QI am 70 years old, with 12 years of Catholic education and much self-education after that. One thing about Catholic practice confuses and infuriates me, however. Why and when did the church let government get control of the sacrament of matrimony?
A priest is ordained to administer the sacraments. I don’t see anything that allows him to first require permission (marriage license) from the government. I must ask the government in order to receive the sacrament? Not in a million years.
I appreciate your answers to questions in our Catholic paper. I hope you can answer this one. (Virginia)
AYou have a real problem with “government,” don’t you? There is, in fact, nothing sinister or automatically anti-religious about the policies you describe.
Most countries, certainly all developed nations, have well-established regulations about who can get married (obviously a minimum age is one factor), under what conditions, and who is authorized legally to witness marriages.
This has always been the case. As far back as the famous Code of Hammurabi, king of Babylon 4,000 years ago, and even before that, advanced cultures instituted strict policies governing marriage and family life. They were considered necessary not only for obvious civic reasons such as taxation and inheritance, but because stable and publicly-established families were considered essential for a stable society.
It will help to recall that for centuries, while the church considered marriage between two Christians to have a special sacramental character, it accepted legally valid marriages as valid in the church as well.
No particular “form” of marriage (how and before whom it should take place) was required for Catholics until a few hundred years ago. In 1563, the Council of Trent ruled that a marriage must take place before one’s pastor or bishop to be valid. Even then, because of some technicalities in church law, Trent’s regulations did not apply to much of the world, including large areas of the U.S., until early in the 20th century.
Thus, historically the Catholic Church has had a rather close relationship with civil laws concerning marriage.
Today in some countries — the U.S. and Canada, for example — laws differ considerably between states and provinces. In other countries, such as Italy, regulations are fairly consistent everywhere.
The Christian church has never had a problem with that, as long as the laws are just and the faithful preserve the right to their own religious matrimonial celebrations and beliefs. It prefers, of course, that Catholic marriage rituals be recognized as official legal ceremonies, as in the U.S., for example.
It has lived amicably, however, in some countries where only a civil marriage before a judge or other magistrate is recognized as legally valid. Normally this rite precedes any religious ceremony.
Finally, another fundamental reason the church doesn’t share your concern is purely theological. In spite of our customary way of speaking, we believe a man and woman are not “married by” the clergyman officiating at the ceremony. They are married by each other.
In Catholic teaching, the priest or deacon is the church’s official witness to the marriage, but the bride and groom minister the sacrament to each other by their vows and their commitment to a communal life together.  This theology is still reflected in Catholic law. When an authorized priest, deacon or bishop is unavailable for a wedding for an extended time “without grave inconvenience,” couples can contract a lawful and valid Catholic marriage before witnesses only (Code of Canon Law, No. 1116).

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