After last week's unfortunate Supreme Court decisions that further weaken the institution of marriage, I saw a comment that claimed that these decisions had destroyed Christian marriage in this country. I beg to disagree.
Christian marriage, as a sacrament of the Church can hardly be destroyed by any human action. And marriage as a social expression of that sacrament was destroyed long ago here. Although these decisions, and all the recent efforts in various states, whether by courts or legislatures or popular votes, to proclaim that something called "same-sex marriage" exists, are of course deplorable and are a signal departure from the norms of both natural and revealed law, still the state governments have long claimed to define and control marriage in the United States. Divorce is of course the most notable example. Divorce is contrary to both the natural and revealed moral laws, yet the state governments have always felt that it was within their powers to grant divorces with a subsequent right to remarry. It is true that this deviation from natural law is not as great as is the idea of same-sex "marriage," but the principle was always there that marriage is wholly a creation of the state. Yet in actuality the state's powers over marriage are limited. First with regard to the marriages of Catholics, and indeed of all baptized Christians, the following words of Pope Leo XIII are instructive.
Neither, therefore, by reasoning can it be shown, nor by any testimony of history be proved, that power over the marriages of Christians has ever lawfully been handed over to the rulers of the State. (Encyclical Arcanum Divinae Sapientiae, no. 24.)
Although Catholic theology and philosophy have a high regard for the state and its authority, at the same time they understand that this authority is not unlimited. Since the marriage of Christians is a sacrament, no one but the Church has any rights over it. Of course the state has some duties in this area, specifying property rights, for example, but it cannot determine the conditions for Christian marriage since it has no power in this regard.
Even with regard to unbaptized persons, although most theologians would grant the state some legitimate rights in regulating their marriages—e.g., by requiring some official form of marriage or setting the minimum age—still the essential purposes of marriage are set by God by means of our nature, not by any government, and thus obviously no government is competent to alter them. Our Lord taught that divorce and remarriage, although permitted by the Mosaic law, was contrary to the original intention of God and to the nature of marriage (Matthew 19:3-9), and the Church considers the natural law of marriage to be in force for the unbaptized. Thus if any government pretends to sanction absolute divorce and remarriage, it exceeds its powers. Yet the various American states have long pretended to do just that, and if Catholics have sometimes objected to lax divorce laws, I am not aware that they have often challenged the very right of the state to legislate about divorce and remarriage. So while even the most muddle-headed thinker ought to be able to see that same-sex "marriage" is an absurdity, still we have a long-standing and seldom questioned precedent that it is the state that decides the rules for marriage.
So what does this mean? Is this some utopian proposal of mine, hoping for something so far outside the realm of possibility as to be silly and ignoring the real situation before us? No, it is rather a plea for clarity and realism in our thinking. The horse of a genuine understanding of marriage escaped from the barn long ago, and to utter dire statements about the recent destruction of Christian marriage is simply to misunderstand the facts. So clarity about what is happening is the first thing to strive for. The second thing is realism. If we cede to the state powers over the essence of marriage, we invite the kind of deformations that have been occurring recently. Perhaps in time we'll have humans pretending to marry animals or robots or whatever. More and more ridiculous fabrications of what marriage is may lie down the road. But unless we understand that marriage is something natural and divine, something whose essence is simply beyond man's power to alter, we should never be surprised at the absurdities that a de-christianized society is able to concoct. And we should learn from this that in the long run there is no co-existence of a Catholic subculture with a secular state. Either we must work to build a Catholic social order of some kind, or we should be taking another look at the Church of the catacombs.