An Authentic, Catholic History of Marriage

With British bishops on the attack against proposals for gay marriage claiming that they are defending “traditional” marriage, it is important to remember that their representation of marriage history is misleading. When Mexican bishops made similar false claims about the history of marriage, I responded with a post on the history of marriage, as described by a specialist on the subject – a Catholic, Jesuit professor of history at a Catholic university.

Here follows that post, republished:

In Mexico,  Cardinal Norberto Rivera has attacked the Supreme Court ruling that upheld same sex marriage in Mexico City, calling it “evil”. It is not surprising that a Catholic bishop should oppose marriage equality, and while I sharply disagree with him, I must respect his right to express an opinion.  He also says it is wrong to go against Christian doctrine that recognizes only marriages between a man and a woman. Again, barring a quibble or two about the effect of disagreement in conscience, even as we disagree with this, it is clear that this is orthodox Catholic teaching.

However, in invoking Christ himself, he goes way too far.

He called same-sex unions “inherently immoral,” saying they “distort the nature of marriage raised by Christ to the dignity of a sacrament.”

This is sheer garbage.

Not-a-“traditional”-marriage. Giulio Rosati (1858-1917)

I am not aware of any Gospel passage that endorses marriage as been between one man and one woman. Can any reader point to me one?  Christ most certainly did not raise marriage to the dignity of a sacrament – not even the institutional church did that, until the twelfth century, after half its history had passed. Exploring this history has proven fascinating.

Compare the first two accounts I found. This is Wikipedia:

…..first-century Christians placed less value on the family but rather saw celibacy and freedom from family ties as a preferable state. Paul had suggested that marriage be used only as a last resort by those Christians that found it too difficult to remain chaste.[2]

Augustine believed that marriage was a sacrament, because it was a symbol used by Paul to express Christ’s love of the Church. Despite this, for the Fathers of the Church with their profound hostility to sex, marriage could not be a true and valuable Christian vocation. Jerome wrote: “It is not disparaging wedlock to prefer virginity. No one can make a comparison between two things if one is good and the other evil” (Letter 22). Tertullian argued that marriage “consists essentially in fornication” (An Exhortation to Chastity“) Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage said that the first commandment given to men was to increase and multiply, but now that the earth was full there was no need to continue this process of multiplication. Augustine was clear that if everybody stopped marrying and having children that would be an admirable thing; it would mean that the Kingdom of God would return all the sooner and the world would come to an end.

This negative view of marriage was reflected in the lack of interest shown by the Church authorities. Although the Church quickly produced liturgies to celebrate Baptismand the Eucharist, no special ceremonial was devised to celebrate Christian marriage, nor was it considered important for couples to have their nuptials blessed by a priest. People could marry by mutual agreement in the presence of witnesses. This system, known as Spousals, persisted after the Reformation. At first the old Roman pagan rite was used by Christians, although modified superficially. The first detailed account of a Christian wedding in the West dates from the 9th century and was identical to the old nuptial service of Ancient Rome.[3]

There are obvious difficulties with relying on Wikipedia as a source – but it does at least provide us with references to substantiate its claims. Now look at the Catholic Encyclopedia:

That Christian marriage (i.e. marriage between baptizedpersons) is really a sacrament of the New Law in the strict sense of the word is for all Catholics an indubitable truth. According to the Council of Trent this dogma has always been taught by the Church, and is thus defined in canon i, Sess. XXIV: “If any one shall say that matrimony is not truly and properly one of the Seven Sacraments of the Evangelical Law, instituted by Christ our Lord, but was invented in the Church by men, and does not confer grace, let him be anathema.”

This can do no more than quote the council of Trent, which claims that the sacramental view of marriage has “always”  been taught – totally disregarding the verdicts of church fathers such as Tertullian, quoted above. On marriage as on so much else, the Vatican likes to refer to a “constant and unchanging tradition”, or to claim that it has “always taught”. These claims are seldom supported by real evidence, and must be received with scepticism.

Then I found an impressive on-line history of marriage , in a lengthy outline by Stephen Schloesser, a Jesuit priest and professor of history, which he submitted to Massachusetts Senator Marian Walsh in 2004, during the turmoil in that state over gay marriage. Here are some extracts  – the introduction, and (mostly) just a summary of the main paragraph headings:

Maybe the most frustrating thing I have heard in the recent debate is this claim that has become a mantra: that we are in the process of changing some allegedly unchanging 3,000-year-old institution called “marriage.” Of course, the decision to grant marriage licenses would be a “change” in marriage practice – but“marriage,” whatever that is, is always in the process of being changed. To pretend that its alteration is somehow a rupture in what is otherwise a three-thousand year continuity is just silly.

It seems helpful to me to recall what traditional marriage is: it is a community’s legal arrangement in order to pass on property. In it, a male acquires (in the sense of owning and having sovereignty over) a female for the sake of reproducing other males who will then inherit property.

In Roman law, the authority of the paterfamilias over his wife and children was absolute, even to the point of death. (Even during the enlightenment), Catholic reactionaries opposed the idea of women and children having independent rights and insisted that puissance paternelle (the absolute power of the father) was rooted in nature.

In Judaism, polygyny is found throughout the Old Testament until the inter-testamental period.In general, a survey of traditional Old Testament marriage makes the reader very grateful that we are not bound to follow its precedents or precepts.

