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.
“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.”
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
Queering The Church: “Gay Marriage, in Church: Norway”
Religion Dispatches: “Norwegian Catholic Church May Stop Civil Marriages”