Thursday, April 24, 2014

Marriage, "the science is settled" and intentions

Thinking through a couple items on marriage, things I've written about before but am trying to assemble again:

First, a post on the Volokh Conspiracy site at the Washington Post, about the question of whether you can oppose gay marriage and keep your job.  Or, rather, the comments to that post.  Maybe it's just a few people, but there was an argument running through the comments that went like this (paraphrased):
The science is settled.  Judges have ruled that marriage is a civil right having nothing to do with the sex of the two parties involved, nor is there any connection (or any conceivable reason for a connection) to children.  It's only due to the lack of court cases elsewhere that gay marriage isn't the law of the land throughout the whole country, because it's an indisputable fact that gay marriage is a civil right.   
Since it is a civil right, anyone who votes to deny this civil right is a bigot who has forfeited all of their civil rights.  They deserve, among other things, to lose their jobs, because of their "right-less" status.
So what do you think -- a small minority not worth worrying about?  Or a rising wave of intolerance?

At the same time, there's a report in CNN about a call the pope made to an Argentine woman who had written about her situation, married to a divorced (without annullment) man and hence unable to receive communion.  And I start to wonder:

Catholics take a lot of heat for the concept of an annullment; it's treated as simply a bunch of unnecessary hoops to jump through and people point to it as being an overly-legalistic "Catholic divorce."  But the idea behind it is this:  in order for a marriage to be valid and "sacramental," it requires that the parties be able to make a sound judgement (being sufficiently mature, not being pressured), and have a proper intention:  to be open to children, to be faithful, and to commit to each other until death.  (See this "Catholic Update" for a lot of background.)  The presumption is that a marriage is valid; hence, an annullment is a finding that these requirements were not met.

But it's increasingly clear that in secular society, we can't make this presumption any longer.  We're told repeatedly:  "marriage has nothing to do with children" -- with the latest variant being, "marriage has nothing to do with children, and you have no right to say that it does."  We're told that marriage is, instead, a legal contract intended to confer government benefits and societal recognition on its participants.  We not only have widespread acceptance of divorce but have proposals for such things as a 5 or 10-year marriage contract, and warm human interest stories of women rediscovering themselves after a late-in-life divorce.  In this environment, is it really the firm intention of married couples to, in fact, remain faithful to each other until death?  It would seem as if, more and more, the "default" assumption has to be that a couple entering into a marriage, at least a secular marriage, does not have such an intention.  And even marriage in a Catholic church, with its emphasis on Pre-Cana marriage preparation -- it would require quite a firm resolve to believe marriage to be something other than what the prevailing cultures says it is.

But I'm not sure exactly where I'm going with this.  What do you think?


  1. Contemporary marriage is a joke. It is no longer a social celebration of a lifelong commitment enshrined in a contract with the State, but has been reduced to the legal agreement itself and nothing more. It's more just a formality since cohabitation is now the rule and not the exception.

    If I were to point the finger I would lay blame at the feet of the Reformers, in particular John Calvin and friends. That is when marriage became a blessing of not just the Church but also the State - and with modern civilization increasingly seeing the Church as a relic of an intolerant past, it became exclusively the province of the civil authority. Marriage was once a *covenant* with a man, woman, and God; it is now merely a contract with society with no boundaries that will not be pushed.

    If I were in charge then, I would do away with marriage as a legal institution. Take the bundle of rights and privileges granted by the State which is known as "marriage", and allow them to be entered into by any two willing adults for any reason. There is no logic in continuing to pay lip service to a sacramental institution when preferences for more...flexible arrangements are revealed by people's preferences.

    1. "If I were in charge then, I would do away with marriage as a legal institution. Take the bundle of rights and privileges granted by the State which is known as "marriage", and allow them to be entered into by any two willing adults for any reason."

      I completely agree. I have long said that "marriage" in the civil arena is merely an administrative declaration of a joined household. If we want to treat administratively joined households differently for taxation purposes (so, for example, we don't unduly penalize families with a stay-at-home parent), fine. But let's not pretend civil marriage is sacramental. Also, let's not get all up in arms if the requirements for civil marriage is different than the requirements for sacramental marriage. As long as no one has the stupidity to try and force a Catholic church to perform a marriage contrary to the tenets of the Faith (say, a same-sex marriage), I am fine with whatever the state wants to define as "marriage."

  2. Jane, I definitely agree that it takes firm resolve to believe that marriage is something more than what the prevailing culture says it is. However, while tragic in some respects, this also presents an opportunity at which we Christians can rejoice. The state of modern culture and moral norms is truly tragic. For most of the history of western civilization, really since the emergence of a Christian hegemony in the 4th century, the Christian view of marriage was generally understood, even if it wasn't always lived out in practice. As you say, this meant monogamy, openness to life, mutual sacrifice, and permanence.

