful, for legal and tax reasons may need to get a civil license, but why should clergy have anything to do with it?

Msgr. Pope’s latter proposal is that it flows logically from the first one.  If the Catholic clergy do not consider the civil institution of marriage to be the same thing as the sacramental view of marriage, then it makes sense for them not to participate in that system.

The same argument has been used by many Protestant clergy who support marriage equality for lesbian and gay couples.  Many of these Christian ministers have refused to sign civil marriage licenses until their states adopt equal marriage rights for lesbian and gay couples.  So, again, we find two opposing sides of the argument advocating for the same measure, albeit for different reasons.

What do you think?  Have we reached the point where civil marriage and sacramental marriage need to be separated?  Offer you ideas in the “Comments” section of this post.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

10 replies
  1. Friends
    Friends says:

    He actually has a point, where it involves creating a clear distinction between what the official Church administrative hierarchy professes to be its understanding of marriage, as opposed to what the vast majority of contemporary practicing lay Catholics understand it to be. At least having priests withdraw from participating as “state agents” would be an honest and honorable decision, under the circumstances. Big looming question: would the Church then consider Catholics who are married in a civil ceremony to be “living in sin”, unless they also had a subsequent sacramental wedding? Would legally married folks be denied sacramental participation in the Catholic Church for using contraception, or for being legally married to a same-sex partner?

    In other words: how willing would the Church’s clerical leadership be to “write off”, to bar from sacraments, and thus to virtually excommunicate legally married folks who might otherwise still consider themselves to be practicing Catholics? Some tough questions there. But I think the underpinning question is: to what extent is the Roman Catholic Church willing to shrink itself down to the size and status of a small minority cult, in the name of maintaining the abstract purity of a theological point of view which even most professing contemporary Catholics now regard as outmoded and unsupportable?

  2. Terry McCloskey
    Terry McCloskey says:

    Perhpas if we changed the name to Holy Matrimony it would make Catholic couples consider more thoughtfully what they are committing themselves to. So much attention is given to the decorations, the wedding dress, the reception, etc., but how much thought is given to “the Sacrament”?

  3. Roberta F. Moran
    Roberta F. Moran says:

    I think we need to make more of an effort to understand why marriage (whether civil or holy) are important in the growth and spirtuality of people. Jesus wanted us to be whole, not dualistic. Why are we not looking at sexuality, its relationship to marriage, and its importance to the human person’s wholeness and holiness. This is a deep subject and there is great diversity among people in sexuality, yet there is a common need in all of us. We are sexual beings. Jesus I believe said little about sex but he said a great deal about our responsibility to each other and care for each other. This is deeper than we are discussing at present in regard to marriage of either type.

  4. Ned Flaherty
    Ned Flaherty says:

    Originally, Roman Catholic clergy said marriage was only for mixed-gender couples, and was forbidden to same-gender couples.

    Now that society has rejected this selfish, Medieval view and refused to adopt it (since most of society is not Roman Catholic), the clergy are returning to their original position of ostracizing and outlawing LGBT couples by leaving “old marriage” to everyone but creating a “new marriage” which, once again, they would reserve only for mixed-gender couples.

    In this thinking, the Roman Catholic clergy have come full circle, but accomplished nothing.

    The advantage of this vocabulary shift is that the rest of society wouldn’t be burdened by the rigidity of Roman Catholic clergy and teaching. But the disadvantage is that Roman Catholic LGBT couples would be more segregated than ever. That is not progress; it’s merely revising the dictionary to maintain a status quo which otherwise would be crumbling.

    It’s no different than saying in the 1950s: “OK, no more back-of-the-bus segregation, everyone can sit everywhere, except we’re going to connect two entire buses together, and let only Caucasians ride in bus #1, and everyone else ride in bus #2. You got your front-of-the-bus privilege, so we added another bus entirely.”

  5. Lawrence
    Lawrence says:

    I think that Monsignor Pope has it right. How can we spread this idea to everyone? It seems to be the path to accord. Equal rights for all, and a boost for the sanctity of the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Same-gender marriages could still be blessed.

    • Friends
      Friends says:

      My hunch is that it will be a cold day in Hades before Monsignor Pope will ever “bless” a same-gender civil marriage! I think Ned (in his post just above) gave us a slam-dunk analysis of the political reality. His suggestion of the RCC;s “two buses” bait-and-switch ruse is very incisive. While some liberal priests might indeed be willing to “bless” same-sex civil marriages privately, it would be quite a stretch even for our much-admired Pope Francis to authorize it as universal Church policy, under current circumstances. He may favor it privately — but bringing the entire Church along with him would be a miracle of the “walking on water” class!


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  1. […] Bondings 2.0: “Separating Civil and Sacramental Marriage–Part 2“ […]

  2. […] Msgr. Charles Pope, a pastor in the Archdiocese of Washington, argued the conservative position that civil and sacramental marriage have grown so far apart that they no longer belong in the same category: […]

  3. […] for the same distinction, but for an opposite purpose, was the Archdiocese of Washington’s Msgr. Charles Pope, a pastor, who […]

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