Home Blogs Bye, Bye traditional weddings!

Bye, Bye traditional weddings!

Bye, Bye traditional weddings!

A battle seems to be raging on between old and the New Ireland, the Ireland of the Catholic Church, and the secular.

By Nazarul Islam

What is the future of our so-called traditional marriages in contemporary society? A battle seems to be raging on between old and the New Ireland, the Ireland of the Catholic Church, and the secular. Ireland of the 21st Century is the best example— a country which embraced the strictest anti-abortion legislation and enshrined it in its 1937 Constitution versus the Ireland that abolished the Eighth Amendment in 2018.

Will marriages in Ireland continue to feature prominently a sacramental ritual, what has been known as the seventh sacrament of matrimony?

Or will secular unions, including not only a man and a woman, but also same-sex partners, transgendered partners, or others become the norm?

And, will the same fate await all other countries, in the near future?

The question is urgent and relevant throughout the West. But it is perhaps especially notable in the Ireland of 2021 because of the dramatic and sudden changes that have occurred in Irish society within the past two decades, arguably a greater transformation of social values than anywhere else in Europe or throughout the West.

Consider the Irish weddings: Do the math!

This is revealed in the recent statistics that cover church weddings versus secular marriages in 2021.

For the first time in Irish history, secular (or civil) marriages have outnumbered the Church weddings. According to the Central Statistics Office (CSO) in Dublin, religious ceremonies accounted for just half of last year’s marriages, and year-over-year they have been in decline.

The number of marriages celebrated in 2020 was less than half of 2019’s figure, with 9,523 marriages taking place last year.  Some 9,209 of these were opposite-sex marriages, while 170 male same-sex couples and 144 female same-sex couples also wed. The overall number is a reduction of 53.1% when compared with 2019, when 20,313 marriages took place.

The CSO said this reflected the impact of Covid-19 restrictions on wedding plans.

The figures also show that Catholic marriages were less popular than civil marriages for the first time last year. Some 42.1% of marriages were in civil ceremonies in 2020, compared to 34.6% in Catholic services.  In 2019, 43.6% of marriages were Catholic, in 2018 47.6%, and in 2017 50.9%. In 1980, 95.4% of all marriages were Catholic.  Almost half of couples last year (49.8%) opted for a non-religious marriage — be it civil or humanist in nature.

In 1980, just 1.53% of couples opted for a non-religious marriage ceremony, according to CSO data from the time.  The majority of gay couples chose a civil marriage ceremony, which accounted for 228 marriages.

Education Equality, a campaign advocating for equal provision of education for children regardless of their religion, said the figures indicated a growing need for changes in school patronage.  Referring to the dominant role that the Catholic Church has particularly at primary level, the group’s communications officer David Graham said: “Religious practice is a choice, not an obligation. Our taxpayer-funded school system is forcing religion on young families against their will, in breach of their human rights.”

Atheist Ireland has echoed this sentiment, saying the CSO figures “show yet again that Ireland is no longer a Catholic country.”

Both groups also derided the significant ongoing role that the Irish Church plays in Irish public school education. Sex as a “gift from God,” that belongs in committed relationships and marriage as a sacrament of commitment are two of the themes included in new sex education resources for Catholic primary schools, published by the Irish bishops.

They also say that while children should not be made to feel ostracized, the Catholic Church’s teaching in relation to “marriage between a man and a woman cannot be omitted” from the school curriculum. These statements are included in “Flourish,’” the Relationship and Sexual Education (RSE) program for all Catholic primary schools on the island of Ireland, developed by the Irish Bishops Conference.

The standoff: The President vs. the Pope

As an indication of where the most respected public voices stand on these matters, it is notable that the former President Mary McAleese issued a scathing criticism of Pope Francis after the Pope approved a Vatican document that ruled that the Catholic Church doesn’t have the power to bless same-sex marriages.

Pope Francis approved a Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) judgment that stated “the Church does not have, and cannot have, the power to bless unions of persons of the same sex,” drawing criticism from McAleese, who declared that Pope Francis’ “chummy words to the press often quite reasonably raise hopes of church reform which are subsequently almost invariably dashed by firm restatement of unchanged church teaching.”

Instead, she said, Pope Francis revealed himself to be “the pope who toes the old hardline.”  She said the recently approved CDF document features “unbearably vicious language which can only have brought more heartache to our gay children and to us, their families.” She said that the Catholic Church had fired a “missile” of heartache and hurt.

Matrimony and the family policy

So what does all this mean?  It represents further testimony to the declining influence of the Irish Catholic Church, whose credibility and force in Irish society have irreparably and irreversibly been weakened by the waves of priest scandals involving pedophilia and other illicit or illegal sexual transgressions with youth and female parishioners.

As dark as the prospects seem for the long-lasting prominent influence of the Irish Catholic Church on Irish public life, some voices insist that the Irish Church in general, and the sacramental practices governing matrimony in particular, can adapt to changing 21st-century norms and values.

They point out that it is important to see that marriage has undergone much evolution in the history of Catholicism. In that light, matrimony may well be able to adapt and accommodate new forms of marriage, and yet still present itself as authentic Christian marriage, not just state-sanctioned marriage.

As a student of social life, I am keenly interested in these possibilities. And so it may be worthwhile to outline the enormous changes that have occurred in Christian marriages over the centuries.  As it turns out, what we consider today, traditional marriage is very different from what Christian marriage had been in earlier times.

