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.