The Privatization of Marriage

Last year in this forum, I wrote “Where Should a Catholic Get Married,” responding to the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s accommodationist approach in allowing Catholics to marry outside of churches and chapels. I criticized Baltimore’s policy and urged other bishops to avoid it because it institutionalizes a lax approach to the sacramental meaning of marriage, which is an ecclesiastical affair that symbolizes the union of Christ and his Church (Eph. 5). It also tends to privatize marriage by making the wishes of a spouse or the couple paramount over the communal ecclesial meaning of marriage.

I want to pursue the theme of “privatization” further, due to the ways in which civil jurisdictions are now also engaging in accommodationism vis-à-vis marriage.

Following the annus horribilis of 1968, advocates of the Sexual Revolution generally argued that weddings were superfluous—a “piece of paper,” a “ritual,” “a license to have sex”—and something that “people in love” did not need.  The Beatles assured us “all you need is love,” and the explosion of fornication and concubinage, starting in the 1960s and still ongoing, suggests that many took the lyrics as catechetical advice.

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But tradition has a nasty way of persisting.

After that anti-institutional temper tantrum of arrested adolescents technically past the age of majority, many people realized that the commitment (and accompanying pictures) that the ritual of marriage expresses just isn’t captured by tiptoeing through the tulips. However, the toxin of self-expression persisted. It took form in hollowing out the institution.

Think of the stereotypical Protestant ritual for a wedding, the typical stock of Hollywood movies: “We are gathered here today in the presence of God to join this man and this woman in holy matrimony” according to the traditional Episcopalian rite, while Presbyterians “witness the marriage of Cynthia and Cedric in holy matrimony.”

Note the phrases I’ve emphasized. Their original meaning was to emphasize the objective nature of what this man and woman were doing: standing before God in order to enter into something bigger and beyond themselves.  Matrimony measured them.

Radical subjectivism has undermined all that. For a long time now, our “God” has “blessed” whatever needed to be blessed. God has lately been found everywhere but in a sacred space. While every Catholic knows God is everywhere, it seems he has a particular allergy to his house (i.e., a church) where marriage is concerned.

“Matrimony,” too, has long been on a subjectivist trajectory, especially in Protestant-influenced cultures. Sixteenth-century Anglicans rejected marital indissolubility. Twentieth-century Protestants turned away from marital fruitfulness. And twenty-first-century Protestants are increasingly denying that sexual differentiation has anything to do with marriage.

In such a world, the “spouses” measure marriage, not vice versa.

So why should they not be their own ministers?

Massachusetts allows “designation” weddings (i.e., for a fee). The governor will empower someone who “is not otherwise authorized to officiate a marriage ceremony” to do so for one day. So, if you want your friend or your uncle to “marry” you? No problem.

In states where marriage requires either a civil official or recognized minister, a whole cottage industry has sprung up that will allow you to be a “marriage officiant” quickly and easily. There are even “ministries” that allow you to “request ordination” in “just a few minutes.” But if you have no ambition to do freelance weddings as a sideline, Massachusetts’s one-time “designation wedding” certificate may be just for you!

The District of Columbia has gone one better: Washington now lets you officiate your own wedding. That’s right. D.C. offers “self-uniting” marriages, in which “one member of the couple getting married acts as the officiant.” (Does the officiant ask himself if he takes the other to be the lawful wedded spouse?) The Washington Post even assures us it’s “‘super easy.’” The only catch is you need to marry yourselves outside the courthouse. Judges are territorial in that way.

Now, of course, Catholic marriage theology also affirms that it is the couple who ministers the sacrament to each other; the priest acts as a witness and blesses the union in the name of the Church, but the sacramental ministers are the bride and groom. But this is not what the District of Columbia is doing.

For one thing, Catholic marriage vows verbalize consent to the essential characteristics of marriage, especially indissolubility. For Washington, your signature on the marriage license is consent enough, without any articulation—much less verbalization—of what marriage entails. Don’t worry about committing “till death do you part.” You’re committed only until a judge parts you, or until one of you claims to have separated from bed and board for a year because the marriage is “irretrievably broken” and wants to convert the separation into a divorce.

Furthermore, Catholics learned about the dangers of privatizing the ministerial role of the couple back in the sixteenth century. In the late medieval period, the problem of clandestine marriages—i.e., whether and when two people “married” and whether they did so freely—was increasingly frequent. (It could be a political problem, for example, when Prince A and Princess B announced they—and their kingdoms—were “married” just as Prince B was planning to walk down the aisle with Princess B.)

In order to protect the freedom of Catholics (especially women) and to ensure that the institutional and ecclesiastical dimension of marriage was taken seriously, the Council of Trent stipulated that Catholics must ordinarily exchange their marital consent before a priest and at least two witnesses. Banns of marriage announcing an intended marriage and soliciting derogatory information came to be required. Again, while protecting the rights of the spouses as ministers of the sacrament to each other, the post-Tametsi discipline meant marriage measures the couple, not vice versa.

Washington, therefore, gives us a purely juridical, do-it-yourself wedding: it has turned the institution into a “piece of paper” that the parties must merely sign and return. The “institution” is there, but its content is thin beer.

I make the point of marriage measuring the couple because it’s also the teaching of another forgotten encyclical, Casti connubii. In that encyclical (#5), Pope Pius XI taught clearly that the couple’s consent extends only to the parties to a marriage, not to the nature of marriage itself: John has a choice of Mary or Sally, but he does not have a choice, e.g., of entering a temporary marriage or a marriage that excludes children. He can pick whether he wants to marry and whom he wants to marry, but not what he wants marriage to be. Marriage is what it is, independently of his wants.

Such thinking is incomprehensible to the “me generation.” It’s also problematic for a culture running on the last fumes of Protestant nominalism, ready to deny that things such as marriage have a nature in and of themselves and are not just divine commandments that God could have made otherwise. Against such a mentality, should we doubt why the privatization of marriage as an institution rings few alarm bells?

This should concern Catholics. We use the word “marriage” today, but we no longer have a common, shared meaning of it. We should admit that “marriage,” like many other foundational terms in our Western culture (e.g., “rights,” “family,” “democracy,” etc.), now has an equivocal meaning. For Catholics, marriage is a sacred institution that has its own content and meaning, irrespective of who is getting married. This understanding is competing with a gradually ascendant definition of “marriage” that co-opts the term but empties it of meaning.

“Marriage” for moderns is a shell used to cover whatever we want it to cover for a relationship that we ourselves define but for which we expect to acquire certain social rights, obligations, and recognitions. These two definitions of marriage co-exist tenuously because they are not compatible. One presupposes certain “truths” regarding the nature of people and marriage that precede it and do not depend on the state; the other simply fulfills the requirements of the state, nothing less and nothing more. Catholics can perform an immense cultural service by reminding people that marriage is bigger than the couple alone.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “The Marriage of the Virgin” painted by Raphael in 1504.


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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