Bishop Seeks Release from Performing Civil Marriages in Norway

The debate about whether Catholic clergy should serve as agents of the state to perform civil marriages has arisen again, this time because of a bishop in Norway has asked the Vatican to release his diocese from such an obligation.

Premier reported:

“Bishop Bernt Eidsvig of Oslo (below), one of the country’s top Catholic clerics, said the Church would ask the Vatican for permission to stop performing state weddings to avoid confusion and opposition against it in the future.

“It’s after the Lutheran Church in Norway voted overwhelmingly to recognise and begin performing same-sex marriages earlier this month. It rejected a similar proposal in 2014.”

Bishop Bernt Eidsvig

Eidsvig explained his request:

“It’s clear we must distinguish our own Church marriages from others.

“This is a matter of liturgy, so it doesn’t necessarily reflect broader change in our society’s moral values.

“But politicians may now get aggressive toward churches who resist these weddings, so the best option is for us to stop conducting marriages on the state’s behalf.”

Same-gender marriage has been legal in Norway since 2009.  Catholics make up less than 3% of the heavily Lutheran nation of Norway.  The Catholic Herald reported that Pope Francis will visit there on October 31, 2016, to take part in an ecumenical celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, though “Bishop Eidsvig said it was unlikely the same-sex marriage controversy would be mentioned during the one-day event. . . ”

It is curious that the bishop says he is afraid that “politicians may now get aggressive toward churches” who won’t perform same-gender marriages.  The 2009 law which made the nation’s marriage laws gender-neutral does not require that any religious group perform same-gender marriages, so it appears that Catholic marriages will not be affected.  So one wonders what sort of “aggressive” tactics he fears.

Yet, the bishop’s desire to separate church marriage from civil marriage is one that has come up before, and seems to have proponents on both ends of the progressive-conservative spectrum in the Catholic Church.  Back in 2013, Bondings 2.0 carried two consecutive posts in which a progressive priest-advocate and a conservative priest-advocate both argued that it was time for church and state to separate their marriage ceremonies.

Fr. Frank Brennan, SJ, an Australian law professor, argued a progressive position that separating civil and sacramental marriages would be a way to make room for lesbian and gay couples to marry legally.   He stated:

“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.”

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:

“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. . . .

“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.”

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.

Before marriage equality was legalized across the U.S., in some states clergy members who supported marriage equality took a pledge that they would not sign marriage licenses for the heterosexual couples they married, until the state extended marriage to lesbian and gay couples, too.  In effect, these clergy members (mostly Protestant and Jewish, and no Catholics) were doing exactly what the Norwegian bishop is recommending, though for exactly the opposite reason.

When opposite sides of a debate end up supporting the same position, though for different reasons, it seems like we should stop, take notice, and perhaps delve further into the idea. The issue of whether we should separate civil from sacramental marriage certainly deserves wider discussion and examination.  No U.S. bishop that I know of has yet to propose a solution such as the Norway bishop did, yet their opposition to the current definition of marriage in the nation differs greatly from their own view.

What do you think?  Would separating the civil marriage ceremony from the religious marriage ceremony be a benefit for the Church?  for LGBT people? for the state?  Offer your thoughts in the “Comments” section of this post.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related articles:

Queering The Church:  “Gay Marriage, in Church:  Norway”

Religion Dispatches:  “Norwegian Catholic Church May Stop Civil Marriages”

Pink News: “Catholic Church in Norway to stop performing civil weddings to make a point against ‘sorrow’ of gay marriage”

0 replies
  1. Terence Weldon (@queering_church)
    Terence Weldon (@queering_church) says:

    When church and civil law collide, it simply makes sense to separate them. This is the way it’s done in Germany, and in many other countries. We should also separate the language: strictly speaking, for the Catholic Church, “marriage” is not a sacrament – that’s “matrimony”. We should keep matrimony in the churches, and leave the churches to decide on their own rules. Then “marriage” becomes a strictly civil affair, which the churches should keep out of.

    Having said that – inside the church, we should still keep up the pressure for at least some form of recognition of committed, permanent same-sex unions – perhaps as blessings?

