Marriage and Matrimony – Aren’t they the same thing?
In California this election year, we’re asked to vote on a proposed constitutional amendment that claims to be for the “protection of marriage.” The proposition, in fact, is one that would take away the legal right of homosexual men and women to enter into the legal contract of marriage. The right was established earlier this year when the California Supreme Court ruled that laws to the contrary were un-Constitutional because they deprived same sex couples of equal protection under the law. (The Court found that domestic partnerships and civil unions did not provide all of the protections of legal marriage.) Proposition 8 is a constitutional amendment that would require a vote of 3/4 of the Legislature to overturn if at some later date we realize that it was a mistake to enact.
There have been a lot of arguments raised on both sides of the issue. Supporters of the proposition claim that marriage was established by God at the time of Adam and Eve, when they were instructed, in the second story of creation, to cling to each other and become one body. (Gen 2:24) In the first story of creation, the un-named humans were instructed to “Be fertile and multiply …” (Gen 1:28) The fact that the creation stories (two of them) in the book of Genesis were culturally based explanations of how things “came to be,” rather than historical or scientific accounts as we know them today, seems to be beside the point. Somehow, granting a legal right to share a life of committed love – with the rights, responsibilities and protections of marriage – to non-heterosexual couples is seen as a threat to the lives of commited love of heterosexual couples who have married.
I attended a wedding last weekend. It was a lovely ceremony that united a young man, of whom I am extremely fond and proud, with a young woman who has become dear to me as well. One of the things that really struck me about the wedding was the degree to which the legal, contractual nature of the marriage was obvious. As soon as the couple arrived before the sanctuary, the celebrant welcomed the assembled guests and quizzed them regarding potential reasons why the couple might not be legally married. He charged each of the two persons seeking to marry to speak out if either of them knew of any reason why they might not legally do so. Then he asked each individually if they had come freely and of their own will to be joined in marriage. Only once these requirements for entering into a legal contract had been established did he move into the prayers and readings of the service.
The ceremony included prayers and blessings for the couple and promises from the families and friends to help and support them in the life they were choosing to enter. The young man and his bride promised to love and care for each other, through all the ups and downs of life, for as long as they both should live. Only then were they allowed to enter into the sanctuary, offer each other their right hands in symbolic handshake on the contract, and pronounce their vows. They exchanged rings as a sign of their promises to each other. The celebrant blessed them and sent them forth out into the world and a new life together.
For this couple, the marriage ceremony included two elements: the legal, civil contract and the blessing of the church community. For many couples, the ceremony includes only the legal, civil contract. In many countries, couples who seek to marry do so in civil ceremonies. If they wish to receive the blessing of the Church, they then go to the parish and enter into the sacrament of Matrimony in another ceremony.
In the United States, we have allowed the combination of the civil and religious ceremonies into one. That, I believe, is a fundamental part of the confusion that has resulted in such controversy. We call both the legal, civil union of the two individuals and the sacrament of Matrimony by the same name – marriage.
Marriage, from the perspective of a social scientist, is a social arrangement developed by members of a culture to cement alliances between families, establish economic units, and provide for the procreation and nurturing of children. In corporate families (see my explanation of this term in another blog post), the head of the family makes the decision about who will marry whom. Those to be married do not necessarily have any choice in the matter. It is a legal contract between heads of families, not between the individuals to be married.
Christians have traditionally taken a somewhat different approach to the matter. Christian marriage, or Matrimony, is a sacrament of the physical love between a man and woman, the union of their hearts and lives and the image of the relationship between God and humans. It was not a rite that required the blessing of a priest as witness until sometime in the twelfth century. The man and woman are ministers of the sacrament to each other. Because men and women are understood to be equals in the sight of God, women have had more rights within Christian communities, at least in theory. The sacrament of Matrimony cannot be valid unless both parties consent to enter into the union. If there’s any lack of freedom or consent, the sacrament does not happen. The legal contractual aspect is null and void. The parties are free to enter into the sacrament with other parties. If the sacrament is judged to have been valid, the contract is upheld and regardless of what civil authorities might rule, the couple is not free to enter into the sacrament with other parties.
One argument against allowing homosexual marriages is that existing civil arrangements, such as “domestic partnerships” or “civil unions” confer the same protection under the law. In fact, since American law is based on precedents from cases dating back hundreds of years, there is no equivalent body of law supporting and/or establishing the legal protections for these unions that are part and parcel of the laws regarding marriage. Domestic partnerships and civil unions are not legally the same as marriages.
(On a related note – Many Catholics have been married in civil ceremonies when their first marriage, blessed by the Church, ended in legal divorce. Do we deny them the legal protections that come with civil marriage contracts when they again wish to enter a committed, loving life together? Should we offer them domestic partnerships or civil unions as their only option?)
Our American legal system is based on the English laws brought by the first colonists. The fact that so many of them were members of Calvinist religious faiths is also of importance in understanding the conflict surrounding homosexual marriage. John Calvin and his followers dropped most of the sacraments of the Church when they separated from the Roman Catholic Church. They kept only Baptism. Matrimony ceased to exist as a sacrament for them. Marriage became a matter of civil law only. That was the way it came to the United States and was enshrined into the law of the land. As an accommodation to those of other religious traditions, ministers of those faiths are legally allowed to serve as witnesses to the legal, civil contract. However, no one is required to have a minister bless his or her marriage. And equally important, no minister of any religious faith is required to bless, or even serve as witness to, the marriage of someone who does not qualify to marry under the laws of his or her faith tradition. That’s why we have a Justice of the Peace for civil ceremonies. Yet religious communities rightly feel a responsibility to monitor, support and encourage couples who choose to enter into a married relationship. So even when they don’t recognize the sacrament of Matrimony, they want to establish rules to regulate marriage – mixing theology with legal protections.
The issues surrounding this question are complex. They go far beyond the questions of whether people choose their sexual orientation, whether certain behaviors are inherently sinful and whether the majority of adults are comfortable with sexual behaviors that differ from their own.
Legal systems are developed to protect the members of a society. Ideally they protect those with the least power, the minorities among us, those who are different or who cannot protect themselves – the Biblical “widows and orphans” or “God’s little ones.” As our understanding of human psychology and biology has developed and changed and as we’ve learned more about our universe and our place within it, Church teachings have changed. We no longer believe that slavery is OK. We insist that women and children are not the property of their families. We agree with Galileo that the Sun does not revolve around the Earth. And we are finding more and more evidence that sexual orientation is not a choice but rather is established before birth. If God created people not just as Adam and Eve, but also as Adam and Steve and Anna and Eve, who are we to deny them the same legal protections for their relationships and lives together as we grant to ourselves?