C.S. Lewis on same-sex marriage. Kinda.

Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s opinion piece on same-sex marriage in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph raises again the question of the extent to which church teachings on marriage should be reflected in civil law – though I think it should be noted that Cardinal O’Brien’s argument is an attempt (albeit, to my mind, hamfisted and intemperate) to put forward a “natural law” argument against civil same-sex marriage, rather than to argue that the state should follow church teaching per se.

It turns out that C.S. Lewis has something to say on this as well in Mere Christianity, at least by analogy. In his chapter on Christian Marriage, Lewis discusses the gulf that existed even in the 1940s between church teaching and civil practice on divorce. He writes (p.99):

Before leaving the question of divorce, I should like to distinguish two things which are very often confused. The conception of marriage is one: the other is the different question – how far Christians, if they are voters or Members of Parliament, ought to try to force their views of marriage on the rest of the community by embodying them in the divorce laws. A great many people seem to think that if you are a Christian yourself you should try to make divorce difficult for every one. I do not think that. At least I know I should be very angry if the Mahommedans tried to prevent the rest of us from drinking wine.

My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognise that the majority of the British people are not Christians and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives. There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the Church with rules enforced by her on her own members. The distinction ought to be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not.

I think Lewis’s “two distinct kinds of marriage” (by implication called by different names) is unattainable, though perhaps if someone had thought of the term “civil partnership” in the 18th century then it could have become a workable distinction. But Lewis provides a good framework for seeing how the church can live (and has for decades, if not centuries, been living) with a divergence between its teachings on marriage and civil marriage law.


7 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis on same-sex marriage. Kinda.”

  1. Well, people thought gay marriage was unattainable not so long ago!

    I’d vastly prefer to get the government out of regulating marriage. (You may recall we discussed this five years ago with respect to divorce, when I was more on the conservative side but sympathetic to the liberal view; I now take the liberal view.) I mean, government has largely abandoned the project of regulating marriage anyway, so we’d only be losing the last vestiges.

    All this social strife demonstrates amply why I think over-active government is a social evil which is to be avoided. If the government really had to offer a system of next-of-kin and childrearing responsibilities with a tax break attached, but didn’t call it marriage, we’d have very much less — possibly even none — of this insane culture-warring over this issue, this clash of two illiberalisms: one revolutionary, the other reactionary.

    1. I think the very fact that civil partnerships are so similar to marriage in their legal effects shows the difficulty with a “get the government out of marriage” position. The only aspects the government really “regulates” to any great degree are (a) who can get married (e.g. laws against bigamy), (b) what happens to the children and assets on a divorce, and (c) the remaining tax consequences of marriage (principally on inheritance); all of which would still remain relevant, even if the state stopped using the word “marriage”.

      1. I’m loath to cite France as an example, because laïcité is not where I think most British people of any political stripe would want us to shake out. Certainly, not I. But the French have managed to separate ecclesiastical marriage from the civil ceremony almost completely. You’ll say that their culture is different, and of course it is. I wonder what other European countries do.

        I take the point on the government’s involvement in marriage, with caution. It is the quintessentially conservative argument that things are the way they are because that’s how they ought to be: not the strongest of cases! I’d like to know why they ought to be that way, first.

        That is a cracking set of quotes from Lewis, and a good analysis of them, too: classically liberal (on social issues, at least), from a perspective of human fallenness rather than human goodness. ‘Those who torment us for our own good’: I can think of several public health campaigners who fit that bill with perfection…

    1. Yes, there’s a good quote here on that subject. Though I believe the reason for the change in the 18th century wasn’t to impose uniformity on a previously freewheeling “do what you like” model for marriage, but to deal with the problem of “secret marriages” (men marrying women to have their wicked way with them, and then denying that the marriage had ever happened).

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