Getting out of civil marriage biz? Tribune details one side of debate in Chicago

Several months ago, I heard about an interesting decision made by Father Patrick Henry Reardon, a very outspoken and influential Eastern Orthodox priest up in the Chicago area. After the state of Illinois approved the redefinition of marriage -- including same-sex unions -- Reardon decided that he would get out of the civil marriage business and stop signing secular marriage licenses.

This was, for Reardon, an intensely theological subject and he was most comfortable discussing the topic in those terms. It was a challenge to quote him in ways that were accurate, yet could be included in a column for readers in mainstream newspapers. This was pretty complex territory.

The priest knew, of course, that a U.S. Supreme Court on this subject loomed in the near future and he assumed that it would complicate matters even further, especially in terms of the First Amendment and religious liberty. But the key, for him, was that he was discussing a sacrament of the church and doctrines on which he could not compromise. Thus, I ended my Universal syndicate column on this topic like this:

At his altar, said Reardon, this means, "I cannot represent the State of Illinois anymore. … I'm not making a political statement. I'm making a theological statement."

I also quoted the American leader of the branch of Orthodoxy in which Reardon serves, who, while not directly addressing the issue of civil marriage licenses, made it clear that his church would not be taking part in a major reshaping of marriage.

The upcoming Supreme Court decision could "mark a powerful affirmation of marriage between one man and one woman … or it can initiate a direction which the Holy Orthodox Church can never embrace," stated Metropolitan Joseph, of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. "Throughout the history of our faith our Holy Fathers have led the Orthodox laity" to unite to "preserve the faith against heresy from within, and against major threats from societies from without."

For me, as an Orthodox layman, the most interesting part of that statement were the words focusing on the church and the theological tensions that are ahead, the part when the metropolitan mentioned the struggles to "preserve the faith against heresy from within."

Heresy is not a word that bishops toss around without careful thought.

Now, in the wake of the 5-4 Obergefell decision by Justice Anthony Kennedy and the U.S. Supreme Court, the Chicago Tribune has followed up with a news report about Reardon that does a good job of describing his decision, yet does little to dig into the thoughts and beliefs of those who either oppose or dismiss his strategy. Consider, for example, this passage in which an Orthodox bishop seems to echo, in reverse, some of Reardon's thinking:

Bishop Demetrios of Mokissos, chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago, said he doesn’t foresee such a boycott in Chicago. He even questions whether it’s legal.
“I can’t imagine any of our priests doing that,” he said. “It hasn’t happened yet and I don’t anticipate it happening to make a political statement,” he said.

That's a really important quote.

I would stress that this statement by a Greek Orthodox bishop in no way represents an endorsement of Obergefell, but it clear indicates that there will be theological and legal debates ahead -- inside Eastern Orthodoxy in this land and in other sanctuaries -- about how priests should handle this clash between state and church.

In other words, this quote should have been near the top of the Tribune report and backed with more material explaining, on the record when possible, the views of those -- in Orthodoxy and elsewhere -- who have rejected Reardon's strategy. In the Chicago context, it would have been especially important to have given more ink to doctrinal progressives in Roman Catholic and oldline Protestant settings. Then, of course, it would have been interesting to hear a response to that point of view from Reardon and his defenders.

Once again, it's obvious that Reardon is aware that he will be accused of playing politics. Read this section of the Tribune report carefully:

“The strange situation in the United States is clergymen not only act in the name of the church, they also act in the name of the state,” said Reardon, the pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago’s Irving Park community. “The clergymen wear two hats. I’m making a political statement in this sense: I’m accusing the state of usurping the role of God. What I’m saying is, ‘I don’t agree with you and I’m going to change the way I do things. I will not act in your name. … I will not render unto Caesar that which belongs to God.'”
The unusual protest has inspired other Christian clergy -- Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant -- to consider following his lead, a shift Reardon hopes will lead the nation to a different model of marriage, one that no longer deputizes clergy to sign marriage licenses and, in his opinion, effectively uphold the state’s definition of marriage.

And then:

Archbishop Blase Cupich, Chicago’s Roman Catholic leader, said in a recent interview that the idea has not come up among America’s Catholic bishops or Chicago priests, but he pointed out that a “two-tiered type of marriage” already exists in some places, including Europe. Regardless of who signs the license, he added, there’s already a clear distinction between the two in the U.S.
“Civil marriage doesn’t make people promise and keep the promise of permanence because of the ease of divorce,” Cupich said. “We ask people to be married until death do you part and we really mean that. … It’s important to recognize we already have a difference between civil marriage and church marriage because of the promises.”

The Tribune story, in my opinion, does a very fine job of dealing with some of the complex language that Reardon served up while describing the logic of his decision. The story also offered another logical, articulate Orthodox voice to help explain the significance of this debate. The story even hinted at potential tensions between branches of Orthodoxy that include a high number of converts (yes, such as myself) and those that remain, in large part, defined by ethnicity.

... The theology of marriage is the same in all branches, said the Rev. Johannes Jacobse, president of the American Orthodox Institute. It’s considered to be much more than a partnership.
“We see the sacramental as the completion of the natural,” said Jacobse, also an Antiochian Orthodox priest. “We see marriage as a means of salvation, as a way one achieves salvation. It’s not just a contract or agreement. It certainly is that. But it’s more.”

One more point: There are also progressive clergy who are now convinced that the church should get out of the civil marriage business and I applaud the Tribune team for including that angle. I had hoped to do so, but, frankly, I ran out of room in my somewhat limited column format, with a set-in-stone word length each week.

So this was a solid story from the Tribune. What's missing? It needed more material from the doctrinal left, giving more attention to those who are quietly, or openly, opposing this strategy pioneered by Reardon.

It's rare -- on stories about sex and marriage -- to see a mainstream news report that shortchanges the views of doctrinal progressives. From my journalistic point of view, that's what we have here.

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