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Humanist Weddings: a Solution to the Crisis of Traditional Marriage in Europe? by Hélène de Lauzun

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Humanist Weddings: a Solution to the Crisis of Traditional Marriage in Europe?

“Not so Catholics”… 

It was under this provocative title that the French newspaper Le Monde analysed, in the spring of 2019, a practice that is now well entrenched: non-practicing Catholics getting married in Catholic churches. A significant 56% of couples, absent of religious conviction, had their marriages officiated by priests. The survey had been carried out in 2014 by the National Institute of Demographic Studies (INSEE), the article states. 

This means that more than one in two couples chose a “church union,” with little investment in the Catholic faith, let alone the Church’s teaching on marriage and family. The survey provides an important data point that reinforces what is suspected: that the number of sanctified marriages is decreasing. For those couples who do choose a church, the proportion of mixed religion marriages may play a role in the lackluster numbers. Out of 50,657 marriages in 2017, both spouses were Catholic for only 42,019 of them. 

One could choose to read this statistic with optimism: more than one couple out of two “still” feel that the Republican gestures in the marriage room of the town hall are not enough to consolidate their union, and that a passage in front of the priest and the altar is necessary. There is, deeply buried in the heart of these couples, a thirst for the absolute that the materiality of a secular ceremony cannot quench. They still have the confused and tenacious feeling that there is something too intense in the love that unites them to be entrusted solely to the vigilance of the administration, especially when we know how easily divorces are concluded today, by “mutual consent,” as the distressing and exquisite official formula goes. The importance of the value of “fidelity,” which is voted year after year as an ideal of fulfillment in opinion polls, is also not unrelated to this feeling: that without the aid of the benevolent divine, the eternity of love might very well remain an unattainable horizon. 

The article in Le Monde gently attributes the “church wedding” phenomenon to the tastes of brides, who long for “beautiful decor” and “beautiful surroundings.” But what it misses is the claim that rich symbolism, embedded into Church art and architecture, still has on fallen-away Catholics. Such symbols have an enduring life. Today we live in a house on a housing estate, or in a modern flat with a double-glazed window, but we long for small country churches. A country church is a haven of peace in the hustle and bustle of modern life. It has a feeling of eternity. The wooden pews, the old-fashioned statues seem to have always been there. The cross and the incense are natural witnesses to the infinite love of God, which will protect human love. 

The same goes for the bride’s unique adornment. Today, women run around in jeans all day, and sometimes live with their partner for ten years before taking the plunge of getting engaged. On their wedding day though, they want to wear a beautiful long dress—a white and whirling one if possible. Far be it for us to giggle about it, or judge the vanity of these little girl’s dreams. Behind the choice for a lavish wedding gown, there are authentic and noble aspirations, a search for Beauty, a gesture towards the Good and the True. Indeed, a Romanesque nave whose architecture is polished by the centuries, or spray of lilies falling on a wooden bench and a red velvet armchair, pay better homage to the immensity of the love that unites a man and a woman, than a folding chair made of melamine particles in a backroom of a city hall. 

Fortunately, these strong images, like a faint voice of conscience, are still present in the hearts of 21st century brides and grooms. 

So there is still “something” of centuries of evangelisation, like embers under the ashes. The danger, however, is to be satisfied with this “something” and to consider it sufficient in itself. The question deserves to be asked: why get married in church when you don’t practice? 

The challenge is immense for priests, who today find themselves celebrating marriages that have little to do with the sacrament of marriage. The clergy sometimes seem to be content with this: the concern for the lowest common denominator will prevail in marriage preparation, with the obsession of “not closing the door,” “not imposing,” “not disturbing.” In concrete terms, what does it mean? A dilution of the Christian message. It’s not unusual in these ceremonies that key elements are missing, for example, dispensing with the celebration of the Eucharist, in order “not to shock,” and eliminating the word “Christ.” 

All kinds of fantasies are accepted in the service of the subjectivity and personal history of the couple—as in the case of a couple who chose the soundtrack of the film Twilight, an American blockbuster featuring the love affair between a human and a rebellious vampire, as their music during Mass, with the blessing of the priest: “if it pleases them.” Personalization is rampant: many brides and grooms imagine that everything in the religious ceremony is adaptable and flexible, just like the catering. And if the priest refuses to accept the most outlandish demands, they can always go elsewhere. 

The article in Le Monde cites the testimony of a priest in the Beaujolais region of Burgundy who agreed to hold a secular wedding in his church. “He ended up agreeing to celebrate a secular wedding in his church, a “celebration of love” for which he was to be the simple master of ceremonies in street clothes. “He did not declare us husband and wife, but we were able to enter to the tune of Buena Vista Social Club. We read a text by Lynda Lemay while exchanging our rings, and we went out to the sound of Sinsemilia,” the couple said with delight. The spouses will be able to openly declare that they were “married in a church.” The concept of church-decor is thus brought to its paroxysm, and the church is relegated to the rank of a possible option, one venue among many, in the catalogue of the wedding-planner. 

Indeed, these formal accommodations are not sustainable solutions, and greatly weaken the meaning of Christian marriage. 

