By Russell Shaw
A word of caution at the start. Don’t read what follows as a suggestion or even a veiled hint that the Catholic Church and other defenders of traditional marriage should abandon the fight against legalizing same-sex marriage. Yes, the New York state legislature, strongly lobbied by Catholic governor Andew Cuomo, voted in June for legalization, making New York the sixth state where same-sex couples can marry. And yes, there are an awful lot of people in New York.
But let’s be clear about what happened. The legislature and Cuomo imposed gay marriage on the state without consulting the voters, and there are an awful lot of people who remain opposed. The widely repeated line that this marks a decisive step in the campaign for legalization is part of the propaganda — eagerly seized upon and parroted by media that support gay marriage — aimed at bullying opponents into throwing in the towel.
In reality, the fight continues in legislatures and courts across the country, with the outcome very much in doubt. New York and its companion states to the contrary notwithstanding, there are plenty of places where gay marriage has the proverbial snowball’s chance of being accepted. It will take a Supreme Court decision, similar in its arrogance and arbitrariness to the 1973 abortion decision Roe v. Wade, to force same-sex marriage on the entire country. And it is no sure thing that the Supreme Court will do that in the end.
That’s so no matter what the outcome is of the congressional effort, backed by the Obama administration, to repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that defines marriage as the union of one woman and one man. Although The Washington Post, in a mind-boggling inversion of language, calls this law “perverse,” it’s safe to suppose that if push comes to shove, repealing DOMA will die a well-deserved death in the House of Representatives.
(Note to President Obama: Along with much else, your assault on the Defense of Marriage Act makes it clear that you’re supporting same-sex marriage, even if you don’t care to admit the fact, perhaps even to yourself. It’s deeds that count, Mr. President, not words, so kindly stop beating around the bush and come right out and say you’re for it.)
That said, however, recent events do underline the fact that the Catholic Church needs to do some fundamental rethinking on the subject of marriage. I don’t mean the Church should approve gay marriage. I mean making it crystal clear what a sacramental marriage sanctioned by the Church really is — and why the secular state’s version of “marriage” isn’t the same thing at all.
Catholic marriage in the United States has been in decline for years. Look at the numbers: 341,356 Catholic marriages in 1990, 267,517 in 2000, and only 179,576 in 2010. Not surprisingly, you see the same pattern in infant baptisms — 1,022,014 in 2000 and 857,410 in 2010. As things stand now, some Catholics marry later than in the past, some don’t marry at all, and some marry outside the Church.
Even among those who have church weddings, many appear to have very little understanding of what sacramental marriage is. For them, getting married is a social event, a happy occasion, a big show. But entrance into a sacramental relationship that mirrors Christ’s relationship to his Church — whoever heard of such a thing?
Not that the Church doesn’t try to present the truth of sacramental marriage when instructing couples preparing for marriage. But in many cases the message rather clearly isn’t getting through. So here’s a proposal for a different, new approach.
Sentiment for same-sex marriage underlines how widespread the ignorance in our secular culture concerning what marriage is has become. But it isn’t just gay marriage that illustrates that point — the same thing could and should be said of the destructive impact of divorce, especially no-fault divorce, on the understanding of marriage.
As a crucial step toward addressing this problem and restoring some sanity to the situation, the Church needs to give up its role of providing de facto legitimation for the vision of marriage taken for granted by the secular state and visible in approval of no-fault divorce and now, in some places, gay marriage.
What vision is this? That marriage is no more than a voluntary relationship between two consenting persons, entailing certain specified duties and rights — especially rights — which either party can terminate for any reason that suits him or her. In certifying to the state that a sacramental marriage meeting the state’s criteria for marriage has come into existence under its auspices, the Church seems to imply that its vision of marriage isn’t really all that different from the vision of marriage entertained by the state. No wonder people are confused!
A new addressing this problem would involve a two-step procedure. First, a couple seeking to enter into sacramental marriage would be required to go through whatever civil ceremony the state might insist on in order to be recognized as legally married. Then, and only then, the couple could proceed to sacramental marriage — a church wedding — with the blessing of the Church.
Yes, are problems with that. Some people would resist what they’d see as “getting married twice” and would settle for the civil ceremony alone. But many do that now anyway. If those who said no to “getting married twice” were, by and large, people like those who now get “married in the Church” without understanding what they’re doing, what difference would it make?
As for the pluses, the procedure outlined here would have the huge practical advantage of educating couples to the fact that civil marriage and sacramental marriage are two vastly different things. Catholic marriage, like marriage generally, is in crisis, with the push for gay marriage adding to the confusion. Something needs to be done. If not this — what?
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.