My Catholic Vision of Marriage.

Tomorrow, Catholic priests across England and Wales will read to their parishioners a statement from Archbishops Vincent Nichols and Peter Smith, presented as “the Catholic vision of marriage”. I respect and value the rational, courteous tone of this letter, which stands in such sharp contrast with some other bishops’ pronouncements, but for all that, it remains a deeply flawed document. It is a misrepresentation to describe it as  “the Catholic vision of marriage” . It may be their vision of marriage, it may be the orthodox Vatican vision of marriage, but it is assuredly not “the” Catholic vision, or even that of the majority of Catholics vision. It is instead, the view of Catholic bishops, based on abstract reasoning derived originally from outdated moral theology manuals. Other Catholics, those with real – world experience of committed, loving relationships, see things differently.

I have no desire to argue with their case point by point. Rather, I want to set out an alternative Catholic view of marriage, my view. I do not claim that this is “the” view of all Catholics, or even any particular defined group of Catholics – but I suspect it is one that many Catholics in the real world will recognize.

The “Purpose” of Marriage.

Why do people marry? Let us consider the thought process of those considering it. Couples contemplating  marriage do not typically begin their journey to marriage by thinking “I want children. Let’s get married”. In practice, the process is more likely to be, “I’m devoted to you, I want to support and make you happy, I want to live with you forever (or possibly, we’re already living together), let’s get married. ” Thereafter, will come questions and decisions about children. (Historically, marriage was seen as commencing when the couple began to live together in a committed relationship. The public wedding came later, often only when children were on the way. Marriage followed procreation, and modern cohabiting couples in trial marriages are in much greater conformity with truly traditional  marriage than those in the nineteenth and twentieth century form, widely but mistakenly defended and misrepresented now as “traditional”.

The “purpose” of marriage for most couples, the reasons for entering it, are most likely to be its emotional value – what the Church calls its “unitive” value – and as a public declaration of commitment.

The Unitive value in Church Teaching

The unitive value of marriage is supported by some important church statements from the twentieth century. The Papal Encyclical of 1931,” Casta Conubi“,  made clear that alongside the procreative value of marriage, the unitive value, for mutual emotional support, is equally important. Later, a 1951 speech by Pius XII to Italian midwives observed that as long as “artificial” contraception was avoided, married persons could arrive at a moral decision to be sexually active in a way that did lead to contraception. Then in 1969, the Vatican Council decreed,

Marriage to be sure is not instituted solely for procreation; rather, its very nature as an unbreakable compact between persons, and the welfare of the children, both demand that the mutual love grow and ripen. Therefore, marriage persists as a whole manner and communion of life, and maintains its value and indissolubility, even when despite the often intense desire of the couple, offspring are lacking,

-Gaudium et Spes, para 50

Protecting Property

Before the twentieth century, there was another overriding reason for marriage: for most of Western history, before the idea of “emotional” marriage developed in the nineteenth century, the primary reason for marriage was financial, to protect and provide for the ordered transfer of property of the wealthy classes. For the poor, there was no real need for marriage – and the church did not insist on it.

“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; not just rights over her property, but her mind (protection/ brideprice), that is both the obligations to protect her, and, if something bad happened, rights to any fines that accrued from her death or injury. In other words, she wasn’t a person under the law: instead, she was first and foremost her father in law, and then her husband. Thus, when a man and a woman committed adultery, the woman was executed (for committed a sin) and the man paid a fine to the husband for contravening his property rights.

Sacramental Marriage, Virgin Marriage

Long before the Church saw the purpose of marriage as procreation, it was seen as a sacramental union which mirrored and symbolized God’s own unions with God’s people. One strand of early thinking was that it was best to avoid all sex and any possibility of children. Some saints, not wanting to lose out on the sacramental value of marriage, entered into virgin marriages, forgoing all sex. But these were still described as “marriage”. The church itself has constantly redefined marriage, over many centuries. In these marriages, procreation is clearly not the “purpose”. Bishop Fulton J Sheen was singing their praises, even as late as 1952:


Today the vow of virginity is taken only outside of human espousals or marriage, but among some Jews and among some great Christian Saints, the vow of virginity was sometimes taken along with espousals. Marriage then became the frame into which the picture of virginity was placed. Marriage was like a sea on which the bark of carnal union never sailed, but one from which one fished the sustenance for life.

