Changing Discipline Changes Doctrine, Again

In a recent piece on the Synod, I argued  that sometimes a change of Church discipline cannot not happen without a change in Church doctrine, and that since Church doctrine about Communion for Catholics who have obtained a civil divorce and remarriage does not change, Catholics should not expect Church discipline to change either. Today I would like to suggest that the same holds true with the Marriage Pledge  proposed by Ephraim Radner and Christopher Seitz, and hosted by First Things.  It is not possible for Catholics to embrace a pledge whereby clergy refuse to acknowledge civil recognition of marriages performed in churches. Even though the pledge aims to send a clear witness about Christian marriage to society, the practice it proposes entails something contrary to what Catholics believe about the sacrament of holy matrimony, and about the relationship between human law and natural law.

It would be impossible to trace all the lines of argument in the recent explosion of material on this proposal, so I will focus on one small point which gets right to the heart of the matter. Recently, Edward Peters responded  to Matthew Schmitz’s claim  that separating the “simultaneous enactment [of the] civil contract with the sacrament of marriage” would “protect” the Church’s witness to the Christian nature of marriage. In an important but passing point, Peters observed that Catholics could not willingly embrace this because Catholics believe that the first exchange of matrimonial consent (which Schmitz would presumably have done in a Church) creates both the civil contract and the sacrament (Canon 1055.2). But just because Peters references canon law doesn’t mean he’s not talking about doctrine. There’s infallible doctrine lurking under that Canon.

The Catholic understanding of marriage is built on the Catholic understanding of grace. Catholics believe that receiving grace does not destroy your humanity and then remake it; it restores the humanity you already have and makes it better—purified and healed from sin, elevated to friendship with God and enriched with God’s heavenly gifts. Nowhere is this idea more true than in the sacraments. A sacrament is not a magical symbol dropped out of the sky, which changes us into something other than who we are. In each of the seven sacraments, God takes some ordinary human activity (like washing or eating), and perfects it so that he can perfect us through it. That’s part of how God helps us understand the truth of Genesis 1: “God saw all that he had made, and behold it was very good.”

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Imagine, for a second, if you tried to separate nature from grace in baptism and the Eucharist. Baptism saves your soul by grace, but it also gets you wet by nature. Perhaps, like me, you don’t like getting wet. Can you get baptized without getting wet? Likewise, the Eucharist unites you with the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus. But it also makes you eat and drink. Perhaps, unlike me, you’re on a diet. Can you take the Eucharist without getting food in your mouth?

Obviously you couldn’t. But apart from the silliness of trying to imagine wet-free baptism, what would it say about God’s creation if, per impossibile, you tried? It would say that God’s grace couldn’t reach you, that there was something wrong with your humanity, and that God had to replace your humanity before he could reach you.

Now let’s consider marriage. Catholics believe Jesus when he said that marriage was part of God’s original intention for the human race (Matthew 19:6). So there was marriage for thousands of years before there was ever a sacrament of holy matrimony, just like there was washing before there was baptism, and eating before the Eucharist. What was marriage for all those years? The same as it is today for everyone who has what the Church calls a “natural” marriage: a monogamous and lifelong relationship between a man and a woman, freely entered for the mutual enrichment of the spouses and the having and rearing of children (Canons 1055, 1057). That’s the “natural” reality that the sacrament of holy matrimony perfects.

Besides being the basis for the sacrament of holy matrimony, natural marriage is also the basis for a civil contract. But this civil contract is not like other civil contracts, whose terms are instituted by the State and can be dissolved by the State. Marriage is a reality that is instituted by God and promulgated through the natural law (CCC 1954). Since, moreover, the State has a duty to promote the flourishing of human nature in accord with the natural law, the State has what the Catechism calls a “grave duty” to protect marriage whenever and wherever it occurs (CCC 2210). That’s why the code of canon law talks about the “civil effects” of marriage (Canons 1059, 1672), but never about “civil marriage.” For Catholics, there is no such thing as a purely civil marriage. There is natural marriage, and sacramental matrimony, which is founded upon it. The State is bound to acknowledge when either occurs; and has the competency to pass human laws regulating what happens in connection with their occurrence. It does that by means of attaching a civil contract to the same exchange of consent which creates natural marriage and sacramental matrimony, but that does not make the State the final arbiter of what constitutes that consent.

One of the places where marriages that create civil contracts occur is in Church. But just like bathing and eating happen in Church but are enriched by grace to become baptism and Eucharist, so also marriage between baptized persons happens in Church and is enriched by grace to become the sacrament of holy matrimony, “an efficacious sign … of the covenant between Christ and his Church” (CCC 1617). What happens when two people get married in Church is like what happens when they get washed in Church: at their Baptism they wash and they get grace, because they get grace through washing; likewise at their wedding, they contract marriage and they receive the sacrament of holy matrimony, because they receive the sacrament of Holy Matrimony through contracting marriage. Consequently the “civil contract” of marriage is not separable from the sacrament of holy matrimony in the way in which supporters of the Marriage Pledge propose it to be. It is founded on the same natural institution to which the sacrament of holy matrimony is inseparably wed.

Since the sacrament of holy matrimony is intrinsically tied to the same institution as the civil contract, you can’t separate the civil contract from the sacrament any more than you can separate washing from baptism. Baptism by nature gets us wet; sacramental matrimony by nature gets us married. That’s not to say that an individual civil government couldn’t refuse to recognize what was going on and require couples married in Church to come to the courthouse and renew their matrimonial consent before a Justice of the Peace. Of course they could, and some currently do. But that wouldn’t change the fact that, when the couple went before the Justice of the Peace, they would be renewing a marriage that already existed, and that the State was failing in its grave duty to acknowledge an already existing marriage.

As long as nothing stands in the way of a Christian minister signing the civil marriage registration form in good conscience (and however unpalatable the terms “Spouse A” and “Spouse B” are in lieu of “Husband” and “Wife,” they are not false), then all that remains is for him to proclaim God’s dominion over marriage by nature and by grace—by nature, because the Christian minister attests that natural marriage is prior to the civil contract that regulates its effects; by grace, because the Christian minister attests that the sacrament which he witnessed the couple confer on one another occurred by the elevation of that natural institution.

In spite of R.R. Reno’s most recent protestations  for a Christian minister to abdicate his role in signing civil marriage registrations without being forced to do so can be nothing other than a twofold doctrinal retreat: from the doctrine that the sacrament of holy matrimony is based upon the same natural institution as the civil contract which it enacts; and from the doctrine that it is the duty of all Christians to ensure that civil law reflects, insofar as possible, the natural law. It is therefore not possible for Catholics to embrace this pledge. Moreover, it forces lay Catholics into the awkward position of explaining to society why what they did in Church didn’t count in the courthouse, even though their actions in the Church and the courthouse were supposedly based on the same natural institution. They may as well try to give instructions on how to get baptized without getting wet. It would put Catholics in a similarly impossible situation.


  • Jacob W. Wood

    Jacob W. Wood is an Assistant Professor of Theology and a Faculty Associate of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned his Master’s in theology from St. Andrews University and his Ph.D. from The Catholic University of America.

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