Same-sex marriage

Can it be a sacrament?

There is no doubt that the industrialized West is going through a profound change in the way it regards homosexuality. The Supreme Court’s recent decision that antisodomy laws violate a constitutional right to privacy caused a great stir-not least because it invoked the same shaky constitutional right to privacy the Court used in Roe v. Wade; Justice O’Connor’s separate opinion, arriving at the same conclusion on equal-protection grounds, was wiser. Canada’s decision to legalize gay marriage has come under fire from the Canadian Catholic bishops, and the Vatican says that Catholic politicians are bound to vote against all such proposals. A look at the history of marriage as an institution and as a sacrament (there is some overlap, but far from a complete congruence) might help to clarify some things.

Every society has made some effort to regulate the ways in which families unite, property is divided, children are protected, and the usually unequal rights of wives and husbands are shored up. This is the contractual side of marriage, and until recently the romantic part, involving the passions and affections which dominate the way we think of marriage in our society, was a lucky dividend.

In the early Christian church there was no marriage ceremony or special blessing. The marriage of Christians was considered sacramental, in the sense that this relationship between a married Christian man and woman revealed something about the relationship between Christ and the church. The wedding itself, however, was a feast conducted according to the prevailing social custom, after which the couple was expected to be faithful to church teaching. For example, the Roman customs of abandoning unwanted children, abortion, or tolerated infidelity would obviously be rejected by a Christian couple.

During the fourth century, in some parts of the Eastern Church, a bishop or priest might bless a marriage during or after the wedding feast, though the prayer would not be offered if either partner had been married before. By the eighth century this was the norm in the East, but it did not become common in the West until the eleventh century.

This matters to the contemporary debate because there is a difference between marriage as a contractual civic obligation and marriage as a sacrament. It has always struck me as an odd thing that of all the sacramental actions I have done, only one involves sending something to the record office of a governmental agency. I have a friend, a priest trained in law, who has suggested that the church should get out of the civil-marriage business. Let the state handle a contractual law governing relationships; let the church bless marriage where it can.

Recognizing the unions of homosexuals, it seems to me, is simply to accept a reality. Such unions are not going away simply because we fail to recognize them officially; and there are in fact many gay men and lesbians in committed relationships who have legal custody of children. There is, I think, nothing reasonable, just, or compassionate about denying homosexuals the same rights as heterosexual families. The argument has been made that this will help stabilize gay partnerships, and certainly a stable gay partnership is preferable to a shattered one, where children are involved. The idea that this threatens the family is put forward by politicians who, often as not, have been married more than once. Divorce is surely the greater threat to families, and yet we have learned to accept no-fault divorce laws-unfortunate as divorce may be-as arguably preferable to any alternative.

Should Christian churches consider these unions marriages, or bless them? I don’t think so, because it seems to me that one central aspect of marriage as a sacrament (which is very different from marriage as an institution shored up by the state, for reasons of civic order) is the difference between men and women, and the ability to engender new life. There are depths here that the editorial-page writers of the New York Times can’t really understand. The blessing of a homosexual union seems-and I know this sounds cold-metaphorically inappropriate. What I mean is this: the word for sacrament in the Eastern Church is mysterion, mystery. The mystery of the difference between men and women is too deep to be reduced in a “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” fashion. It cannot also be reduced to genital differences, or erotic attachment, or emotional commitment, wonderful as those things are. While I would never say that it is impossible for any part of this mystery to be something committed homosexuals might realize in their relationships, the differences between male and female, the ability to accept the depths and richness of that particular otherness, and the movement from lovemaking to new life, are all central to the mystery.

Which brings me to another controversial matter. The appointment of an openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church is problematic in ways most commentators haven’t noted. Years ago the Anglicans wouldn’t bless the marriage of a divorced person. Yet the candidate approved last month by the bishops left his wife to start a relationship with someone else. Is this progress toward a more open Christian community? I don’t think so. The counsel in 1 Timothy and Titus, that the bishop “should be the husband of one wife only,” can’t be set aside so easily. The question is not whether such behavior can be forgiven, or whether people who have behaved this way may not be exemplary Christians when they repent and rededicate themselves. Of course they can. Still, approaching marriage, ordination, or the episcopacy in a sentimental way, using words like “openness” and “inclusiveness” to cover, if not a multitude of sins, a plenitude of slop, means avoiding the painful thinking we need to do about what is involved in departing from a serious tradition. We run the great risk of leaching mystery-the depths of what they mean-from the sacraments. We do not own or use them. Because they are to transform us, through the baptism that has joined us to Christ-not only the joy of his Resurrection but the necessary pain of his cross and death-they are bigger, and deeper, than we are. end

Published in the 2003-09-12 issue: 

John Garvey was an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal, and author of Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.

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