Retronymic Marriage

Temporary marriage (no, not that kind) has been all over the news since some Mexico City lawmakers started pushing for marriage contracts that expire after two years. I don’t know enough about Mexico City politics to guess whether this proposal has a chance of passing or whether it’s a vanity bill, but that doesn’t seem to have stopped the blogosphere from bewailing it as the latest sign of the marriage apocalypse.

Instead of defending marriage, religious leaders should work on defining it. The anti-gay marriage coalition is trying to make the broad, secular definition of marriage fit the strictures and shibboleths of their own faith. Some anti-gay marriage activism is rooted in altruism – they genuinely want people to be part of the ‘highest’ form of marriage, just like they want heathens like me to convert, but most of it seems to be fueled by fear that gay marriage will profoundly alter marriage for everyone.

The more marriage is treated as a unified cultural institution, the more likely that scenario becomes. People have radically different expectations of marriage, but we have no clear way of talking about them and everyone ends up angry that the other side is unfairly appropriating the word. Most of the time, people on either side of the argument can’t even concede that the other side is coherent given its philosophical or metaphysical premises, and the debate gets derailed fast. What we need is a little clarifying balkanization.

Making a clean distinction between certain conceptions of marriage makes every subculture less of a direct threat to each other. That’s not to say they won’t all remain in a high-stakes competition, but they’ll be able to make a clearer pitch for their brand without worrying as much about other frameworks diluting their tradition. They can focus on making a positive case for their take on marriage, instead of playing frantic linguistic defense.

The impetus to fracture marriage can come from church or state. In France, civil unions are defining a new relationship niche that some see as a prelude to true marriage but others see a fully satisfactory arrangement in its own right. On the other side of the church-state divide, an Australian archdiocese will no longer certify marriages for legal purposes. Couples will get their marriage licenses signed by someone in government instead of by a member of the clergy.

The legal change in France prompted a linguistic change. Instead of only talking about whether or not they’ll ‘se marrier,’ French couples might ‘se pacser’ instead. The new verb is derived from the name of the civil union, a PACS. Navigating the cultural shifts in America might be easier if we coined some retronyms of our own.

A retronym is a strange kind of neologism. Most new words describe a new concept, but retronyms are meant to distinguish an old idea from a new one that may be supplanting it. A guitar was just a guitar until new tech forced people to start clarifying if they meant an acoustic guitar.

By the end of a linguistic reshuffling, I don’t think anyone will be able to claim unadjectived marriage as their own, which, given the incongruities between modern institutions and their historical instantiations, is probably for the better. Catholics might do well to stake out ‘sacramental marriage’ which puts the emphasis back on marriage as grace, not as contract. For conservatives trying to make a secular pitch, I heartily recommend ‘covenant marriage’ (which is a tweak I endorse on its merits).

Divorce these differing ideas of marriage and let them stand and fall on their own strengths. In fifty years or so, after the dust clears, hopefully the best one(s) will be left standing.

UPDATE: I just noticed that, over in the Catholic portal, Crescat has a discussion going on the difference between weddings held in churches and those in secular locations.   There’s an interesting crossover of people who aren’t religious but rent a church because ‘marriage’ is so entangled in a religious aesthetic.

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  • Gilbert

    That Australian archdiocese headline is a little ahead of the article. What the archbishop said was the church would no longer certify state marriages if certifying any state marriages starts carrying a requirement to also certify same sex “marriages”.

    Now reactionaries like me know that “if” might as well be a “when”. But right now most people who want the state to join in on the pretense of same sex simulations of marriage still swear that will never happen.

  • That’s a tough sell. Part of what gay marriage advocates want is the social recognition that comes with the term “marriage,” and part of what gay marriage opponents want is to deny them that social recognition. Changing the terminology won’t bypass the actual issue that they want to fight about.

    • Anonymous

      It might lower the stakes of losing the social recognition fight. No one is angry that Catholic churches won’t perform sacramental marriage for Hindus and no one would dream of asking them to. There will be less external pressure if the churches retreat to their own magisteria.

  • Schuler Andrew

    The nail was hit on the head. I did not rush to city hall with my baby’s baptism certificate for state recognition. I care little about government acknowledgement of my sacramental practices. To the contrary, I’d be most concerned with the idea of any government intrusion at my church.

    Those who wish to protest government defined marriage do best by taking the control away from the government that is writing new definitions. The marriage pact need not be sealed by the town clerk to be legally binding. If the sacrament isn’t enough for you and your fiance, visit your attorney and write a contract. Let’s recognize the contradiction – why do those, presumably, most interested in smaller government want big brother approving their wedding?

