Let Government Certify and Churches Sanctify – UPDATE

Last week before I left for this “working-vacation” I repeated an idea I’ve brought for years:

“. . . the churches should reconsider their roles in authenticating marriage. Governments issue birth certificates; churches issue baptismal certificates. Governments issue death certificates; churches pray the funerals. Governments issue divorces; Churches annul. Both work within their separate and necessary spheres, serving the corporeal and the spiritual. It is only in the issue of marriage that church and state have commingled authority. That should perhaps change, and soon. Let the government certify and the churches sanctify according to their rites and sacraments.”

The idea is to create a clear differential between contract and covenant
, between legalism/unions and theology/marriage. Our post-modern understanding of marriage may well need that differential in order to begin to re-appreciate that marriage is more than an expression of a mood that needn’t last. It also will afford some protections to the churches — for a little while, at least — against controversy, law suits and fines. For Catholic couples, it could actually encourage some healthy reflections on what they believe, why they believe it and what marriage actually means to them.

Today, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is writing similarly at Huffpo, and he’s envisioning how this same idea could actually help religion to highlight the value of its own understandings:

I think that when people are forced to confront the choice of wanting merely a government-recognized civil union before a justice of the peace, which addresses only legal status issues, or the opportunity to imbue their union with a deeper, more eternal spiritual dimension, they would see the benefit of having something with greater holiness impact their union. And they would be forced to confront the difference between a mere legal synthesis versus a spiritual orchestration of two haves into one whole. In other words, once they are forced to start thinking about their “vows,” they might just drift further into faith and religion.

Boteach says that with this idea, “the government would retreat further from our lives”. That, I think, depends on who is in power. I don’t care what Obama says when he needs to be politically expedient, actions speak louder than words, and all of his actions have moved against freedom of religion.

But I do think this solution would slow him down, a little, and I think it really would give the churches a chance to re-teach marriage, in a very positive way, emphasizing all the things marriage is, rather than saying “that’s not it.” The Holy Spirit has a way of teaching that often confounds us, of turning what seems like a “negative” into a vehicle for the furtherance of God’s purposes. This might be one of those times.

And as a society, we desperately need a little positive emphasis.

UPDATE: I should point out that while I can see strong reasons to go this route in order to protect the churches, the Bishops disagree, and they have sound arguments, too. What I keep thinking, though, is that God works in very mysterious ways. In any case, to quote Dorothy Day, “I am an obedient daughter of the church” and will remain so. I’m just making an argument, here.

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About Elizabeth Scalia