Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

A suggestion for First Things: separate civil divorce from Christian marriage

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 24, 2014

First Things is a journal with a proud tradition of fostering intellectual debate. (Remember when the late Father Neuhaus hosted a symposium on the question of whether the US government had lost its legitimacy?) Now a new editor, R.R. Reno, has stirred things up again by publishing, and strongly endorsing, a call for Christian ministers to stop signing marriage certificates.

The “Marriage Pledge,” as it was called, proposes to “separate civil marriage from Christian marriage” on the grounds that our society and its laws no longer comprehend what marriage really means. In the debate roused by that proposal, the most thoughtful critics of the Marriage Pledge fully agree with the authors of the proposal insofar as they say that our society does not understand marriage. Nevertheless they insist that the Marriage Pledge is profoundly misguided.

Edward Peters has provided a compelling critique of the proposal. When a minister signs a marriage certificate, he is attesting to the fact that a particular couple exchanged vows before him and are now legally married. He is not being asked by the government to make any comment on what marriage is and is not a true marriage. Peters reasons: “If the wording on the state’s wedding form says anything false (and I mean, false) then one must refuse to sign it. Even if that refusal leads to persecution. As it very well might. But if what the state’s wedding form says is true, then one can sign it. And for a host of reasons should sign it.

Borrowing from the Peters’ analysis, I find three fatal flaws in the logic behind the Marriage Pledge:

  1. The Pledge calls for a unilateral retreat by Christians from our society’s struggle for control of the meaning of marriage. Homosexual activists and their libertarian allies have been arguing for years that churches should not be involved in the question of civil marriage. This proposal would give them what they want, and remove the possibility that the churches might eventually exert enough influence to restore a proper understanding of marriage.
  2. With the Pledge, ministers would be crying before they are hurt. It is quite possible that at some point in the future, laws will be enacted requiring ministers to assent to a vision of marriage incompatible with Christian principles—to accept, for instance, that the union of two men is the same as the union of man and wife. In fact, if the most principled American clerics withdraw from the political debate now, that day may come sooner rather than later. At the moment, thank God, no such assent is required. When the minister signs a document witnessing to one marriage, he is not commenting, one way or another, on the claims of other couples to be lawfully married. And while it is ugly and awkward to identify the happy couple as “Party A” and “Party B,” those designations do not violate any point of Christian teaching.
  3. Finally, the Marriage Pledge places a new burden on engaged couples. Even if their ministers refuse to sign certificates, the couples still will be compelled to go through a potentially degrading legal ceremony—at town hall, or before a justice of the peace—where they will be fed into the governmental machinery alongside same-sex couples and the veterans of multiple divorces.

Confronted with such arguments, Reno has retreated only slightly. He now acknowledges that a Christian clergyman is not morally obligated to sign the Marriage Pledge. But he retains his enthusiasm for the proposal, and insists that a withdrawal from civil marriage is not a retreat from engagement with civil society but a demand for recognition of Christian principle.

Could I jump in, at this point in what promises to be a lively continuing debate, and suggest that we’re arguing about the wrong topic?

As I mentioned above, many thoughtful critics of the Marriage Pledge (and I’d like to place myself in that category) share the authors’ concern that the Christian understanding of marriage has been lost—first in our society, and then, as a result, in our laws. We are wholeheartedly in sympathy with Reno when he argues that “the illusion that the Christian view of marriage can comfortably accommodate a definition of marriage that has strayed so far from revelation and reason that it now allows men to marry men and women to marry women.” We part company only when Reno argues that the Marriage Pledge is “an assault on the complacent notion that government marriage in a place like New York (which redefined marriage in 2011) is still marriage.”

If Christian ministers are really intent on assailing complacent notions, I propose that they withdraw all recognition from no-fault divorce laws. These laws, which swept through the legal world a generation ago (with very little effective opposition from the Christian community, I am ashamed to say), totally undermined the public understanding of marriage and paved the way for legal acceptance of same-sex unions. Once no-fault divorce laws were in place, it became impossible to obtain government recognition for a Christian marriage—that is, for an indissoluble union. With no-fault divorce, our society accepted the outlandish notion that a marital commitment can be severed at any time, for any reason, by either party. Marriage came to be seen as whatever the two partners thought it was. So when two men or two women thought they were making a marital commitment, the stage was already set for acceptance of their legal reasoning.

