Same-gender marriage is a hot-button issue. Recently a man asked me if I, as a priest, would witness a marriage between two men or two women. I said that I would not. He immediately charged me with discrimination.
He would not be alone in saying that by insisting that marriage is between one man and one woman, the Catholic Church, with bishops and priests speaking on its behalf, is denying legitimate rights and indeed human dignity.
Replying to the man who questioned me, I said that when I, as a priest, am invited to witness any marriage, it would be because of my position as a priest in good standing of the Roman Catholic Church. The question is not primarily about me, or about any other priest in a similar situation. (By the way, priests witness marriages; they “marry” no one. “Father Jones married us” is an incorrect statement.) It is about the couple wishing to be married.
Weddings in Catholic churches are religious events, occasions when couples come to pronounce marriage vows, but also, and essentially by the mere fact that they have chosen a Catholic church, a Catholic ceremony and a Catholic priest for their wedding publicly to declare that they believe in all that the Roman Catholic Church teaches.
Given the very clear, universally known Catholic belief that marriage must be between one man and one woman, if anyone comes to a priest and requests a Catholic wedding for marriage to a person of the same gender, it is this person, not the priest, who is making a false statement.
Again, Catholic weddings are first and foremost religious events, and public expressions of faith in the Catholic Church’s teachings.
The Church indeed has rules regarding marriage, because marriage is the foundation of human society, and the overwhelming majority of Catholics choose to be married.
In all instances, however, the regulations are in place to protect and enable Catholic belief. A brother and sister cannot be married, for example, nor can a person already married.
These requirements are not rules for the sake of rules — restrictions imposed upon people in the name of maintaining order, or controlling people or whatever, but they exist because they put into practice the belief of the Church that this is the way it is intended to be.
The Roman Catholic ritual for a wedding includes a series of questions, “Do you, John, take Mary ...” It would be very fitting if, before all other questions, this inquiry were asked: “John and Mary, do you believe, without reservation, in all that the Catholic Church teaches, and will you assist and encourage each other in the practice of these teachings?”
Absent this question, I personally always include in any homily at a wedding that I witness as a priest a very direct reminder to the couple that they have freely come into a Catholic church, that they are voluntarily involving themselves in a formal, public action of Catholic worship and that thereby they are asking God to assist them in living their lives together, in marriage, as Catholics and in all that this entails.
The late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen was fond of saying that three persons are in every Catholic marriage, the husband, the wife and Almighty God.
Could I, or would I, as a Catholic priest, officially witness a union, purporting to be a marriage, between two persons of the same gender? Of course, I could not, and I would not. Why? I wish to deny this couple the blessings of God? Hardly. Instead, were I to take such a role, I would be stating my disagreement with a very clear Church teaching.
Just as precisely, so would the couple.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.