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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Civil Marriage vs. Religious Marriage

Marble sarcophagus relief AD 160 - 80, of Roman marriage ceremony. The couple are observing the solemn ceremony of clasping right hands, while the groom holds in his other hand the marriage contract. Between them is the matron-of-honour.

I've been meaning to blog about this for some time now. There seems to be a lot of confusion in people's minds over the word "marriage." The other day, surfing around the Net, I noticed someone said on a blog that "marriage is a sacrament, so let's not use that word; give everybody, straight or gay, a civil union instead."

Wrong. What you need to understand, guys, and be able to explain to people who use this line of argument, is that marriage was around a long, long time before the Church took it over and started regulating it; and in fact a little reflection, from those dim memories of history class, will bring to your mind the fact that people were marrying many centuries before Christ, in all kinds of cultures and on all continents. Those marriages may have looked pretty different from what we have in 21st century America, but they were lifelong unions that had no need of approval or blessing from the Christian Church - which didn't exist back then, anyway.

You also need to get clear in your mind that when two people get married here today, if it is a legal marriage - according to the laws of the state they reside in - then it is a civil marriage, which is a legal contract.

Now, if the couple gets married in a church, then at the same time they are also taking on a religious marriage - which some churches call a sacrament; so that the civil marriage and the religious marriage are happening at the same time.

But for all practical purposes, the government takes no notice of the religious aspect of a couple's marriage; for example, good Catholics cannot divorce and cannot remarry in the eyes of the Church; but they certainly can in the eyes of the law of their state. That's because the state recognizes only the civil marriage; what goes on with the religious aspect of their marriage is between them and the Church.

So there's no point calling it by another name, like civil union, as I see it: all legally married couples in this country have a civil marriage; and nobody has to get married in church and have a religious aspect as well. Even two atheists can get married at the county courthouse.

To reiterate: civil marriage and religious marriage are not the same thing. Marriage is not by definition a religious term only.

Here's some history for you, from the Magnus Hirschfeld Archive for Sexology:

Marriage, as we know it in our Western civilization today, has a long history with roots in several very different ancient cultures, of which the Roman, Hebrew, and Germanic are the most important. Western marriage has further been shaped by the doctrines and policies of the medieval Christian church, the demands of the Protestant Reformation, and the social impact of the Industrial Revolution. . . .

The marriage laws and customs of ancient Rome are not easily summarized, because they were rather varied and underwent significant changes in the course of time. Still, without simplifying the issue too much, one may say that marriage and divorce were always personal, civil agreements between the participants and did not need the stamp of governmental or religious approval. Early in Roman history, a husband had considerable power over his wife and children, whom he could punish, sell, or even kill as he saw fit. However, eventually women came to enjoy a better legal position and gained more and more control over their lives and property. Thus, in imperial times husband and wife approached marriage as equals. Yet it seems that there was also a decline in marriage and birth rates, since the emperor Augustus found it necessary to pass drastic laws compelling people to marry and penalizing those who remained single.

There were several forms of marriage, the first of which (by usus) involved no ceremony at all. It was established simply by the couple's living together for one year. Divorce was just as informal. A more formal kind of marriage (by coemptio) began with a ceremony in front of witnesses and was also dissolved with a ceremony. Members of the upper classes usually preferred an elaborate ceremony and thus married by confarreatio in front of ten witnesses and a priest. In the case of a divorce, another great ceremony was required. However, all three forms of marriage and divorce were equally valid. All marriages were monogamous. Both men and women usually entered their first marriage in their late teens.While the Romans tolerated prostitution and concubinage, and had no qualms about homosexual relationships, their marriage laws were remarkably fair to women and thus greatly contributed to their emancipation. . . .

The rise of Christianity produced a profound change in European marriage laws and customs, although this change came about only gradually. The first Christian emperors were more or less content with the traditional Roman law. However, under varying political and religious pressures, they alternately broadened and restricted the divorce regulations. They also repealed older laws which had penalized the unmarried and childless, since the new Christian asceticism favored virginity and sexual abstinence over marriage. In most other respects they resisted change. Marriage and divorce continued to be civil and private matters. . . .

According to Roman law and Christian belief, marriage could be built only on the free consent of both partners, and this doctrine was bound to raise the status of women. Furthermore, theologians increasingly found a religious significance in marriage and eventually even included it among the sacraments.

This also endowed a formerly rather prosaic arrangement with a new dignity.Unfortunately, at the same time the church created two new problems: It abolished divorce by declaring marriage to be insoluble (except by death) and greatly increased the number of marriage prohibitions. . . .

The growing church involvement in marriage could further be seen in the development of a special religious wedding ceremony. In the first Christian centuries marriage had been a strictly private arrangement. As late as the 10th century, the essential part of the wedding itself took place outside the church door. It was not until the 12th century that a priest became part of the wedding ceremony, and not until the 13th century that he actually took charge of the proceedings. . . .

The Catholic church, in response to the Protestant challenge, took its stand in the Council of Trent and, in 1563, confirmed its previous doctrines. Indeed, it now demanded that all marriages take place before a priest and two witnesses. Among other things, this virtually eliminated not only secret marriages, but also the formerly common informal marriages. These, similar to the old Roman marriages by usus, were based simply on mutual consent without formal ceremony. In England they came to be called "common law marriages", and since Henry VIII had broken with Rome, they continued to be permitted until 1753, when the Church of England was put in charge of all marriages (including those of Catholics, but excluding those of Quakers and Jews). This development did not affect the English colonies, however, and thus common law marriages remained possible in America. (As recently as 1970 they were still recognized in several states.)

In most of Europe marriages continued to require a religious ceremony until the French Revolution in 1792 introduced the compulsory civil marriage. Germany followed suit in the 19th century when Bismarck diminished the influence of the Catholic church. Eventually, marriage before some magistrate or government official became the only valid form of marriage in most of the Western world. Religious weddings were still permitted, but only after the civil ceremony had taken place.

Of course, in the United States, religious officials are allowed by the government of every state to officiate at weddings - but afterwards, when they sign the marriage certificate and mail it off to the state, they are fulfilling the requirements for a civil marriage, regardless of what the requirements of their church may be for a religious union.


Ultra Dave said...

I'm glad you found this information and shared it. Hopefully it will clear up some of the confusion.

Sebastian said...

There is no end of confusion on marriage. As a Catholic, I recognize that the Church has a parallel, but distinct, understanding of marriage. From the Catholic point of view, many civilly married people are not religiously married, and some religiously married people are not civilly married - though the Church's canon law in general forbids priests to officiate a marriages that would not be recognized by the civil authorities.

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