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Catholic Marriage after Obergefell: Doctrine and Discipline

July 15, AD2015 11 Comments


wedding, marriage, matrimony, sacrament, man, woman, couple, union, family, faith

The recent Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision declared that legal marriage must be extended to same-sex couples. This is a monumental legal decision but this case has no effect on the Catholic doctrine of matrimony.

Catholic marriage is now and always will be a unique union between one man and one woman, joined before God and the Church. It is a vocation to utilize the complementarity of man and woman as God designed and to serve Him through this union. This vocation has as part of its essential nature the openness to procreation.

Such openness to life is biologically impossible within a same-sex relationship. For those who argue that infertility negates this vision of marriage, success in achieving pregnancy is not essential. The unique relationship of a man and a woman is, at its core, the kind of relationship that could bring forth new life if all reproductive faculties were operating. This can never be said of a same-sex relationship.

I believe it is a mistake to spend a great deal of time wailing and gnashing our teeth over Obergefell. This is the reality of our secular society and we need to quickly figure out how we are going to live our Catholic faith within this increasingly hostile culture. How are we going to continue to be in the world but not of the world?

On the legal front, there needs to be rapid action to protect religious liberty. Our First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion is threatened now more than ever in our nation’s history. The secular world wants to redefine this clause to mean freedom to worship but not the freedom to live out one’s religious principles.

As I have tried to discuss this issue with atheists and other irreligious acquaintances, it has become clear that they have no understanding that faith rightly held imbues every fiber of our being and directs every action of our lives. It is so much more than a ritual we engage in on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. Legal protection to prevent the marginalization of believers in public life is essential.

While the Obergefell decision has no impact on Church doctrine, it should have a very significant impact on Church disciple with regards to matrimony. It is abundantly obvious that the thing the state now calls “marriage” is merely a legal registration of an adult relationship, affecting taxation, property rights, and a host of other legal rights and responsibilities. In the eyes of the state, children are an optional accessory to this relationship but not a central purpose of the relationship. There is no presumption of permanence to legal marriage. What is joined in the eyes of the law is just as easily dissolved in the eyes of the law.

That this legal recognition can be extended to both same-sex couples and heterosexual couples makes it more akin to a business partnership than to a Catholic marital union. Therefore, Catholic priests should no longer be agents of the state in formalizing this legal entity. The Church does not legally incorporate businesses and has no reason to be involved in the legal incorporation of households.

This would avoid confusion in both the legal arena and among parishioners in the pews by driving home the point that what is happening in the courthouse is in no way comparable or equivalent to what happens in the sanctuary. The Catholic doctrine on marriage cannot accommodate this newly designed civil marriage.

While this may be inconvenient for couples marrying in the Church, it happens this way all over the world. In many areas of Latin America, Europe, and Africa those seeking government recognition of their union go to the state. If they want Church recognition they go to the Church. If they want both, they go to both.

The ink had barely dried on the Obergefell decision when the Episcopal Church reworked its doctrine on marriage to include same-sex couples. According to the Pew Research Center, they join the Presbyterians, the Unitarian Universalists, the Quakers, and the United Church of Christ, among others, who consider same-sex unions to be the equivalent of marriage between a man and a woman.

The Church should reevaluate the criteria by which it recognizes the validity of couples married in non-Catholic churches. The Catholic Church should treat marriages formalized in these communions the same way it treats civil marriages; that is, as legal entities that do not meet the definition of a sacramental marriage.

This approach is consistent with the way the Church handles other sacraments. The Church does not recognize the Eucharistic rite of a Protestant church to be the same as that of a Catholic Church. Baptism in most other Christian churches is recognized by Catholics as valid as long as the Trinitarian formula — “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (cf. Matthew 28:19) — is used; innovative “gender neutral” verbiage is not considered valid. In addition, baptisms performed in the Mormon Church are not recognized as valid because the doctrine underlying Mormon baptism is too different from the Catholic doctrine to make the rites interchangeable.

The churches that now embrace same-sex unions have similarly altered their doctrine on marriage to such a degree as to make such marriages wholly distinct from Catholic marriage. They should not be considered sacramental marriages in the eyes of the Church, just as non-Trinitarian baptisms are not recognized true baptisms.

Roe v. Wade was a travesty that has resulted in the deaths of over 55 million unborn lives. It has wreaked havoc on the lives of millions of women and men who must live with the physical, emotional, and spiritual consequences of abortion. But Roe v. Wade was also the wake-up call that we needed to increase our evangelization of the Church teaching on the sanctity of life from the moment of conception to natural death. We now have a generation of Millennials who are more pro-life than their parents.

We should see Obergefell as an opportunity to do the same for marriage. The Supreme Court has no authority to change the law of God or the doctrine of the Church. Our complacency and unwillingness to forcefully address contraception and divorce opened the door to these further perversions of the marital union.

It is time to speak boldly but always with charity on the true nature and purpose of Holy Matrimony. We need to evangelize the culture on the grace, beauty, and love of authentic marriage as God intended between one man and one woman. We need Church discipline to support this evangelization.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Denise's vocation is being a wife, mother, and grandmother. Her occupation has wound its way through being a practicing family physician to studying Catholic health care ethics to writing and teaching about all things Catholic. She is a fellow with Human Life International and regularly contributes to the HLI Truth & Charity Forum. She also writes a monthly column for She and her husband John have been married for thirty years and have lived all over the United States, courtesy of John's Air Force career. They are now settled in the suburbs of Northern Virginia and blessed with four children and three grandchildren (so far).

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