Tag Archives: marriage

Pragmatism or Nuance? The Pope on Same-Sex Marriage

Pope FrancisWhen Pope Francis was elected to the Holy See, many were disappointed with his—how shall we say—less-than-tactful statements in opposition to gay marriage. But a recent article in the New York Times reports that in 2010, when Argentina’s government was debating same-sex marriage, Pope Francis (then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio) actually advocated, much to the chagrin of his fellow bishops, that the church in Argentina support civil unions for gay couples.

The authors of the NYT piece praised Francis for his pragmatic ability to compromise—not a virtue highly honored in the Catholic Church. But I wonder if there isn’t something else going on. I get it why, to someone in the news media who may not have any other categories for understanding it, advocating for civil unions might look like a compromise of the Catholic Church’s moral opposition to same-sex marriage. But, as many of us have been trying to point out, there is a distinct difference between the Christian sacrament of marriage and what states do with tax codes, property law and adoption rights. Is it possible that, instead of compromising his morals, Cardinal Bergoglio was acting out of a nuanced theological position that locates the biblical prescription for marriage in the ecclesiological/sacramental practice, rather than in some ethereal natural law theology?

I really don’t know. But I cannot help but wonder.

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Trippin’ Over Church & Marriage

Here’s Tripp Fuller over at Homebrewed Christianity on why we need to a robust distinction between the religious sacrament of marriage and what happens when you sign a State marriage license.

Here’s the other thing—and this, you may say, “Tripp, this sounds like you’re a leftist, gay-loving, radical, progressive, hoopla.” No, no, no. Let’s say you are a fundamentalist, you take the Bible literally…So let’s imagine you’re a fundamentalist and you not only talk about the Bible, but read it. You’re really into it. And you’ve read what Jesus thinks about divorce…So let’s say a couple comes to you and they’re on their third or fourth marriage—I don’t know, Rush Limbaugh, five, I don’t know—people who stand up for family values…and they come to you and want you to do their marriage. You go, “Look, we’re a Bible-believing church, and so while you as a straight couple could have legal status, we don’t see the ability to perform your wedding until all your ex-spouses have sent in a letter of reconciliation, affirming that y’all have reconciled the brokenness of your covenant before God, that y’all’ve [this is a word only a true Southerner can use] mutually forgiven each other and that we can then celebrate this new family that is being formed. Until then we’re not comfortable doing it, because it would be compromising our commitment to the scriptures.”

Now, right now, right, you have this expectation that you have to equate what the Church can do with what the State can do. So you’re going to do a wedding even if it’s someone’s third…fourth…fifth wedding. But here I’m saying: let’s do the justice argument for the State, but then let’s let each congregation—denomination (depending on how y’all roll hierarchy-wise)—decide who can and can’t be married in their congregation, and then you follow your Christian/religious convictions in your congregation. It seems to me that’d be a good compromise. Because then you’d get everybody saying: “Look, maybe the [State] should get out of the marriage business, but maybe they need legal unions.” And the Church can say “we think everybody should have equal rights there.” But then each congregation has to be faithful to its real theology of marriage in the congregation. So the people who get married there are those who understand what that congregation or tradition sees of marriage, are willingly and consciously entering into it, and are planning on staying engaged in a faith community so that, not only their own relationship is nourished by the faith, but the members that are born into the family or are adopted into the family are grafted into the vine of Christ.

It seems like a rather obvious compromise…unless you’re just a bigot who really does want to wield the State’s power against a minority group.

Check out the rest of Tripp and Bo’s conversation on the Theology Nerd Throw Down.

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Church, State and Same-sex Marriage: A follow up

There were a few responses to my pervious post about same-sex marriage which seemed to miss the point of my argument. Perhaps I am just misreading these responses. Perhaps I wasn’t quite clear in the original post. Or some mixture of the two. At any rate, I take another run at it.

I was advocating for really only one thing: that we all recognize that what happens in churches, synagogues and mosques is qualitatively different from what happens when we sign marriage licenses.

This recognition has at least three implications. First, there is no legitimate reason for persons ordained by religious institutions to hold sway over the state’s decision whether to afford two people the rights and privileges pertaining to state-sanctioned unions. Many religious institutions ordain people with little or no education or other qualifications relevant to matters of political polity. But because some bishop or congregation recognizes someone’s ordination to ministry she automatically has power invested in her by the state as well to declare two persons lawfully wed. It seems to me this transfer of power is due to a misguided conflation of religious sacrament with state-sanctioned union. It’s easy to see the disconnect when you consider that marriage requires only a priest or a rabbi while divorce requires at least two lawyers and a judge. That’s because we don’t confuse state-recognized divorce with any function of a religious institution like, say, annulment. When we get the distinction between religious sacraments and political practices into proper focus it becomes clear that religious officials should not have the power to sign state marriage licenses. (Neither, by the way, should boat captains!)

