I recently read an article that appeared in the current (Aug/Sept 2006) issue of Homiletic and Pastoral Review by Dr. David Carlin, professor of philosophy and sociology at the Community College of Rhode Island, that I thought was worthy of comment.
The article begins okay, like this:
I suppose all Catholics would agree that it would be totally inappropriate for a Catholic priest presiding over a wedding to conclude the ceremony by saying: "You have just entered into one of the most important of all human relationships -- but I would caution you not to think of it as being necessarily a permanent relationship. It is only as permanent as you would like to make it. If either of you would like to end your marriage tomorrow, you have a perfect right to do so. If you would like to remain married until death, you can do that too. It's all up to you. Don't feel constrained by the vows you have just taken. The vows are expressed in traditional language, and this respect for tradition is a lovely thing; but the vows don't really mean anything."
So far so good. All Catholics should agree that it would be totally inappropriate for a Catholic priest to say this at a wedding.
Unfortunately, the article then drives over a cliff:
Yet this is exactly what priests do say, at least by implication.
What is the ground Dr. Carlin offers for this astonishing assertion?
In the United States, despite its famous separation of church and state, priests perform two wedding ceremonies at the same time, a religious ceremony and a civil ceremony. The laws of the Church give the priest the power to perform a sacramental marriage, while the laws of our states give Catholic priests (as well as clergypersons from other denominations) the power to perform a civil marriage.
Dr. Carlin here makes several mistakes, and he ought to know better, because one of them pertains to his own field of study: philosophy. It is simply false that priests "perform two wedding ceremonies at the same time." Unless the priest is bilocating or pausing every few seconds to read a line from two different texts for wedding ceremonies, it is clear that he is only participating in one ceremony. That is an ontological fact, and as someone trained in philosophy, Dr. Carlin ought to recognize this fact.
It is this initial mistake that causes the rest of his argument to go over the cliff, though that is not the only mistake he makes. Just in the paragraph quoted above, he also mistakenly says that the laws of the Church "give the priest the power to perform a sacramental marriage." Not only is it not the priest who performs a sacramental marriage (the laws of Christ empower the baptized couple itself to do that; the priest is just the Church's facilitator of the sacrament; he "assists" at the wedding but does not perform it). He also ignores the facts that priests also assist at valid but non-sacramental weddings (as when a baptized person marries an unbaptized person) and that deacons and even lay people can assist at Catholic weddings.
We're already off to a very rocky start, but the main problem that causes Dr. Carlin's article to go so disastrously wrong is that he does not have his head wrapped around the fact that there is, in reality, one marriage that is taking place when a priest assists at a Catholic wedding ceremony. The couple do not have two marriages with each other--one sacramental and one civil, or even one valid and one civil. This is a category mistake. They have one marriage that is being celebrated according to the Catholic form of marriage and, if we're lucky, also recognized by the state.
It's not that way everywhere. In some countries the state does not recognize marriages performed in the Catholic Church, and they require the couple to have a separate, civil ceremony. The effects of this civil ceremony, in terms of bringing about a valid marriage, are precisely nil under most circumstances. If either party is a Catholic then they are bound to observe the Catholic form of marriage unless very unusual circumstances obtain, and as a result the civil marriage ceremony that their government forces them to go through does absolutely nothing with respect to bringing a valid marriage into existence. In such circumstances, the civil ceremony results in a legal fiction whereby the civil law comes to regard the couple as married even though, in reality, they are not.
This results in enormous confusion in these societies because the situation sends the message to couples that they are already married and can act accordingly. It increases the temptations against chastity that couples experience before they are actually married in the religious ceremony, and if they are poorly catechized it can lead them to see the religious ceremony as an optional add-on that they can get around to if they feel like it. They will be especially prone to this idea if they grow up seeing couples who are only civilly married and if they have friends who have just never gotten around to having it done. There can even be temptations to indefinitely delay the religious ceremony specifically so that the couple can get divorced later in case it doesn't "work out" and then marry somebody else. In other words, it encourages couples to shack-up in civil "trial marriages" before they decide if they want to get married to each other for real.