  2. Thomas
    Thomas says:

    In America, like most places, you require a marriage license issued by the state . No church can legally marry anyone without a license. Any church can hold a religious ceremony but it’s the state that decrees you are married.
    It seems odd that any religious body would seek to withhold blessings for people.

  3. Loretta Fitzgerald
    Loretta Fitzgerald says:

    I may be missing something, but the idea that any institution thinks it has the power to keep God out of a loving relationship is either ignorant or arrogant. Sacrament is a sign and celebration of God’s presence. Where there is love there is God. A friend of mine wisely said that the clergy is attempting to hold the sacraments hostage. Enough.

  4. paularuddy
    paularuddy says:

    I wonder if getting licensed to marry and being registered as married could be one procedure for civil marriage. Then people already legally married could comply with whatever rules the church makes for the sacrament of matrimony. Matrimony is registered in parish records, isn’t it? People could prove their status with a document from each authority when required.

    Would being legally married before receiving the sacrament of matrimony devalue matrimony? It would be up to the religious community to form the minds and hearts of its members in valuing the sacrament. The civil society can’t do that for them. Civil marriage has its own set of values and humanitarian meanings. I think grown-ups could handle it. Are there downsides I am not seeing?

  5. Bishop Carlos Florido, osf
    Bishop Carlos Florido, osf says:

    There is but one sacrament: Jesus the Christ, the sacrament of God. All other sacraments emanate from the Christ. As far as I have been able to research, there no Scriptural evidence that marriage is a sacrament. When it comes to tradition, in the early church only royalty and the wealthy were married in a church liturgy. That left peasants and others out of the possibility of a liturgical marriage, which would be contrary to the teachings of the Christ. Marriage is essentially a blessing of the love between two individuals.

  6. Brenda Ann Eckels, aMGC
    Brenda Ann Eckels, aMGC says:

    Considering that there are hundreds of Catholic denominations in the world where marriage AND the sacrament of Matrimony have been equally available to all couples, if the Vaticanites want to separate their sacrament and return to the old tradition of one man, one woman, and one bloodstained sheet hung out the window to prove the sacrament valid, that is a denominational affair and they have the right to do so.

    It has been confusing enough to listen to them go on about how important the “open to having children” is to the sacrament to them, while watching them extend Matrimony to 80 year old’s and men who are impotent. They seem to want the power to legally marry (and the money they charge) more than they care about violating their own dogmas. But, as we know, until there is a council of ALL Catholics, for now it is a denominational issue.

    Yes, it may be time for Vaticanites to rename their peculiar rites. That way Catholics will not be confused, and can make sure if it is the sacrament of marriage they seek they go to another Catholic church.

    As for civil marriage, yes absolutely they should be separate. One is a sacrament, the other a government sanctioned type of contract between two consenting adults.

  7. Thomas smith
    Thomas smith says:

    On a deeper level, it is God who truly marries two souls. The State and Church provide nice recognition ceremonies, but many loving couples (homo and hetero) chose not to have societal or ecclesial recognition, knowing they are wedded for life as witnessed by their monogamous, permanent, committed, life-giving relationships… Also witnessed by God and others in their love for each other: 1 John 4:17 = “God is love…”
    That having been said, it seems time to separate the definition of civil marriage from church weddings. In both cases, it is ultimately within their hearts, before God, that two souls wed. Since the Church calls for non-discrimination in the CCC, #2357, how can any Catholic leaders justify opposing civil marriage? Let’s take this momentous leap to justice one step at a time. Person-centered support for the legal rights of same-gender couples, then (eventually) religious rights, when and if the discussion is allowed to continue and the voice of the Holy Spirit is not stifled.

  8. Reggie
    Reggie says:

    I agree. Separating civil marriage from sacramental marriage would be good for the church and LGBT people. Many straight people have had a civil marriage but not married in the church. The state first issues a marriage license anyway.

  9. Barry Blackburn
    Barry Blackburn says:

    The Catholic missionary priests in Japan have had a long tradition of performing marriages for non Christians.


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