Most Reverend Thomas Olmstead Bishop of Phoenix 400 East Monroe Street Phoenix, AZ 85004-2336
Subject: On the Proper Defense of Marriage: An Open Letter to the Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix
Most Reverend Olmstead,
I write to you as a humble lay parishioner and sinner, worshiping in the Diocese of Phoenix. Like all American Catholics today, I am concerned with the present state of marriage in this country. Recently, the USCCB issued a letter urging the US Senate to support the now failed federal marriage amendment. The failure of this constitutional amendment should be seen as a blessing and it is my humble opinion that supporting such an amendment in the future would be a grave strategic error in defense of the true institution of marriage. I hope to demonstrate that such an amendment would become a significant threat to the sacramental nature of Catholic marriage as well as to the magisterial authority of the Church in the United States.
First let us examine the impetus for such a constitutional amendment on marriage. It is certainly understandable why many Catholics and our separated Christian brethren would push for such an amendment, particularly with the recent aberrations that have taken place in San Francisco and Massachusetts. In the United States marriage is suffering from the multitude of non-marital living arrangements, from a lack of understanding and therefore commitment to sexual ethics, from an epidemic of divorce, and from the current homosexual aberration. These developments should shock all Christians and cause them to take action against such monstrosities.
Surrounded by all these negative developments, some Catholics and Christians hope that the force of secular law can help protect and save the marital institution by shielding marriage from societal vices. Past and current vice laws were enacted to combat some of these problems. There have been state laws against unmarried couples living together; despite these laws many do. Prostitution and proposed pornography laws seek to assist the marriage commitment, but yet they would still plague an immoral society. Sodomy laws seek to curb immoral sexual actions, yet many practice it. All these laws seek to forcibly remove these immoral actions from our presence, yet they remain. These secular laws are really intended for the hardness of man’s heart. A hardness that grows ever harder in absence of the Real Presence.
Are these laws and federal amendments going to save or support the sacrament of marriage? We know as Catholics that it is only through the true exercise of Christian discipleship that the marital vocation is saved. The ultimate marital regulators for Catholics should be the sacraments of Eucharist combined with Reconciliation in light of the Gospel. Of course a proper understanding of the Eucharist’s Real Presence among Catholics is imperative in this regulation. Without proper knowledge of the Real Presence, a man’s heart will grow harder and seek other less desirable coercive ways to regulate his behavior. It is only through Christ that homosexuality, sodomy, pornography, and prostitution can be effectively eliminated from the heart. It is only through Christ that we can have meaningful and self-actualizing marriages. A federal marriage amendment will do no such thing.
There will be something that a federal marriage amendment will do in this country. It will set up a federal agency to regulate marriage. It is important to note that every positive assertion or regulation in the Constitution has an agency or office associated with it. The only clauses that don’t have offices associated with it are the Bill of Rights, which seeks to protect the people from the government. The marriage amendment positively asserts that the only legal union to be conferred is that of a man and a woman. With such a positive assertion there will come a marriage Czar and another office of federal bureaucracy. Be warned that such a Czar will be a threat to the Catholic Church and its proper authority over Catholic marriage in the United States. The Federal government has already found sneaky ways of regulating Church associated organizations through the granting of government funds and other laws. As I’m sure you know well that the California Supreme Court has recently mandated that the Diocese of Sacramento’s Catholic Charities provide insurance coverage for contraception. This example is just the infancy of threats the current nature of the American secular state is capable of producing and it should be a warning sign to American Bishops. Give a marriage czar some time and you will see mandates for a government type pre-cana for all marriages complete with un-natural family planning and lessons on abortion.
Catholics should not forget their history and look back to at the initial reasons for many modern secular institutions in this country. Woman’s suffrage, the temperance movement (Prohibition Amendment), public education, immigration restriction, abortion and contraception were all secular instruments initially used with the intent to undermine the Catholic Church in the US.1 So why should Catholics put faith in mechanisms that that have been used to undermine the sacred Church? Why put faith in a few miniscule political victories when they can detrimentally hurt the Church?
