MICHAEL MULLINS. Civil and religious marriage are best kept separate.

By conflating the civil law with religious ritual, we create confusion that makes it easy for the Church to claim authority that rightfully belongs to the state. In other words, the Church makes demands regarding sacramental marriage, which of course is OK. But it often weighs in on civil marriage as well, which is different.

While I was living in Europe a few decades ago, I remember a Belgian friend going home to get married. I recall being very surprised when I learned that he would have two weddings.  One was according to the laws of the state and the other followed the ritual of the Church. The two marriages were separated by several weeks. They were conducted by different celebrants, at separate venues. Each had its own guest list and reception afterwards.

After a while I realised that it was normal to have two weddings in such European countries. And it made sense. One was to satisfy the law of the land and the other was a sacrament of the Church. Two distinct means to achieve separate purposes.

In Australia, we don’t properly appreciate this distinction. As a result, we tend to conflate the two. That is despite the fact that the way we conduct marriage is actually not that much different to the Europeans. What happens for Australian couples opting for a church wedding is that the priest or minister facilitates both the legal and sacramental marriages. He or she is separately licensed by the state and the Church, and the tasks performed for each of these bodies are almost mutually exclusive.

But by conflating the civil law with religious ritual, we create confusion that makes it easy for the Church to claim authority that rightfully belongs to the state. In other words, the Church makes demands regarding sacramental marriage, which of course is OK. But it often weighs in on civil marriage as well, which is different.

Therefore I think it is problematic for religious to be urging a no vote in the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey. The Survey has nothing to do with their domain of sacramental marriage, and they are being disingenuous if they act as if it does.

If the state weighed in on sacramental marriage and required church celebrants to marry same sex couples, the Church would cry foul. In any event, this would not happen because the Church is protected by existing religious freedom legislation that allows it to discriminate against same sex couples.

If, on the other hand, the Church believes that it can pronounce on civil marriage because it has a stake in the ‘moral order’ of society, the Survey will provide an interesting test for the moral authority it retains in the wake of its conduct regarding the sexual abuse of children it was responsible for.

Michael Mullins, editor of Eureka Street 2006-15, now blogs at michaelmullins.org

 

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5 Responses to MICHAEL MULLINS. Civil and religious marriage are best kept separate.

  1. Jaquix says:

    Agree with you completely Michael. Ive been an advocate for the European way of doing things. If the government were not so divided, and concentrated on their job, they might have called for debate on the matter, and then made the “survey/plebiscite” one where 2 questions were asked. One being about having a civil marriage, separate from a religious ceremony. The other could have been the marriage equality one. Then the $122 million might have not been such a monumental waste of money.

  2. Gregan McMahon says:

    Accurate and succinct. Thank you. The churches deny (sacramental) marriage to couples on all sorts of grounds. Nobody minds. The state has its own exclusions too, but one of these should not be that same sex couples are second class citizens.

  3. Jocelyn Pixley says:

    It is high time someone made that distinction clear, so thank you Michael Mullins. The church encroachment on the civil also offers a lazy step backwards to removing no-fault divorce (or divorce), which I think would be more difficult. There are other irrelevancies in this debate, too many to name, although John Howard’s claim about “parental rights” is bizarre when corporal punishment remains legal in this country [unlike Sweden or NZ]. What more does he want beyond his ‘right’ to use the cane? My view is that parents have obligations to children.

  4. Dog's breakfast says:

    You’re right Michael, and churches are being disingenuous in attempting to conflate the two.

    As it is, divorce is not recognised in the Catholic Church and probably many others. But that’s ok if you didn’t get married in a Catholic Church in the first place, as by their definitions you were never married in the first place.

    So they want the sacramental, but also want to dictate on the secular. When it is stated as clearly as that, you can see why they bring themselves into disrepute.

  5. J Knight says:

    The issue is that SSM divorces civil marriage from biological and cultural reality.

    Regardless of what the Church teaches, and its role in civic requirements, where the State legislates a nonsense everyone has the duty to call out the naked emperor parading along the so called “Via la nuova rights.”

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