Secondly, I think states should recognize union of anyone who choses to unite together under her authority, and afford to them all rights and privileges pertaining thereto. (This second implication comes with at least two caveats, but let me first make the point). Most of the opposition to same-sex marriage—certainly what has held it in public contention—is made on religious grounds. Again, once we get the distinction between the religious sacrament and the political practice into proper focus, it should be quite easy for the state to say to religious institution: “Yes, we understand and respect your view, and you have every right to recognize within your institution only those marriages you deem valid. But what we’re doing here has to do with tax brackets and property ownership—government stuff—so it’s really quite irrelevant to the arguments you’re making.”

Okay, now the caveats: (A) My own view is that the state should get out of the marriage/union business all together. There really is no reason I can see that each person could not files taxes and own property individually. However, this would require a radical restructuring of the tax code that I am simply not qualified to address. So for now let’s leave that to the side. (B) There may be other (non-religious) arguments for why same-sex couples should not be afforded the same tax and property rights as heterosexual couples. I am not aware of any such arguments, but if they exist, they should be evaluated on their own merits. I am not even necessarily opposed to religious people, acting as political agents, leveling religious arguments against same-sex marriage. If there’s an argument to be made, by all means, let’s consider it. It’s just that, on my model, the argument cannot be what most of the arguments have amounted to: “well, that’s not what we Christians mean by marriage.” Of course it’s not! That’s the assumption that we’re starting with: the political practice of marriage is distinct from the religious sacrament.

Finally, religious people need not worry that, by affording the rights and privileges pertaining to state-sanctioned unions to same-sex couples, the government is somehow threatening the institution of marriage. For again, once we get into proper focus the distinction between what we do in churches, synagogues and mosques and what we do when we sign state marriage licenses, it becomes clear that these state-given rights and privileges have nothing to do with the religious sacrament of marriage. To the contrary, insofar as we believe that all people are created in the image of God, religious people should be the most out-spoken advocates for the equality of political rights for all people.

A word about words: It seems to some that the state should keep the language of marriage, because it seems to bestow upon a union a certain kind of honor, which also should be equally afforded to everyone. I want to say that I think the premise is right. After all, when two people get married they’re not just looking for tax breaks, but to give a certain legitimacy and formalization to their relationship. I don’t want my LGBT friends to be just my political equals; I want them to be honored as image bearers of God. I just don’t think that the state, in the nature of the case, has the power to give this kind of legitimacy or honor to anything (except maybe war heroes)—that’s just not what governments do. Many LGBT couples will find (and have found) churches, synagogues or mosques that will bless their unions and call them marriages. That’s a different theological question all together, one for which this post is far too long already, and it is far too late, for us to take up now. For the reasons I’ve mentioned above, I think it’s quite important that we make the distinction between the religious sacrament that happens in churches, synagogues and mosques and whatever happens when we sign state marriage licenses. One easy way to do that, it seems to me, is to call them by different names. But I’m not necessarily committed to doing that, so long as we understand that what we mean by the word is two entire different social practices. For what it’s worth, “marriage” is a religious word, and it’s not entirely clear to me why the state would want to use it as a label for what it’s doing by licensing a union. But I’m a theologian, not a political theorist, so I have no real opinion about that.

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Church, State and Same-sex Marriage

It’s a bit old now, but I just came across Roger Olson’s proposal to put an end to the same-sex marriage debate. Olson argues that we should

reserve marriage to the churches and other religious organizations…[and] let the government issue civil union licenses to any two people who desire such a relationship which gives them certain privileges in the eyes of the law (e.g., joint property)… [On this arrangement,] each church would decide who they recognize as really married. (Just as they do who is really ordained or really baptized.) A church would not have to recognize as married every couple that has a civil union. And the government would not recognize a church’s marriage as a civil union. The two would be entirely separate–just like church and state are supposed to be.

You can read the rest here.

This two marriages proposal isn’t really new. It’s the position I’ve held for several years now. I first heard it from Tony Campolo when I was in college. And Tony Jones’ related manifesto is now available on kindle.

But here’s my question: Would this proposal, if it won out, really put an end to the same sex marriage debate? That is, would the constituents at either extreme of the spectrum be happy with it? I suspect not, but it’s worth asking the question.

To my conservative friends: Would you be happy to allow the state to give tax breaks any other privileges to whomever would chose to commit to partnership, provided that we agree that what the state is doing is not marriage, but something different all together. If not, why? Especially now that many social conservatives joined also in the fight for a smaller government, why not put our money where our mouth is? Why not take the power of defining marriage away from the government?

To my progressive friends: Does this proposal, which would level the playing field in terms of government privileges, really give everyone a fair shake? If not, why? Especially for my LGBT friends: Do you feel—this is my uneducated theory—that this still leaves unanswered the question of whether the government will sufficiently recognize (honor?) same-sex unions?

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