The Irony and the Ecstasy: Church Losing Grip on Marriage

| February 26, 2004

Neither the state nor the church seems qualified to define marriage these days, much less assert moral authority over the act. But commentator Fenton Johnson points out that even when marriage was clearly the church's domain, it was defined in a way that led to some major ambiguities. The Roman Catholic Church declared -- and still does -- that two individuals establish the sacrament of marriage when they have sex. More simply put: no sex, no marriage. But just as in the days when commitment-shy kings and princes used the impossibility of proving consummation as a way to escape undesirable unions, the definition has proven to be inadequate.

The church admits its inability to enforce its outdated rules of sexual behavior, and is deflecting responsibility onto the state. Johnson calls this move 'unfortunate,' arguing that now more than ever 'the ancient conception of marriage as ratified in the fact of mutually agreeable sexual congress has much to be said for it.' For instance, instead of distinguishing between same-gender and opposite-gender sex, what if the clergy were to draw a line between the presence and the absence of respect in sexual expression? As in, what if the church were to put aside fear-based condemnation of same-sex marriage and instead seize the opportunity to support consideration and thoughtfulness in relationships, whatever their nature?

Regardless of whether the church chooses to update its definitions, Johnson believes that appealing to the state for sanction is not the answer. He points out the abuse of power that followed the medieval church's monopoly on marriage and suggests that empowering the state will produce similar abuses. Johnson's proposed solution to the complicated state of the marriage business?: 'A system in which the state would recognize its stake in stable households by using monetary incentives and rights of adoption and citizenship to reward those relationships, whatever their composition, that demonstrated longevity.'
-- Andi McDaniel

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