Why Altars and States Don't Mix

A November 2007 edition of Catholic News had Bishop Kevin Manning of the Diocese of Paramatta reminding couples marrying in the Church of the Instruction of the Roman Missal forbidding the signing of marriage documents on the Eucharistic Altar.

"At the Altar", Bishop Manning said, "the Memorial of the Lord is celebrated and his Body and Blood given to the people. Therefore, the Church's writers have seen in the altar a sign of Christ Himself". As such, Bishop Manning regards the signing of marriage documents, a requirement of the Federal Marriage Act (and thus bearing no relevance to the Liturgical Rites) as inappropriate.

The good Bishop has made a valid point and should be supported unequivocally on this. The author also thinks that a more radical point needs to be made here, for the practice of signing marriage documents is symbolic of the age long tussle between Church and State for authority over the lives of peoples. Practice of document signature is symbolic of the tension over the question regarding who grants validity to a marriage. The Sacramental view embraced by the Church suggests only God grants such legitimacy, whereas the contractual standpoint suggests only the State's imprimatur can validate the joining between a man and a woman.

One could extend this to indicate that the choice over the more persuasive standpoint can also indicate an expression of where one's ultimate political loyalties lie. The State, as Cavanaugh repeatedly says in his works, is not a neutral arena for the furtherance of a person's agenda. Like the machines in The Matrix, the State has its own agenda and instrumentalises the person. Constitutive of its agenda is the marginalisation of any religious culture, or making such a culture subservient to the logic of the State, which many from Cavanaugh to Giddens to Zizek agree is one of violence and domination. In short, expressing one's loyalty to the state, is to subject himself to a way of life contrary to the example laid down by Jesus, the founder of the Church.

However, if one really lives out the hymn and "Stand[s] for God", then ultimate loyalty must lie in the Church that Christ founded, the locus of which lies in the Altar on which the Eucharistic Liturgy brings Christ, and his Body (ie the Church) into being. And if that is true, then the practice of signing marriage on the altar constitutes an act of recognition of the Church's subservience to the State. For the Christian, such an act must be more than an act of disrespect, as the Liturgy Lines seem to want to reduce it to. Recognising the ultimate validity of an instrument of the State on the very site on which one expresses loyalty to Christ can be nothing less than an act of treason.

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