I don’t know what I have been thinking, but today I was faced with a startling realisation.
In discussion with a group of theologians and ethicists over lunch, we fell to talking about the question whether – should the marriage laws in Australia be changed to include the the possibility of “marriage” between persons of the same sex – the Church’s clergy ought to continue to act as legal marriage celebrants.
My interlocutors referred me to the recent John Millbank essay on the (yes, once again) Religion and Ethics website of the ABC, “Gay marriage and the Future of Human Sexuality”. In this article, Millbank argues:
The deep reason for the reportedly rather inchoate and intemperate wrath of Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien in the face of the proposed alteration in marriage law is no doubt his sense that a supposed “extension” of marriage to gay people in fact removes the right to marry from heterosexual people.
This can seem like a perversely contorted claim, but its logic is quite straightforward: the intended change in the definition of marriage would mean that marriage as traditionally defined no longer exists. Thus heterosexual people would no longer have the right to enter into an institution understood to be only possible for heterosexuals, as doubly recognising both the unique social significance of male/female relationship and the importance of the conjugal act which leads naturally to the procreation of children who are then reared by their biological parents.
In effect, if marriage is now understood as a lifelong sexual contract between any two adult human persons with no specification of gender, then the allowance of gay marriage renders all marriages “gay marriages.” Given such a situation, were it not for the space afforded by canon law (namely, the possibility of church marriage) a resort to cohabitation – which has hitherto been understood as “common-law marriage” – would be the only logical path for clear-thinking Christians.
I have added the emphases in the above passage. The underlined sections spell out the logic:
1) If the definition of marriage is changed to “a lifelong sexual contract between any two adult human persons with no specification of gender”
2) this would mean that “marriage as traditionally defined no longer exists” (at least according to the law of the land)
3) leaving only two options for “clear-thinking Christians”, namely:
b) a “church marriage”
The irony is that, in order to be “inclusive” of a small minority, such a change to the law would be exclusive of a very large sector of our society. It isn’t just that Catholic clergy could no longer act as registered marriage celebrants according to the law (since the law would define “marriage” in a way completely incompatible with the Church’s teaching), but that Catholics (and other “clear-thinking Christians”) would be conscience-bound to avoid entering into the state of legal “matrimony” since “matrimony” as legally defined by the state would no longer be marriage as recognised by the Church.
It is commonly claimed by supporters of same-sex “marriage” that the Churches will not be “forced” to comply with the new laws. They won’t have to celebrate same-sex marriages, so what’s the problem? The problem is that marriage is not defined on a case-by-case basis, but as a single institution encompassing all who enter into that estate. If the laws governing marriage are redefined, all marriages are redefined.
This makes me doubly uncomfortable given the fact that the Church has always recognised the validity of “natural marriage”. That is, although we recognise that when two baptised Christians marry, their baptismal status raises what would otherwise be a “natural marriage” to the level of a “sacrament”, nevertheless, we recognise that in its native state, marriage is something that belongs to natural human society. In the event of the State defining marriage out of existence, we are left with Millbank’s idea of a “church marriage” as opposed to a “state marriage”. We should recognise that there has never, in Catholic doctrine, actually been such a thing. The origin of the Church’s “Rite of Marriage” is in the ancient practice of the clergy of the Church granting blessings to marriages conducted according to the accepted mores of the society. In Roman society, marriages were celebrated by the bride’s husband. In Christian households, the priest or bishop was invited to attend the marriage feast and give his blessing to the couple who had been married. Over time, instead of the priest going to the wedding feast, the couple went to the priest at the door of the church building for their blessing. Later still, the blessing shifted from the narthex of the church into the sanctuary of the itself. From there, the nuptial blessing developed into the full rite of marriage as we know it today.
We must never forget that the Church recognises the binding nature of natural marriage (even though, under very specific circumstances, such a marriage can be dissolved – eg. the Pauline or Petrine Privilege). And a sacramental marriage can exist outside a “church marriage” (eg. the marriage between two baptised non-Catholics or a marriage between a Catholic and a baptised non-Catholic given the proper dispensations). Distinguishing between a “church marriage” and a “state marriage” is really not a part of Catholic dogma, however enshrined it may be in practice in some jurisdictions.
But in the main, I can’t help but think that Millbank is correct. “Clear-thinking Christians” will realise that they enter into a relationship the very definition of which is antithetical to the Christian faith. The economic and legal hardship that this would bring for such conscientious objectors is hard to fully comprehend, but even harder to comprehend is the existence – for the first time in human history – of societies in which the timeless instituion of marriage no longer actually exists.
I am left with the extremely uncomfortable conclusion that, should marriage be so redefined, I might never have the honour of walking my daughters down the aisle.