Can Catholics Accept the “Marriage Pledge”?

First Things editor Rusty Reno has caused something of a stir this week with “A Time to Rend,” an article and pledge calling for Christian disengagement from the celebration of civil marriage.  Reno’s argument is that decades of civil attacks on the nature of marriage have perverted the civil meaning of marriage to the point that our duty to God demands a complete rejection of American civil marriage.  To sign a “marriage license” whose essence points to a reality fundamentally opposed to faith and morals gives scandal, so priests must cease to be ministers of “civil marriage”.

It’s notable that this pledge has yet to be signed by someone identifying themselves as a Roman Catholic priest.   This could be a simple fact of our eccelsiology: Catholic priests might be unwilling to make a public stand on an issue like this without the permission or instruction of their bishop.  I think there is a more fundamental reason: Catholics may simply be unable to accept a pledge of this kind.  The Magisterium of the Church militates against it.

The question at-hand deals intimately with the relation between Church and State.  What does the Church say about their rightful relationship?  Therefore I begin with a summary of Magisterial teaching on this matter before moving on to the specific question of marriage.

The Magisterium has always insisted on a strong relation between the temporal and the spiritual, the secular and religious, the Church and the State.  Pope St. Gelasius I, writing to the Byzantine emperor in 497, teaches “that while you are permitted honorably to rule over human kind, yet in things divine you bow your head humbly before the leaders of the clergy and await from their hands the means of your salvation.”  This teaching is deepened by Pope St. Gregory VII, who claims of the Pope that “of [him] alone all princes shall kiss the feet,” and that “it may be permitted to him to depose emperors” (Dictatus Papae 9, 12).  These teachings are summarized and elevated by Pope Boniface VIII in 1302, with the theory of the “two swords” of the temporal and spiritual, saying that “[b]oth, therefore, are in the power of the Church, that is to say, the spiritual and the material sword, but the former is to be administered for the Church but the latter by the Church; the former in the hands of the priest; the latter by the hands of kings and soldiers, but at the will and sufferance of the priest.”

It is for this reason that Pope Gregory XVI, writing in 1832, writes disparagingly of those who would “separate the Church from the state, and to break the mutual concord between temporal authority and the priesthood” (Mirari Vos 20).  32 years later, Pope Pius IX teaches to condemn the opinion that the “salutary influence be impeded and (even) removed, which the Catholic Church, according to the institution and command of her Divine Author, should freely exercise even to the end of the world — not only over private individuals, but over nations, peoples, and their sovereign princes; and (tend also) to take away that mutual fellowship and concord of counsels between Church and State which has ever proved itself propitious and salutary, both for religious and civil interests.”  Errors condemned by him in the Syllabus Errorum include that “the sacred ministers of the Church and the Roman pontiff are to be absolutely excluded from every charge and dominion over temporal affairs” and that “the Church ought to be separated from the State, and the State from the Church” (Syllabus Errorum 27, 55).

Pope Leo XIII represents the modern summit of this teaching, saying of the spiritual and temporal powers that there “must, accordingly, exist between these two powers a certain orderly connection, which may be compared to the union of the soul and body in man” (Immortale Dei 14).  (I’ll note that this “union” is better understood in terms of Thomistic philosophy than a Cartesian dualism; the Twenty-Four Thomistic Theses approved by Pope St. Pius X are helpful in this respect.)  He elaborates on this teaching, saying that “while one of the two powers has for its immediate and chief object care of the goods of this mortal life, the other provides for goods that are heavenly and everlasting. Whatever, therefore, in things human is in any way of a sacred character  whatever belongs either of its own nature or by reason of the end to which it is referred, to the salvation of souls or to the worship of God, is wholly subject to the power and judgment of the Church” (Immortale Dei 14).

The Second Vatican Council does not repudiate this view; rather, with pastoral solicitude for the difficulties of the modern age, it teaches that:

[t]he Church and the political community in their own fields are autonomous and independent from each other. Yet both, under different titles, are devoted to the personal and social vocation of the same men. The more that both foster sounder cooperation between themselves with due consideration for the circumstances of time and place, the more effective will their service be exercised for the good of all. (Gaudium et Spes, 76)

The overall teaching is clear.  It is part of the Church’s mission to seek out the State and be united with it; it is the duty of the State to be subject to the Church in matters religious, including those pertaining to the eternal law and the natural law.  When the State attempts to create positive law that is contrary to the natural or eternal law, the law itself is invalid.  But the Church betrays herself if in confronting evil laws she abandons the State to its own devices.  The Church has a positive mission to create concord between the Church and State, not to sow dissension between them.

