Should the Government Have Any Role at All in the Institution of Marriage?

David Harsanyi has written an interesting article over at wherein he argues that the Government should get out of the marriage business completely and have no involvement or interest whatsoever in any “personal relationship”  that individuals choose to enter. I would like to excerpt the article here and then raise a few points and ask for your thoughts. The full article by Mr. Harsanyi can be read here: Time for a Divorce. Here follow the excerpts in bold, italics and indented:

In the 1500s, a pestering theologian instituted something called the Marriage Ordinance in Geneva, which made “state registration and church consecration” a dual requirement of matrimony.

We have yet to get over this mistake. But isn’t it about time we freed marriage from the state? Imagine if government had no interest in the definition of marriage. Individuals could commit to each other, head to the local priest or rabbi or shaman — or no one at all — and enter into contractual agreements, call their blissful union whatever they felt it should be called and go about the business of their lives…..

I believe your private relationships are none of my business. And without any government role in the institution, it wouldn’t be the business of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, either.

As the debate stands now, we have two activist groups trying to force their own ethical construction of marriage on the rest of us. And to enforce it, they have been using the power of the state — one via majority rule and the other using the judiciary (subject to change with the vagaries of public opinion)……

Is there any other personal relationship that is defined by government? Other than in legal terms, of course, this one isn’t, either.

Yet we have decided that a majority on the Supreme Court or, perhaps, a majority of the voters in your state or, even worse, a majority of the legislators in your state have the power to define what is often the most intimate bond of your life.

In our Utopian vision, no group is empowered to dictate what marriage should mean to another. And one of the great perks would be the end of this debate.

I will admit, there are times where the Libertarian perspective seems refreshing. (I am not sure if Mr. Harsanyi is Libertarian but his argument is). The Libertarian approach appeals to an instinct many have to simply an de-clutter in a civic world where government regulations and involvement leads to bewildering complexity and a tax code only a computer could love. It can be appealing to show Government the door in our lives and ask that it do less, far less. But I want to object to Mr. Harsanyi’s perspective in the matter of marriage on several counts and then ask for your input.

  1. Marriage is not a purely “private relationship” as Mr. Harsanyi states. Marriage involves the most essential and serious task of any community, state or nation, that of the procreation of the human species. Because there are children involved the merely private yields to a third party if you will, that of the child or children usually conceived in traditional marriage. And since children are involved who will venture forth as they mature into the wider society, it is a fact that others have a concern for marriage in terms of its definition, its quality, its stability and so forth. The quality of marriage and family life effects children profoundly and children affect the wider civic order profoundly, for better or worse. While others may wish to call their essentially non-fertile unions marriage and one might argue that such unions are private, one cannot argue that about traditional marriage which involves children. Neither can one remain completely disinterested in non traditional unions which involve the adoption or other of inclusion of children in their midst.
  2. Hence, the State does have legitimate interests when it comes to marriage. “State” here should not be seen as a mere abstraction or merely in governmental terms. Take “State” here to mean, the wider community as well. It is right and makes sense that there should be policies which protect and encourage traditional marriage. Further it makes sense that the State should insist on some degree of stability for this essential union that so involves children and their well-being. Until 1969 it was a rather lengthy and difficult process to get a divorce in this country. After 1969 most states passed “no-fault” divorce laws that made marriage the easiest contract in America to break. Since then, realizing the terrible impact that divorce was having on children, many States have begun to require waiting periods prior to divorce and some insist on counseling prior to divorce proceedings. It also makes sense that the State has some more proactive policies meant to strengthen the family. This may involve tax policy, emergency assistance to families in crisis and so forth. It is true that reasonable people will differ on the degree of help that should be provided and that at some point too much help makes people dependant. Nevertheless, due to the fact of children, there is an interest in the wider community that traditional marriage, as an institution, be strong.  It is a true fact that the many states have recently become ambivalent to the traditional view of marriage and we may wish to dismiss any governmental role based on this. But in the end, due to the presence and interests of third parties, there is going to be some governmental involvement and it is up to the Church to continue advocating for the traditional view of marriage there due to that fact.
  3. Mr. Harsanyi’s argument opens the door to Government – He calls his vision of marriage a “contractual agreement.” Oops. Where there are contracts there are laws. Where there a contracts there are often breeches of contract, lawsuits and the like. And where there are legal actions there is need for a judiciary. And where there is a judiciary there is Government. So even in his “Utopian” and libertarian world the government is not far behind.

So I think the purely libertarian argument of Mr. Harsanyi has flaws in it that fail to recognize the legitimate third-party interests involved in the fundamental institution that traditional marriage has always been. The most significant “third-party” involved is children who have needs and rights that must be fostered and protected.

