Marriage, Matrimony, and The Baltimore Catechism
I was an altar boy growing up in Hicksville, Long Island, NY. I went to St. Ignatius Catholic School and went to Mass at St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church. Starting in the fifth grade, becoming an altar boy and serving at Mass on Sundays and weekdays, serving at funerals when I was needed, serving at weddings on Saturdays; all of this is what started me on my life of service. And as an altar boy and a student at St. Ignatius, I learned everything there was to know about being Catholic. I studied my Baltimore Catechism, and I realized how lucky I was to be raised in the One True Church, the one that would allow me to most expeditious, most sincere, most sure route to Eternal Salvation.
There was one problem: I would worry about my father. He was a Protestant, a Lutheran to be precise, and as such a heretic. The Catechism was quite blunt about the fate of heretics.
Q. 509. Are all bound to belong to the Church? A. All are bound to belong to the Church, and he who knows the Church to be the true Church and remains out of it cannot be saved.
The fact that he was even my father, that he had married my mother was a source of some confusion and anxiety for me. After all, there it was right in my Catechism:
Q. 1036. Does the Church forbid the marriage of Catholics with persons who have a different religion or no religion at all? A. The Church does forbid the marriage of Catholics with persons who have a different religion or no religion at all.
Nevertheless, my parents did get married, and by a priest. Their wedding picture was displayed on the shelf by the front stairs in our house. But though they are both smiling, it does not look like a wedding picture. My mom is not wearing a white dress and veil but rather a blue suit and hat. It seems that a non-Catholic who agrees not to interfere with the exercise of religion of their Catholic spouse and agrees to raise their children as Catholic can marry, but with a catch:
Q. 1041. How does the Church show its displeasure at mixed marriages? A. The Church shows its displeasure at mixed marriages by the coldness with which it sanctions them, prohibiting all religious ceremony at them by forbidding the priest to use any sacred vestments, holy water or blessing of the ring at such marriages; by prohibiting them also from taking place in the Church or even in the sacristy.
As such, my parents were married with little ceremony in the rectory, the priests’ residence, at St. Luke’s Catholic Church in Carnegie, PA. They were not allowed to have the ceremony in the church itself or even to enter it. So my parents’ humbling marriage was legal, in the Catholic sense, if just barely. But then I thought, what about my uncles and aunts in my dad’s family? None of them were Catholic. They had all gotten married, but not in a “real” church? And what about their kids, my cousins? Were all of them going to go to hell?
These vexing thoughts and memories have come flooding back the past few weeks as I’ve watched the considerable backlash against the Supreme Court decision on marriage equality. County clerks have agonized over being unable to uphold their religious convictions if they are forced to give marriage licenses to same sex couples. Priests, ministers, rabbis have been gnashing their teeth over the threat to religious freedom.
The thing is, they are all full of crap. And they know it.
As I got older and had long conversation with other people raised in other religious traditions — my Protestant cousins among them — I realized that the Catholic Church was not the only religion telling their people that everyone else is a heretic who’s going to go to hell. The best example I’ve ever heard of this comes from an exchange in the movie, “The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom” (1993). Wanda Holloway, the Mom of the title, played brilliantly by Holly Hunter, is having a conversation with her daughter, Shanna (Frankie Ingrassia), about salvation:
Shanna: Momma, isn’t it true that only a certain amount of people are allowed in heaven, and we’re saved, right?
Wanda: Uh huh. That’s ‘cause we’re Missionary Baptists as opposed to the other kind of Baptists who if they make a mistake, they have to start all over again. But Missionary Baptists — once saved, always saved. Your grandma and grandpa were real smart. They chose a sect that has guarantees.
And when it comes to marriage, well, let’s go back to the Catechism:
Q. 1011. Can a Christian man and woman be united in lawful marriage in any other way than by the Sacrament of Matrimony? A. A Christian man and woman cannot be united in lawful marriage in any other way than by the Sacrament of Matrimony, because Christ raised marriage to the dignity of a sacrament.
So, there you have it: the Catholic version. And though I’m not a theologian, I daresay that pretty much every religion — every Western religion, anyway — has some version of it. What it comes down to, for those with deeply-held religious convictions is this: Unless you are married in and by a church — and a specific church, at that — you are not married… Period!
