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Editorial

By Peter Novecosky, OSB
04/29/2015
Abbot Peter Novokosky
Church and civic weddings

Couples who want to celebrate a church wedding in Canada approach their pastor to arrange their marriage. Some couples, of course, do not opt for a church wedding and a growing number opt out of any wedding at all.

In Canada clergy are registered to witness marriages recognized both by the church and by the state. Each year bishops send a list of clergy who can perform marriages to the provincial authority.

Some cracks in this system are beginning to emerge. Most are being triggered by the legalization of same-sex marriages. The Catholic Church is opposed to same-sex marriages; thus pastors are caught in a conflict of interest in their church and their civic duties. So far legislation has protected pastors from going against their beliefs.

Bishops in Ireland are facing a decision depending on the outcome of a May 22 referendum on same-sex marriage. A spokesperson for the Irish bishops’ conference said the church might no longer perform the civil aspect of weddings if the referendum passes. That means couples who get married in Catholic churches would have to go elsewhere to have their marriage legally recognized by the state. This could result in a significant delay for couples getting their marriage legally recognized, the spokesperson said.

In a similar vein, the National Organization for Marriage held a rally supporting traditional marriage in Washington April 25. Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called same-sex marriage “the greatest social experiment of our time.” He said children do not need experiments, but rather the love of a mother and father.

Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore told the rally that the word marriage appears hundreds of thousands of times in federal, state and local laws. A redefinition of marriage “represents a sea change.”

If church leaders in America and Ireland decide not to act as ministers of civic marriages, it won’t be an innovation. It’s already the custom in many European countries.

“Whereas the Catholic Church has a clear vision of the special meaning of marriage, it’s viewed in the civil context as a contract between two people — and it’s a fact of modern society that such contracts vary,” Thierry Bonaventura, spokesperson for the 34-country Council of European Bishops’ Conferences, told Catholic News Service April 13. He said in general the system works well. “The church accepts civil unions, and the state is happy to see religious marriages take place if they’re registered with the civil authorities.”

“In countries with a harmonious tradition of church-state separation, the state acts in agreement with the church to regulate marriages,” Msgr. Piotr Mazurkiewicz, a Polish church expert, told CNS. “In others, however, where church-state ties are traditionally hostile, they act quite separately. But there’s been a modus vivendi here too — although marriage laws make no mention of churches, it’s recognized that churches exist and conduct their own ceremonies.”

The Catholic Church defends its traditional vision of marriage as the union of a man and a woman. The civic redefinition of marriage causes obvious tension for church leaders. Down the road, this tension may lead to a rethinking of wedding practice in Canada.