Let us not put faith in secular laws. It is God’s dominion that we seek and it is through the temporal structures of His Church that the marital sacrament can be best defended. Currently the Church is doing some good things in the defense of marriage with its pre-cana programs and writings like John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.
Despite the positive aspects of the Church’s protection of marriage, there is something subtle that the American Church is allowing to happen before it recognizes a sacramental marriage. It is that of a civil marriage granted through licensure by the state. Now one may not think that going to the state for a marriage license has much affect on the institution of marriage, but an examination into such licensure would show just how profound the affect is. The current regime in the American States goes as follows:
State: Come to me first when marrying. You need our license first.
Church: After a solid pre-cana, come to us with your license and we will confer a sacrament.
State: Come to me when trouble comes. Divorce is just a few documents away. Go to your attorney. Go to the divorce store.
Church: Come to us after your civil divorce and we may find cause for a proper annulment. Some will not look for an annulment and just drop out of Church life.
When a couple goes through hard times together, as almost all invariably do, it is much easier to seek the advice of legal counsel and hammer out a divorce. The adversarial nature of secular courts nicely suits spouses who have reached the unfortunate relationship of adversaries. Many say why go to the Church, when their recommendations are "unrealistic." "They don’t understand my needs," will exclaim many. Even as Catholics, many of us are easily tempted to take on the role as adversary because it is so easy to go through some lawyers and the state. Often these paid representatives have in mind the selfish and uncharitable needs of adversarial spouses, unlike that of the Church. Unfortunately in the hearts of most, the Church plays second fiddle to legal and cultural institutions that suit their "needs." This situation is subtle and not easily seen, but of utmost importance.
In this subtle situation, the state is always trying to seek recognition prior to the Church and God’s dominion. In fact, it’s a safe but troubling bet that most Christian children in the US receive their social security number before they are even Baptized. Granted, we are called by the Church to submit to legitimate authorities and serve for the common good of society. However, the Church also states:
The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel. Refusing obedience to the civil authorities, when their demands are contrary to those of an upright conscience, finds its justification in the distinction between serving God and serving the political community. "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s." We must obey God rather than men… [Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2239]
So then is it right that we as Catholics should refuse obedience to the civil authority in the case of a marriage license, and is such a license a homage that we must render to Caesar? The answer must be an emphatic yes to the former and no to the latter, because the implication of all state marriage licenses is the right to terminate the contract in the secular court for reasons even as frivolous as "irreconcilable differences." With such an implication of divorce are couples truly entering the vocation freely and without mental reservation? Marriage under the Church offers no such implication, but American Catholics become easily confused with a state license in their hands. These state licenses should be looked at by the Church as an unlawful license to divorce, not marry. It is a tool which works contrary to the upright conscience and confuses many into following the civil authority rather than God’s law and the Gospel in light of Mat 5:31—32.
Further the empirical evidence on divorce in the United States supports an argument for Catholic civil disobedience on marriage. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, they explain divorce among the general American population from 1870 to 1905:
The rate per 100,000 married population was 81 in the year 1870 and 200 in the year 1900… Divorce rates appear to be much higher in the United States than in any of the foreign countries for which statistics relating to this subject have been obtained [emphasis mine].
Among the US population, divorce has been recently cited as the termination of greater than 50% of all marriages. For American Catholics, it has been cited as greater than 30%. Consistently through the years, the US seems to have a greater instance of civil divorce than most other countries.
Therefore, in light of the fact that divorce is implied by a secular marriage license and the subsequently numerous cases of divorce, American secular institutions cannot be trusted as a desirable means in a Catholic defense of marriage.
Besides, why let US secular institutions have authority over the Catholic sacrament of marriage, when no other sacrament is regulated by secular institutions? Right now, one does not need a license to Baptism, Reconciliation, Eucharist, Confirmation, Holy Orders, or Anointing of the Sick, as there never should be. Nor should there be a license for the Sacrament of Marriage.