Matrimony’s brief history

What is “traditional marriage?”  And what does it mean to “defend” it? These questions are casually voiced as if Christian marriage has always been a standard ceremony since antiquity with no cultural or historical variations.

Even within the long tradition of the Catholicism, as the liturgical scholar Lawrence E. Mick has noted, this is not at all the case. For instance, throughout the entire first millennium of the Church’s existence, “sacramental matrimony” did not even exist—i.e., marriage was not a sacrament.

Not until protracted and heated debates among theologians and bishops of the 11th and 12th centuries did “matrimony” became the seventh and last sacrament of the Church.

Essentially, the history of Christian marriage, and specifically Catholic marriage, have gone through four distinct historical phases, making clear that the “tradition” is an evolving one and has witnessed sea changes in the Church’s conception of marriage.

During the first four centuries of Christianity, the bishops continued the Old Testament tradition of seeing marriage as reflecting the love of God for Israel. Marriage was also meant to link the love of Christ for the Church as part of the great mystery of human and divine love.  St. Augustine was quite influential in the development of a theology of marriage, speaking of it as both a sacred sign and as an unbreakable bond.

As Christ was always faithful, wrote Augustine, so too Christian marriage was meant to be an unbreakable commitment, like the commitment of Christ to his “bride,” the church.

Nonetheless, marriage ceremonies were not in any sense codified. Rather, they varied from place to place in the ancient church, seldom taking place in a church and instead handled by the parents of the bride and the groom. Only during late antiquity did weddings begin to occur in the context of the Eucharist.

A second stage of Christian marriage emerged in the 9th century, when legal control of marriage started to pass from the state to the church.  Marriage began to be celebrated in the context of a church liturgy. During this period, culminating in the 11th and 12th centuries as I indicated earlier, theologians discussed the suitability of “matrimony” as a sacrament in the context of their efforts to develop a comprehensive theology of sacraments.

Yet not until the late Middle-Ages did marriage attain full sacramental status.  The delay owed to two reasons.  First, medieval theologians had difficulty seeing marriage as a source of grace. This was partly because of a negative view of sexuality — which also now specified celibacy as a condition for priesthood.  (Until this time, the majority of priests were family men.)

Secondly, the practice or institution of marriage — both In Jewish life and in pagan or state-administered contexts preceded the coming of Christ, whereas all the other sacraments were viewed as having emerged from Christ’s coming.  It was also during this period that the possibility of remarriage and divorce became possible; throughout the first millennium, the prevailing view was that marriage was indissoluble because the bond between Christ and the Church was unbreakable and eternal.

However, once the consummation of marriage sexually became understood as part of the “consent” of the parties to marry, unconsummated marriages became possible to dissolve or “annul” — whereby remarriage could then occur.

A third historical phase of Christian marriage may be dated to the Council of Trent in the 16th century.

The Council was the watershed event at which “matrimony” was enshrined officially as a sacrament.  In an attempt to prevent secret marriages, the Council also required Catholics to be married before a priest and two witnesses.

The 20th century witnessed a fourth historical stage in which the sacramental development of matrimony further evolved into the rite that most Catholics recognize today.  In the course of a half-century, the Church’s conception of matrimony passed from a chiefly legal matter to a sacred bond between husband and wife, that is, from a contract to a covenant.

Whereas the Code of Canon Law in 1917 conceived marriage primarily in terms of a contract between two parties, the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) emphasized marriage as a covenant between the spouses modeled on the covenant between the Creator and His creatures. A Trinitarian theology of love emerged, with the Father as both the Passionate “Lover” of the “Beloved,” His son Jesus, and the sacred love felt between them transmitted in the form of the Holy Spirit.

While the status of marriage as a contract or legal entity with certain rights and responsibilities was not invalidated, it was now transformed, enriched and transcended.  Theologians stressed that matrimonial grace — the power of the sacrament itself — forged an intensely personal bond of love between husband and wife.  Marriage was far more than a list of rights and responsibilities; its essence involved a personal commitment to the welfare of the other.

Whereas the earlier tradition of contractual marriage viewed marriage as chiefly existing for the procreation of children, “covenant” marriage portrayed the sacred relationship between the spouses as the “core” of marriage, with the marital act and procreation as the fullest expression of sanctified love.  Marriage is a religious vocation and a divine gift: one is “called” to it as a way to holiness and as a means of obtaining grace.

Towards a Conclusion

In the analysis, so-called traditional marriage has involved revising, expanding, and even rejecting much of previous tradition. Nonetheless, Christian marriage has continued and prevailed as a distinct form of same-sex permanent union. Those two features of marriage are already changing in light of the decline in church weddings and the rise of secular unions.

Where all this is headed in the Roman Catholic Church is uncertain, but what does seem likely is that Ireland is going to be near the forefront of altering developments as the 21st century unfolds.

Contemporary social analysts in America and Europe would do well to keep their eye on the trends that occur in Ireland, because just as it once reflected the firmest orthodoxies of the Roman Catholic Church, so too does it seem primed now to point toward the most extreme or innovative developments in global secular life and family affairs in the foreseeable future.

[author title=”Nazarul Islam ” image=”https://sindhcourier.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Nazarul-Islam-2.png”]The Bengal-born writer Nazarul Islam is a senior educationist based in USA. He writes for Sindh Courier and the newspapers of Bangladesh, India and America. He is author of a recently published book ‘Chasing Hope’ – a compilation of his 119 articles.[/author]