Not request but demand
In this vexed and painful fight over the “definition of marriage,” perhaps the most difficult task is to convince not only the proponents, but also most of the opponents of any “re-definition of marriage” that it is not in their power. Most nation states long ago passed legislation in support of marriage, as they understood it at the time. In doing so they never imagined that they were “creating” or “inventing” or even “defining” the institution: they recognized something that already existed, for all practical purposes since time out of mind.
Tax laws and the like can make it harder or easier to raise children. In recent times, short-sighted governments have done everything they could to encourage “double income no kids,” which offers the best immediate revenue propects for the state. I wrote “short-sighted” because we now have the harvest of that policy: not enough young to keep up with the “entitlements” of the ageing. But this, although extremely important, is a side issue.
Something much more fundamental is at stake. The state did not create marriage, but recognized it; and recognized it as something prior to the state. Marriage was naturally recognized in the explicit Christian form, throughout what was formerly Christendom. In doing so the state recognized a frontier to its own power. The children of marriages did not belong to the state. They belonged to families. Families were the building blocks of society: the lowest, most basic, and thus most powerful level of self-government, in a Christian conception of subsidiarity. And the state had no business intruding into the sphere of the family, except in the most extreme cases. (By measures as simple as compulsory schooling, the state’s intervention proceeded deeper and deeper into family life.)
What we are dealing with now is the latest development in a history of the growth of state power, that goes right back to the Reformation. As I’ve said again and again, “same-sex marriage” is only the latest issue. It cannot be understood except historically in relation to each issue that was raised before. Defeat that, and everything before remains undefeated.
There is no way around this confession: I am a Catholic Christian. I have no choice but to accommodate “things as they are,” and my own Church has had to accommodate and adapt to so many developments that were not to her liking, in the time since the Reformation. But history itself is transient, and I recognize, in the annals of power, a higher power than any which may rule on earth. Which is to say, in effect: I am a monarchist, and Christ is my King.
This may sound entirely romantic. Yet how many have died for that loyalty, over how many centuries — especially, in plain numbers, the last century or so. To them, and to the living faithful, this was and remains no pose, no joke. We have a duty to “live and let live” with our non-Catholic neighbours. We may even have learnt something permanently useful, about the importance of religious freedom, in the course of these last five hundred years. But we remain loyal, Catholics and by definition all other Christians, to a power higher than the state’s, and not to something vague, but to someone: Christ.
The state may assume too much about our complacency. It may try to push us too far. It may ask more than we can decently surrender, to the power of the state — as when it asks us to surrender our conscience, or our children. At that point everything is on the line, and must be.
A lawyer in Texas wrote to me:
“The problem, here, is that religious views got thrown into the law stew. The state, at some point in the past, provided legal rights and duties to those whose unions had been sanctioned by religious authorities. Thus, sanctioning by the state became available to, and co-opted by, same-sex couples. … The solution is obvious: take the state out of marriage. No more marriage licences. No more involvement by the state in determining rights and duties flowing from marriage. No more performance of marriages by government officials. … If people want their relationships formally governed, let them enter into contracts. Then let the state apply the law of contracts.”
This is a vast topic, and I quote the suggestion as one of several now offered in politics for an easy way out of unavoidable conflict. The author may not be Christian, but is certainly well-intentioned towards Christians. Unfortunately, there are never easy ways out. Of anything, really (but that for another day).
He is under less delusion about the state’s primordial power, than most of the people on “our side,” as well as all of the people on “theirs” — who really believe that marriage is in the gift of the state — whereas all within its gift is tax breaks, and family law. He therefore thinks we should join his revolution, to stop the power of the state juggernaut, by taking all its powers over “marriage” away.
Can’t do that. We are men and women, body and soul. We are not Manichees. When we marry it is in sight not only of our co-religionists, but of the whole world. The two become one flesh which only death can part, and the state can like it or lump it. What we are is not detachable from what we are.
I’ve told this well-intended lawyer gentleman something which I realize is, on his terms, incomprehensible: “We don’t surrender our weapons to join your revolution.” (An ally who asks you to do that is anyway not to be trusted.)
The Sacrament of Marriage is among our most powerful weapons. (He may not know what a “sacrament” is; we know.)
This Sacrament was never legislated by the state. It was recognized by the state, as a barrier to state power. We must force the state to recognize it again. Not on the state’s terms, but on ours.