    In the years after the Edict of Milan, Christianity quickly emerged into the de facto religion of the Roman empire. The Church and the state played complementary roles in society, and it made practical sense for the state to recognize the same marriages as the Church. That complementarity and interaction of Church and State was basically the case in the west until after WWII.

    Now in the post-war era, with Orthodox Christianity no longer the prevalent belief system, it's going to be more challenging for Christians to hold and profess our beliefs than it used to be. While tragic, this also offers an opportunity for us as Christians to grow closer to God, to understand our faith better, and to be effective witnesses to a hostile world. In pagan Rome, the faithfulness of Christian marriage was one of the strongest witnesses for the Faith. ("The Christians share their food but not their wives.") We should look to their example.

    Because memory is short, there is a tendency among Christians to see the current state of the world as new and terrifying. But you, Jane, as an historian, know that persecution and astigmatism are not new. They are in fact very old, among the Church's oldest traditions, along with love, service and sacrifice. In reality, it is the 17 centuries since Milan that are the anomaly in the Church's history, when the state and society all embraced the name of Christ. We are now returning the Church's natural place in society, which is as a sojourner in a hostile world. So let's pray that we, and Christians everywhere, have the faith and fortitude to embrace the cross we are called to.

    I also agree that even Catholic marriages are not fully understood by those contracting them. Dioceses are going to have to vastly improve catechesis and discipline in order to improve the state of Christian marriage. With ideal catechesis, there would be no grounds for annulment, as a spouse would not be able to claim a lack of understanding of the marriage covenant. In such a situation, a bishop would rightly refuse an annulment, and a person would either have to be a faithful spouse, or be excommunicated. And in a perfect world, excommunicated persons would not be able to receive the Eucharist, as many do now, in violation of canon law. There's been some improvement, but that ideal Church is very far from us, and of course we'll never actually reach it, but we need to keep striving for it.

    Happy Easter.

  3. I think what's disturbing is the growing train of thought that, "Regardless of your stated reason for being opposed to same-sex marriage, the reality is you're a hateful person and we are going to deny you the rights that you seek to deny homosexuals." Except I have seen no traditional marriage advocates stupid and hateful enough to say that homosexuals don't deserve to have jobs. So getting traditional marriage advocates fired from their jobs seems to be obviously taking it too far. At least to me.

    Now, occasionally I do run into someone conservative who hasn't really thought out the implications of their position. Or they are conservative because they were raised that way and they don't really know WHY they are conservative. I'll give you an example - I was recently in New York with a coworker from Texas. Young, impetuous, gentlemanly, well-spoken, wealthy, and conservative. Good guy overall, just needed some life experience to bring out the underlying (I think) good character. Anyway, one day we went to lunch, and as we were finishing up, he noticed the rainbow flag in the window. He said he wished he would have known because then he wouldn't have eaten here. "Why?" I said. "They need to eat, too." "But that doesn't mean I need to give them my business," he replied. Okay, sure - he's free to take his money wherever and for whatever reason. But homosexuals still have a right to cook food and to sell that food and to take that money they earn to pay their rent. Boycotting homosexuals in tantamount to saying they don't have a right to life, and I definitely don't agree with that.

    1. I think there's a good case for not employing practicing homosexuals. If you're a Christian business owner who wants his company to be a Christian community, then a person who lives impenitentially in mortal sin would give scandal to the rest of the company. Traditionally, such persons would be expelled from a Christian community. The owner is certainly under no obligation to spiritually endanger the rest of his employees for the sake of the impenitent sinner.

    2. In all practicality, how do you decide which "impenitent sinners" are unemployable? What about the guy who spends weekends at his girlfriend's apartment? Or the unmarried woman who finds herself pregnant? Or the guy who never goes to church? Or the girl who doesn't give anything to charity?

    3. Obviously, as a practical matter, you can't penalize the things you never find out about. So what? You could certainly refuse the hospitality of your home to unrepentant sinners (e.g., if the pregnant woman didn't regret her sexual activity), and, subject to legal restrictions, refuse to to do business with such people too. The guy (or girl) who keeps his or her sex life secret, you can't do anything about.

      I mostly don't do that, because I don't care about other people, but it's not logically problematic.

    4. The point in question was about an openly practicing homosexual. I think that's a pretty clear "impenitent sinner." Personally, I wouldn't advocate inquiring too closely into people's private lives, so it would probably turn into DADT in practice. But just because it isn't always clear, let's not pretend that it's never clear, or that a company should have to use a "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard to fire someone who is disturbing camaraderie. And I'm not saying I would necessarily run a business that way myself, but I think a community has the right to set standards of conduct for its members.


Love comments! And the nice thing about this small blog is that I rarely get spam so don't need to moderate the comments.

I've set the comments up to allow anonymous users -- but I'd love it if you "signed" your comments (as some of my readers have done) just so you have an identity of sorts.