Four Kinds of Marriage

This post continues a series of reflections that I began here.

Before I get started, I’d like to remind those who came in late that I’m not pushing a political agenda here. I’m trying to work out some thoughts about marriage in general, and on same-sex marriage in particular, in the light of the Church’s teaching. I’m not trying to prove that the Church’s teaching is true, and I’m more concerned with figuring out how to treat others well than I am in trying to coerce others into behaving the way I think they should. Thus, comments on how evil my political agenda is will be deleted. ‘Nuff said.

Several of the commenters on this post raised the issue of marriage as a civil institution vs. marriage as a religious institution, and suggested that while one might have religious reasons for the position that marriage is necessarily heterosexual, there’s no reason why civil marriage need be similarly bound. It was also suggested that the state “provides marriage” to its citizens: that marriage is essentially a civil institution, e.g., an institution governed by the state.

That last proposition, however, is clearly nonsense. People have been marrying and giving in marriage for all of recorded history, whether the people involved lived in something we would recognize as a state or not. Let’s call this natural marriage. It is not essentially religious, and it is not essentially civil. It is, quite simply, human. Getting married and raising a family is what human beings do. Natural marriage does not depend on the state; on the contrary, the state is built upon the foundation of natural marriage.

With the state came civil marriage. Marriage creates families, and families accumulate property and squabble with other families, and the state naturally gets involved in these things. Thus, civil marriage is marriage as recognized by the state. Note that I do not say “regulated” or “controlled”. Marriage is prior to the state, and many traditional restrictions on marriage, such as incest laws, are of ancient origin. It might be truer to say that civil marriage is the way the state handles the pre-existing institution of marriage.

With Christianity came sacramental marriage. Civil marriage was already well established by the time Christianity came along, but sacramental marriage does not build on it; rather, civil and sacramental marriage are like two shoots from the same root of natural marriage. I’ll have more to say about sacramental marriage in a later post; here I’ll simply note that the notion that marriage is between a man and a woman long pre-dates any form of Christian marriage. Even the Greeks, among whom sex with boys and sexual relationships between older men with younger men were not uncommon, kept them quite apart from marriage.

And that brings us to what I’ll call neo-marriage, for lack of a better term. Neo-marriage is solely about the two people involved, and only for as long as they want to remain involved. It is disconnected from sacramental marriage, at least as practised by the Catholic Church, because it is not sacramental, and is not expected to be permanent; it is detached from natural marriage because it is more about the couple than about the resulting family. Its foundation, to the extent that it has one apart from the couple themselves, lies in civil marriage, but its roots are not deep.

Same-sex marriage, as such, is an extension of neo-marriage to gay and lesbian couples. Since it can’t be based on natural marriage, it has to get its legitimacy from civil marriage. Which explains the comments I’ve been getting.

  • By karrde, August 24, 2012 @ 4:08 am

    A fairly good analysis.

    Probably right, or closer-to-right than most of the Usual Suspects in the debate on the meaning of marriage.

    And it is important to note how much American attitudes about marriage changed in the 20th Century, developing into the concept of neo-marriage.

    Among those changes was a big step away from the teachings of Christ about marriage in the enactment of no-fault divorce laws. This practice was in tune with the culture, but out of tune with historic Christianity. Anyone who charges religious folks with setting up a theocracy, or who desires to return to Biblical definitions of marriage, is encouraged to think about reversal of no-fault divorce.

    …and I realized I just ran into an argument for a sharp separation between sacramental marriage and civil marriage. Because the United States isn’t a theocracy. At its most religious, the U.S. was a multi-religion nation with an approximately-Deist public face.

    However, I don’t want to advocate for that, yet. I’d like to see where this is going.

  • By Will Duquette, August 24, 2012 @ 5:24 am

    One thing I can assure you is that I’m not going to be advocating that all marriages in the U.S. should be sacramental by law. That would be nuts.

    More generally, there are lots of arguments one can make about the evils caused by the this or that distortion of marriage. No-fault divorce is certainly a watershed in this area. What I’m after, though, is looking at what natural and sacramental marriage are in essence, and just how neo-marriage differs.

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