Every once in a while, tiny thoughts pop through my brain and I wonder if I’m not quite mad. The most insignificant thing in the world will set it off. A smile, or a blink, or for that matter a slightly extended silence.
And there there are the times when something quite loud and significant runs through my head and it usually come from loud and significant things. You’ll have to decide which of these is present in what follows.
In this country, we are given certain rights by the government, and I don’t mean Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, though some might say that these have been granted to us by that great man Thomas Jefferson. No, I mean things like the right to own a house, if you have the deed, the right to drive a car, if you have a license, the write to speak out against evil in a peaceful way, the right to bear arms. We also have the right to choose our own beneficiaries, our own room-mates (unless you’re a first semester student at Notre Dame, but can you blame them? And anyway, they’re not the government, thanks God.) and our own clothes. We basically have the right to do whatever we want with anyone as long as it’s not infringing on the rights of others.
There is this debate raging about the meaning of marriage. Some say “Marriage is between one man and one woman” and other say “No it’s not.” To all of them, I would say “Marriage is a sacrament between one man and one woman. Everything else is a social civil construct invented by the state for the purposes of keeping track of its citizens and their activities.” Are constructs bad? Of course not always. In fact, as an architecture student, I am particularly fond of constructing things. But we have to remember whose construct it is. It is the state’s construct and thus the state has a right over it.
We can, and should, argue that it is not “marriage,” but it is hard to see where it would be either useful or proper to tell the state “You can not establish any consent based contracts between adults concerning mutual rights and responsibilities.” In fact, it comes right down to that word, contract. A civil union (which all state “marriages” are) is not a sacrament but a contract and has, as I said before, a civil function. Its use is to make sure civil society stays…civil. The Sacrament of Marriage is a state of life entered into by two individuals according to the allowance of the Church in order to grow closer to God and to, in short, have fruitful sex. Nothing in “legal” marriage says anything about sex. It does not decree “Once you enter into this contract, you have an obligation to approach each other in a sexual manner.” In Marriage, though, it is quite part of the Rite itself and the tradition of the Church says that a husband and a wife ought to have intercourse, else their marriage is not valid. Not so for the “civil union.”
We are talking, then, of two very distinct things, though they have been conflated and confused and placed side by side for so ling that it’s hard to imagine them without each other. In “A Severe Mercy” by Sheldon Vanauken, Sheldon and his wife Jean are married by the town clerk, but then insist on going to find a minister though they themselves have no use for Christianity at the time.
For a man and a woman who want to dedicate their life together to God and the raising of children, the Sacrament only makes sense. For anyone else, the Sacrament is at best pretty and at worst irrelevant. It is impossible to dissolve the bond of Marriage, but a contract can always be broken. This is, of course, why divorce is so common among Christians…they confuse the two. They think that because legal “marriage” (or civil union) is a contract that can be broken (though not without cost), so too is “church marriage” whether they consider it a sacrament or not.
Because of all of this, this separation between the civil union and the marriage is necessary if we are to save marriage. If we try to draw our Sacramental understanding on the etch-a-sketch of the law, we risk our Sacrament being erased by the tremors of society. We must see our Sacrament as something unique, quite distinct from a “civil union.”
But this also means we have to avoid saying that a “civil union” must only be between one man and one woman. If two men want to dedicate their lives to a common cause and hold a common bank account and care for children, it is not up to the Church to say “No, they can not do that civilly.” It is up to the Church to say “Do not sin, it may very well be hard.” By right, Church adoption agencies can refuse to let them adopt children if they suspect that they will harm the child’s upbringing in any way, but that is surely what all adoption agencies do. It’s just that the Church has different criteria. But it is not enough to say “These two men have everything in common and have a legal contract that gives them the right to visit each other in a hospital etc. etc. and so we can not let them have children together.” We must say “These men are involved in a lifestyle that is harmful to children.”
And yet, the State does not have that responsibility. Since the contract and the situation of the contract is neutral when it comes to the question of sex and the raising of children, the State does not say “You have signed this contract, therefore you can’t have children.” It says, merely, nothing.
Of course, this is not to say that we should not promote a culture where sin and disorder are frowned upon. It is our duty to be a light to the world and to tell the world where it is wrong. One way it is wrong is to enter churches and tell us that our sacraments must coincide to its contracts. We must indeed work to heal division wherever it is and to strive toward personal holiness as well as the holiness of our society.