Can Catholics Accept the “Marriage Pledge”? – A Reply

The fire and zeal of my fellow contributor to The Josias, Joseph, should be commended. Reflecting on the recent dustup over First Things editor R.R. Reno’s joining the call for Catholic priests (and all Christian ministers) to “get out of the [civil] marriage business” (the so-called “Marriage Pledge”), Joseph shows deep concern that Catholics may be tacitly, if not explicitly, accepting the secular dogma of separation between Church and State which has been routinely condemned by the Church’s social magisterium. The crux of Joseph’s reflection appears to be found in the following paragraph:

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.

This is where things start to get a bit wobbly. While the Church cannot and must not “abandon the State to its own devices,” it must remain vigilant not to become a handmaid of the secular State either. To do so could have a disastrous impact on faith and morals.

That is not hyperbole, for we know from history this is true. In his towering contribution to the recent anthology Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church, Archbishop Cyril Vasil, S.J., Secretary of the Congregation for Oriental Churches, documents the problematic creation of ecclesiastical divorce in the Eastern Orthodox Church due to the conflation of Roman-Byzantine civil law and Orthodox canon law at the close of the first millennium. Following this move, the Eastern Church was assigned full authority over blessing and examining marriages, meaning that it “had to conform is practices to State and civil legislation. Then once civil legislation began to allow divorce and successive remarriages, the Eastern Church was obligated to recognize these practices.”

Such recognition carried a steep price for Eastern Orthodox doctrinal coherence. While numerous ex post facto “theories” have been put forth over the centuries to justify the Orthodox practice of ecclesiastical divorce (though sometimes different terminology is used), the hard reality is that the Byzantines, by accepting divorce duties from the State, exported the idea to other parts of the Orthodox world, including the emerging Russian and other Slavic churches. Now, more than 1,000 years later after it became cemented in Orthodoxy’s doctrine, ecclesiastical divorce remains an intractable source of contention between the Western and non-Catholic Eastern churches.

Some might object here and say that the situation in the Byzantine Empire, with its caesaropapist ecclesial-political arrangement, is a far cry from our current situation where the lines between secular government and Church authority are clearly demarcated. But is it that clear? For nearly two centuries influential elements in the American Catholic Church have sought to strike concords with the American brand of secular liberalism, demonstrating that “good Catholics” can be “good citizens” with “good citizens” here meaning a willingness to accept the privatization of religion in exchange for a package of ostensibly secure civil and political rights. Given the depth of catechetical confusion which now runs rampant, up to and including the active attempt of influential Catholic clerics and laity to fuse secular-liberal economic and social values onto the teaching of the Church, it would appear there is more than one way for the Corpus Mysticum to come under the thumb of the State.

Returning now to Joseph’s exhortation, it is critically important for faithful Catholics living in these unfortunate and uncertain times to make prudent choices concerning where and when it will accept, abandon, or agitate against the State and the dominant culture of relativism, hedonism, and religious indifferentism it promotes. At times Joseph seems too ready to declare the government of the United States illegitimate and lacking authentic authority. Even if that were true, would that not add to the argument that the Church, and all Christians of good will, ought to “get out of the marriage business” when that “business” is being conducted on behalf of an unlawful authority? We might wish to pray and reflect (but most of all pray) deeply on that question before pushing hearts and minds down such a perilous path.

None of this is to say that Reno and First Things, with its historic neoconservative orientation, warrant anything less than skepticism when they try to establish new marching orders for the American Catholic Church. Reasonable men can disagree over the intelligence and effectiveness of the “Marriage Pledge,” especially if that pledge is not accompanied by an unequivocal statement from the American hierarchy that the Church is not surrendering its custody over marriage in toto. However, Reno’s call represents a potentially necessary action that the Church may have to follow in order to remain free of the contemporary secular State’s influence.

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