But I would like to recast Mr. Harsanyi’s argument in reference to the Church and ask what you think. This recasting of the argument does concern the intersection of Church and State in the matter of marriage. I wonder if we were to consider what might ultimately become necessary anyway and do what many other nations already do? That is, what if we were to detach the Church’s role from the Civil License altogether? Currently in most U.S.  jurisdictions, when the priest or deacon officiates at at a wedding he is wearing two hats: Sacred minister and Justice of the Peace, he is acting on behalf of the State as well as administering a Sacrament. In other nations the couple goes to the civil magistrate and gets civilly “married.” Then they go to the Church, sometimes on the same day, and receive the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. As the rift gets wider between the world and the Church as to what we mean by marriage I wonder if this sort of separate arrangement will not become necessary here in America?

One drawback of course is that many Catholic couples would get civilly “married” and delay the Sacrament. Hence they would be living in an invalid union. However, this often happens now even in the current dispensation through cohabitation and various forms of invalid marriage. Catechesis as always would be essential to avoid the drawback.

But I must say, here in Washington DC, which recently voted to recognize same-sex “marriage”,  I feel increasingly troubled to be signing civil licenses. What am I affirming as I sign the license? At one level I am merely saying that the couple in question stood before me and entered into what the State recognizes as the “civil contract” of marriage. But as a legal functionary (I have a civil license issued by DC to witness marriages and sign civil licenses) of the District of Columbia, am I not cooperating in something that I believe is wrong? Every time I sign a license, in effect am I not affirming the civil definition of Marriage that underlies that civil license? Should I be cooperating in this way and issuing licenses that lend credibility to a flawed notion of marriage?

I ask these as true questions. I am not being rhetorical here. I think it is important for us clergy in these circumstances to ponder with our bishops what is to be done and what are the moral implications of it. This is terra incognita (unknown territory) and in the years ahead the Bishops Conference may also wish to take this up. I have argued elsewhere that we may want to consider using more widely the term “Holy Matrimony” to describe the Sacrament and distinguish it from the world’s notion of marriage.

Hence, while I think Mr. Harsanyi’s argument is ultimately flawed,  there may be in the near future a need for the Church to more clearly distinguish herself from the State when it comes to the question of marriage. As the individual states of this land begin to define marriage in a radically different way than the Church, distinctions, even legal separation, may be necessary. What do you think?

This video depicts why strong marriages are important for the “third party” of marriage: children.

Unrealistic Expectations are Premeditated Resentments

I was interested in Laura’s last post since she is saying what I say to most of the couples I prepare for marriage: Unrealistic expectations are premeditated resentments.

“What’s that?” You say. Well, think about it. Have you every been  told by a friend that a certain movie is the best thing they have ever seen and that you have not truly lived until you see it? They built the movie up into a life changing event. And then you go and see the movie and it’s OK, you like it, but there is a certain disappointment when it doesn’t live up to all your expectations. Part of the problem was the sky-high expectations. Had you gone to the movie without them you might have enjoyed the movie more! At least it wouldn’t have had to live up to the “better than the second-coming” expectations.

This is often what happens with marriage. Despite all our cynicism about so many things today, many people still have powerful notions of the perfect marriage, the perfect mate, the “happily ever after” scenario. When marriage fails to live up to these sky-high expectations, there is disappointment and resentment. This is what I mean by the expression “Unrealistic expectations are premeditated resentments.”

What if marriage was a more normal thing? Rather than being an epic drama or romance, what if it was a normal way of living in a less than perfect world? What marriage had ups and downs like everything else in life? What if spouses didn’t have to be perfect but could be like everyone else, having good points and things we wish were different? What if our expectations of marriage were more down to earth and accepting of the human condition?

Sadly though, many people want their marriage to be an ideal, and if there’s any ordeal, they want a new deal!

Almost every couple I have ever talked to who had what I’d call a “good marriage” admit that there are difficulties and challenges in their marriage. Most speak of difficult periods in their marriage, times of transition and adjustments, times of financial difficulties, struggles related to the kids and so forth. Yet also there were great blessings, shared love, support, encouragement. The secret seems to have been that they were willing to take the bad with the good and accept that marriage is good but not perfect. At some point the perfect can become the enemy of the good. That is, the insistence on the perfect blinds one towhat is good and adequate.

A few thoughts to conclude:

  1. Be careful who you marry. But sure that you share fundamental values and faith. Being “in love” isn’t usually enough. We all have certain “non-negotiables” and we need to honest with ourselves about what they are.
  2. But don’t wait for the perfect spouse to come along, as Laura said in her post. Our insistence upon the perfect candidate will leave us frustrated, resentful and alone. Somewhere we have to accept the fact that we going to marry a  sinner, and that we ourselves are also sinners.
  3. Once you are married, ask God for the grace to continue to see the good things in your spouse. Thank God every day for your spouse and express that gratitude to your spouse.
  4. When you experience the imperfection of your marriage say this before you say anything else, “My marriage is not perfect because I am in it.” Begin with your own “stuff” and realize that you aren’t always easy to live with either.
  5. Realize that even difficult things in a marriage are often times “gifts in strange packages.” Spouses do not only bless each other with the good things, but even the bad things can help us grow in holiness. Spouses give each other plenty of opportunities to learn to forgive, be patient, be kind, be understanding, be slow to anger, be merciful. Last time I checked these are basic virtues we must grow in if we ever hope to enter heaven.
  6. Get over the fairytale stuff and live in the real world. You married a sinner and you are a sinner. Unrealistic expectations are premeditated resentments.
  7. Baby steps. Organic growth. Your marriage can and will get better and better if both of you cooperate with God. But grace builds on nature and it is our human nature to change slowly, almost imperceptibly. Forgive, be patient, keep praying, keep loving, and did I say forgive? Yes I think I did say that.

