All of us should welcome the Archbishop's marriage threat
Archbishop Eamon Martin's statement is a big step towards the separation of Church and State, says Emer O'Kelly
Published 10/05/2015 | 02:30
the Archbishop of Armagh has promised a discussion within the hierarchy concerning the Catholic Church's willingness to carry out the "civil aspects" of marriage in this country. I say "promised" because what Archbishop Eamon Martin clearly implied as a threat should be something that all Irish citizens should welcome. The religiously-minded should be praying for it to come to pass; those who believe in the civil state as paramount should be cheering the open-mindedness of the leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland.
It has been mentioned before as a possibility; but on Monday it was Archbishop Martin, with all the awesome authority of his position, who went on Morning Ireland to tell us that if "marriage was redefined", the Church would have to consider the implications.
The Bishops' Conference would have to discuss, he said, whether it is possible for its ministers to be involved in civil ceremonies if the country says yes to civil marriage for homosexual people of both genders.
There is one flaw in the Archbishop's argument: nobody wants to redefine marriage. Those of us who will vote Yes in the referendum want marriage to mean the same as it always has; we merely want its rights and duties to apply to all people, whatever their sexual orientation. No married person, nor any person contemplating marriage, will have their rights infringed by a Yes vote; but it will allow the institution to embrace all our citizens.
Leaving that aside, Archbishop Martin's statement moved us, finally, a long step towards the separation of Church and State. It should never have been the case that civil marriage was subsumed into sacramental marriage. It was actually scandalous that, until comparatively recently, few people, whether devoutly religious or merely "cultural" in their devotion to their Church, realised that they were going through a civil ceremony when they knelt before the altar in church. It was assumed that because they were married in what their church called "the eyes of God" the State was legally bound to accept it. It was yet another facet of Church and State as one, with a minister of religion being accepted by government, ex officio, as a state registrar. It has led to enormous confusion in people's minds; they confuse "sin" with "illegality".
The State has finally accepted and legislated for the right to civil divorce. (Although in deference to the Church, Irish law is still weighted towards the rights of the first spouse… usually the wife. A second wife lives in shadow as a bit of a hussy, and not entitled to the same sanctified status as her predecessor.)
But people to whom religion matters (the very people who should know and understand the teaching of their church) frequently beseech the Church to allow them to "remarry" in church, or at the very least they scour the byways to find an accommodating priest who is prepared to give a "blessing" to their union.
The carefully blurred legal circumstances of their first marriage lead them to forget that sacramentally speaking they are still married, and will be until the day one of them dies. Catholicism teaches that marriage is indissoluble, and any sexual liaison outside it, no matter how sincere and long-term, is adultery, and remains so, no matter how many civil ceremonies are gone through. (Where single people do the naughty thing, the sin is fornication, not adultery.)
Other Christian churches also teach the indissolubility of marriage, but some are not quite so medievally doctrinaire in interpreting their teaching.
If you are a practising Roman Catholic, all those complications are a matter between you, your church, and your god. But they have nothing to do with the law. Civil marriage is a State matter: if you have a civil ceremony, you are legally married, even if you do it three, even four, successive times, provided you have obtained a legally recognised divorce. (It might indicate that you're a pretty rocky marriage bet, but it's legal.)
And if you decide that you weren't in the right frame of mind, or secretly not that committed to what you were saying, (or indeed, if you've decided in your own mind that you have absolutely no intention of having children, which is one of the allowable claims for annulment) you can apply, after a Catholic church wedding, to have it annulled "in the eyes of God". It never took place, sacramentally speaking. Except: tough luck, you're still married in the eyes of the law.
There was an interesting example of the confusion surrounding all of this in 2001, when there was a fair level of blue bloody murder concerning invitations sent out to a State reception to celebrate the granting of a Cardinal's hat to Desmond Connell, the then Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin. The invitations went out in the names of the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, and Ms Celia Larkin. Except of course, that Ms Larkin and Mr Ahern weren't married. And Mr Ahern was married: to Ms Miriam Ahern, to whom, as far as one knows, he is still married, even in the eyes of the State, unless they have divorced in recent years. Ms Larkin has long disappeared into private life, but for many years she was prominent at Ahern's side, and referred to as his "partner". She even travelled abroad on state visits in that capacity.
The general feeling was that the new Cardinal's nose was being rubbed in things, to the amusement of some, and the outrage of others. The situation featured for a number of days on programmes like RTE's Liveline, during which there were numerous pronouncements in defence of Ahern implying that because Mr Ahern's liaison with Ms Larkin was a public one, it had legal status and was religiously sanctified.
It is not entirely our fault that there is so much confusion: we've conflated civil and sacramental marriage for so long that we no longer seem to know the difference.
That is why Archbishop Eamon Martin has, probably unwittingly, done Irish society a deep service: we can only hope that whether or not the gay marriage referendum is carried, he will carry the debate through to its logical conclusion and that the Church will withdraw entirely from civil marriage ceremonies.
We will then have a situation such as exists in many European countries where the civil ceremony takes place, followed entirely separately (sometimes on different days) by the religious ceremony. For those who believe in sacramental marriage, the religious ceremony is the important and sanctified one; for others, their verbal declaration and signature on that state-specified document is what makes them a married couple.