Tuesday 25 October 2016

Terry Prone: Church threat on marriage serves no particular purpose

The Catholic Church risks being the biggest loser over civil marriage
The Catholic Church risks being the biggest loser over civil marriage

It's one of those photographs in the old wedding albums that has no particular significance. It's just there.

It shows the bride and groom, usually sitting side by side with a big diary-like volume open in front of them. One of them is holding a fountain pen, and on either side are the priests who officiated at the earlier ceremony.

The couple are signing the State record to record that their marriage has taken place.

It's not part of the church ceremony, although it's sometimes done on the altar, sometimes in the sacristy.

None of us ever questioned it on our wedding day, mainly because we were so relieved, at that point, that everything had gone ok. Each of the couple had responded as they were supposed to respond. The groom hadn't torn the bride's dress by standing on the hem.

So those pictures always had a less formal, more happy flavour to them. It was a ritual nobody thought much about. It was putting an official State record under the religious commitment entered into earlier.

The leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin, has now hung a question mark over the continuation of this practice, suggesting that, although the Church hasn't come to a decision about it, they might stop allowing couples to sign the state register in churches in future.

The reason is that if the 'Yes' side were to win in the Equal Marriage Referendum, that would effectively redefine marriage from then on, and the Church might not see its way to support the state in that redefinition.

The possibility outlined by the Archbishop would not affect gay couples in any way.

For now and for the foreseeable future, if equal marriage were to happen in Ireland, it's clearly not going to happen in Catholic churches, so gay couples would never go to a church anyway, on their wedding day. Why would they go, just to sign the state record of a marriage that had happened elsewhere?

If it came to pass, the possibility that the Archbishop is floating would affect straight couples and straight couples only. The entire brief procedure of state registration for straight couples who have been married in a church would be suspended.

They would be married in the eyes of the Church but they would then have to then go to a civil service office to put that marriage on the record. It would provide a specific separation of church and state at a particularly important point in the lives of citizens.

It's the way it has always been in France. It would be, at most, a minor inconvenience: instead of getting all of the procedures done on the one day in the one place, couples would have to pitch up somewhere else in order to sign that big formal volume.

Removing this protocol from the church building allows a strong point to be made. The Church is against marriage between a man and a man, or between a woman and a woman. Archbishop Martin goes further, suggesting that authorising same sex couples to marry amounts to the state "saying homosexual acts are a moral good."


In fact, that's not what the State is saying. In presenting this referendum to voters, what the Government is saying is that each and every citizen is equal, and it is inviting the citizens to remove a barrier to equality.

The Church's threat to remove a technical procedure that takes five minutes because the Church sees same sex marriage - if approved by a majority in a referendum - as redefining marriage for everybody would be a surprising use of power after the fact.

It would amount to an abstruse statement of power to no particular purpose. In the old days, when the Church was all-powerful, such a gesture would have been triumphalist but expected. Today, when the Church spends most of its time on the defensive, it is without appeal to the faithful it would inconvenience.

Refusing to register marriages would effectively punish the majority of straight couples who want to get married in church in order to make a statement about a small minority of gay couples who were never going to get married in a church anyway.

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