Civil Law vs. Holy Sacrament

David Oatney Catechism, Prayer, Vocations

matrimonyBy now, much of the world knows about the United States Supreme Court decisions Wednesday which repealed the most important and effective part of the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA), and which upheld by means of remand a lower court ruling which said that California’s Proposition 8, a ballot measure which amended that State’s constitution to define marriage as being between a man and a woman (and which was approved with 52% of the vote) was unconstitutional. The rulings, which are essentially supported by the current executive Administration, represent the single greatest legal threat to traditional marriage as an institution that has ever been devised within American constitutional jurisprudence.

Those of you in Tennessee will recall that in 2006, we voted on a similar constitutional referendum here that passed with 81% of the vote. If Proposition 8 can essentially be overturned, the legal groundwork has now been laid for those opposed to traditional marriage to use the federal courts as the means to overturn the will of the voters in State after State, and certainly the results of our own referendum are not safe from this likely trend.

Our bishops are right to be justly angry and deeply concerned at the outcome of the court’s ruling, but they have also been quick to point out that a decision in a court of the City of Man has no impact on the Law of Almighty God.

The concept of what Holy Matrimony is does not come from any invention of men (Genesis 2:21-24):

So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh; and the rib which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.

Two men do not become one flesh, and two women do not become one flesh, and no organ of the civil government has any authority whatsoever to make it so. This truth places Holy Mother Church directly at odds with the federal government, which essentially now says that marriage is whatever the government and the courts claim it to be. What should the Church now do? The law as yet will not force the Church to witness a false marriage, but using the word “marriage” may soon cause confusion, since the government no longer recognizes marriage to be anything at all like what the Church teaches that it is.

Monsignor Charles Pope of the Archdiocese of Washington has used his platform on that Metropolitan See’s official blog to make a most interesting suggestion. Monsignor Pope says that because the government has taken it upon itself to redefine marriage according to the whims of the Prince of the Power of the Air, that when referring to the wedding of a couple who may licitly receive nuptials in the Church, it should officially be called not “getting married” or even “the Sacrament of Marriage.” If the government wants that word, it can have it. Instead, our couples will be receiving the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, and that is what it would officially be called, and the couple will be told not “you are going to get married in the Church,” but “you will confer the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony on one another in the Church” (the priest or deacon witnesses).

This idea that what the Church intends in the sacramental bond is something vastly different than “marriage” in the way the world sees it is not new.  There was a time when the civil definition of marriage and the Church’s definition were not so radically different, and as Monsignor Pope pointed out, the latest low level to which we have sunk in the state of marriage in this country is but the latest redefinition of an institution that was designed by God. It began with the rise of the contraceptive mentality, then the legalization of no-fault divorce, which all but ended the notion in society of marriage as a partnership intended for life. Monsignor Pope proposes:

I propose that we should exclusively refer to marriage in the Church as “Holy Matrimony.”

According to this proposal the word marriage would be set aside and replaced by Holy Matrimony. It should be noticed that the Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to this Sacrament formally as “The Sacrament of Matrimony.”

The word “matrimony” also emphasizes two aspects of marriage: procreation and heterosexual complementarity. The word comes from Latin and old French roots. Matri = “mother” and mony, a suffix indicating “action, state, or condition.” Hence Holy Matrimony refers to that that holy Sacrament wherein a woman enters the state that inaugurates an openness to motherhood. Hence the Biblical and Ecclesial definition of Holy Matrimony as heterosexual and procreative is reaffirmed by the term itself. Calling it HOLY Matrimony distinguishes it from secular muddle that has “marriage” for its nomen.

Monsignor Pope admits that doing this would require a massive retraining in the vocabulary of the people in the pew, but given our present circumstances, I have to say that I, for one, am very much open to Monsignor’s idea. I find it interesting that he made the proposal in his capacity as a blogger on the Archdiocese of Washington’s official blog, which is a diocesan organ in the same way that this blog is. He also had this to say about signing marriage licenses in the District of Columbia:

Frankly, I am uncomfortable signing DC Marriage licenses, and do so only because my Ordinary has indicated we should continue doing this. I am happy to obey him in this and defer to his judgment in the matter. There is a reason he is the Ordinary and I am not. That said, I have told him what I think. But for now, it seems clear we must stay the course and still sign them until the Bishop says, no more.

I agree with Monsignor Pope and I have for some time now, although I did not know that there was a priest in such a prominent Archdiocese who held this opinion until I read his post. As an Aspirant to the diaconate in our own diocese, I know that if, by God’s grace, I am ordained I will be called upon to witness marriages now and again, and I’ll be asked to sign the civil license. In all honesty, the only thing that keeps me from having an all-out attack of conscience at the thought of having to do this is my knowledge that the law in Tennessee that marriage is between a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others is still in effect. I believe that I will see the day when that is no longer the case, and it may occur while I am in active ministry with the faculties to witness marriages. I believe it will happen as a result of some federal court action, rather than by a referendum.

Like Monsignor Pope, my knee will bow to the bishop’s judgment on the matter of whether to sign the civil license. If I am ordained, I will do what he thinks best in that regard with a clear conscience, knowing that I act in sacred obedience. However, in reading this post, he’ll know how I feel, just as Monsignor Pope made clear to Cardinal Wuerl his feelings on the matter.

I can understand why a couple would want a civil license, because there may be significant civil benefits to obtaining one. However, it is my personal opinion (and let me emphasize that very clearly) that since the federal government now apparently sees fit to define marriage in a way that is in no way consistent with the laws of God and his Holy Church, that Catholic clergy should not be compelled to sign them. We do not require a licence from the State in order to baptize someone, confirm someone, ordain someone, or to consecrate and distribute the Eucharist, so why should we require sanction from the State to witness Holy Matrimony, also a sacrament given by Jesus Christ to his Church, not a contract given by the State to its citizens or subjects?

In my ideal world (making clear again that this is my opinion), if a couple feels the need to get a civil license, have the civil magistrate sign that license. The Church should not require one in order for the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony to be witnessed. It would be made clear to all Catholic couples that in no way does a civil license substitute for the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony ordinarily conferred on one another before the Altar of God in the House of the Lord witnessed by a priest or a deacon, and that the Church does not consider a couple to be wed without it.