Of course, because of the rightful subjection of the State to Church in religious matters, the Church is well within its rights to judge a temporal authority so pernicious and gravely evil that the Church strips that authority of its claim to power.  Pope St. Pius V did just this when he excommunicated Elizabeth I of England in 1570.  It is entirely consonant with the theory laid out above that when the temporal authority does grave harm to matters pertaining to the spiritual order the Church has the right and the duty to revoke the authority pretended to by the temporal ruler.  For, as Leo XIII teaches:

…authority, no less than society itself, has its source in nature, and has, consequently, God for its Author. Hence, it follows that all public power must proceed from God. For God alone is the true and supreme Lord of the world. Everything, without exception, must be subject to Him, and must serve him, so that whosoever holds the right to govern holds it from one sole and single source, namely, God, the sovereign Ruler of all. “There is no power but from God.”  (Immortale Dei, 3)

These reflections are necessary to understand the relationship between Church and State as marriage is concerned.  Leo XIII teaches that:

[m]arriage has God for its Author, and was from the very beginning a kind of foreshadowing of the Incarnation of His Son; and therefore there abides in it a something holy and religious; not extraneous, but innate; not derived from men, but implanted by nature…We call to witness the monuments of antiquity, as also the manners and customs of those people who, being the most civilized, had the greatest knowledge of law and equity. In the minds of all of them it was a fixed and foregone conclusion that, when marriage was thought of, it was thought of as conjoined with religion and holiness. Hence, among those, marriages were commonly celebrated with religious ceremonies, under the authority of pontiffs, and with the ministry of priests. So mighty, even in the souls ignorant of heavenly doctrine, was the force of nature, of the remembrance of their origin, and of the conscience of the human race. As, then, marriage is holy by its own power, in its own nature, and of itself, it ought not to be regulated and administered by the will of civil rulers, but by the divine authority of the Church, which alone in sacred matters professes the office of teaching.  (Arcanum, 19)

Thus all marriage (not just Christian marriage!) rightly falls under the authority of the Church.  So if, in our times, the State attempts to usurp the rightful authority of the Church by either depriving her ministers of their liberty or by attempting to create laws which are injurious to the natural and eternal law, the role of the Church is to teach, admonish, and ultimately dissolve the temporal authorities.  That is what the Magisterium indicates.

The group at First Things recognize that the Church has tried for decades to teach and admonish Western rulers as regards marriage, to little avail.  Where they go astray is in assuming that when the State is intransigent in its evil, the Church should take steps to rupture the natural union between temporal and spiritual authority.  Rather, If the Church decides that – as it did with Elizabeth I – that the rule of the temporal authorities is irrevocably harmful with respect to spiritual matters, the Church must divest those authorities of their pretense to power and seek out a new temporal order endowed with righteousness and justice.

I don’t intend to pass judgment here on whether the Church should divest our leaders of authority over matters related to marriage. The overall argument is simply that if you believe the State’s arrangement vis a vis marriage to be so contrary to faith and morals that priests should “get out of the marriage business”, the right answer is not for the Church to do violence to its natural relationship with the State, but rather to exercise its rightful authority over it.

One can see why our contemporary discourse about marriage might occlude our view of these Magisterial teachings.  Too often, we speak about marriage not in terms of the true religion and the social rights of God, but solely in terms of the pagan wisdom of the natural law in a kind of capitulation to modern modes of discourse.  That’s an important task – it’s very well that Taoists can agree with us on certain elements of philosophy- but it’s completely insufficient if the aim is the promotion of authentically Christian marriage.  For the latter can be seen only through the light of the Gospel and the wisdom of the Church; when we reduce the splendor of the sacrament of matrimony to its basis in the natural law we deprive it of many of its more ennobling attributes.  It is precisely through its orientation to the sacred and holy that marriage is counted among the great institutions for which the Church bears a special concern.

That Catholics have, by and large, been skeptical of First Things’ marriage pledge is concordant with a complete and historical view of the Catholic Magisterium.  The Church cannot act as though “sacramental marriage” and “civil marriage” belong to completely separate spheres, no matter how stubborn the iniquity of Western rulers may be.  Instead, the Church must assert her supreme authority over spiritual matters – including the nature of marriage – so as to seek the genuine good of all men.