The Irony and the Ecstasy: Church Losing Grip on Marriage

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The church admits its inability to enforce its outdated rules of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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The Irony and the Ecstasy

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