- The Catholic Thing - https://www.thecatholicthing.org -

Separating Civil from Religious Weddings

I suppose all Catholics will agree that it would be inappropriate for a Catholic priest presiding at a wedding to conclude the ceremony by saying to the newly married couple: “You have just entered into one of the most important of all human relationships – but I would caution you not to take it too seriously.  For instance, don’t think of it as being a permanent relationship. The vows you have just taken are expressed in traditional Catholic language, and this respect for tradition is a beautiful thing.  We all love it.  But the vows are simply poetry; they don’t mean much.”

Yet this is exactly what priests do say, at least by implication, when they preside over the civil wedding that accompanies a Catholic couple’s sacramental wedding.  In the United States, despite its famous separation of church and state, priests perform two wedding ceremonies at the same time, religious and civil ceremonies.  The laws of the Church give the priest the power to perform (rather, preside over) a sacramental ceremony, while the laws of our states give Catholic priests power to perform a civil wedding ceremony.

Sacramental marriage is binding for life; but civil marriage, given our no-fault divorce laws, binds hardly at all.  By the laws of our states, either spouse is free to walk out of a marriage at any time, and the departing spouse does not need to have a reason for departing weightier than “I don’t like being married to this other person anymore” – a reason that courts will now recognize as sufficient to dissolve a marriage.

The question I wish to ask today is this:  Should Catholic priests participate in such civil ceremonies?  I ask this as a purely rhetorical question, for I think the answer is obvious: They should NOT participate in such ceremonies. Catholic priests should perform sacramental weddings only.

Once upon a time civil marriage in America strongly resembled Catholic marriage in that civil marriage was virtually indissoluble.  It was not perfectly indissoluble, since the United States was in the old days a Protestant country, and Protestant countries recognized divorce for one reason at least, adultery.

By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, civil divorce – by then available in most states for reasons in addition to adultery – became more common in the United States. But it was rare and not easy to obtain: not easy legally and not easy socially, for public opinion was still strongly opposed to it.

By the middle decades of the 20th century, due at least in part to the example given by many Hollywood stars, divorce-and-remarriage had become a far more common thing in America; still, there were legal barriers to it, and a public opinion stigma was attached to it.

Beginning however in the late 1960s and continuing in the 1970s, the United States experienced a “divorce revolution.”  Throughout the decade divorce rates skyrocketed, reaching a peak in 1979, after which they leveled off at a high plateau for a couple of decades; the rate has dropped somewhat in recent years but remains high.


There were two reasons for high divorce rates, these two largely overlapping one another.

One was the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s: this revolution eroded or destroyed almost every restriction on sexual behavior; and since marriage necessarily involves important sexual restrictions, it is small wonder that marriage became easy to dissolve.

The other reason was the no-fault divorce laws that were enacted in roughly the same period.  These laws permitted divorce even though neither party had committed what had previously counted as a legal “fault.”  Now it was possible for the partners to get divorced because they asserted that their marriage had “irretrievably” broken down or that they had “irreconcilable differences.”

If there had been a time in American history when the American idea of a civil marriage bore a strong resemblance to the Catholic idea of a sacramental marriage, that time had completely disappeared by the late 1970s.

But wait! It gets even worse!  Given same-sex “marriage” – which has been a legal reality in every American state since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell ruling of June 2015 – the hypothetical quotation given in the first paragraph of this column would have to be expanded.

The priest, insofar as he is the performer of a civil wedding, will now have to add this: “You have just entered into a civil union which is between a man and a woman, or between a man and a man, or between a woman and a woman.  The civil institution of marriage that you have just elected to participate in has neither permanence nor gender specificity. It bears absolutely no resemblance to the traditional Catholic institution of marriage.  But it is my great honor and privilege to be able to perform this utterly un-Christian ceremony – this farcical caricature of true marriage.”

There are good reasons, I recognize, that a couple married in a Catholic ceremony would also wish to have the benefits of civil marriage, debased though that institution has now become.  But this is easily taken care of.  Following the sacramental wedding in a Catholic church, the couple can make a small detour on their way to the wedding reception.  They can stop at city hall or the courthouse and go through a second ceremony, a civil wedding.

But for the Church to participate in the performing of civil weddings, in addition to being insulting to the priestly office, in effect gives the message that the Church does not really have any strong objection to the prevailing un-Christian idea of civil marriage.

Conversely, if the Catholic Church in America were to say, “We will no longer take part in these sham marriages,” quite the opposite message will have been delivered. The Church will be saying, both to its own members and to the world at large, “We truly believe in the traditional Catholic idea of marriage.”


*Image: The Wedding of the Bohemian by Edvard Munch, 1925 [Munch Museum, Oslo, Norway]

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America and, most recently, Three Sexual Revolutions: Catholic, Protestant, Atheist.