So to you Catholics out there, those who share my faith tradition and are agonizing over gay and lesbian people marrying their same sex partner, you’ve got a lot more to agonize about. Everyone you know who was not married in the Catholic Church is not married! Look at Q. 1011 above. It does not matter if they are one man and one woman. They have not accepted the authority of Holy Mother Church. As such, they cannot receive the Sacraments. Matrimony is a Sacrament. They are not married, just as much as same sex couples are not married.
I suspect that the same is true for many of you out there who are Christian and not Catholic, because as Wanda Holloway tells us above, unless you choose a “sect that has guarantees,” you lose.
Which, of course, brings us to the county clerks who feel that issuing a marriage license to a same sex couple violates their deeply-held religious beliefs. My question is: What are you even doing issuing civil marriage licenses? Because unless every single one of them is going to go to your church, and they intend to receive the blessings of sacramental matrimony in your faith tradition, you are sinning every time you hand out one of those pieces of paper. Have you issued marriage licenses to Jews? They’ve rejected Christ! Atheists? On the road to hell! The wrong kind of Baptist? Heretics!
While the point of religion is usually stated as the effort to bring us closer to God and to each other, the part that’s often conveniently ignored outside the walls of individual churches is that they all feel — again the Western ones — that they have it right and everyone else has it wrong. The logical end of this is that a Catholic employer could say that they will only grant spousal benefits to Catholics married in the Catholic Church, and county clerks would only issue civil marriage licenses to members of their own congregations with the pledge that the fiancés will get themselves to that one true church for the marriage to be “real,” and anyone else who wants a license will have to wait till someone from their religion is on duty.
So are these people hypocrites? Are they consciously and willfully deciding only to judge same sex couples when the tenets of their own faith should cause them to judge those who do not share their faith just as harshly? Are they anti-gay bigots?
Well, I’m sure they would all answer No to all those questions. And to call up my own faith tradition, it is not my place to judge them either.
Q. 288. Why is it wrong to judge others guilty of sin? A. It is wrong to judge others guilty of sin because we cannot know for certain that their sinful act was committed with sufficient reflection and full consent of the will.
So this is my invitation to those in churches and in county offices who are acting so offended by marriage between people of the same gender: You folks know very well that what happens in a government office is not a religious ceremony. It never was, and it never will be. For you to object to gay men and lesbians getting married at City Hall is like a clerk at Macy’s objecting to someone buying white pants after Labor Day. It may violate every law of fashion, but your job is to sell people what your business has to offer. So if you work in a government office, and you cannot treat every citizen of that jurisdiction equally under the law, you do not belong in that job.
And if you are a Catholic clergyman railing about this being a violation of religious liberty, well, Baltimore Catechism or no Baltimore Catechism, dude, you’ve either got a screw loose or you are lying through your teeth. Because you know better. You know that same sex marriage will have absolutely no effect on your ability to lead your flock or practice your faith. You also know that if some same sex couple decide to sue you to force you to marry them, they would be laughed out of court. And frankly, I would be on your side with that one. I believe in separation of Church and State as much as, if not more, than you, and it would be an outrageous violation of the First Amendment for a court to force you to marry a gay couple, or a Presbyterian couple or a divorced Catholic couple. And you know that. So cut out the “violating religious liberty” crap. It’s disingenuous and dishonest, and you know better.
Nearly fifty years ago when I was an altar boy, I liked serving weddings best. People were nervous but happy, and I was part of the Sacrament of Matrimony. As the years went on, though, and I began to realize that I was what I would later call “gay,” it slowly dawned on me that when it came to weddings, I would always be a spectator and not a participant. In the past few years as I began to realize that participation might actually be a possibility, I still knew that it would be highly unlikely that that participation would be in a Catholic church. And that’s okay. The Church did set me on a lifelong road of service for which I am very grateful every single day. I continue on that road thanks to Saint Louis University and Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital, two Catholic institutions that welcome me fully. And if I do get married, even if it’s not in a Roman Catholic church, I do feel that the spirit will be with me in that moment, whenever, wherever that might be. In Matthew 22:36, Jesus is asked, “Master, which is the greatest commandment in the law?” He replies:
“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second is like to this: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments dependeth the whole law and the prophets.”
You heard Him, folks: The basis of everything is love. The rest is up to us. Let us always remember that.