Surrendering Marriage

June is a good month for surrenders. On June 25, 1940, France capitulated after Germany’s lightning defeat of Allied armies. The armistice that took effect that day ceded more than half the country to foreign occupation, and relegated the rest to management by those Frenchmen willing to collaborate with Germany — supposedly to preserve some shred of French sovereignty and save the country from even more ruthless treatment.

On June 25, 2011, the New York Times reported that the forces resisting gay marriage in New York State had collapsed, and one of the largest states in the union enacted same-sex unions. The bill had passed narrowly the night before: In New York’s state senate, just three votes made the difference. These votes came through heavy arm-twisting by New York’s ethnically Catholic governor, Andrew Cuomo, the son of Mario “Personally Opposed to Abortion” Cuomo. Sadly, there was no one with upper body strength trying to twist those arms back straight.

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Three votes, and now every state in the Union faces the choice of acknowledging gay marriages made in New York, or violating the “full faith and credit” clause of the U.S. Constitution. What is worse, gay marriage in New York was not imposed by judges, as in Massachusetts, but by the free deliberations of a duly elected legislature, in accord with the Catholic principle of subsidiarity. This means that (barring an extremely unlikely constitutional amendment, for which we should fight, of course) gay marriage is here to stay. The institution of marriage — which has been so disfigured by the sexual revolution, and feminism, then the lax divorce laws born of both — now bears no resemblance at all to the natural, sacramental reality that Western laws once were written to acknowledge and support. We really should call it something else. May I suggest “frenemies with benefits”?

What made the victory possible, analysts told the New York Times, were the pitifully tepid efforts of its religious opponents, in particular the local Church. As the Times reported, “It was befuddling to gay-rights advocates: The Catholic Church, arguably the only institution with the authority and reach to derail same-sex marriage, seemed to shrink from the fight.” Instead of pulling out all the stops and calling in all its chips, the Church shrugged off the effort to defend the natural law as a good thing for all New Yorkers — and went scrambling for exemptions to guard its institutional interests. Republicans who were wary of gay marriage spent their political capital not fighting against the bill, but carving out little enclaves of protection for such oddball cults as might not want to solemnize same-sex rites. Indeed, as the Times reported, inserting these exceptions won the bill the votes it needed to pass.

This willingness to retreat in return for hollow promises of protection is nothing new for Catholics in the Northeast. In the one book essential for understanding today’s American Church, The Faithful Departed, Philip Lawler noted how Church leaders and their political allies have pursued such Vichy diplomacy for some 40 years. When the Massachusetts legislature acted to legalize contraception, Lawler notes, Richard Cardinal Cushing declined to make the natural law arguments against it — and instead got his lobbyists working to make sure Catholic hospitals would be exempt from dispensing the Pill.

While fighting contraception might have been futile, refusing battle became a habit: When abortion became the issue, instead of striving to outlaw it entirely, Catholic legislators in that state carved out exemptions for Catholic health-care workers. As Lawler sadly concluded, for Catholics to abandon arguments against evil practices based on natural law, and instead to beg for scraps of toleration, amounts not to prudent compromise but to unconditional surrender. The little “opt-outs” we win in return amount to little more than the bones that the Nazis threw Marshal Petain; we got to keep our police chief in Casablanca.

Political philosopher and convert Hadley Arkes explains that when we cease to say, “This is evil, and no one must engage in it,” and instead say, “This goes against our religion,” we as good as admit that our position is not based in reason and justice. It’s merely a peculiar tenet of our own sectarian creed, an oddment of revelation with which we’d never expect rational non-believers to agree — akin to the messages at Fatima. Indeed, if this were true, then the secularists would be right: We’d have no more authority to outlaw abortion or homosexual marriage than we would to lock up restauranteurs for selling meat on Fridays.


Well, it’s all over now. We have lost the support of the law. Our conquerors are singing “Lili Marlene” as they march past the Arc de Triomphe. Having crawled back into the sacristy and won the reluctant toleration that is all we dared to ask for, is there anything Catholics can do to preserve at least among our own flock the real understanding of marriage?

Oh yes. There is plenty, all of it long overdue. I recall that in the 1990s some Evangelical activists proposed laws (one passed in Louisiana and two other states) allowing couples the option of contracting “covenant marriage.” This amounts in essence to marriage as it had been defined before the onslaught of lax divorce laws — with few conditions permitting divorce (abandonment, abuse, and adultery), with custody preferences for mothers and guarantees of alimony for wives and children. Once it was enacted in Louisiana, bishops lauded it — but issued a statement assuring Catholic couples that it was merely optional.

It is time for us to revive this idea and encode still stricter provisions that mirror Canon Law, eschewing divorce and remarriage, in a standard prenuptial covenant that must be signed by Roman Catholics if they wish to be married in the Church. No pastor should be allowed to witness the Catholic marriage of any couple who will not sign such a pact — since, by refusing to do so, they would be in essence confessing that they intend not a sacrament but a charade. Rogue marriages conducted without this agreement should be, in the Church’s eyes, null and void. Catholics who still wanted elaborate ceremonies in Gothic environs could go off and rent some empty Episcopalian building.

These covenants, in their intent, should be legally enforceable — though, of course, American courts might throw them out. (The freedom of contract is only applied when it furthers leftist goals.) Still, even if judges invalidate our prenups, the Church should still demand them — and use their existence as prima facie evidence blocking future attempts at annulment. If we could make of marriage an obligation as solemn as, say, one’s credit card debt, we’d go a long way toward making it seem almost…sacred. The day that divorce is tougher and rarer than bankruptcy is the day that our values are rightly aligned.

Alongside these prenuptial covenants, American dioceses must make training in natural family planning a non-negotiable part of every pre-Cana course — since the routine use of contraception by Catholics is one of the key factors undermining lasting marriage. In fact, the way many churchmen respond with dissent or neglect to Humanae Vitae is one of the reasons that no one else takes us seriously. How dare we tell same-sex couples that they have no right to wed, when we barely trouble to teach our own congregations which kinds of sex it’s a sin to have? We wonder why no one listens to us. It could be because we are winking.


  • John Zmirak

    John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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