 Here’s a video of a couple who have fallen out of love, are resentful and know each other’s  bad habits a little too well. They both want a better spouse, a perfect spouse. You might say they have unrealistic expectations. Once upon a time they were in love but the “I Do” became “You’d Better!” and they grew apart. Can this marriage be saved? Buy the movie  FIREPROOF and see.


mm-logo_rgb3003This summer, the Archdiocese of Washington is marriage-minded! Check out these resources as well as events sponsored by the Office of Young Adult Ministry.

Marriage Matters Webpage:

Join the conversation at the Blog

Attend a Series of Talks
Sundays July 12, July 19, and July 26 at 6:30pm
Relationship Speaker and Discussion Series
Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle North Conference Room
6:30pm (after the 5:30pm Mass) Light Dinner Included

July 12 Dr. Andre Leyva

“Dating and Mating from a Catholic Perspective”

Dr. Andre Leyva is the President and founder of the Psychology Center in Montgomery County, Maryland and a member of National Association of Hispanic Psychologists. He is a nationally and internationally recognized trainer, consultant, and key note speaker. His doctoral dissertation on Conflict Resolution was published and requested by mental health professionals in Europe and South America. He has written for two family magazines and has authored articles and workbooks. He is a frequent speaker at the Archdiocese of Washington’s Theology on Tap and Marriage Preparation program. Dr. Leyva has been married for 25 years and has six children.

July 19 Dr. Catherine Yohe
“The Essential Groundwork of Friendship”

Dr. Catherine Yohe received her Ph.D. in Historical Theology with a focus on spirituality from Catholic University of America. Her dissertation was on human friendship as a means to grow in union with God, and most of her publications and lectures have centered on the lay vocation or friendship. She has taught at Catholic University and LaSalle University and is presently teaching Scripture and Catholic Doctrine at Trinity School at Meadow View. She has been married for fifteen years and has a thirteen year-old son.

July 26 Deacon Al Turner
“While I’m Single: Living Life to the Fullest”

Deacon Al Douglas Turner is the Director of the Office of Black Catholics of the Archdiocese of Washington. He is assigned to the Church of the Nativity in Washington, DC. and was recently appointed to the Maryland Catholic Conference Respect Life Committee by Archbishop Donald Wuerl. Deacon Turner received a Graduate Certificate in Spiritual Direction in 2006 and a Master of Theological Studies degree in 2007 from the Washington Theological Union in Washington, D.C. Before his retirement from ABC News in 2007, Deacon Turner was employed for more than 28 years as a broadcast technician/ cameraman covering the White House, Capitol Hill, and news events around the world.

Archdiocese of Washington Offers a New Feature on Website:”Marriage Matters”

marriage_logoIf wedding bells are ringing in your near future, getting spiritually prepared is essential. Getting married isn’t just about preparing for a ceremony or a reception. It isn’t just even about preparing for a live together. It is ultimately about preparing for eternal life. Marriage is a call to holiness. What are some of the things you should know? When should you call the Church. What does the process of preparing look like?  What are some “must have” conversations? What exactly in the Christian and Catholic understanding of marriage?

Questions like these and more are dealt with at the Marriage Matters web page at the Website of the Archdiocese of Washington. You can find it here: MARRIAGE MATTERS.

At the site are links to other sites and resources including the Bishop’s Website on Marriage: FOR YOUR MARRIAGE

Websites such as these are efforts to spend extended time teaching on Marriage. It is clear today that many marriages are in crisis. Further there are attempts to redefine marriage. It is essential that we return to teaching on Biblical and doctrinal roots of this sacrament for many have more secular notions of marriage. In the predominant secular view the earthly happiness of the couple is paramount and children are more of a way of “accessorizing”  marriage should this enhance the couple’s happiness. Missing from this notion is any concept of sacrifice, self-giving, the common good, and the call to holiness (as distinct from mere emotional happiness).

It is to be hoped that we can begin to more systematically and creatively teach on the Sacrament of Marriage and recover a more Biblical, traditionally and doctrinally correct understanding of marriage. If you are married, or thinking of getting married or if you know of anyone in these categories visit the site, click on the Links and spread the Word: Marriage Matters!

In Marriages, little sacrifices can mean a lot and make a big difference. This video from the Bishop’s Website makes that point