Leonid Sirota, a professor of law at Auckland University, reacted on his blog Double Aspect to a Québec legal case in which some arguments revolved around the distinctions between religious and civil marriages. While the specific details of that case need not concern us here, Sirota went on to muse:
All that said, we can take the occasion for reflecting on the relationship between state, religion, and marriage. To me at least, it illustrates the folly of entangling the state in intimate relationships between men, women, and God (not all three being necessarily involved, of course). Why exactly do we need to attach civil consequences to marriage ― the sacrement [sic], the ceremony that is? If it is the case that intimate relationships or cohabitation invariably produce unique dependency and require legal protections for their vulnerable members, then these protections should attach to cohabitation ― as indeed they already do in every province other than Québec. If this it is not the case that people involved in such relationships are incapable of meaningful choice, as Québec believes, then they should be free to contract into, or perhaps out of, an optional legal regime based on cohabitation… Either way, 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. If people believe that God attaches importance to a ceremony, that’s their right of course. But civil marriage simply has no raison d’être.
Sirota pointed out that in Canada, “religious marriages without civil consequences are not exactly a shocking, unheard-of thing… there are all manner of religious groups in Québec. Some of them may perform marriage ceremonies that do not comport with the Québec Civil Code’s requirements for authorizing religious officers to perform civil marriages, and these ceremonies will, then, result in religious marriages without civil consequences. Before same-sex marriage was recognized by law, some religious groups blessed same-sex unions.” The implication is that not only does civil marriage have no raison d’être from a secular perspective, but it is also lacking from a religious perspective.
Sirota is right that, from the Catholic perspective specifically, civil marriage has no raison d’être insofar as it consists of the state merely affirming people in their feelings and life decisions. There is a vague, by no means obligatory, sense that civil marriage might encourage families and procreation. From a Catholic perspective, however, civil marriage can have a raison d’être if it fosters the ends of natural marriage.
The ends of marriage
Marc Cardinal Ouellet, in Mystery and Sacrament of Love: A Theology of Marriage and the Family for the New Evangelization, notes that natural marriage, especially from a Thomistic perspective, is “ordered to perpetuating the human race,” specifically through the generation and education of children (50). It requires stability and indissolubility to achieve this end.
Similarly, the Catechism teaches that marriage is “by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring.” The goods of conjugal love include unity, fidelity, and fecundity.
Pace Sirota, civil marriage can indeed have a raison d’être, if it helps spouses to achieve these ends of unity, fidelity, and fecundity. This is not by any means to say that the ends of natural marriage can be best brought about by state support but merely to defend civil marriage from the charge of utter pointlessness. As Marc Barnes of Bad Catholic says,
the State does no more than regulate “the civil effects of marriage” (Canon 1016). Which leads to the not-so-shocking conclusion that, to the Catholic, there is no such thing as a “civil marriage” at all — there is only the State regulation of the effects of a sacramental or natural marriage on society. At best then, the State can be a help or a hindrance to natural and sacramental marriages.
If civil marriage seeks to perpetuate society by encouraging procreation, enabling the education of children (with special priority to parents as primary educators), assisting and encouraging spouses to be faithful to each other (particularly by not making separation so easy, while still protecting vulnerable spouses from abusers), it is actually seeking to achieve something important.
Now, of course, Catholics understand marriage to be not simply a natural institution perpetuating society, but, as Ouellet says, a sacrament ordered towards perpetuating the Church (50). It is a physical and spiritual union of husband and wife so that they may be Christ to one another, to help each other become saints, and to spread the Gospel to all corners of the world by bearing children and teaching them that faith. When a marriage bears the fruit of children, the body of the Church has new members; clearly, this transcends natural marriage, but it is not the state’s concern. And when the state is a hindrance to achieving the ends of natural marriage, Barnes says:
insofar as it is the law of the State to allow divorce, remarriage and pre-nuptial agreements, a civil marriage is no marriage at all. If a couple were to take as their inward intention what the State takes as a possibility — that their marriage could be dissolved, children split between them, and provisions made for this event prior to the marriage itself — then they would not, in the eyes of the Church, be married. They would enjoy the pleasures of an illicit union.
