Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Marriage: seeking to ecclesially clarify

This is a slightly updated and even corrected version of a previous post I put up back towards the end of May. In light of today's two Supreme Court rulings I read back over it. As I did so, I noticed that I did not make a clear enough distinction between natural and sacramental marriage, or make an attempt at explaining how the two relate to what the Catholic Church is able to consider as a marriage. My hope in posting this is not to add to the already disheartening and poisonous invective, driven by emotion, being engaged in by people on both sides of this debate, sadly this includes even Christians who hold differing views concerning today's rulings.

About a month ago I read something written by a Catholic who made the following argument: Since the Catholic Church is not opposed to the civil marriages of non-Catholic men and women (Examples: two Methodists, a Presbyterian and an atheist, a Baptist and a Sikh, perhaps not exhaustive, but you get my point), which, according to the person making the argument, the Catholic Church does not recognize as sacramental and so are not legitimate marriages, the Church should not be opposed to the civil union, contracted under the auspices of the state, but not recognized by the Church, of two people of the same sex.

If this were the case, it would be a fairly compelling argument, as well as the misguided and uncharitable denial of "marriage equality" that the author asserts it is. While I firmly believe that the argument was made it good faith, as with the Pope Francis redemption flap, it reveals an incomplete understanding of how the Church expresses Her understanding of marriage.

It is certainly true that any Catholic who marries outside the Church is not in a sacramental marriage due to the fact that s/he is canonically obligated to be married in the Church, unless s/he has requested and been granted a dispensation from canonical form by his/her bishop. As Archbishop Sheehan of Santa Fe noted in a pastoral letter back in April 2011, one that stirred up a lot of emotion, Catholics who are not married in the Church "cannot receive the Sacraments, with the important exception of those who agree to live chastely ('as brother and sister') until their situation is regularized. Of course, those in danger of death are presumed to be repentant."

But the marriage between two non-Catholic Christians, a man and woman, is presumed to be sacramentally valid, while a marriage between a non-Catholic Christian and a non-Christian, or between two non-Christians is presumed by the Catholic Church to be merely valid marriages, but not fully sacramental. The latter is what canon law calls "natural marriage," which is the lawful union of a man and a woman from any type of religious background, assuming there are no other impediments, like previous marriages for one or both parties, marrying within degrees of consanguinity, or affection (i.e., a woman cannot marry her daughter's husband, even if her daughter is deceased, making him a widower), etc. A natural marriage is prerequisite to entering into a sacramental marriage. In other words, not all natural marriages are sacramental marriages, but all sacramental marriages are natural marriages.

Another kind of natural marriage is when a Catholic marries a non-Christian (i.e., a non-baptized person) in the Catholic Church, such a marriage is valid, but not sacramental. Of course, a dispensation must be requested and granted prior to such a marriage taking place. If/when the non-Christian spouse receives valid Christian baptism, even if not in the Catholic Church, the marriage automatically becomes sacramental.

This is true because, according to the Church's understanding, what constitutes a marriage arises from nature and not from revelation alone. One way this is made manifest is by the fact that one of the fundamental characteristics of marriage (i.e., something that makes it what it is and not something else) is the procreation and education of children (see Canon 1055 §1).



As Ryan Anderson frequently notes in his writing about the vital importance of marriage for society (see his article "The Big Same Sex Marriage Lie"), it is the prolific nature of marriage that gives the state an interest in supporting it and extending certain privileges to married couples. As with all such privileges, the state imposes certain responsibilities. As I mentioned in my previous post, today's Supreme Court ruling with regard to DOMA simply extends these privileges to same-sex couples who were married in states that recognize these unions on par with marriage (i.e., states that have enacted laws or judicial rulings to that effect).

Even when a non-Christian who was formerly married to a non-Christian becomes a Catholic and wishes to have this marriage (which almost always has to have already been civilly dissolved by means of a divorce) declared null by the Church, it is not done by means of submitting a formal petition to the appropriate marriage tribunal, but by means of a Pauline Privilege rooted in 1 Corinthians 7:15. Hence, it is a privilege extended and so no investigation into the possible validity of the marriage is even attempted. However, if either party to the previous marriage was a baptized Christian, even though neither was a Catholic, a formal petition must be submitted.

There are also some particulars about when a married couple is received into the Church together not needing to convalidate their marriage that demonstrate this too.

Among the grounds on which an an annulment can be granted is an intention on the part of one or both spouses not to have children. As is sometimes the case, a non-Christian who was previously married to another non-Christian and who now wants to marry a Catholic, but does not desire to receive baptism, the previous marriage must be proven to be invalid before it can be declared null, thus freeing the non-Catholic party to marry. This is done by means of submitting a formal petition, which is the same procedure a Catholic who was married to another Catholic in the Catholic Church must submit to in order to be free once again to marry. Of course, such petitions are not automatically or always granted. If a marriage proves to have ever been valid, it is always valid.

I realize there is an irreducible degree of complexity involved in understanding what the Church teaches on marriage, but I hope what I have written here is clear enough to show that the argument I am seeking to refute is an invalid conclusion because it is reached on the basis of a faulty premise, namely that the Catholic Church views the civilly sanctioned unions of non-Catholic men and women as invalid (i.e., not real marriages). While it is certainly less offensive than the argument for so-called same-sex marriage on the basis of interracial marriage, it is still a bad argument.

I am not interested in debating what the Catholic Church teaches. In this post my only intention is to objectively explain it to the best of my ability and to defend it against attempts at distortion. Given the complexity of canon law, which arises from more than a millennia of jurisprudence and development, and the fact that I am not a canon lawyer, I am certainly open to correction and clarification by those who are more qualified.

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