If we Catholics ever hope to convince supporters of same-sex “marriage” that it isn’t real, we first have to convince ourselves that “civil marriage” is just as unreal.
Sure, the State thinks it controls something that it likes to call “civil marriage,” as though it is really a thing. But the Catholic view of marriage is simple—there is only one “thing” that is marriage. And sometimes the “thing” that is marriage happens in a church, sometimes in the chambers of a Justice of the Peace, sometimes on cruise ships, sometimes in Las Vegas, sometimes on an ocean beach, sometimes in the heart of a distant jungle or desert.
The “thing” that really is marriage generally happens anytime one man and one woman, baptized or unbaptized, freely and legitimately exchange their consent to live together as husband and wife for the rest of their lives, saying “yes” to the essential meaning of marriage. For two validly baptized persons (Catholic or not), their marriage is also a Sacramental reality. For everyone else, they’ve entered into a presumably valid natural marriage.
Once upon a time, this unique reality that is marriage, which pre-existed every society and government, was fairly well-represented by the State, which first demonstrated its awareness of and appreciation for the family as the fundamental cell of society by attaching certain rights and privileges in favor of marriage, for the sake of the common good, which benefits greatly from God’s plan for both marriage and its primary end—the procreation and education of children.
In more recent times, the one-to-one correspondence between actual marriage and “civil” so-called marriage became more deeply eroded through no-fault divorce. No-fault divorce results in the illusion that people can get “re-married” by the State despite the fact that, in the eyes of God and in accord with His plan for marriage, these folks remain bound by the consent to marriage that they first exchanged with their “first” (really one-and-only) spouse.
This means that what everyone continues to refer to as “civil marriage” is really a confusing and massive mixture of relationships, some of which are not marriages at all (invalid “attempted” marriages), some of which are valid “natural” marriages, and even some of which are valid Sacramental marriages (as in when two baptized-but-not-Catholic Christians have their exchange of consent witnessed by a Justice of the Peace rather than a Christian minister).
Civil marriage is merely an illusion. And it was an illusion long before same-sex ‘marriage’ took center stage. Yes, the rights and privileges of civil (so-called) marriage are real enough, but they already extend to both the truly married and the not-really-married in our society.
Those who continue to think that the State really is the author and originator of marriage are not going to believe those of us who instead claim that God is the real Author of marriage unless we are willing to maintain a correct and consistent view of what marriage is and is not. And this is a two-way street.
We Catholics cannot simply insist that the Church must now sever its ties with “civil marriage” simply because same-sex ‘marriage’ is now accommodated in many places by the State. Why? Because the State will continue to witness genuine valid natural and Sacramental marriages that we in the Church must also continue to accept as presumably valid. Further, if we Catholics must first insist that the State correctly understand marriage before Catholic clergy cooperates with the State in witnessing marriages recognized by the State, then we should have parted ways with the State decades ago due to the dominating prevalence of no-fault divorce. But we didn’t—and couldn’t—for the same reason we cannot and should not, here and now, despite the wholesale re-definition of marriage taking place in government and society: Real marriages will continue to take place under the illusory rubric of “civil marriage.”
What about the proposal to have Catholic couples exchange marital consent twice, once for the Church and once for the State, as is apparently the custom in some other countries? I’d suggest that would represent a terrible capitulation to the State—and a disservice to the couple. The sacred bond of marriage begins exactly once—not twice. Which exchange of consent is the one from which the marriage actually arises? Are we to instruct a Catholic couple to “mean” their marital promises on only one of those occasions? Feign marriage on the other?
No. The truth is that the advent of same-sex “marriage” in the United States means that marriage law and practice will indeed get messier and messier, but any attempt to segregate “Church” marriage from the illusion of “civil marriage” will result in even greater confusion, particularly for those whose valid marriages will continue to be witnessed by the State.
We Catholics need to remember: No one ever enters into a “civil” marriage. One either enters into marriage, pure and simple, or one enters into nothing at all.