Civil and Sacramental Marriage Ceremonies

Marriage kiss

Last September, I responded to Leonid Sirota, a professor of law at Auckland University, who stated on his blog Double Aspect that in Canadian civil marriage has “no raison d’être.” I attempted to outline, from a Catholic perspective, why civil marriage may have an important purpose insofar as it furthers the ends of natural marriage: unity, fidelity, and fecundity, which the responsible state should have an interest in protecting.

However, my response engaged with the issues on a fairly abstract level, removed from the actual state of civil law in Canada, or anywhere, for that matter. Sirota says that “there is no need, and no reason, to attach civil consequences to a ceremony, whatever its name, and whether performed by a civil servant or a religious officer.” Indeed, Canadian law will seek to protect the interests of all children, no matter the marital status of their parents, and to protect the interests of all people who are in troubled relationships, no matter their marital status. Therefore, it may seem that civil marriage is unnecessary because its ends are already pursued in the protections the state provides to common-law families. The natural marriage ends of fecundity and the education of children may still be supported in the case of common law spouses who are not united in civil marriage. If this is the case, in very practical terms it seems that there is need neither for civil marriage nor to attach any civil consequences to a ceremony.

Ceremonies, consequences, and the wonders of courthouse weddings

In saying that there is no reason to attach civil consequences to a ceremony, however, Sirota gets it backwards. It is not the case that a marriage ceremony has no consequences until civil ones are attached, but that natural marriage (which even a common-law relationship imitates) bears consequences that make the ceremony necessary. A spousal relationship that bears children participates in the perpetuation of society, as does the raising and formation of those children. The unity of the spouses supports that education, providing a stable foundation for those children, and also ideally protects the spouses by combining their resources and giving each other mutual support. If the spousal relationship fails, both the children and the spouses may be put in a vulnerable position, requiring the support of the broader community’s resources.

Therefore, the civil consequences of natural marriage are issues in which the broader society rightly takes an interest, and these are issues for which the spouses take responsibility. This relationship is the way in which the spouses intend to perpetuate and transform society. In any other such civic role, such as the holder of a political office, or a judge, or the process of becoming a citizen, and so on, there is at the very least a swearing-in ceremony to show the importance, solemnity, and responsibility of the undertaking and to confirm that the person understands those elements. The swearing of an oath or vow is a rite of passage into a new office or state. Marriage and marriage-like relationships are a similar participation in civil society, but only marriage requires that ceremony. When spousal relationships are only the means by which individuals express their dignity and autonomy, that civic dimension is unnecessary, and so the ceremony is unnecessary. When, however, civil marriage promotes the ends of natural marriage, that civic dimension takes on greater urgency, and so the ceremony in which the spouses acknowledge the responsibilities of their undertaking similarly takes on greater urgency. In marriage, individuals no longer live for themselves but for their spouses, in deep intimacy, but it does not end there; they also take on new responsibilities for the world. We see this especially in sacramental weddings, which are witnessed not only so that somebody can confirm that vows were exchanged, but so that the community can witness to, support, and endorse the spouses’ new mission to each other and the community.

Now, the picture I am drawing of a solemn and ponderous civil marriage ceremony must seem unbearably dry compared to the joyful celebration of the stereotypical sunlit dream wedding. In all honesty, I would not want that to be the case; weddings should bear witness to the joy of the love that unites the spouses. Heavy responsibilities, however, do not necessarily cancel out joy. Indeed, Catholics will speak of marriage as learning to bear one’s cross, which is a bleaker image even than that of a civil courthouse ceremony. As such, I do not think that society will be too much of a killjoy if it emphasizes these elements of marriage. One would also hope that the implications of the ceremony would prompt prospective spouses to more thoroughly consider what they are about to undertake.

Agents of the state?

Furthermore, I do not want to make spouses into conscripted agents of the state either. As Pope Leo XIII says in Rerum Novarum:

In choosing a state of life, it is indisputable that all are at full liberty to follow the counsel of Jesus Christ as to observing virginity, or to bind themselves by the marriage tie. No human law can abolish the natural and original right of marriage, nor in any way limit the chief and principal purpose of marriage ordained by God’s authority from the beginning: “Increase and multiply.” Hence we have the family, the “society” of a man’s house – a society very small, one must admit, but none the less a true society, and one older than any State. Consequently, it has rights and duties peculiar to itself which are quite independent of the State.

