Should Civil Marriage Be Separated from Sacramental Marriage?

Conservative religious leaders, including some Catholics, have imitated an action that many pro-marriage equality advocates have used successfully:  they have pledged not to perform civil marriage ceremonies until their view of marriage is accepted by the state.

According to an article in Crux, the conservative Catholic opinion journal First Things has posted “The Marriage Pledge” on their website, which is a statement by Christian ministers who agree not to perform the civil aspect of wedding ceremonies (i.e., not signing the marriage licesnse) until same-gender marriage is revoked.  The pledge states, in part:

“. . . [I]n our roles as Christian ministers, we, the undersigned, commit ourselves to disengaging civil and Christian marriage in the performance of our pastoral duties. We will no longer serve as agents of the state in marriage. We will no longer sign government-provided marriage certificates. We will ask couples to seek civil marriage separately from their church-related vows and blessings. We will preside only at those weddings that seek to establish a Christian marriage in accord with the principles ­articulated and lived out from the beginning of the Church’s life.”

What I find most interesting about this stand is that in many states across our nation, pro-marriage equality ministers took a similar pledge as they were advocating for the state to adopt marriage for lesbian and gay couples.  The pro-marriage equality pastors pledged to not sign any marriage licenses for any couple until marriage was extended equally to all couples.

When opponents adopt the same strategy to achieve opposite ends, something must be happening.

I think that “something” is a growing consensus on the idea that marriage in the U.S. should be separated from religious institutions.  In other words,  civil marriages would only be performed by government officials, and not religious leaders, who currently are authorized to do so.  If a couple chooses to have a religious ceremony in addition to the civil ceremony, they are free to do so, though the religious ceremony by itself would not be legally recognized.  As many people are aware, this is how marriage is conducted in many European countries.

Some pro-marriage equality advocates, including Catholics, have been advocating for this distinction for a long time.  In addition to being intuitively fairer, this situation also helps to clear up  the muddy interaction that religious and government institutions have about the definition of marriage.  In that sense, such a distinction supports marriage equality.

One major problem that marriage equality advocates have had is that some people see marriage as a mixture of civil and religious ideas, and so the thought of changing even just the civil part of marriage makes them fear that the religious part of marriage will change, too.  Separating the two institutions thus paves the way for the state to democratically decide who should be allowed to marry, and for religious institutions to decide who they want to marry according to their own definitions.

There has already been a discussion of this separation from Catholic advocates on both sides of the marriage equality question.  Back in July 2013,  Bondings 2.0 carried two connected posts exploring the debate.  The first was by Jesuit law professor, Fr. Frank Brennan, who advocated for such a separation as a way to allow lesbian and gay couples to marry:

“It is high time to draw a distinction between a marriage recognised by civil law and a sacramental marriage. In deciding whether to expand civil marriage to the union of two persons of the same gender, legislators should have regard not just for the well-being of same sex couples and the children already part of their family units, but also for the well-being of all future children who may be affected, as well as the common good of society in setting appropriate contours for legally recognised relationships. . . .

“It would be just and a service to the common good for the State to give some recognition and support to committed, faithful, long-term relationships between gay couples deserving dignity, being able to love and support each other in sickness and in health, until death they do part.”

Arguing for the same distinction, but for an opposite purpose, was the Archdiocese of Washington’s Msgr. Charles Pope, a pastor, who said:

“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.”

After giving an interpretation of why he thought such a redefinition took place, he stated:

“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]

Interestingly, Msgr. Pope called for exactly the type of protest that First Things is now encouraging:

“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?

The Crux article cited other examples of this type of proposal in the last few years, from both liberals and conservatives, Catholic and Protestant:

The concept that civil and religious marriage should be separate is not entirely novel. At US Catholic, columnist Bryan Cones has asked, “Is it time to separate church and state marriages?” And writer Len Woolley raised similar questions at the Mormon-run Deseret News. . . But the idea isn’t just limited to conservatives.

Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, proposed the idea as early as 2009. By 2011, three North Carolina church pastors and at least one in Virginia quit signing marriage licenses as a way of opposing state bans on same-sex marriages they felt violated their conscience.

And in July of this year, Paul Waldman argued at The American Prospect, a liberal publication, that religious couples should fill out state-mandated marriage forms and then have the religious ceremony of their choosing. “The wedding, in other words, should be a ritual with no content prescribed by the state, no ‘By the power vested in me by the state of Indiana’ at all.”

Waldman added: “The state doesn’t tell you how to celebrate Christmas or Ramadan, and it shouldn’t tell you how to get married.”

Such an interesting development!  What do you think?  Should marriage be separated into civil and religious institutions?  Leave your ideas in the “Comments” section of this post.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related article:

Ethika Politika:  The Marriage Pledge: Black, White, and Red All Over”


12 replies
  1. Ned Flaherty
    Ned Flaherty says:

    The fastest legal way to permanently end the needless, passionate “marriage equality debate” is to permanently separate religious ceremony from civil law.

