In the wake of the supreme court decisions of this week, I would like to return to a question I have Asked before: Are we coming to a point where we should consider dropping our use of the word “marriage?”

It is a simple fact that word “marriage” as we have traditionally known it is being redefined in our times. To many in the secular world the word no longer means what it once did and when the Church uses the word marriage we clearly do not mean what the increasing number of states mean.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines “Marriage” (i.e. Holy Matrimony)  in the following way:

The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament (CCC # 1601)

The latest actions by numerous states and the hat-tip that the Supremes gave Same sex unions mean that increasingly, the secular world’s definition of marriage no longer even remotely resembles what the Catechism describes.

To be fair, as we have previously noted, this is not the first redefinition of marriage that has occurred in America. The redefinition has actually come in three stages:

  1. In 1969 the first no-fault divorce law was signed in California. Within 15 years every state in this land had similar laws that made divorce easy. No longer did state laws uphold the principle which the Catechism describes as a partnership of the whole of life. Now marriage was redefined as a contract easily broken by the will of the spouses.
  2. The dramatic rise in contraceptive use and the steep drop in birthrates, though not a legal redefinition, amount to a kind of cultural redefinition of marriage as described in the Catechism which sees the procreation and education of offspring as integral to its very nature. Now the American culture saw this aspect as optional at the will of the spouses. Having sown in the wind (where we redefined not only marriage, but sex itself) we are now reaping the whirlwind of deep sexual confusion and a defining of marriage right out of existence.
  3. This final blow of legally recognizing so called gay “marriage” completes the redefinition of marriage which the Catechism describes as being a covenant, …which a man and a woman establish between themselves. Now secular American culture is removing even this, calling same-sex relationships “marriage”.

Proposal: So the bottom line is that what the secular world means by the word “marriage” is not even close to what the Church means. The secular world excluded every aspect of what the Church means by marriage. Is it time for us to accept this and start using a different word? Perhaps it is, and I would like to propose what I did back in March of 2010, that we return to an older term and hear what you think.

I propose that we should exclusively refer to marriage in the Church as “Holy Matrimony.”

According to this proposal the word marriage would be set aside and replaced by Holy Matrimony. It should be noticed that the Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to this Sacrament formally as “The Sacrament of Matrimony.”

The word “matrimony” also emphasizes two aspects of marriage: procreation and heterosexual complementarity. The word comes from Latin and old French roots. Matri = “mother” and mony, a suffix indicating “action, state, or condition.” Hence Holy Matrimony refers to that that holy Sacrament wherein a woman enters the state that inaugurates an openness to motherhood. Hence the Biblical and Ecclesial definition of Holy Matrimony as heterosexual and procreative is reaffirmed by the term itself. Calling it HOLY Matrimony distinguishes it from secular muddle that has “marriage” for its nomen.

Problems to resolve – To return to this phrase “Holy Matrimony” is to return to an older tradition and may sound archaic to some (but at least it isn’t as awkward sounding as “wedlock”). But clearly a new usage will be difficult to undertake. It is one thing to start officially referring to it as Holy Matrimony. (Which, by the way I have done in my parish – we no longer prepare people for marriage, but for “Holy Matrimony”) But it is harder when, for example, a newly engaged couple approaches the priest and says, “We want to be married next summer.” It seems unlikely we easily train couples to say, “We want to enter Holy Matrimony next summer.” or even just to say, “We want to have a wedding next summer.” Such dramatic changes seem unlikely to come easily. Perhaps you, who read this blog can offer some resolutions to this problem.

Perhaps, even if we cannot wholly drop the terms “marry, ” “marriage” and “married” a more modest form of the proposal is that we at least officially discontinue the use of the word marriage and refer to it as the “Sacrament of Holy Matrimony.”

What do you think? Do we need to start using a new word for marriage? Has the word been so stripped of meaning that we have to use different terminology to convey what we really mean?

When I proposed this two years ago this very time, many of you we rather unconvinced and some were even perturbed that we were handing on over our vocabulary to the libertines. That may be, but we already know that “gay” will never mean what it used to, and it would seem that  “marriage” will never again mean what it did.

A secondary but related proposal is that we begin to consider getting out of the business of having our clergy act as civil magistrates in weddings. Right now we clergy in most of America sign the civil license and act, as such, as partners with the State. But with increasing States interpreting marriage so differently, can we really say we are partners? Should we even give the impression of credibility to the State’s increasingly meaningless piece of paper? It may remain the case that the Catholic faithful, for legal and tax reasons may need to get a civil license, but why should clergy have anything to do with it?

