Dear Rev. Know-it-all,
My cousin Nigel is being married in a forest in Colorado by a druid. I am being urged to go to the wedding by the whole family. Nigel was raised as a Catholic as was the whole family, though he and most of the family go to church only sporadically. Still, they claim the name of Catholic. His girlfriend with whom he has been living for the past two years has no religion to speak of and doesn’t want to jump through all the hoops that the Catholic Church requires, marriage preparation, classes, letters from pastors, forms to fill out, affidavits to swear. She says it’s all just man-made rules and why should those really matter when two people are in love and planning a life together. The family is furious with me. They say I am ruining the whole event with my disapproval. Should I go just to be supportive and to preserve family unity?
Why should all the Catholic rigmarole really matter when two people are in love? Simple. They won’t be in love for long and if they aren’t interested in the rigmarole and the hoops, what makes them think that they will stay together when it is no longer convenient?
For Catholics marriage is, or at least used to be, a big deal. I was raised on stories of St. Thomas More, a most embarrassing saint for our time. He gets in the way of so much, like ecumenism. His canonization is a reminder that the Church of Rome, founded on the rock of Peter is different than the Anglican/Episcopalian Church founded on the hormones of Henry the Eighth of England. Rent the movie “Man for All Seasons” if you’ve never heard of Henry and Thomas, two friends if ever two there were. Henry was a king, a great renaissance king, madly in love with his queen, Catherine of Aragon. Catherine and Henry had child after child, but only one survived infancy, a girl, Princess Mary. Henry was worried that he had no male heir to succeed him, and face it, Catherine had put on little weight and wasn’t quite the beauty she used to be. Renaissance kings had no problem finding a date on a Saturday night, married or not. Henry had quite a few special friends and quite a few children by them. Still there was no heir.
Henry apparently had a child by a girl from a noble family named Mary Boleyn. After the baby was born Henry lost interest. Mary did have a younger sister, Ann, who was fascinating. She however was not going to be one more in a string of royal mistresses. She wanted a ring on her finger and a crown on her head. She got what she wanted, though that crowned head was cut off after a marriage of about three years. She made herself far less fascinating by yelling at the king and failing to produce a son. She only managed to produce another daughter, Elizabeth. Still, before the disaster unfolded, Henry was besotted and having failed to receive an annulment from the pope, he declared himself head of the church in England at Ann’s urging and gave himself an annulment from his marriage to Queen Catherine. All his subjects were expected to swear an oath of supremacy, declaring the King the Supreme Head of the English Church. Sir Thomas More resigned his position as chancellor of England and refused to swear the oath. All the bishops of England save one bishop, John Fisher, and all the members of the government and even all the members of Sir Thomas’ family swore the oath. Thomas alone refused.
He was accused of the sin of pride. He alone would not swear. Did he think himself better than all the Christians in England, better even than all the bishops, save one, of England? When asked why he would not swear the oath, he simply said that his conscience would not allow him to do so.
They asked, “Is your conscience better than all others?”
Thomas replied, “No, but it is my conscience. You must answer to God for your conscience and I must answer to God for mine.”
“Sir Thomas, will you not come along for the sake of fellowship?”
To which Sir Thomas said, “If I go along with you for the sake of fellowship and one day we stand before God, and you are admitted to heaven for following your conscience, while I am sent to hell for disobeying mine, will you then come along with me for the sake of fellowship?”
I am a Catholic. I believe that marriage is an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman that can be ended only by death, if that relationship in fact exists. I believe that relationship exists not simply for the mutual good of those who enter it, but that it exists primarily for filling heaven with children for God and for the stability of the human family in which those children of heaven are nurtured. My ancestors have believed this for 1,300 years since St. Boniface cut down the sacred oak tree 25 miles from where they lived. All my ancestors have taught me that marriage is a religious covenant, not simply a civil contract. Remember that a contract means “I give you that you might give me.” When the transaction is ended, the relationship is ended. Prostitution is a perfectly reasonable contract. A covenant means “I give you myself that you might give me yourself.” It ends only when there is no more self to give, at the death of one of the covenanters. I believe that marriage is a covenant, and since it is a covenant it is profoundly religious. It does not admit divorce.
Civil marriage permits divorce and thus can never be more than a contract, an exchange of goods and services. It is never religious. In my understanding it is not even marriage. Why ever would you expect me to be a witness to a parody of my most deeply held beliefs? Civil marriage is a novelty invented by the French Revolution in its attempt to destroy the Catholic Church. Why would you ask me to participate in an event designed to destroy the institution I hold most dear and has given birth to my culture and even my very self? Why would you ask me to violate my conscience, when I have not asked you to violate yours? If you understand things differently, I have no objection. I simply disagree because of my conscience.
What is a civil marriage, a marriage that admits the possibility of divorce? I don’t understand civil marriage. Once it had to do with inheritance. Those born outside of a civilly recognized marriage could not inherit. This is no longer so. Virginity and chastity were once respected. People were looked down on by society if they lived together without some form of marriage. This is no long true either. It is quite common; in fact it is the norm for people to have sexual relations and to live together without any form of marriage.
So what is gained by marriage? Civil marriage and most non-Catholic marriages, including Eastern Orthodox marriages admit the possibility that the marriage will fail. As far as I know, only Catholics say that by marriage, two people are entering into an indissoluble marriage. Only Catholics, as far as I know, believe that save for the intervention of death, marriage is something that can be entered only once.
Civil marriage means nothing in our times. It does not mean that now we can begin physical intimacy, nor does it mean that we will be committed to each other for the rest of our lives. As far as I can tell it means nothing, except for perhaps the good intentions and wishful thinking of all involved.
Why must I deny my conscience and thus risk my immortal soul in order to attend a party with friends and family? I don’t disapprove of your actions. I simply don’t understand their purpose. Please hold me excused. I bow to your conscience. At least let me keep faith with mine. I ask no less than I am willing to give. I will not try to stop your civil marriage. I will not interrupt the ceremony. I will assume that you are obeying the dictates of your conscience. But don’t ask me to accept your conscience as my own. You will surely go to heaven if this marriage you are entering is done in good conscience. I will surely go to hell for participating as a witness in what I regard as violation of my own conscience.
In 1535, Sir Thomas More became Saint Thomas More when, for the sake of his conscience, he was beheaded at the order of his good friend, King Henry the Eighth. His last words were “I die the King's good servant, but God's first.”
Dare I echo his final words: Let me live as your good friend, but God’s first.