Early Christianity was really not into marriage. St Paul counseled his followers: “It is better not to marry.” Augustine (following St. Paul) counsel ed marriage as a remedy for concupiscence – i.e., satisfying male sexual desire in a non-sinful way.In general, during the early medieval Church, all sex is a problem, and all sex is equally a problem.

Marriage, both in the Roman and the early medieval periods, was the moment that marked the passing of the rights over a woman from her father to her husband. She wasn’t a person under the law.

Serial polygyny was regularly practiced by early medieval kings famous for their Christian piety. Their marital practices did not trouble the Church. Concubinage was also widely practiced among the European elite, and this practice was unproblematic, even in the eleventh century. Divorce was also completely unproblematic until the twelfth century.

In the twelfth century, the idea of marriage as a “sacrament” – i.e., as something fundamentally regulated by the Church – was established along with priestly celibacy and primogeniture.

The simultaneous appearance of these practices shows the way in which the preservation of property suddenly became an issue of great anxiety: celibacy prevented church property from passing on to priests’ wives and children; primogeniture insured that property remain intact as it passed on to only the eldest son; and Church surveillance of marriages made sure that an authority larger than, say, the most powerful warrior / aristocratic families on the block, was overseeing the passing on of dowries – e.g., Eleanor’s region of the Aquitaine. Women became the means of medieval corporate mergers: families consolidated power and property, both by means of dowries as well as by being the producers of male heirs.

Marriage as an “emotional unit” as opposed to an “economic unit” was largely an invention of the early nineteenth century. Bourgeois marriage was a classbound arrangement.

Conversely, for the males, prostitution is seen as an integral part of the new arrangement of marriage.

Divorce, finally legalized again in France in the 1880s, emancipated men but perhaps not women unless they had reserved some independent means. It too was part of the new emotional understanding of marriage, i.e., as something not arranged by parents but rather entered into partly because of emotional desires.

It is hardly coincidental: this is also the period during which the idea of “homosexuality” – and then, later, “heterosexuality” – was invented.

Catholic ideas about marriage and sexuality are in constant conversation with the wider society/culture’s evolving values and needs.

As late as the Code of Canon Law of 1917, the official position continued to be depressingly materialist: the purpose of marriage was considered to be “procreation,” while a secondary end was a “remedy for concupiscence.”

This genuinely two-millennia-old view changed on New Year’s Eve, 1930.(following the Lambeth Conference decision to approve contraception). The papal encyclical Casti Connubii introduced a fairly shocking innovation: one of marriage’s “second ends” was the “unity” between the spouses.The 19th-c. invention of marriage as an “emotional unit” in which two persons came together not merely to procreate but in order to form a sphere of emotional support – a thoroughly modern meaning of marriage – was accepted by the papacy.

On October 29, 1951 came a second important innovation in Catholic views. In one of the most insignificant settings possible – i.e., not an encyclical or synod but rather an address to Italian midwives -Pius XII suggested that couples, as long as they did not use “artificial” contraception, could arrive at a moral decision to be sexually active in a way that did not lead to procreation.

Between the years of approximately 1948 to 1963, the Catholic bishops of New England lobbied furiously against the legalization of contraception. John Ford, a Jesuit moral theologian who was the most aggressive proponent of the anticontraception stance (and taught in Weston, Mass.) admitted letter that the “natural law” argument had failed; if the point of “natural law” arguments was to convince any “rational person” (unlike, e.g., Scripture, which would convince only a religious believer), and if all these rational persons were rejecting the Catholic position, then what did that say about the law’s “natural” aspect? Eventually, the bishops abandoned this fight and made a distinction between public policy and personal religious practice.

To summarize: when one compares the 1917 Catholic view of marriage – “procreation” as a primary end, “a remedy for concupiscence” as a secondary end – with the 1969 view expressed in both the Vatican Council and encoded in canon law – “the community of the whole life” that includes both the “unbreakable compact between persons” as well as the “welfare of the children,” one can see that the change in Catholic doctrine and law has been nothing short of astonishing.

The full piece is the most useful outline of marriage history and the church I have come across.  I have selected here only the bits that refer specifically to the history of Christian marriage. There is much more on marriage in other cultures, and on the church and homosexuality. I strongly urge that you read it in full – or download or bookmark it for future reference, as I have done.

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5 comments for “An Authentic, Catholic History of Marriage

  1. colkoch
    August 9, 2010 at 1:20 pm

    This is a great read Terence, and not just for the history of marriage. I also think with the primacy of male concupisence in the historical thinking, that it explains quite a bit about the opposition to birth control. Same argument Benedict uses for condoms–they increase ‘risk’ taking behavior in males.

    It’s amazing to me how little concern there is for women in all of this history. The argumentation is all male all the way. The sentence about marriage as a property exchange to produce sons is so stark in it’s attitude towards women. Historically women count for nothing except their ability to produce sons. It’s really sad to think Anglicanism exists because of one woman’s inability to fulfill this ‘natural’ task. This is a founding charism based on a leader which is right up there with the Legionaires.

    • August 9, 2010 at 7:04 pm

      There is indeed a great deal in this, Colleen, that goes way beyond just the lessons on marriage that I pulled out. I have taken a copy of the full piece, to read and re-read again. In addition to the direct lessons on sexual behaviour, it also says a lot about how Church teaching develops – and is misrepresented.

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