The Church Should Untangle Civil from Sacred ‘Marriage’

15 Jul

ABC Religion and Ethics 14 Jul 2015

The church must distinguish what belongs to Caesar from what belongs to God. If the church is no longer wedded to the word ‘marriage’, it will have nothing to lose if and when the civil law changes.

“Don’t mess with marriage” was in my face when I reached for the parish newsletter at last Sunday’s mass. Before I turned the page of this pastoral letter from the Catholic Bishops of Australia, there was already a problem: the mess predates this “same-sex marriage debate.”

Our church has never had a monopoly on the meaning of marriage – an institution that existed long before Christianity. Marriage was never ours to begin with and has been continually re-defined throughout history by many institutions, including the church itself.

If the “faithful” relinquish the word marriage and give it back to secular society, religious institutions could dust off and reinstate the holy sacrament of matrimony, with all the sacred implications.

When I was a child, Easter Sunday was used in church to mark the most definitive day on the Christian calendar. As we learned that Easter derives from the Saxon goddess of Spring, Eostre, one of many pagan notions adopted into church traditions, my parish now calls it Resurrection Sunday – and rightly so. Eostre was the goddess of fertility, hence the association with the bunny. This revolution away from borrowed names to reinstate the original event helps untangle history.

It was only 500 years ago, at the Council of Trent in 1563, when marriage was officially deemed as one of the seven sacraments. Long before marriage was adopted as a sacrament, it was a strategic alliance between families for economic reasons or class reasons, often arranged by parents. Love and offspring were secondary.

As I read the pastoral letter, I cringed at the timing of our faithful assuming the moral high ground and pontificating about sex while harrowing revelations continue in the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. While the churches have a legitimate role to contribute to moral debates, why does the Catholic church appear to do most of the heavy lifting whenever this debate rages in Australia? After all, synagogues and mosques also profess the sanctity of a heterosexual marriage, but we do not see such public protests from rabbis and imams.

The pastoral letter defines marriage as a covenant that is “open to the procreation of children,” which is problematic for couples who choose not to have children. Last Sunday’s homily reminded me that family is a “holy” trinity between father, mother and child(ren).

The pastoral letter explains its central concerns about children, not because of the same-sex “parents” per se, but because of the church’s fundamental teachings on surrogacy, IVF and “the lure of the technology of artificial insemination.”

Australian census data attests that the institution and sanctity of marriage has been continually evolving and indeed eroding for decades. Popular culture and television programs have redefined marriage as a competition for of vanity, originality and fashion. The sacrament and “holy trinity” rarely enters into the equation when scoring points over wedding dresses, decor, catering and music to win the luxury honeymoon prize.

I was affronted by the pastoral letter asserting that “mothering and fathering are distinctly different” and that absence of a mother or father may “impede child development.” As a widowed father of three children, I can testify that it is the quality of parenting rather than the (in)equality of gender that most influences the child’s development.

Soon after my wife died, our parish priest gave me the classic Rembrandt painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son, and pointed out that the father figure had both paternal and maternal features. This image has been displayed in many confession boxes (sacrament of reconciliation) and reminds us that we are all wired to fulfil dual roles. I think it is more nurture (culture) than nature that leads to these gender distinctions.

The most compelling arguments in the pastoral letter pertain to the rights of children, especially to know their right to know their biological parents. Although the “consequences of redefining marriage” examples in the pastoral letter may be perceived as scaremongering, Australia needs safeguards to prevent these anomalies and protect the religious institutions and private institutions.

Exclusion clauses need to be enshrined for ancillary services such as cake bakers, hotels, photographers and clergy who refuse to extend their services to same-sex couples, in “good faith.” Otherwise, we run the risk of replacing one form of discrimination against same-sex couples with another form of discrimination against those who refuse to recognise the couples as married.

If the opening slogan is “Don’t mess with marriage,” the closing slogan may as well read, “What next – polygamy?” And it is indeed these examples of state-sponsored punishment that need to be placated if the civil law changes are to retain a civil society.

Yes, the religious institutions cannot impose their sacred definition of marriage onto civil society, but in turn civil society cannot impose its redefinition onto religious institutions. That would be inequality.
We can discern what belongs to Caesar (civil society) from what belongs to God (sacred society). If we in the church faithful are no longer “wedded” to the word marriage, we have nothing to lose if and when the civil law changes.


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