When a Jewish boy turns 13, he heads to a temple for a deeply meaningful rite of passage, his bar mitzvah. When a Catholic girl reaches about the same age, she stands in front of the local bishop, who touches her forehead with holy oil as she is confirmed into a 2,000-year-old faith tradition. But missing in each of those cases — and in countless others of equal religious importance — is any role for government. There is no baptism certificate issued by the local courthouse and no federal tax benefit attached to the confessional booth, the into-the-water-and-out born-again ceremony or any of the other sacraments that believers hold sacred.
Only marriage gets that treatment, and it's a tradition that some legal scholars have been arguing should be abandoned. In a paper published March 2 in the San Francisco Chronicle, two law professors from Pepperdine University issued a call to re-examine the role the government plays in marriage. The authors — one of whom voted for and one against Proposition 8, which ended gay marriage in California — say the best way out of the intractable legal wars over gay marriage is to take marriage out of the hands of the government altogether.
Instead, give gay and straight couples alike the same license, a certificate confirming them as a family, and call it a civil union — anything, really, other than marriage. For people who feel the word marriage is important, the next stop after the courthouse could be the church, where they could bless their union with all the religious ceremony they wanted. Religions would lose nothing of their role in sanctioning the kinds of unions that they find in keeping with their tenets. And for nonbelievers and those who find the word marriage less important, the civil-union license issued by the state would be all they needed to unlock the benefits reserved in most states and in federal law for married couples.
"While new terminology for all may at first seem awkward — mostly in greeting-card shops — [it] dovetails with the court's important responsibility to reaffirm the unfettered freedom of all faiths to extend the nomenclature of marriage as their traditions allow," wrote Douglas W. Kmiec and Shelley Ross Saxer. Kmiec voted for Prop 8 because of his belief in the teachings of the Catholic Church and his notion of religious liberty but has since said he thinks the courts should not allow one group of Californians to marry while denying the privilege to others.
Where to start, where to start...
Hmmm. How about with the minor fact that both boys and girls are confirmed in the Catholic Church, not just girls? Oh, but that's just a bit of fact-checking, something we can hardly expect from the kind of two-bit rag that would quote Doug Kmiec's opinion on anything.
Well, how about with the fact that marriage really is a civil as well as a religious state? If the recently confirmed were being granted the right to vote at the same time they were being confirmed, the government would have something to say about it. Married people are being granted rights and duties that go beyond the Church, most importantly the right to participate with each other in the biological act of reproduction and then the duty to provide for all the natural and expected offspring that are the result of that right and that unity. Same-sex people simply can't create children together as their own biological offspring who are the natural and expected result of the union; we've had that discussion here before.
How about the fact that the Church has laid out a very clear argument against creating parallel institutions to marriage? Any Catholic who approves of "gay civil unions" or the like really needs to read this document in its entirety; it lays out in exhaustive detail why Catholics cannot in justice and charity approve of such unions.
Since I've written about all of this on other occasions, let's do something different. Let's pretend for a minute that the sort of compromise Kmiec and others want would come to pass. What would we do about the vocabulary?
I think that heterosexual couples would fight to retain the use of the word "marriage" to describe our unions. After all, the word has been used in both civil and religious contexts for hundreds of years to describe the joining of one man and one woman in a state of matrimony--would it really be fair for heterosexuals to adopt some new civil term? Most of us would probably just ignore it.
Moreover, there's the question of religious groups and their understanding of marriage. It's just going to create widespread confusion if "Catholic marriage" means one man and one woman, and "Episcopal marriage" means either that, or two women, or two men, one of them a bishop, for instance. And things could get really confusing if the number of people involved grows to more than two, which is the next step in dismantling marriage and removing it as a societal concept in order to destroy the family and lay waste to our culture once and for all (and does anyone really think that's not the endgame of the forces involved in all this?).
For now, though, perhaps those religions that want to unite two men or two women in some kind of union ought to lead the way, and come up with a new, revolutionary name for this kind of union--at least until the State decides to act. I even have a suggestion--an acronym, actually. I think that the churches who want to marry gay couples could propose uniting these couples in Same-sex Innovative Nuptials, or SIN. Churches that wanted to bless SINs could advertise that they do so, and create special SIN-blessing ceremonies for their same-sex attracted congregants. They could encourage gays and lesbians to commit to SIN, to unite with each other in SIN and to live in SIN, proudly accepting all the consequences of making SIN the center of their lives.
In a SIN ceremony, two men or two women would pledge to remain in SIN with each other. They would not have to pledge fidelity, as SIN is usually open to the involvement of other people on a more casual basis. They could write their own vows, making it clear to the whole assembly just how important SIN is to them and how they find no conflict whatsoever with God's words or traditional church teaching about sex, marriage, and the like and SIN. The pastor or minister could exhort the couple to persevere in SIN and never to let anything draw them away from SIN, especially those other homophobic churches who just don't appreciate how vitally important SINs are to people who struggle with same-sex attraction.
After the SIN blessing ceremony, all the friends and family could gather at a reception which would be a celebration of the SIN the couple had just committed themselves to for life. The reception could be a chance for others to affirm the SIN of the couple and pledge to support them throughout their life of SIN.
If some key churches introduced this term--I'm thinking Episcopalians, Unitarian Universalists, and perhaps a few others--then the greeting card companies Doug Kmiec worries about wouldn't have to wait until the State acts to start creating cards especially for same-sex unions. A whole line of cards could be created, with themes like "Congratulations on your SIN!" and "Best Wishes, as You Enter Into SIN Together."
The great thing about this is that Catholics who courageously struggle with same-sex attraction and who sincerely try to live according to the Church's teachings about same-sex attraction, embracing the cross of celibacy as they journey together with the rest of us toward eternal life in Jesus Christ could simply say, when asked about their lifestyle choice, "Sorry, but I'm just not into SIN." And that would be all they would need to say, to keep the world that doesn't understand them and mocks and attacks their great heroism, their love for Christ, and their devotion to His Church.