There are effective positive alternatives that the Church can pursue to defend marriage from the confusion caused by the state’s imposition of a marriage license.
The Catholic Church in America would be wise to not allow for the licensure of any civil marriage of Catholics in the future. All matters of marriage for Catholics would be best dealt with solely by the recipients of the Sacrament and the Church. Prior to marriage, the Church would ask those seeking the Sacrament to not seek the adversarial position of the secular court unless the Church has deemed the marriage to be properly annulled or when the civil rights of an individual spouse or family member have been violated (rape, assault, murder, etc.). In the case of annulment, an adversarial position could be then taken by annulled spouses for dealings with property issues, but not for the granting of a divorce of an unlicensed Catholic sacrament. In the case of violated civil rights the spouse should still not seek civil divorce and deal solely with the Church on annulment.
As for current Catholic holders of such a license, they should leave it as is, and be asked to treat their marriages in the discipline mentioned above. The only difference is that that American Catholics should seek to have their civil license divorced only after the Church deems the marriage as properly annulled.
The advantage of this proposal would be greater discipline over the sacrament of Marriage by the Church than there currently is. There would be no cause for confusion among married parishioners about divorce and the Church will be seen as the primary and sole arbitrator of Catholic marriages. Marriage will lie within the realm of the Church and there would be no concerns over loss of ecclesiastical authority, thus decreasing the likelihood of heresy entering It.
Subsequent to such enactments, the Church will see great spiritual benefits. The Church will see greater reflection on marriage as a call by the Triune God to a true Christian vocation, rather than something one feels like doing for their own sake. This will lead to fewer annulments as parishioners find a proper response to their true callings. Greater reflection will lead others to see their true call to a religious life either through Holy Orders or other religious vocations.
In the short run, there may be resistance to such a discipline by many Catholics who fall to the temptation and the trappings of secular society and will find it hard not to look back. There may be some who go to the civil authority to break their Catholic marriage with a divorce prior to counsel from the Church. Like Lot’s wife many will turn into pillars of salt.
Other concerns will include the Federal income tax situation for marriages not licensed by the several states. Will the IRS recognize unlicensed yet sacramental marriages? If it does not, this should be another indicator how American secular institutions are unfit for the recognition and defense of marriage. Federal tax issues could cause major interference in enacting such a discipline. If the IRS does not recognize unlicensed marriages, then would it be fair to ask new unlicensed sacramental marriages to be penalized on their taxes while older licensed sacramental marriages are not? If unlicensed Sacramental marriages are penalized, then I think that licensed Sacramental marriages may be called to file with such a penalty in solidarity to the unlicensed. These sacrifices would hurt, but they are small compared to the sacrifices made by the Church fathers and early Christians in their civil disobedience to the pagan gods of Rome.
I know the proposed discipline would be hard for American bishops to enact over their flocks, but it is time to understand the devastating affects American secular institutions have on marriage. They are burdens that weigh down on the sacrament and since this is so, how can we as Catholics seek salvation from the institutions causing such a burden? Only the Church can bring the sacrament of marriage back to the gentle Majesty of Christ, giving it rest from the secular strains in American society. We must take to heart Christ’s teaching through His Gospel:
"Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for your selves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light." [Mat 11:28-30]
These are dangerous times for the Church and it may take the courage of a St. Thomas More or St. Thomas Becket for us to properly protect and defend the Sacrament of Marriage. I will pray for their intercession and do my part in the laity to bring misguided and fallen Catholics back to the Real Presence, as well as evangelize to all other non-Catholics.
It is time for the Catholic Church in America to recognize its proper place where it has a much greater authority than the American system of government. It is time for the Church to take action. Waiting for the state to take action, could take time and such actions will do serious harm to the Church. I hope the Church can see that using secular institutions like the modern American state will not help the defense of sacramental marriage. Rather, the Church must positively assert its authority over American Catholics in the aspect of marriage if it truly seeks to defend it in America.