David Harsanyi has written an interesting article over at Townhall.com 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.