Similarly, Marc Barnes, the Bad Catholic himself, says:

This the heart of a radical Catholic politic, the fierce validation of the family as “totally independent of the commonwealth.” People fall in love, marry, and perpetuate the human comedy through the creation of smaller people, all without giving a single damn about the State. This seems self-evident. But this also means that the argument for the preservation of “traditional marriage” as a necessary institution for contributing progeny to the State is, at best, wonky. I suppose one may make a baby with a mind to the maintenance and health of the commonwealth, but this is an unnecessary addition. One may equally, ethically, naturally, and in affectionate accord with the Patriarchs of the Western Church, say “screw the commonwealth, we’re making a person as a distinct locus of value, lovely in itself, apart from any possible ends,” and proceed thereby.

The state has an interest in marriage, and spouses must be aware of how natural marriage perpetuates society, but natural marriage more fundamentally perpetuates humanity than it does the state, and so spouses are not merely its agents.

The Wedding Feast of the Lamb

The ceremony of a Catholic sacramental marriage, however, is not just a civil marriage with a religious dressing, a Catholic way of celebrating a civic association. Sacramental marriage is ordered towards perpetuating the Church and points towards the unity of Christ and His Church, celebrated in the wedding feast of the Lamb. Therefore, a Catholic union goes far beyond the minimal requirements of civil marriage and declares not just the intention to perpetuate the society, or even the Church, but to be Christ to one another, to love each other just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself for her. This does not necessarily excuse Catholics from civic responsibilities, but it does mean that their weddings cannot be reduced to “getting married in a church.”

More specifically, as Marc Cardinal Ouellet says in Mystery and Sacrament of Love: A Theology of Marriage and the Family for the New Evangelization,

The New Covenant is sealed in the Eucharistic flesh of the Bridegroom; this is the daily nourishment offered to the Church-bride to guarantee the permanent actualization of the nuptial mystery… Marriage receives its entire sacramental significance from this context: the representation of the paschal sacrifice that establishes the nuptial bond between Christ and the Church. In the Eucharist, then, the spouses find access to all the dimensions of the nuptial mystery… they also accomplish a real methexis, a participation in the “nuptial mystery” that they are called to translate into their conjugal life. This is why the Church traditionally celebrates weddings within the Eucharistic liturgy. (166)

Catholic weddings ideally take place at Mass so that spouses might understand their new life to participate in the nuptial mystery of Christ and the Church, in that Christ gave Himself to the Church and the Church remembers His sacrifice in the celebration of the Eucharist. Spouses are similarly to die to themselves so that they may serve each other and make each other holy.

Civil and sacramental wedding ceremonies, therefore, are not simply secular and religious ways of achieving the same end or different versions of the same thing. The civil ceremony should work to protect the ends in which the wider society takes an interest: the perpetuation of society and the education of children. Catholic sacramental marriages have those same interests, but also have the end of the spouses’ being Christ to each other, which the Mass further emphasizes when the wedding can take place at Mass.

This is not to say, however, that civil and sacramental marriages are mutually exclusive. Society may see the sacramental relationship and commitment of the spouses being Christ to each other as beneficial to the community and therefore recognize a sacramental relationship civilly. It is the laity who marry in the Catholic Church, and the vocation of layperson is to live and work in the secular world to turn it towards Christ. Therefore it is often good for laypersons to see their marriages as not separating them from the secular world, but as a new aspect of their mission to it. It may occur that a secular order is corrupt in such a way that it demands unacceptable concessions of the Church as a condition for civilly recognizing her marriages, or that the secular order comes to reject the virtues of sacramental marriage. In that case, it is the job of the spouses, as Barnes says, to “spiritually reject the very constitution of a civil marriage, to ‘fill it up’ in their intention what is lacking in its legal structure.” Otherwise, it is good to celebrate both the civil and sacramental aspects of marriage, recognizing the way in which the sacramental life contributes to the civil life, without confusing the two.

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