As we discussed on Saturday in this space, the U.S. Bishops have rightly expressed their dismay and frustration at the United States Supreme Court rulings last week that will almost certainly pave the way for recognition of so-called “gay marriage” in every State in the Union either in the short or the long term. Monsignor Charles Pope of the Archdiocese of Washington even suggested (and I expounded upon) the idea that we should no longer refer to the Sacrament as Marriage, but exclusively as the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Monsignor Pope argues, I think quite rightly, that the secular definition of marriage is so radically different from the Church’s sacramental definition of Matrimony that we cannot even use the word “marriage” to officially describe what is taking place when two baptized people licitly receive nuptials in the proper form. Monsignor’s idea is apparently taking off, because even The Huffington Post, which is no friend of the Church, has picked up on it.
It is perhaps most noteworthy that among those who have decided that, low and behold, part of the reason for this redefinition of marriage in American society might have something to do with the fact that non-Catholic ecclesial communities who have always spoken of the value of marriage, but in practice may have inadvertently helped to diminish marriage by the way in which they treat the institution is none other than Russell Moore, who heads the Commission On Ethics and Religious Liberty of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Moore’s words are noteworthy for two reasons. First, the Southern Baptists are the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, and Moore holds an extremely influential platform in an otherwise very decentralized denominational body. Often, one can find two Southern Baptist churches where essentially different doctrines are proclaimed from the pulpit, but most people in the pew don’t recognize this. The second reason Russell Moore’s comments are noteworthy is the very reason why I presume to know enough about Southern Baptists to make the statement that I just did above.
In East Tennessee, Southern Baptists are more than just the religious majority, their members are truly predominant. Most of us who live here know plenty of Southern Baptists. We are not only friends with them, many of us have visited their churches on various occasions for all kinds of reasons. Some of us are related to Southern Baptists, either by marriage or because we converted and most of our extended family are Southern Baptists. As a member of my parish’s RCIA team, rare is the year that a former Southern Baptist is not received into the bosom of Holy Mother Church and they are then the only Catholic in their family. My wife was raised as a Southern Baptist and is the only Catholic in her family. Baptist religious ideas are so dominant in our part of the country that even the non-Baptist Protestants sound and speak like Baptists. As someone who is a convert that was raised in an evangelical tradition that was very emphatically not Calvinist and not Baptist (Church of God, NOT of Cleveland Tenn.), and who later flirted with the Southern Baptists for a short time while I was on my own journey that eventually led me to the Church, it is easier for me to see just how deep Baptist ideas have become woven into the religious fabric of this region even among non-Baptists.
I’m not bringing all of this up to have a post on the nature of the religious environment in East Tennessee, or to “single out” our Baptist brothers and sisters per se, but to paint a picture of the reality of the faith life from which the aforementioned Russell Moore speaks. His comments on the recent Supreme Court decision and on how his fellow Baptists ought to treat marriage cut right to the heart (whether he realizes it or not) of the most critical difference between ourselves and many of our Protestant friends, the most numerous for us here in East Tennessee being the Baptists. It is also worth noting that Moore’s words will almost certainly spark controversy among his co-religionists. He writes in part:
For a long time in American culture, we’ve acted as though we could assume marriage. Even people from what were once called “broken homes” could watch stable marriages on television or movies. Boys and girls mostly assumed they had a wedding in their futures. As marriage is redefined, these assumptions will change. Let’s not wring our hands about that.
This gives Christian churches the opportunity to do what Jesus called us to do with our marriages in the first place: to serve as a light in a dark place. Permanent, stable marriages with families with both a mother and a father may well make us seem freakish in 21st-century culture. But is there anything more “freakish” than a crucified cosmic ruler? Is there anything more “freakish” than a gospel that can forgive rebels like us and make us sons and daughters? Let’s embrace the freakishness, and crucify our illusions of a moral majority.
That means that we must repent of our pathetic marriage cultures within the church. For too long, we’ve refused to discipline a divorce culture that has ravaged our churches. For too long, we’ve quieted our voices on the biblical witness of the distinctive missions of fathers and mothers in favor of generic messages on “parenting.”
A lot of Protestants, especially a lot of Baptists reading this blog may say “I agree with that.” However, what makes Russell Moore’s proposition different than the way many-a-church does business is his admission that a “divorce culture” exists among his fellow Baptists and that this isn’t good. He admits that many of his fellow ministers haven’t only tolerated this divorce culture, they have helped to perpetuate it.