I am not arguing, of course, that the majority or even any non-sacramental marriages are illicit unions. I am arguing that, from the Catholic point of view, a couple is required to spiritually reject the very constitution of a civil marriage, to “fill it up” in their intention what is lacking in its legal structure — by committing to stay together. A State marriage is only a marriage if it is, in intention, anarchic; a rebellion against the dismal, defeatist proposition offered by the State, which, devoid of grace, can only ever plan for the worst in man — the inevitable boredom of his marriage and the dissolution of his promises.
He also says:
So the question becomes, what is the responsibility of the married Catholic in a State which is antagonistic to every conceivable end of marriage, long before any discussion of gay marriage? Surely the first step is to repudiate the State, and to live intentionally within a marriage “independent of” a crooked commonwealth; to live a marriage which recognizes the State as unnecessary, insufficient, and finally incapable of establishing, legislating, or sustaining it. By seriously downplaying the bloated and self-appointed importance of the State in matters of marriage, remembering that the fullness of marriage resides in nature and the sacrament, and that no marriage in the universe has ever come from the State — only then can we speak seriously about “fixing” it.
Indeed, Barnes emphasizes that the creation of a child should be for the purpose of “making a person as a distinct locus of value, lovely in itself,” instead of only a means to the end of perpetuating society, or only valuable insofar as he or she contributes to society. When that is the measure of a person’s worth, we end up with societies like Iceland which cannot tolerate the existence of people with Down Syndrome. This end of natural marriage must be filled up with the sacramental love of marriage in order for marriage to be fully humane. These people are still of the Body of Christ in the Church, and so, as St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians,
the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
In perpetuating the Church instead of society, sacramental marriage’s commitment to the protection of the vulnerable disabled is strengthened, in that they are seen to be essential and honored members of the body instead of social burdens. Sacramental marriage rebels against the utility of civil marriage and the notion that marriage is but a contract affecting no one but the signing parties. Instead of only planning for the worst in man, it offers mercy and forgiveness to spouses who sin, recognizing of course that this does not necessitate remaining with an abusive spouse. Instead of being a moment of happy self-fulfillment, it is a life of conversion, transformation, and, indeed, death of the self for the good of the spouse.
Catholics in society
From the Catholic perspective, civil marriage is clearly insufficient – it is not sacramental – but that does not mean that from the Catholic perspective it can have no raison d’être. It may seem counterintuitive for a religious person to be defending secular civil marriage from the attacks of a secular writer. But that is because the Catholic, with the Catechism, believes that
The intimate community of life and love which constitutes the married state has been established by the Creator and endowed by him with its own proper laws…. God himself is the author of marriage.” The vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator. Marriage is not a purely human institution despite the many variations it may have undergone through the centuries in different cultures, social structures, and spiritual attitudes. These differences should not cause us to forget its common and permanent characteristics. Although the dignity of this institution is not transparent everywhere with the same clarity, some sense of the greatness of the matrimonial union exists in all cultures. The well-being of the individual person and of both human and Christian society is closely bound up with the healthy state of conjugal and family life (n. 1603).
In a social context where marriage is but a human institution, and if it is used at all is used only for the affirmation of people’s feelings, it is no wonder that one would be disillusioned by civil marriage. Catholics, especially, should be disillusioned. Where possible, the Catholic should not take that to mean that all must be torn down. Furthermore, as Catholic sacramental marriage also contains the natural ends of unity, fidelity, and fecundity, it has consequences the responsible state should have an interest in protecting, despite Sirota’s belief that there is no need to attach civil consequences to a ceremony.
It is not the case that Catholics must believe that the state should in all cases endorse sacramental marriage. One can easily imagine that a state might require unacceptable conditions of the Church to civilly endorse her marriages. The fullness of marriage, as Barnes emphasizes, is not in the state, but that is not to say that the civil implications of marriage are nothing either. Catholics called to marriage should accept it as a calling both to perpetuate the Church and to transform civil society.