What is the next step? The phenomenon of American-style, secular ceremonies should not be overlooked. We meet under a flowery canopy, in a park, or at the beach. We read two or three beautiful texts, we exchange eternal vows in clumsy and mawkish words, we create a romantic moment that will only have meaning for us. In such cases, there is no need for a Romanesque church, and no need for a priest—but it is nicer than the city hall. 

The phenomenon is exploding. Even countries with a strong Catholic tradition, such as Ireland and Poland, have not escaped the fashion for so-called “humanist marriages.” What is behind this expression of “humanist marriages?” By choosing this type of ceremony, the brides seek to reconnect to what is essential, free from pretence and hypocrisy. These weddings are novel ways to conduct a “humanist” search for truth and authenticity–which is in fact only a mirage. They are, instead, the triumph of subjectivism. 

In Poland, marriage in the Catholic Church is perceived by many couples as a dated and hypocritical ceremony, a pure social convention. But as the alternative, civil marriage, is considered aesthetically and symbolically uninspiring, other paths are being explored. Since 2015, civil marriage ceremonies are also possible outside of the registry office. However, this entails an additional payment of 1,000 zloty (€218), and the chosen venue must be in accordance with the solemnity of the occasion to ensure that the wedding retains its ceremonial nature. If the official decides that the chosen site does not fulfill these conditions, he may refuse to hold the wedding there. Those ceremonies remain an extremely small minority, but they are indicative of a crisis in traditional marriage.

In Scotland, the movement is far from anecdotal. Humanist marriages have been legally recognised since 2005, and their number now exceeds that of Christian marriages. In 2019, humanist ceremonies made up 23% of the country’s weddings, compared to 22% for Christian ones. In the Republic of Ireland, they gained legal recognition in 2012 and in 2019 around 9% of legal marriages were humanist, placing the Humanist Association of Ireland only behind the Catholic Church and civil marriages.

Roots of the Christian marriage crisis in Europe go deep. Christian teachings on couples and marriage are not easy to hear; they go against so many of the presuppositions of contemporary hedonism that they are nearly inaudible. Nevertheless, diluting them to homeopathic-sized doses, where the values of Christian marriage remain in trace, but without the presence of the active principle, have failed. 

Fidelity, in theory, still figures in the ideal horizon of couples who knock on the door of churches to ask for marriage. However, the indissolubility advocated by the Christian doctrine of marriage—at least for Catholics—is less self-evident because the right to divorce is now considered as non-negotiable, creating a “safety net” state of mind in the married couple: they can commit themselves now because they know that there is always a way out later, and this is reassuring. Conditions are laid that guarantee the fragility of the union, it runs the risk of retracting the total gift of one to the other. 

We are now at the heart of the matter—the gift of one person to another. This teaching, of the whole and complete, freely gifted person, directly relates to the Church’s teachings on contraception and abortion, a topic too vast to take up here. What often goes overlooked, the bridge that is often forgotten, between gifted spouses and children and fidelity, is the matter of consent.

Freedom of consent is a pillar of Christian marriage. It is perhaps the most obvious and easiest to respect, and the least so. Indeed, it is commonly admitted that nowadays couples are free to marry whomever they choose. The era of marriages of interest, of social, family and patrimonial logic, of the guardianship of parents thinking for themselves of their children’s happiness, has been over for generations. We are—the argument goes—now free to marry for love

But how many couples who choose to marry for love are really free to consent? On the one hand, there is no longer any parental pressure—even if, let us not delude ourselves, sociological logics are still very present, albeit in new forms. On the other hand, there are other kinds of pressure—insidious and extremely strong. 

Cohabitation before marriage is the first of these. What freedom exists within a couple who have been living together and having sexual relations for several years? The carnal union creates infinitely powerful emotional and physical dependencies that obviously alter decision-making. And when cohabitation lasts for a long time, beyond the physical attachment, there is also a formidable force of habit which means that marriage ends up imposing itself as a weary evidence rather than as a constructed choice. 

For couples who have not necessarily taken the step of cohabitation, the question of freedom arises in other forms. How many couples have a truly free period of engagement before marriage, i.e., one that is always open to the possibility of being broken off, however painful that may be? Is it possible to break, if needed, an engagement that everyone expects and that has already been crystallised in all its social forms—invitations, dress, photographer—even before the exchange of consent? 

The reconquest of freedom is certainly at the heart of the specificity of Christian marriage, which for centuries has been one of the original features and strengths of Western civilisation. In the wreckage that marriage has become, the attraction of the powerful symbolic framework represented by the Church remains an immense asset for young couples preparing for marriage to find the path to a lasting and sacred union. Even when we remain silent and no longer transmit the message of the true meaning of matrimony, Christian stones continue to express the sense of transcendence that we need so much. Too many compromises and accommodations accepted by religious institutions would sign the death warrant of Christian marriage in its nobility and grandeur. A weak and muffled message is not effective. 

The duty falls on the faithful to bear ardent and demanding witness to the adequacy of the message of the Christian union between a man and a woman under the eyes of God. Today, the choice of religious marriage can more than ever be a choice against the tide, contrary to what it is accused of being: no longer a simple convention, but a courageous and daring choice.

Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).

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