Because marriage is a unitary thing--you're either married or you're not--it gravely harms society, the institution of marriage, and the family if the government refuses to recognize where actual marriages are taking place (in the religious ceremony) and insists on the couple going through an invalid civil ceremony that pretends to render them married when in fact it doesn't. Adding that fictitious overlay to the situation can only bring confusion and grave harm, both to the society at large and in particular to the individuals who are led into grave sin by the temptations and confusion that is created.
We are fortunate here in America that state law recognizes it when valid marriages are brought into existence in the Catholic Church. In our situation the civil law is in these cases in harmony with the reality of the situation, and that sends the right message to the couple: You are now married--for real.
That civil law also has provisions that are contrary to reality (e.g., that the couple can sever their bond by divorce and then marry someone else, when in reality they can't) is a sad thing--which itself is one of the reasons that the institution of marriage has been so weakened in our country. If civil law tells people that they're divorced with the right to remarry then many of them will tend to act that way and, under the influence of their passions, they will act in defiance of what their Church teaches.
Long experience has shown that people take their cues from civil law as well as Church law. That's one of the reasons that social acceptance of divorce is so common. It's one of the reasons that social acceptance of abortion is so common. And it's one of the reasons that social acceptance of homosexuality is so common. Before the law changed on these points, social acceptance of all of them was far smaller than it is now. The farther out of line civil law gets with reality, the more people are led astray from reality.
As a result, it is jaw-dropping that in his article Dr. Carlin urges that the situation should be pushed even further out of line with reality by having Catholic priests "abandon their practice of performing civil marriages" and instead have the dual religious/civil marriage system that has been so detrimental to some countries.
Dr. Carlin is not clear on whether he wants priests to do this on their own initiative or whether the wants the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops--with the proper Vatican approvals--to pass norms requiring priests to "abandon the practice of performing civil marriages," though he makes no call for the latter.
His ground for this is that he thinks it would more sharply underline the differences between the Catholic idea of marriage and the distorted one that civil society has.
I can have some degree of sympathy for this argument. There can come a point when it is better for the Church to refuse to participate in civil institutions, but experience has shown that the situation of the Church and its members is worsened when this happens with the institution of marriage, for the reasons cited above.
The better strategy, as long as the Church is going to require Catholics to observe the Catholic form of marriage (which it does precisely so that it can control the content of the marriage preparation and ensure the validity of the celebration of the sacrament itself), is to say "What we are doing in our churches is marriage--real marriage, the only kind of marriage that counts. If the state recognizes that fact, great. If not, that harms society and the good of souls."
If the state were requiring that the Church import into its marriage preparation or marriage ceremonies material that is at variance with the Catholic understanding of marriage--for example, if California required that for the state to recognize Catholic marriages that the priest must explain to the couple their options regarding divorce and remarriage without annulment--then I would agree that the Church would have no choice but to defy civil law and perform marriages without them being recognized by the state.
But California has not yet done that, and as long as that is the case, Dr. Carlin's statement that Catholic priests are implicitly preaching the secular idea of marriage to the couples at whose weddings they preside is simply false.
The priest--if he is doing his job as a priest--performs his duties in accord with the mind of the Church--not just omitting information about the secular view of marriage but specifically warning couples against it.
It is false and defamatory to accuse priests of fostering the secular idea of marriage if they are doing precisely the opposite.
Even if a particular priest is lax in his duties in this regard, it remains false that by presiding at a wedding ceremony according to the laws of the Church that a priest is simultaneously performing a second ceremony that is out of accord with Church teaching. As the evidence of our senses clearly attests, he is participating in one ceremony--a Catholic one--that the laws of the state happen to recognize as having legal force.
One final note: If Dr. Carlin's suggestion is that priests should refuse on their own initiative to perform their role regarding the civil recognition of Catholic marriages (e.g., signing wedding licenses brought to him by the couple) then Dr. Carlin is urging the priest to violate canon law. The faithful have a right to the sacraments (can. 843), including marriage, and canon law requires that "Except in a case of necessity, a person [e.g., a priest] is not to assist without the permission of the local ordinary at . . . a marriage which cannot be recognized or celebrated according to the norm of civil law" (can. 1071 §1, no. 2). So a pastor can't simply refuse to perform his duties regarding the civil recognition of the marriage on his own initiative. He'd have to get the bishop's permission.
I trust that the priests reading Dr. Carlin's stunningly bad article know that.