Untethering Sacramental Marriage from Civil Marriage 

Months ago, I watched as some Christians took to the internet opposing R. R. Reno’s position in “A Time to Rend,” in which he calls for a separation of sacramental marriage from civil marriage. Much of the criticism made accusations of disengagement with, and abandonment of, the culture. One Protestant even went so far as to say, “church weddings detached from the civil sphere are worthless.”

Leo XIII’s encyclical, Arcanum, lays out a solid argument for why the Church is the guardian of marriage, and what happens when that authority of hers is usurped. In light of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Obergefell, we need a reminder of Pope Leo XIII’s reasoning. We also need to seriously consider Reno’s suggestion; Untethering sacramental marriage from civil marriage may be one of our best options, we should take it now before it is taken out of our hands.

Using Scripture, Pope Leo XIII shows God’s creation of the marriage covenant, how it degenerated among the heathen and even among the Israelites. Due to their hardened hearts, “Moses indulgently permitted them to put away their wives, the way was open to divorce.” Again, using Scripture, Pope Leo XIII lays out how Christ restores our human dignity, renews marriage and raises it to the level of sacrament. After spending a few paragraphs discussing Christian marriage, relying on Scripture, he makes it clear that Christ gave the Church the guardianship of marriage. She is to protect and preserve the sanctity of marriage.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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Men, with a false philosophy and corrupt in morals, Pope Leo XIII says, “judge nothing so unbearable as submission and obedience and strive with all their might to bring about that not only individual men, but families, also—indeed, human society itself—may in haughty pride despise the sovereignty of God.” And it is this despising of submission and obedience that then becomes the basis for men to usurp the authority of the Church over marriage.

These prophetic words from over a century ago should give us a long pause:

Now, since the family and human society at large spring from marriage, these men will on no account allow matrimony to be the subject of the jurisdiction of the Church. Nay, they endeavor to deprive it of all holiness, and so bring it within the contracted sphere of those rights which, having been instituted by man, are ruled and administered by the civil jurisprudence of the community. Wherefore it necessarily follows that they attribute all power over marriage to civil rulers, and allow none whatever to the Church; and, when the Church exercises any such power, they think that she acts either by favor of the civil authority or to its injury. Now is the time, they say, for the heads of the State to vindicate their rights unflinchingly, and to do their best to settle all that relates to marriage according as to them seems good.

Hence are owing civil marriages, commonly so called; hence laws are framed which impose impediments to marriage; hence arise judicial sentences affecting the marriage contract, as to whether or not it have been rightly made. Lastly, all power of prescribing and passing judgment in this class of cases is, as we see, of set purpose denied to the Catholic Church, so that no regard is paid either to her divine power or to her prudent laws. Yet, under these, for so many centuries, have the nations lived on whom the light of civilization shone bright with the wisdom of Christ Jesus.

The civil magistrate, Pope Leo XIII goes on to say, is delusional because, “Marriage has God for its Author, and was from the very beginning a kind of foreshadowing of the Incarnation of His Son; and therefore there abides in it a something holy and religious; not extraneous, but innate; not derived from men, but implanted by nature.” And because the kernel of holiness is there from the beginning, “implanted by nature,” natural law will show its fruit, for even heathen cultures in antiquity marriage was tethered to religion and holiness and thus was celebrated with religious ceremonies. And so, “even in the souls ignorant of heavenly doctrine, was the force of nature, of the remembrance of their origin, and of the conscience of the human race.”


Marriage is holy by its own power, in its own nature, and of itself, it ought not to be regulated and administered by the will of civil rulers, but by the divine authority of the Church.

One might ask: Why? The answer is that the Church is under obligation to Christ to guard and protect this institution which links earthly reality to heavenly reality. Pope Leo XIII, again:

But to decree and ordain concerning the sacrament is, by the will of Christ Himself, so much a part of the power and duty of the Church that it is plainly absurd to maintain that even the very smallest fraction of such power has been transferred to the civil ruler.

This good prophetic pope goes on to show that it would be absurd to think that Christ received delegated authority from the rulers to condemn polygamy and divorce, or that “when the Apostle Paul taught that divorces and incestuous marriages were not lawful, it was because Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero agreed with him or secretly commanded him so to teach.” No, Christ had authority, as God. He gave that authority to his Apostles and to his Church. Up and down the ages the Church has kept guard over marriage and acted independently and at times her laws where indeed divergent from the civil law, yet they were always held in obedience to her Lord.

It is on these grounds that Pope Leo XIII speaks against the severing of the matrimonial contract from the sacrament. But in our day, this has already been done. The matrimonial contract has already been severed from the sacrament. And so for the Church to get out of the government marriage business is severing nothing. To the contrary, it is through this that the Church will regain authority and guardianship of marriage as contract and sacrament—because they are inseparable. The “contract cannot be true and legitimate without being a sacrament as well,” contra the critic’s quote above that: “church weddings detached from the civil sphere are worthless.”

This has been the position of the Church from the beginning and in no way has it been a stumbling block to cultural engagement. Christianity grew with the marriage laws of the Church in variance from Roman Imperial law. Through the beautiful example upheld distinctly by the Church, the nations were evangelized, Christendom was born and flourished, yet as Pope Leo XIII says, the Church always kept her independence on marriage.

Much has been smuggled into Christian culture under the guise of cultural engagement—much of this in direct opposition to Christ and the sacred Scriptures. The untethering of sacramental marriage from the long arm of the state, the ceasing of priests and pastors to act in persona state, is not disengagement and isolationist. To the contrary, it is the Church being salt and light—it will be the lighthouse which will weather the chaotic storms of a debauched culture—a post-Obergefell culture—a beacon for man after he tires of his prodigal ways.


  • Luma Simms

    Luma Simms is a wife and mother of five children. She is the author of Gospel Amnesia: Forgetting the Goodness of the News. Her educational background includes a B.S. in physics from California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, and one and a half years at Chapman University School of Law before leaving to become an at-home-mom. She also clerked for Superior Court Judge James P. Gray of Orange County, California.

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