When a Christian minister accepts the validity of a legal divorce, he is tacitly acknowledging the state’s ruling that a marital commitment is a disposable item; he is accepting a debased understanding of marriage. Even for those Christian denominations that accept the possibility of divorce, the willingness to rely on the state’s authority to sever marital unions, when the state has shown its contempt for Christian marriage, is scandalous.

For the Catholic Church, which strictly uphold Christ’s clear teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, the problem is even more pronounced. Church tribunals routinely ask that, before a case for annulment is filed, a civil divorce must already be in place. Why?

In a civil divorce, the state affirms something that the Catholic Church regards as an impossibility: that a couple, once married, is no longer married. It is possible that they never were validly married; that is something for the tribunal to decide. But if they were never married in the eyes of the Church, the state’s ruling is irrelevant; and if they were married the state cannot un-marry them.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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Show 8 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Mike in Toronto - Oct. 12, 2016 8:34 PM ET USA

    A clarification to garedawg's point about there not being two cardinals from the same city -- this applies only if the Emeritus is under 80 and thus still an Elector. Cdl. Mahoney of Los Angeles is now 80 and Cdl. Rigali is 81; there are thus no barriers to red hats for Abp. Gomez and Abp. Chaput since each would be the sole Elector from his diocese.

  • Posted by: rickt26170 - Oct. 12, 2016 4:25 AM ET USA

    Francis obviously wants to destroy the Church shaped by JPII and Benedict. As a convert I was drawn to the strong, clear and deep message. I look at Francis with bewilderment. Accommodation with 21st century secularism has crippled mainline Protestant denominations. Turn your church into a welfare agency that is "inclusive" in every regard (regardless of the Gospel) and why get up Sunday morning. Someone please explain why Francis thinks the same thing won't happen to Mother Church.

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Oct. 11, 2016 9:21 PM ET USA

    I've said it before and I'll reiterate: Ronald Regan - John Paul. Barack Obama - Pope Francis. Too extreme you say? Maybe but the leftist climate can't be denied (full pun intended.) Snubbing Archbishop Chaput is as major a statement as are the credentials of those appointed. Get ready for increasing chaos with a potential schism.

  • Posted by: wojo425627 - Oct. 11, 2016 12:53 PM ET USA

    I feel like in America because of these choices we are headed for a repeat of the 1970's and 80's, unless we get a strong orthodox pope in the next conclave. We could see the loss of another generation or two of catholics add we have already witnessed with tbe so called "nones".

  • Posted by: garedawg - Oct. 11, 2016 10:19 AM ET USA

    His not choosing Bishop Gomez of L.A. makes some sense, since his predecessor is still living and typically one does not have two cardinals from the same city. I don't recall whether Bishop Chaput's predecessor is also a living cardinal.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Oct. 10, 2016 5:27 PM ET USA

    We Catholics are waking slowly. We might love the papacy, but ought we deny reality? In the 80s and 90s we loved something more than the papacy; we made of St. John Paul someone greater than the office. "In media stat virtus" goes the old axiom. Intemperance, no matter nobility of intention, remains intemperance, and it exacts a price. Simply, the pope is a saint inasmuch as he is a good pope. We've transcended the popes of old; we are more complex. So be it; now we encounter what follows.

  • Posted by: frjpharrington3912 - Nov. 25, 2014 11:22 PM ET USA

    Agreed there was a time when the moral conscience of society was shaped by Christian values which greatly influenced the laws governing society's institutions, such as marriage, education, the military, etc. Where before the state respected the influence of religion - Christianity - to support and sustain these institutions now it sees it as a threat to them. The best defense is always the truth and the faith to have the courage to bear witness to it as did forefathers.

  • Posted by: TheJournalist64 - Nov. 25, 2014 7:02 PM ET USA

    Well, if we don't insist that a divorce decree be presented before initiating nullity proceedings, we could be sued in civil court for breaking up the couple. So it's a defensive mechanism to demand that paper.