Catholics May Boycott Civil Marriage

Gay marriage is coming. Will Catholic leaders accept their loss gracefully—or will they take their ball and go home?

If George Weigel has his way, the Catholic Church may be about to get out of the civil marriage business.

You may not have heard of Weigel, but his opinions are influential: He’s a conservative whose writings about the church and its relationship to society appear regularly in outlets like National Review. He’s also a self-described “old friend” of Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, close enough that he helped introduce Chaput to his book publisher.

So it’s worth noticing when Weigel takes a look at the growing sentiment for gay marriage in America and suggests it’s time for Catholic priests to rebel. Otherwise, he says, the “gay insurgency” will make gay marriage the law of the land.

“Thus it seems important to accelerate a serious debate within American Catholicism on whether the Church ought not pre-emptively withdraw from the civil marriage business,” he wrote this week at the journal First Things, “its clergy declining to act as agents of government in witnessing marriages for purposes of state law.”

This doesn’t mean priests would stop performing marriages, exactly. What it does mean is that the marriages they perform would no longer include phrases like “by the power vested in me by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, I now pronounce you man and wife.” If you want the state’s approval for your marriage, it’s conceivable you’d have to have a second ceremony, performed by a justice of the peace.

And if that sounds like a pain in the rear end, well, that’s kind of the point. Withholding approval of civil marriages “would be challenging the state (and the culture) by underscoring that what the state means by ‘marriage’ and what Catholics mean by ‘marriage’ are radically different, and that what the state means by ‘marriage’ is wrong.”

This might make sense if the legalization of gay marriage would force the Catholic Church to act against its collective conscience—that is, if the law suddenly required priests to give their blessings to gay and lesbian unions. But we’ve got a First Amendment freedom of religion in this country, and there’s zero chance the any anti-gay-marriage church will ever be required to perform such ceremonies. What’s going on here is that the Church—or, at least the portion of it that listens to Weigel—can’t abide the rest of us having gay marriage, whether we’re Catholic or not.

Which is kind of irritating.

Forget that, though, and concentrate on two things: Weigel’s proposal is probably bad for the church. And it’s probably also bad—though less so—for the rest of us.

Why bad for the church? Look around Philadelphia: The Catholic Chuch is still one of the city’s premiere institutions, but it’s also an institution in decline. Shuttered parishes and schools testify to the fact that membership and participation in the church just isn’t what they it to be. For a large number of people, it’s the big rituals—holidays like Christmas, yes, and funerals, but also marriage—that leads them to retain a connection to the church. Weigel’s proposal might might lead some so-so Catholics to decide they need civil marriage more than the sacramental version and hasten that decline. (Then again, in an era when the church is talking about accepting that decline in order to minister to a remnant of more faithful and obedient members, that might also be the point.)

As for the rest of us: Well, society has long benefitted from the church’s wider participation in our civic life, from its hospitals to adoptions service to services for the poor. There’s been a growing inclination in recent years for the church to take its ball and go home—to stop providing services unless everybody involved is playing by Catholic rules. I’m not sure who benefits if the Church decides that, instead of undergirding and strengthening society, it exists in opposition to it. Probably nobody. But it’s possible we’re about to find out.

The Catholic Church shouldn’t act against its conscience. But Weigel’s proposal of a civil marriage boycott suggests a rather more expansive vision of the boundaries of the Church’s conscience than is perhaps warranted. The Catholic Church is losing the fight over gay marriage in America; the question now is whether it will decide to lose in a manner that causes a great deal of harm.