July 17, 2015
Bishop David Choby has sent a memo to the priests and deacons of the Diocese of Nashville reminding them that they are not civilly required to witness same-sex marriages and could face sanctions by the Catholic Church if they do.
On June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that there is a constitutionally protected fundamental right to marriage and that marriage licenses cannot be denied to same-sex couples.
“The recent publication of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision on the question of licensing same-sex ‘marriage’ has generated much discussion and many questions,” Bishop Choby wrote in his memo. “Because one of our parish priests in the diocese has already received a request to witness a same-sex union, I want to make sure we all understand what the decision does require and does not require.”
The Supreme Court’s decision only deals with the obligation of states to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples and to recognize the legitimacy and effect of unions entered into in another state, Bishop Choby said.
“The decision DOES NOT mandate or require any minister, priest or rabbi to witness a union of any couple who has applied for and received a license,” Bishop Choby wrote. “But the language is troubling our practice.”
He continued: “Following the teaching and discipline that has guided the Church’s practices relating to marriage from the beginning, there is no change in our practice. We may only witness the marriage of one man and one woman who are civilly and canonically free to wed. Additionally, we may not ‘bless’ unions that have been entered into civilly.
“Deacons and priests who are not pastors legitimately witness marriage by means of faculties granted by the bishop. Pastors witness marriage by virtue of their office of pastor,” Bishop Choby added. “Any deacon or priest who is not a pastor will lose his faculty to witness marriages if he acts contrary to the Church’s discipline. Any pastor doing the same is subject to other canonical penalties.
“I offer all of this as a help to you in order that you may have a clear and unambiguous directive should you be asked to witness a same-sex union,” the bishop wrote.
In his opinion for the majority of the Supreme Court, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote: “Finally, it must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned. The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered.”
However, in his dissenting opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts raised concerns about how the same-sex marriage decision could affect religious liberty questions.
“Many good and decent people oppose same-sex marriage as a tenet of faith, and their freedom to exercise religion is – unlike the right imagined by the majority – actually spelled out in the Constitution,” Roberts wrote. “Respect for sincere religious conviction has led voters and legislators in every state that has adopted same-sex marriage democratically to include accommodations for religious practice. The majority’s decision imposing same-sex marriage cannot, of course, create any such accommodations. The majority graciously suggests that religious believers may continue to ‘advocate’ and ‘teach’ their views of marriage. … The First Amendment guarantees, however, the freedom to ‘exercise’ religion. Ominously, that is not a word the majority uses.”
In their 2009 pastoral letter “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote: “Among the many blessings that God has showered upon us in Christ is the blessing of marriage, a gift bestowed by the Creator from the creation of the human race. His hand has inscribed the vocation to marriage in the very nature of man and woman.”
Jesus elevated marriage to a sacramental sign of his own love for the Church, the bishops added.
But marriage is also a natural institution that predates religion and government and is grounded in the nature of the human person, the bishops have said in their brochure “One Man, One Woman, For Life.” An integral part of the natural institution of marriage is the differences of the sexes and how the different sexes are complementary in the marital act and necessary in producing children, the bishops said in their brochure.
“Everyone deserves love and respect, including those who experience same-sex attraction,” the bishops wrote in their brochure “One Man, One Woman, For Life.” “The experience of same-sex attraction is a reality that calls for compassion, sensitivity, pastoral care and attention. But no one – especially no child – is served by marriage redefinition.”