Frankly, I am uncomfortable signing DC Marriage licenses, and do so only because my Ordinary has indicated we should continue doing this. I am happy to obey him in this and defer to his judgment in the matter. There is a reason his is the Ordinary and I am not. That said, I have told him what I think. But for now, it seems clear we must stay the course and still sign them until the Bishop says, no more.

If we did stop signing civil licenses, we would surely need a strong catechesis directed to our faithful that reiterates that civil “marriage” (what ever that means anymore) is not Holy Matrimony and that they should, in no way consider themselves as wed, due to a (meaningless) piece of paper from a secular state that reflects only confusion and darkness rather than clarity and Christian light.

Here too, what do you think? Should the Catholic Bishops disassociate Catholic clergy from civil “marriage” licenses?

190 Responses

  1. Raymond M. Keogh says:

    I believe that where the law changes the meaning of ‘marriage’ to include arrangements that are outside the traditional definition, the only option open to the Church is to define Catholic unions clearly in terms that are (legally) different from the secular meaning. This will force a complete separation of legal and religious ceremonies. Catholic couples will, nonetheless, also have to ‘marry’ under State law. This separation is common practice in some countries.

    Separation of Church and State contracts has several positive spin-offs:

    • It recognizes Catholic Unions as something distinct – even from traditional heterosexual marriage that permits divorce;

    • It overcomes the threat that churches are discriminating against certain secular arrangements. The answer is: the Church does not ‘do’ (secular) ‘marriage’;

    • It also facilitates Catholic educators in teaching children about Catholic Unions without being accused of discrimination against alternative secular arrangements: special preparation is required for Catholic life-long commitments (especially today);

    • It strengthens the meaning of the bond between a man and woman at a time when the secular world will be unable to prevent a further liberalization of the term ‘marriage’. For example, ‘marriage’ based exclusively on love (with a totally liberal meaning of the word ‘love’) makes it difficult if not impossible, in the long-run, for the State to limit ‘marriage’ exclusively to couples. Demands to allow polyamorous arrangements are already surfacing.

    If the accusation is made that the Catholic Church is becoming an exclusive or extreme ‘cult’, external to modern society, we must remind ourselves and our accusers that scientific and social literature consistently keep indicating that sustained unions of biological parents are best for the parents themselves and the children and, therefore, contribute positively to the ‘common good’ (in purely secular terms). The great additional benefits of Catholic unions are achieved and illustrated through the day-to-day commitments of couples within a living faith.

    What form of words can be used to provide a clear (legal) distinction between Catholic Unions and secular ‘marriage’? Officially, as Msgr. Charles Pope points out, the Church defines Catholic Unions within the term Holy Matrimony. Good.

    For day-to-day usage, perhaps ‘Catholic-Unions’ / ‘Church-Unions’, etc, are user-friendly equivalents? For those who feel we are capitulating by abandoning the word ‘marriage’; this need not be so. It is, after all, the State that is forcing the change, in legal terms – not the Church. We are always free to use the traditional word ‘marriage’ but must always make its meaning clear (e.g. as in the term ‘Sacrament of Marriage’).

    Raymond Keogh

    Ireland

  2. Diane Woods says:

    This proposal, to use “Holy Matrimony” exclusively, resonates at the deepest level. For the first time in a long while I breathed a sense of peace. It is simple and profound to the Catholic faith. Perhaps, we cannot change the rising momentum of a new world order but this simple solution is restorative to what we cherish and know to be true. As we bear witness to the painful changes within our courts that dilute and indeed change the meaning of ‘marriage’ between a man and a woman by simply making use of the sacramental words “Holy Matrimony” not only differentiates the holiness of the sacrament but it becomes didactic and perhaps in perfect timing with our ‘New Evangelization’ and catechetical teachings.

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  4. [...] of Washington’s website, Msgr. Pope posted an essay with a title which asks a question, “Do we need to set aside the Word ‘Marriage’ and use ‘Holy Matrimony’…  His answer to that question is a [...]

  5. [...] from society through clarity.  Bold preaching is in order.  As Msgr. Charles Pope suggests, the Church should stress the use of the term “the sacrament of Holy Matrimony,” as opposed to “marriage” which secular society has [...]

  6. [...] same kind of reaction even from those of us who disagreed with them. This proposal is essentially the separation of civil “marriage” from sacramental “Holy Matrimony.” Perhaps it is the style, perhaps the length, perhaps the tone; or maybe Longenecker and Pope are [...]

  7. John Smith says:

    This is a really useful post for anyone who is planning to get married in near future. It’s clear and explains the basic things you need to have in place to ensure every one understands what’s expected of them. I really appreciate the examples given.

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