    We used to invoke terms like “civil ceremony” or “common law spouse” to imply non-sacramental relationship. But maybe the most apt retronym is now “government marriage”; whoa, doesn’t sound too romantic, does it.

  • Anon…

    In my Catholic Diocese they will not marry you unless you are also going through the civil side…

  • Iota

    “Instead of defending marriage, religious leaders should work on defining it. ”

    But I suspect every religious group HAS its insider definitions of what marriage is. In fact, it usually isn’t that hard to find out what the definition is.

    In the case of Catholic recognition of marriage it may be good to remember that besides “sacramentality” there is also the question of “valdity” (a wider criterion). A marriage between two non-baptized atheists is (usually) considered “valid”, but not “sacramental”, if I recall correctly. In contrast, a gay union is neither “sacramental” nor “valid” (neither is, in fact a heterosexual union if there are “impediments” – to use Church language).

    See here:

    • anodognosic

      Which is why divorcing (so to speak) civil marriage from religious marriage is essentially a matter of religious freedom. It’s not only us godless heathens who don’t care to have marriage defined for us by those we disagree with. NOBODY (excepting, maybe, members of the respective groups) wants marriage for everybody defined by Catholics, or Muslims, or Baptists, or Jews, or atheists, etc, etc, etc. (and that’s not even accounting for the yawning differences that exist within each of those groups) The reactionaries (hey there, @Gilbert) might agree as far as denying marriage equality to homosexuals, but mainline Protestants, say, might start squirming when Catholics, say, start wanting to give their notions of “validity” the force of law.

      So in conclusion, support religious freedom by supporting marriage equality!

      • Joe

        I think the problem with the gay marriage debate is not that gays want their existing marriages recognized by the state as it is with heterosexual marriage , it’s that gays want marriages created for them by the state. Most people intuitively recognize a union between a heterosexual couple so the state naturally recognizes the marriages of heterosexuals. Homosexuals want the state to create a legal fiction that would validate their relationships before the the larger heterosexual society. If the state refused to recognize all marriages heterosexuals would still be getting married. What would homosexuals be doing? Homosexuals if they were serious would be getting married already without state recognition. Maybe they are?

      • Iota

        “NOBODY […] wants marriage for everybody defined by Catholics, or Muslims, or Baptists, or Jews, or atheists”

        The fact is, however, that people do have “marriages defined for everybody” according to standards that prevail in a given society and – to an extent – it’s unavoidable in practice, so long as “being married” has any legal effects and needs to be recognised and accepted (for whatever purpose) outside of your own group.

        Example: bigamy is illegal in most states of the US, so is marriage without mutual consent, or marriage involving a legal minor, I suspect. Even if someone somewhere claimed that he has a right to marry a legal minor due to “freedom”, the state wouldn’t let them. Or if someone claimed that they are fee to keep another person locked up in their house until they consent to marriage…

        • anodognosic

          1. Next to nothing about the current prevailing standards for marriage–at least those standards that enjoy broad social consensus–actually precludes same-sex marriage in any way. (Consent being one of the major standards, two of your examples do not pass a prima-facie laugh test; the example of bigamy can be considered on its own merits) Most of the so-called rational, nonreligious objections to same-sex marriage are ad hoc reasons that are not broadly applied when it comes to heterosexual marriage (e.g., the primacy of children). The only real nonreligious objection that seems to have any traction at the moment is

          2. the idea that marriage just is between a man and a woman. I hope that it’s clear how this point is hopelessly question-begging when this is exactly the issue at hand. But even this is rendered mostly moot as

          3. recent polls show that marriage equality enjoys around 50% approval among the American populace, and so neither side can be said to be prevailing at the moment.

          4. In any case, my argument is broader, and speaks to what standards people in general should apply to decide an issue like this. And my point is this: opposition to marriage equality is not merely religious, it is sectarian. Because religious people disagree on this issue, and religious authorities disagree on this issue. And by insisting on the religious argument, just because a variety of sects happen to agree on it, people are actually insisting that the government favor some sects over others. And I know a little clause in the Constitution that might have something to say about that…

          • Iota

            Disclosure: I’m not American and don’t live In America so I have a slightly more “abstract” or “general” vantage point.

            I wasn’t trying to convince you that marriage to a legal minor is just like a homosexual union. Merely that – in principle – every state and every culture always HAS norms of marriage that are “for everybody” if marriage as an institution carries some special status. And they usually do come from somewhere (a particular historical and cultural context), thus favouring certain groups, modes of understanding or behaviour.

