The naivety with which Christians call gay marriage an attack on the civil institution of marriage has finally induced me to air grievances. Gay marriage attacks civil marriage as auto-tune “attacks” the mainstream music industry — not by a shocking change or an unspeakable perversion, but by another weary alteration of an already defunct industry.
Civil marriage, long before any question of gay marriage, is already a disappointing birthday party, antithetical to anything a rational being could mean by “marriage.” We speak as if homosexuals are beating up a living institution — they are beating a dead horse. This is especially true given a Catholic understanding the meaning of the word marriage (which has the novelty of saying something rather than nothing). To show this, we’ll take a gander at the meanest thing a Pope has ever said:
“Whatever marriage is said to be contracted, either it is so contracted that it really is a true marriage, in which case it carries with it that enduring bond which by divine right is inherent in every true marriage; or it is thought to be contracted without that perpetual bond, and in that case there is no marriage, but an illicit union opposed of its very nature to the divine law, which therefore cannot be entered into or maintained.” (Pius XI, quoting Pius VI, Casti Connubii, 34)
The intention of perpetuity, or no marriage at all. Cold, Pope. Real cold.
But what it means is that, insofar as it is the law of the State to allow divorce, remarriage and pre-nuptial agreements, a civil marriage is no marriage at all. If a couple were to take as their inward intention what the State takes as a possibility — that their marriage could be dissolved, children split between them, and provisions made for this event prior to the marriage itself — then they would not, in the eyes of the Church, be married. They would enjoy the pleasures of an illicit union.
I am not arguing, of course, that the majority or even any non-sacramental marriages are illicit unions. I am arguing that, from the Catholic point of view, a couple is required to spiritually reject the very constitution of a civil marriage, to “fill it up” in their intention what is lacking in its legal structure — by committing to stay together. A State marriage is only a marriage if it is, in intention, anarchic; a rebellion against the dismal, defeatist proposition offered by the State, which, devoid of grace, can only ever plan for the worst in man — the inevitable boredom of his marriage and the dissolution of his promises.
If this is true, then the idea of “protecting State marriage” or “preserving the civil institution of marriage” against being altered in its very meaning by an alteration of definition from husband and wife to a sex-blind affair — it seems paltry. Marriage is already, prior to any concerns over the manner in which the sexes constitute its essence, a rebellion against the State. To “save civil marriage” by maintaining it as “one man, one woman” would be to save an institution that the Christian, and indeed, every human looking to make one life out of two people, is called to reject. Any civil marriage, entered into as such, is an illicit union, no matter how stupendously straight or gloriously gay a couple has the pleasure of being.
This, on its own, should be sufficient to call into question the unfortunate position that Catholics, myself included, often take — that of the guardians of traditional marriage. Far from preserving and guarding an institution of the State, the role of the Catholic is to reject the State, question its foundations, and introduce something entirely new — entirely nontraditional. Indeed, it was precisely in rebellion against the human tradition of divorce and remarriage that that Rabbi, Jesus, said: “What God has joined, let no man tear asunder,” and everywhere Christianity spread, it struggled to break the tradition of polygamy, religious prostitution, divorce and remarriage. Christianity, as we will see, murders the all-too-human tradition of solubility with the frightening call to indissolubility.
Of course, one might argue that in preserving marriage as an institution of husband and wife is the preservation of natural law rather than civil law, but it is doubtful to me whether the violation of natural law is best corrected by the State, or, to say it positively, that “things acting in accord with their nature” is a goal achievable through the State — especially when our State codifies all manners of distortions of the nature of marriage long before any discussion of gay marriage. But we’ll get there: To start, I only want to disrupt the Good Traditional Marriage vs. Bad Gay Marriage narrative, to aim towards the possibility of a creative, fruitful separation of civil and sacramental marriage, or rather, towards the acknowledgment that the Catholic and his State haven’t meant the same thing by the word “marriage” for quite some time. There’s some fresh air in this for Catholic with the lungs for it. In a worldly city gone soggy with the separation of word from meaning, it is good to remember, in a desert-father fueled spirit of repudiation, that we do not do as the world does.