It’s one I made in a letter to the New Zealand bishops and Parliament some time ago when the Civil Unions debate was raging in New Zealand. The idea is not unique; it’s one I’ve heard from other people. But it doesn’t (yet) seem to be mainstream Catholic thinking.
Here’s the thing. Marriage as Catholic understand it, and marriage as it is widely understood in other cultures (including mainstream Western popular culture) are entirely different things. I initially typed two entirely different things, but the variations are much broader than that. My proposal is based on this reality, and has two parts.
Part one: I propose that we let go of the word – which we don’t own, after all. It comes by diverse paths from the Latin word for husband (maritus), and some etymologists think the word husband has its source in the Indo-European word mer, which means to provide with a bride or young woman.
What we Catholics are concerned about is sacramental marriage – not any of the odd forms that marriage has taken in history.
So let’s let go of our attachment to the idea that what we mean by marriage is what the word marriage means to other people, and focus on explaining why our concept of sacramental marriage is most consistent with natural law, provides the most security for the spouses, and is best for children. By sacramental marriage, I mean marriage between one baptised man and one baptised woman, and covenanted to be lifelong, exclusive, and open to life. All those words are important – one man and one woman, baptised, covenanted, lifelong, exclusive, open to life. I’ll get into that in another post. (UPDATE: words edited to include Chris’ kind corrections.)
Part two: let’s stop performing marriages that are not sacramental. Let’s have all our priests resign as marriage celebrants. Let’s have our bishops opt out of the arrangement with the government that makes a priest a marriage celebrant. If someone wants a sacramental marriage, let them first have a civil marriage. That’s the way it’s done elsewhere – and I think it’s a great idea. It makes a clear difference between marriage as a social and legal contract, and marriage as a sacred covenant.
Then we can get some clarity about the discussion about same-sex, plural, or any other non-traditional marriage form. They may be legal, but they’re not sacramental. The Church can have a view, like any other organisation in our civil society – and it should; I believe the sacramental marriage perspective is very relevant to creating a society that protects children. But the decision will be made through the democratic process. Similarly, sacramental marriage – provided it does not breach local law – is solely the province of the Church (and other religious-based marriage limited to the decision-making processes of their own faith communities); other organisations have a right to state their view, but the decision is not open to a public vote.