I, for one, am pleased with the Supreme Count's decision in the DOMA case, allowing same-sex civil marriages to have federal recognition. I know there are some in my Roman Catholic Church who are not pleased - I would like to give them a different perspective from which to look at the issue.
This decision and the discussion around it give us an opportunity to come to a better understanding of marriage and matrimony and the differences between them, and maybe look at some other issues as well. There are few social institutions with such varied and fascinating histories.
Modern marriage is a relationship stemming from a civil contract made between two people and recognized by civil government. Marriage determines many things such as financial issues, legitimacy of children, inheritance rights, etc. It is a contract which begins with a government issued license and can end with the government-issued writ of divorce.
Matrimony is a permanent covenant relationship between two people witnessed by the church. It includes the concept of purpose, which is not present in marriage. In the Catholic church it is a sacrament. Matrimony may or may not overlap with civil marriage.
The difference between these two types of relationships is easier to see in much of the world, including most of Europe, where a civil marriage must be contracted by a government official and in a separate ceremony of matrimony can be celebrated by a church official. Many of these countries have state-sponsored religions. But church officials cannot be civil officials for marriage. It is ironic that in the United States we allow these to take place in one ceremony by naming the church official also a civil official. It is the exact opposite of the separation of church and state.
Most of the weddings I do as a Catholic priest are both matrimony and marriage. Civil law sets down the criteria which must be met for a civil marriage. Canon law sets down the criteria which must be met for matrimony. They are mostly the same but not totally. I can only do a wedding which is both a marriage and matrimony when both the civil and canonical criteria are met. I have done matrimony weddings which were not civil marriages, and rarely (and with permission from church authorities) done civil marriage wedding without matrimony.
Civil authorities determine and change the criteria for civil marriage. Over the centuries and in various countries they have allowed or forbade polygamy, determined ages, race, consanguinity, divorce, etc. Saying "traditional marriage" has always meant one man and one woman is historically absurd. The issue of gender is just one more item to include in the civil criteria.
Matrimony criteria have also changed. But the bottom line is that matrimony has its own criteria and we do not do matrimony which does not meet that criteria.
The DOMA decision and the civil recognition of same-sex marriages simply has no effect on matrimony. No church can be required to do same sex marriage.
But does give us the chance to do some serious reflection.
I propose some items for discussion:
1. Should church officials in the United States no longer be compelled to be civil marriage officials?
2. Is matrimony and/or marriage necessary for sexual activity to be morally acceptable? Why or why not?
3. Do civil same sex marriages damage different sex marriages? If so, how?
4. What are the purpose or purposes of civil marriage and/or matrimony?
5. What is the proper role of religion in any discussion of civil marriage?
The DOMA decision can indeed be a true teachable and learnable moment.
The Rev. W. Thomas Faucher is the pastor of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Boise.