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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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  • Nicholas

    Much of this article does not accurately portray the fullness of the Catholic teaching on marriage. Marriage is a “natural and primeval” right (Casti Connubii) – good for society, good for the Church, the only blessing not lost by the Fall. We do not have to accommodate the “new definition” of marriage. We never have and never will. We use our criteria, based on natural and divine law (not the state’s current definition), to determine a marriage’s validity and which ones we “bless”. Because it is a natural right and a public act, we require that the marriage be recognized civilly before or concurrent with the ecclesial wedding. Only in very rare circumstances would the Church perform a wedding that was not recognized by the State (Canons 1130ff).

    It was not the Church that separated the civil and ecclesial weddings elsewhere in the world, it was the State. Here in the US, the Church should hold on to 1) the right to be a witness to the civil aspect and 2) the right to choose which marriages we “bless”, as long as possible, else the Church will no longer be a participant in the Public Square regarding what marriage is – for our good, and the good of society.

  • Kevin Aldrich

    I think this is an excellent piece, Dr. Hunnell. I think you are right that this is a game-changer in terms of whether it can be assumed that Christians in other ecclesial communities have received the Sacrament of Matrimony validly because of their denomination’s “belief” about natural marriage.

    It just occurred to me that the basic problem has already existed for a long time with the Orthodox, who permit up to two divorces and three marriages (if I have my numbers correct).

    Of course, whatever the Catholic Church “must do” in terms of the discipline of the Sacrament of Matrimony is ultimately up to the proper Church authorities: the pope and the bishops.

  • james

    ” The Church should reevaluate the criteria by which it recognizes the validity of couples married in non-Catholic churches.”

    SSM aside, it is interesting that the CC concerns itself with other faiths and traditions while at the same time these entities could care less what the CC teaches or thinks on the matter. Such is indifference..

    • deltaflute

      This is not true. Many other Protestant traditions recognize the infant baptism of former Catholics and marriages of non-Catholics in a Catholic Church.

      From the Lutheran Missouri Synod Website:
      Q: My wife and I, who belonged to different denominations,
      wish to become more permanently and actively involved in one of the
      local LCMS congregations. However, I have been too shy to ask the pastor
      if we would need to be re-Baptized in order to be full communicants.

      The LCMS recognizes and accepts the validity of baptisms properly
      administered (i.e., using water in any quantity and/or mode, together
      with the Trinitarian invocation instituted by Christ, Matt. 28:19) in
      all Christian churches. Assuming, therefore, that you have already
      received a proper Christian Baptism, there would be no need for you or
      your wife to be re-baptized, although completion of some form of
      “instruction classes” or “membership classes” is normally required of
      non-Lutherans who wish to become communicant members of LCMS
      congregations. Please discuss this with your pastor, who would be happy
      to discuss this issue with you and to answer any other questions you
      have about membership. There is no need to be shy — pastors encounter
      these kinds of questions all the time.

    • D Hunnell

      The teaching of the Church with regards to Sacraments in other faiths is not meant for the members of those sects. It is meant for Catholics who interact with those sects so they will not be misled to believe that what is being done over there is the equivalent to what is being done within the Catholic Church if such is not the case. It also comes to play as non-Catholics enter the Church in assessing where they are in the reception of Sacraments. No one needs to gets re-baptized but if there was a previous rite of baptism, it is necessary to determine if that rite was valid or not.

    • james

      Thank you both, however this goes much deeper than the sacraments.

    • deltaflute

      I’m not sure what you mean. There are joint declarations between Catholics and non-Catholics. There are also numerous Protestant websites that basically spend an awful lot of time trying to eviscerate Catholic teachings. Seems like numerous denominations spend an awful lot of time caring about exactly what the Catholic Church teaches and less time being indifferent. Although it varies with each denomination as to what teaching it cares about. But that says more about what each denomination focus’s it’s attention on more than anything else.

    • james

      Well delta, the scant joint declarations and websites (there’s a billion of them) aside let me put it another way.If one opened a business that was governed by an unseen benefactor and it lasted for say 75 generations, producing a product mostly unchanged in design, quality and integrity then, over another period of time,
      say 25 generations, many similar businesses opened using the same design in different packaging to suit the unique needs of their customers,and before long their numbers almost equaled yours – would you concur that the unseen benefactor may have backed these investors to supplement the original product ?
      There’s another analogy one can make that gets closer to home.
      If you opened a business and over time the list of unaddressed grievances grew so long there was a general strike that crippled the entity to the point where very similar spin offs occurred, some so successful that overall they almost equal the number of customers you service today despite the fact that you had 500 years to change minds, grow your numbers and adjust the thinking that led to the grievances in the first place. To put this if its final form – 1. if said original entity began hemorrhaging generations
      of good customers due in part to an inflexible mission statement that made it unable to deliver much needed services to a greatly
      different base. 2. If said entity had within its ordained managers, some who so reviled its upper management that it created a policy within a policy, ie: the NO as opposed to the EF redux 3. If the
      current CEO of this entity caused so much consternation over an initiative to address the spiritual needs of a different base, causing some in the business to begin calling him the anti-CEO 4. If the previous CEO resigned during one of the most important weeks in the entity’s history due to the magnitude of the above issues …..
      would you say, that not unlike the vision in Revelations, the original entity might have had its “lamp stand” dimmed as an outward sign that something is very wrong. These examples can be summed up in one question : How would the CC KNOW and what would the outward sign look like if said entity were no longer in sync with and/or following the guidance of the Holy Spirit ???

    • deltaflute

      I take it that you don’t read the Bible.

      I understand the point your trying to make with the analogy, but the Catholic Church isn’t a business. It’s a church founded by Jesus Christ. We’re not selling a product.

    • james

      I believe I said goodbye and God bless to you a short time ago.
      Same, same.

    • deltaflute

      james, I really am puzzled by you. What is it that you seek in making comments at Catholic Stand? You make a sweeping generalizations and digs at Catholics. Then when someone calls you on it, you put on an air of indignation and flat out refuse to dialogue.

      You’re whole argument is that other denominations do not care about Catholicism and this is coming from someone who is not Catholic constantly making comments on a Catholic website. It’s illogical.

      Then you argue that the Church is turning people off. If you read Acts…if you read the Gospels you would notice that the Church has always been turning people off. This is nothing new.

      Are you actually trying to make real points or are you intent upon hurling whatever in hopes that it will actually stick? I’m seriously concerned that the devil is at work with you, my friend. I’ll pray for your soul.