Thursday, February 07, 2013

The Church and 'State Marriage'

I confess I don't think I understand what Fr Tim Finigan and Fr Ray Blake mean when they say the Church should, or could, 'get out of the State marriage business'. Fr Tim mentions Bishop Egan on this, but Bishop Egan is talking about being 'forced out' of involvement in marriage registration, not going voluntarily.

The two blogging priests seem to be concerned that, assuming the current legislation is passed and the definition of marriage in civil law comes to mean simply a souped-up friendship with hospital visiting rights and certain tax advantages, it is not something they want anything to do with. That is understandable, but one of the confusions introduced by the Government was to invent a distinction between 'state marriage' and 'religious marriage', a distinction which does not exist. There is only marriage: natural marriage, and the sacramental marriage which, when the parties are baptised, supervenes upon it. Marriage is an institution of natural law, and it is recognised by both Church and state.

Currently, the State recognises marriage, but regulates it: it specifies impediments, for example age and consanguinity, which may presumably by tighter or looser than those demanded by Natural Law. (The Church, in fact, does the same thing, and so Catholics seeking married must satisfy both set of requirements.) Because the law of the land sets what is socially recognised as marriage, it is impossible to get married in England and Wales without going through a ceremony recognised by the law of the land. No one would regard you are married. No one seeking marriage would seek it in a way incompatible with legal recognition. Marriage is by its nature a public act, being married is a to be in a certain social category. People seeking marriage will ipso facto want the recognition of the law.

The state also allows people to get married who are not, under Natural or Divine Law, free to marry: people who have a validly married spouse still living, for example. We say of such people that they are not 'really' married, and at this point what is recognised socially becomes less clear. But if the law of the land wants to do this, while it confuses and weakens the social recognition of the institution, it doesn't change the fact that if a couple want to marry, they want to be recognised as being married, by the law.

What is being proposed is that this confusion be increased vastly, and whole new categories of partnerships will be legally recognised as marriages, when under Natural Law they are no such thing. Ultimately, we may say that the state has ceased to deal with marriage at all, but will be doling out certificates of 'vaguely committed relationships'.

But I still don't see how anyone seeking marriage would not want their marriage to be recognised as the most committed kind of relationship recognised by the state. And, especially if that is called 'marriage', but even if not, I don't see why they should want to add to the confusion in the social understanding of relationships by having a marriage which is not recognised as (even) a committed relationship by the state.

I have read of a principle in canon law: couples are assumed to be seeking 'marriage as it is, not marriage as they believe it to be.' Thus Anglicans who don't believe it is a sacrament get a sacramental marriage if they intend to be faithful, to have children, and so on. I think we can apply a similar principle to the state, and to society as a whole. Talk about marriage has become more and more confused over the last couple of centuries, but there is something, written on the hearts even of the pagans, which is the truth about marriage. In their confusion, they still seek marriage for the themselves and recognise marriage in others, as it really is. In their confusion, they want to be able to divorce and have a true marriage to spouse number two, three, or four. In their confusion, they want same-sex couples to 'enjoy marriage' too, like everyone else. That, really, is the tragedy of the situation.

Marriage as recognised by the state is not about to become an intrinsically evil thing which we must avoid. Perhaps priests will be stopped from undertaking marriage registrations. But we can't turn our backs on what society recognises as marriage: if we want to work for the restoration of a correct social and legal understanding, such a move would be counter-productive.


  1. I know that we have to be very careful not to put too much store by our feelings when it comes to discussing matters of morals and ethics, but though supportive of both Frs Ray and Tim and intellectually agreeing with them, something feels innately wrong about Catholics abandoning legally recognised marriage in favour of Civil Partnerships.

    Neil Addison described yesterday how priests have a duty of care to couples to ensure that they do avail themselves of the necessary legal protections and I would tend to agree.

    The observation that everyone wants a true marriage is at the very heart of this, from Henry VIII onwards...

  2. Thank you Joseph for such a balanced and measured response to the latest silliness from our current Government. It does seem some people are getting a little over-excited.

  3. Basically I agree with you that we should not fall for the Government line that there are two kinds of marriage - civil and religious. We should stick with marriage which is not the property of the Church or the State and whilst they may regulate it they cannot change its nature. We should try and carry on as before with priests acting as appointed persons on behalf of registrars and therefore doing the whole business in-house.

    However if one reads the explanatory notes to the SSM Bill there are many areas where the law can be changed without any reference to Parliament by civil servants. I suspect that in due course it will be found impossible for Catholics to be appointed persons whether as a result of subsidiary legislation or some court case which says that they have to conduct SSM marriages if they want to be appointed persons. If the current bill becomes law anything is possible.

  4. I don't think Frs Tim & Ray [or for that matter Catholic Voices and Archbishop Nichols when they called for CP-universalisation] quite understand why the CDF opposes civil partnerships.
    It is not merely because they are exclusively homosexual but because it intervenes upon those rights and dignities which are only within the remit of marriage - in other words they aren't ours to give - they aren't anyone's except under the auspices of the committed spouse. It scandalises marriage in its very emulation [the same-sex protocols merely aggravate the issue].
    e.g. Blondpidge might recognises this: The Church has no right to ordain Caroline's husband without her express permission - through marriage he belongs to her and that sacramental dignity cannot be abrogated or thwarted by intervention from any third party.

    Plus yes Dr Shaw you are correct in that the State merely arbitrarily confirms what exists [and no matter what it claims cannot afford or validate that which isn't]
    Therefore as it doesn't ontologically thwart - there is no problem resorting to the double effect and remotely materially co-operating with an unjust civil process in order to receive sacramental marriage.

    But - we now have on the horizon a potential remit whereby the state will thwart marriage.

    If the ECHR homogenises and creates equanimity between state-recognised SSM & heterosexual marriage [i.e. consummation and fidelity are eliminated]

    This will mean that those who could previously achieve a valid marriage by undergoing a civil ceremony and making solemn promises of exclusive fidelity conforming to the principle 'as the Church does'

    i.e. those not proscribed by the clandestinity of 'ne temere' [baptised non-Catholics]

    ...will be expressly prevented from making the promises they could have previously made.

    The state - previously just playing silly-beggars - has now crossed a rubicon and instead of messing around with marriage and giving it to those who didn't earn it or couldn't get it - they now prevent those eligible to marry from marrying... entirely different situation.

    And does this 'standing in Heaven's way' potentially change this from an unjust law
    [with which we could remotely materially co-operate]

    into an intrinsically unjust law?
    [with which Evangelium Vitae 73 & 74 & the CDF's 'considerations' make it absolutely clear we are not allowed to co-operate - lest we fall foul of canon 1329#1]?

    We could be in trouble.

  5. Eleven years ago I heard a barrister express their private but qualified opinion that the current marriage laws are so pernicious that those considering marriage would be better off not having their marriage recognized by the state. Let us not forget that it marriage is initiated by the consenting parties and witnesses are only necessary to prevent one of the parties repudiating their vows: I think that a body allows the parties do precisely that is an unreliable witness.