John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He is especially interested in moral theology and the thought of John Paul II.
“Super easy,” was how one practitioner described getting married under the District of Columbia’s “self-officiant” marriage procedures. Self-officiant weddings are ceremonies in which one of the parties getting married also acts as the “officiant”—the marrying agent or civil witness—of the nuptials. Robert Putnam fretted two decades ago that we were “bowling alone.” Now, we are marrying alone.
Well, not quite, for the reasons discussed below.
Self-officiant marriage, available in Colorado, Wisconsin, and parts of Pennsylvania (as well as the District) appeals to some in the marrying generation pool, for whom religious affiliation is even more tenuous than in the past. Disengagement from a religious community, transitory connections to place in a mobile society and the skyrocketing costs of the Great American Wedding (loaded atop student debt) all make self-officiant marriage appealing. A Washington Post feature article celebrating such marriages described a couple who hunted a whole 500 feet from the D.C. Courthouse (judges are very territorial about their prerogatives, so you have to exit their house before you can hitch yourselves) before picking a venue—a nearby fountain—for the event of a lifetime.
Self-officiant marriage is just another contemporary variant to tailor matrimony to an increasingly fragmented society whose legal Pole Star remains personal autonomy. Washington also allows (for a fee) a “temporary officiant” to preside over a legally valid wedding. If you’ve always had that soft spot for Uncle Joe, here’s your chance: now, couples cannot only anguish over who gets into the wedding party (if they have one) but who celebrates. And you’re designee doesn’t even need to find a fly-by-night seminary to “ordain” him just for you.
Back in the 1960s, the revolt against “institutions” on grounds of “authenticity,” also struck at marriage. “All you need is love,” insisted fornicating Flower Children: marriage was just a “license” to do what came naturally. The rise of concubinage and the decline of marriage followed.
That initial jejune rebellion, however, got tamed but never went away. Taming forces included families that wanted to have “wedding days” (and pictures), young people not wholly indifferent to religious ceremonies and, of course, the elite that promoted the rights of the rebels but never really took to the barricades, more or less marrying as their ancestors did. But the decline of marriage as an institution, coupled with sociological forces that both changed ideas about marriage (e.g., “soul-mate marriage”) and delayed the age of first-time marriages abetted the rebellion as “one choice among many.” Of course, the “choice” mentality in marriage and family law—contraception, abortion, homosexual relations, artificial reproduction, gender ideology, “no-fault” divorce, and family structure/formation—all reinforced the “it’s all about me” mentality on the individual level.
The cumulative effect of the past 50 years has been a hollowing out of the term “marriage.” Marriage is a word we use but about whose meaning we share no common vocabulary. As a believing Catholic relying purely on natural law (i.e., not depending on explicit revelation), I would define marriage as a permanent union of a man and a woman, indissoluble and exclusive, open to the possibility of parenthood. American law, on the other hand, largely deems marriage a relationship between two people, whose content and meaning is self-stipulated, of an indeterminate validity, subject to termination by either party but which, while it lasts, affords civil rights and obligations and certain social recognition and status. Marriage, as contemporary Polish political philosopher Zbigniew Stawrowski observes, is among those terms (like “rights,” “justice,” “victim,” “dignity,” etc.) whose traditional meanings have been emptied by Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinking, but whose names have been co-opted, preserved to maintain the charade that nothing has changed when, in fact, everything has.
If marriage has no inherent content but depends on what the couple “wants” of marriage, why should that “wanting” not extend to incidental issues, e.g., how people get married? Self-officiant and designation marriage are just logical extensions of that mentality. (So, too, are ecclesiastical accommodations, e.g., the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s permission for Catholics to marry in ceremonies outside of churches or chapels, e.g., outdoors, on beaches or other places “meaningful” to the couple).
Lest modernity think it has discovered America, some lessons from Christianity’s long experience with marriage might help.
Self-officiant marriage is also called “self-uniting” marriage and, colloquially, “Quaker marriage,” because Quakers, having no ministers, embrace the notion of God acting through and inspiring the individual.
Catholic theology also teaches that the couple are the minister of the sacrament to each other, the priest only serving as ecclesial representative (since marriage is a “sign of the unity of Christ and His Church” — Ephesians 5) and witness. Catholics have been required, however, since the Council of Trent to solemnize their marriages in the presence of a priest and at least two witnesses, given the abuses which followed from clandestine marriage. If two Catholics were legitimately impeded from access to a priest for an extended time, however, they could marry sacramentally, with at least witnesses present, if possible. Think extended persecution under Soviet communism, or Mary Ann and Gilligan.
The Church’s demand for an ecclesiastical context and witnesses keeps, however, with the truth that nobody “marries alone.” Marriage is at least a two-person affair, which renders the rubric of “personal autonomy” as its sole criterion suspect. In the ordinary state of things, however, marriage has been recognized as uniting more than just two people: it unites lives, families, histories, “for better or worse.” Cana’s guests imbibing the “wine that gladdens men’s hearts” (Psalm 104:15) is what marriage is, not two people getting sprinkled at a public fountain to the temporary gaze of passersby.
The most cursory Google search, however, immediately reveals that—illusions aside—we do not “marry alone.” There are plenty of offers out there for photographers, cake makers and others, whose accessories you may want and who will swing by for that temporary memorialization. If you live in a recalcitrant Pennsylvania county, whose clerk doesn’t want to give you a “self-uniting” marriage license, there’s even advice how to get the ACLU to help. Pennsylvania requires witnesses to sign the marriage license; when I called the DC Marriage Bureau this morning to ask what the witness requirement was, I was told there was none.
The skeptic might ask “why then do I need a license?” While God might be unnecessary to our extended hook-up, Caesar still insists on his role (and fee). [Is it not accidental that, starting in the 1970s, Caesar systematically abolished recognition of “common law marriage” in the states?] If it’s all about wills, Caesar wills his acknowledgment and piece of the action. The skeptic might also ask, “what’s the difference between a self-officiant wedding and a proposal?” In our legally positive world, perhaps only that “piece of paper.” How do we avoid collapsing betrothal into marriage? Lastly, how does the officiant express consent? Is his presence sufficient, without any ritualization or verbalization? Or does he talk to himself? Because if the other spouse asks, does that spouse not become de facto co-officiant?
Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven as a wedding feast. I’m hoping Beatitude is not quite as attenuated as a D.C. wedding.
All views expressed herein are exclusively those of the author.