    Then every theologian can preach and practice freely, while every citizen has total equality under the law, and neither side ever infringes upon the other.

    This is what U.S. marriage equality advocates have always sought, and it is what results every time that another U.S. marriage law gets revised.

    But popular acceptance of this new cultural premise will continue lagging behind so long as opponents of same-gender civil marriage keep conflating religious ceremony with civil status. Those opponents do that because in the former slave states, this misunderstanding generates political votes and cash from the fearful and ignorant.

    • Friends
      Friends says:

      Ned, you are BANG ON — in each and every paragraph! And your last sentence is a very savvy interpretation of how (and why) the Religious Right is constantly exploiting, for its own cynical and devious (and I would add hateful and homophobic) purposes, the blurred line between civil and religious marriage. Let civil marriage be a PURELY LEGAL MATTER; and let religious marriage be a voluntary spiritual contract, which is subject to the theological whims and fancies (and even the social prejudices?) of the religious institution granting it.

  2. Annette Magjuka
    Annette Magjuka says:

    Nothing upsets me more than seeing the Catholic church being lumped in with the far right. This is due to the American bishops’ insistence on obsessing on gay marriage, abortion, birth control. Now we are aligned with all the political wingnuts. The social justice foundations of our church are lost. LGBT issues, birth control, abortion–that is all the bishops talk about. Pope Benedict went so far as to call the social justice nuns “radical feminists.” Remember when Rush Limbaugh called women “feminazis”? It is the same kind of crazy POLITICS. This is not religion! I was mortified when the nutcases came out to protest President Obama when he spoke at Notre Dame, my alma mater. Obama has done more to supoort social justice issues than anyone in politics–healthcare, sexual misconduct in colleges, food justice etc, etc. Yet the birth control/abortion issue ruled the day, as usual. I agree that civil and religious marriage should be separate. Ned is correct, though. It will never happen. There are too many votes and too much money in exploiting the fearful and ignorant.

    • Ned Flaherty
      Ned Flaherty says:

      Never forget what the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops just did.

      The Vatican sent out its pre-Synod questionnaire, with instructions that it be filled out and returned by 1 billion Roman Catholics worldwide. But the USCCB: (1) never distributed it; (2) falsified the American answers out of thin air without a shred of supporting data; and (3) misrepresented to the Vatican that the falsified answers were actual responses.

      This skewed the Vatican’s global effort to know who Catholics are, what they experience, and what reforms are necessary.

  3. Joseph Gentilini
    Joseph Gentilini says:

    I agree that civil marriage should be separate from so-called sacramental marriage. I say ‘so-called’ because my marriage to my partner of 33 years has always been a sacramental marriage in our eyes and lives. this is so even if the Catholic Church never recognized it. Civilly, we married in 2011 in DC where it was legal to be marriage. Separate the two and we can all live better.

  4. Bob Miailovich
    Bob Miailovich says:

    Separating civil marriage and religious”matrimony” makes a great deal of sense. Holding up the example of some European countries can convince some people that this is a very old and traditional practice and not some new fangled modernism. It would be a wothwhile project for someone to compile a list of those jurisdictions where a couple has to go to both city hall and church. Separating marriage will also help some same-sex mariage advocates to hone their argumentation that sometimes blends the civil and legal with the moral and romantic.

  5. Jim Green
    Jim Green says:

    “IF” clergy are removed from the civil aspect (papers signed in the sacristy after wedding), I believe that there will be more folks choosing only the civil ceremony away from the church (less expensive all the
    way around). There may likely be significant numbers of same sex couples who would like a church
    ceremony aside from the civil. Would church officials deny them the possibility of the church’s public
    blessings on their deeply committed loving relationship with each another? Jim Green

  6. Larry
    Larry says:

    A great idea that is too long in coming to America. It is, however, unlikely to take hold. Once the church folks realize that when couples know that the church is not the first place to go to be married it becomes less of a cornerstone of their lives and the hierarchy does not want any more of that. I am a strong proponent of the separation of church and state in all aspects of our civic lives so this fits very nicely into my world view.

  7. Anthony Borka
    Anthony Borka says:

    As a copastor of a nonRoman Catholic Church that welcomes all, the question is asked why I should be an agent of the State? I am all for the European custom of separation. And gay weddings should be a nobrainer to happen.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Bondings 2.0:  “Should Civil Marriage Be Separated from Sacramental Marriage?“ […]

  2. […] By 2014, the idea began to gather up more proponents from various ecclesial perspectives.  First Things, a conservative Catholic journal; Bryan Cones, then a columnist for the moderately progressive U.S. Catholic magazine; Bishop Gene Robinson, the openly gay Episcopal prelate, and Len Wooley, a Mormon essayist.  Their opinions can be found in a previous Bondings 2.0 posting by clicking here. […]

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