            So, for example (IIRC) in the US, if a 17 year old girl has a boyfriend, the boyfriend ends up in hospital, she can’t go and say they are “almost married” and receive information that is legally restricted to the family, even if they DO plan to marry but aren’t married yet (and can’t be due to lack of parental consent).

            Plus, while the notion of “the primacy of children” is no longer as intuitive to many people as it was, isn’t it the reason why marriages between close relatives (e.g. first-cousin marriages) are invalid in many jurisdictions? The criterion of consent doesn’t account for that.

            [in case you’re wondering – I’m not suggesting homosexual relationships are like incest – just pointing out that, however unintuitive it has become to some people, the notion that marriage and childbearing are related, is still present somehow, including in the American legal system]

  • Joe

    I some what agree with Schuler. The states recognition of marriage is the last thing remaining before there can be a total separation of Church and state. Both “marriage” and “civil union” have to many meta-physical implications. If the US is to be a secular state it needs to strive to treat every individual the same regardless of their marital status. If there is no clear, agreed upon, idea of the “common good” then government should avoid all attempts to institutionalize such ambiguous ideas as marriage and family.

  • Joe

    Anon– It is a little crummy that dioceses make you go through the secular channels to get married. I remember listening to Catholic Answers and a woman called in asking about this issue. She had some serious medical problems and was on government assistance. If she were to marry she would lose most of that help. She was wondering if she could just get a Sacramental Marriage through the Church and leave the state out of it. They told her no she couldn’t and said that if she did she would be committing fraud. This to me is totally bonkers. Im sure the Church just wants marriages to be as public as possible and thats why you have to also go through the state. But it seems crazy that the Church would be so committed to the state recognizing a marriage that they would put someone in such a bind.

    • Anonymous

      I also find this surprising. Is this a ‘render unto Caesar’ situation? A legal recognition of marriage can carry a lot of benefits for a couple (that’s why gay rights advocates like me have such a bee in our bonnets), but I don’t see what state recognition gains the Church or what it adds to a marriage on a metaphysical level.

      • Iota

        Leah and Joe

        I suspect at least two things at work here:

        1) “Scandal” ( – I suppose if a Catholic were to be married in the Church but not married according to state law in a country where that is the norm and not objectionable, it could cause some serious misunderstandings about whether that person is or isn’t married.

        If that were the norm (that people simply marry or do not marry in all sorts of ways) or the state marriage ritual were objectionable (say, you had to kill someone) there would either be no “scandal” (in the first case) or giving it would be justified (second).

        2) When money comes into the equation, additional ground for scandal (and actual fraud) may appear.

        Imagine – for example – a non-baptized couple entering a valid secular marriage and then divorcing merely to receive “single parent” benefits (while cohabiting). Would you think that was okay?

        I suspect the reasoning behind the case Joe refers to may be similar – that it is unethical to draw benefits which apply to you only due to the letter, but not the spirit, of the law. Even if we’re talking of entirely secular law.

        • Joe

          I think you’re example is a good one. Im not sure it would be morally wrong for even a Sacramentally married couple to get a civil divorce to get single parent benefits if they were poor enough. Remember its not contrary to Catholic moral theology to steal food if you are starving. This is an interesting question because if we have to define marriage we also have to define divorce. In Christ’s time there was no separation of Church and state(or in his case Synagogue) so you were both married and divorced in a religious context. But in modern times there is a sort of separation. Im not sure how the Church sees the distinction if the State makes it too difficult to stay married what constitutes a Divorce. I think I remember reading that Salvador Dali was so in love with his wife that he divorced her just so he could marry her all over again.

          • Iota

            “Remember its not contrary to Catholic moral theology to steal food if you are starving.”

            I think the actual “rule” goes something like this: it is permissible to steal in extreme necessity but only if you have exhausted all other (ethically better) options. Quote form the Catechism:

            This puts a lot of limitations on when that rule can be applied in practice. You should try applying for even unsatisfactory jobs, getting help form the family and fiends and even form charity first. In other words, you should be very willing to inconvenience yourself, before you resort to theft out of starvation.

            I suppose the argument against a Church-only marriage would be similar: e.g. that if continuing to lead a truly single life is inconvenient but reasonably possible, you should do so until you are able to get married both according to Church and State law.

            “In Christ’s time there was no separation of Church and state”

            Are you sure? Palestine was then a Roman province and there were differences between Roman and Jewish law (so effectively there were two sets of laws – the Roman state law and Jewish religious law). While the Romans gave Jews extensive autonomy during the reign of Julius Caesar, I’m not exactly certain there weren’t any cases of conflict…