For too long, we’ve acted as though the officers of Christ’s church were Justices of the Peace, marrying people who have no accountability to the church, and in many cases were forbidden by Scripture to marry. Just because we don’t have two brides or two grooms in front of us, that doesn’t mean we’ve been holding to biblical marriage.
Russell Moore would not and could not admit it, but his ideas as they pertain to marriage seem to be veering dangerously close to a sacramental definition. Many may say “there are no sacraments in the Bible!” but we know that isn’t so. The latin word sacramentum is merely a translation for the Greek word for mystery, which appears all over the place in the New Testament. In the context of marriage the most prominent place to find it is Ephesians 5:32. The Douay-Rheims translation is probably the most blunt, and renders Ephesians 5:25-32 in this way:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ also loved the church and delivered himself up for it: That he might sanctify it, cleansing it by the laver of water in the word of life: That he might present it to himself, a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. So also ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever hated his own flesh, but nourisheth and cherisheth it, as also Christ doth the church: Because we are members of him, body, of his flesh and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother: and shall cleave to his wife. And they shall be two in one flesh. This is a great sacrament: but I speak in Christ and in the church.
Allow me to posit the idea that at least part of the reason for this “divorce culture” that Russell Moore laments is that marriage is not viewed in any way as sacramental in American life, and certainly not in most American churches, and so it is normal that many people will be married, remarried, and married again (and in a few cases, again and again and again)! This despite the fact that none other than Jesus Christ said that one who divorces and remarries commits adultery and causes their partner to do the same. Yet many a preacher will officiate at second, third, even fourth marriages without checking histories or batting an eye.
The one one great exception to this broad acceptance of a culture of family disintegration has been the Holy Catholic Church. Yes, there are many people in our pews who have undergone civil divorce, but there is no sin in civil divorce because in the eyes of God, a person isn’t any less wed the day after their civil divorce than the day they were before it. If circumstances necessitate that two people can’t live under the same roof any longer, a civil divorce may be necessary for the equitable division of property or even the welfare of any minor children. In the eyes of God, however, that couple are still man and wife. Neither is free to marry someone else or live in a married relationship with anyone else, as they have a spouse.
There are people in the Church who are married a second time in the eyes of the civil law, but not in eyes of the Church. This is usually because there was a legitimate defect in their previous relationship that rendered those previous nuptials null. An annulment is not “Catholic divorce,” because an annulment says that a previous nuptial union was never valid and did not exist to begin with. Some common reasons for an annulment might be if a couple, or one party or the other was too young (under 18 usually) to fully understand the consequences of marriage/matrimony, or if one party or the other can prove that vows were taken under duress, and without full consent or free will of both parties, or if it can be proven that one party or the other did feign their vows wilfully at the time they were taken. There are other canonical grounds, of course, but annulments are not, generally speaking, easy to obtain and those who attempt to obtain one must have great faith and patience. The tribunal may grant a declaration of nullity, or it may deny one depending on the case (the tribunal always tries to weigh on the side of mercy whenever possible). The most famous annulment case in history was one where the petition, which reached Rome, was ultimately denied. In that case, King Henry VIII decided that he would rather declare himself head of the Church of England so that he could abandon his lawful wife rather than accept the Church’s verdict and God’s law.
It is little wonder that according to many surveys taken over the last decade, Catholics who are frequent Mass attenders are among the least likely segments of society to experience divorce (the rate is still too high). Not only are those people trying to put Christ at the center of their life, but they are clearly trying their best to live a sacramental life centered on the Eucharist and understanding that they are to live Matrimony as a sacrament. An outward and visible sign instituted by Christ to confer God’s grace upon those who receive it.
It has been said by certain proponents of the redefinition of marriage that our society seems to be undergoing that heterosexual people haven’t been too successful at marriage in recent years, so why not let “gays” give it a try. While I believe this argument is specious for various reasons, it does contain a grain of truth. The secular world sees that many so-called Christians and other people of faith making a wreck of marriage, indeed the Southern Baptists, the largest Protestant ecclesial community in the country, also has a divorce rate seen to be among the highest, which their own leaders rightly admit is a scandal. The world looks at the way we have all made a wreck of marriage as a society, and the world says “this is a sham.”
In humility, and understanding that neither I nor my neighbor in the pew is perfect, I might humbly suggest to Russell Moore and to our Baptist friends and neighbors that the beginnings of a rebirth of respect for Holy Matrimony might begin with a very serious study of sacramental theology.