There are some marriages where there is no unity of the flesh, because the flesh has already been sated and dulled. Some partners abandon passion only because passion has abandoned them. But there are also marriages wherein, after a unity of the flesh, couples have mutually pledged to God a sacrifice of the thrill of unity in the flesh for the sake of the greater ecstasies of the spirit. Beyond both of these, there is a true marriage where the exercise of the right to another’s body is annulled — and even the desire of it; such is the marriage of two persons with the vow of virginity. It is one thing to give up the pleasures of married life because one is jaded with them, and quite another to give up the pleasures before they are ever experienced. Here the marriage is of the heart and not of the flesh; it is a marriage such as the stars have, whose light unites in the atmosphere although the stars themselves do not; a marriage like the flowers in the garden in springtime, who give forth perfume, although they themselves do not touch; a marriage like an orchestration, where a great melody is produced but where one instrument is without contact with the other. Such a marriage was actually the type of marriage which took place between the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph, one in which the right to another was surrendered for a higher purpose. The marriage bond does not necessarily imply carnal union. As St. Augustine says: “The basis of married love is the attachment of hearts.” 

-Fulton J Sheen, at Catholic Tradition

Yes, “Catholic Tradition” denies that the only purpose of marriage is procreation.

For the Sake of the Children

We do not need marriage in order to create children. Humans are perfectly capable of that without the benefit of formal marriage – and do it in large numbers. We need marriage to protect them. (Part of the point of marriage as protection of property rights, included protection of inheritance rights for legitimate children – and a means of identifying which children were legitimate.

There is no longer as much social stigma, and no legal disadvantage,  attached to illegitimacy as there once was, but some prejudice still exists. I take it as axiomatic that in general children do best when they are raised by their own biological parents, but this is not always the case.  Some marriages break down, some parents die, some parents are found by social welfare agencies to be unfit to be raising children. A substantial number of children are raised by only one biological parent and a partner, or by two non-biological parents. Research has shown that these children do better socially and emotionally when the couple are raising them are legally married: whether the couple are of the same sex, or of opposite sexes, is of no material difference. In some jurisdictions, there are also clear financial benefits to families where the parents are legally married – and financial benefits to families, are passed on the children.

This is why, when the Catholic Governor of  Maryland, Martin O’Malley, could say when he advocated for marriage equality, that he was doing it “for the sake of the children”.

Catholic Values

Martin O’Malley was one of three Catholic governors, alongside Andrew Cuomo (New York) and Chris Gregoire (Washington) who have worked hard over the past year  to support gay marriage. In all these states, Catholics have been prominent campaigners alongside the governors. In Maine and New Hampshire, two more Catholics signed marriage equality legislation. In every poll I have seen, for the US or elsewhere, in which religion was broken out on the cross-tabs, Catholics have supported gay marriage in greater numbers than others. In the countries where gay marriage is now available by law or de facto by court decisions,  Belgium, Canada, Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Brazil and Mexico have majority or near majority Catholic populations. Why?

I believe it is because marriage equality is in accordance with two really important Catholic values: the importance of family, and the principle of equality, justice and inclusion of the marginalised and oppressed.

Freedom of Religion

Catholic teaching is clear that there should be freedom of religion.  We should all be free to practice our faiths without interference from others, and we in turn should not impose our religious views on those of other faiths.

The Catholic view of marriage is clear: only marriages conducted in a Catholic church, by a Catholic priest, or with dispensation to be married elsewhere, are valid. Marriages conducted elsewhere, and particularly civil marriages, are not recognized as valid. For consistency, the Catholic Church should not be drawing any distinction on civil marriages conducted between opposite sex or same- sex couples, as these have nothing at all to do with the Catholic Church: neither are recognized as valid Catholic  marriages.

Outside the Catholic church and civil marriage, an expanding number of denominations and local congregations are asking for the legal right to conduct gay weddings. In Sweden and Iceland, and soon in Denmark, same-sex church weddings are conducted as freely as the civil equivalent, or as opposite – sex weddings. In the UK, the Quakers, the MCC, Reform Jews and some other groups have lobbied government to do the same, so as to offer marriage ceremonies to all their members without discrimination, in accordance with Gospel principles of equality and inclusion. In the US, the United Church and some Episcopal dioceses already conduct same – sex marriages, notably the wedding last year of two senior lesbian priests, who were married in Boston cathedral by the Archbishop. US Lutherans, Presbyterians and Methodists all have regular debates in General Assemblies, moving towards same – sex marriage, in church.

Catholic bishops are fully entitled to set the rules for who may marry in a Catholic church – just as they presently do, requiring that at least one partner must be Catholic. But to impose their regulations on civil marriages, in which they have no legitimate interest, or on other denominations which want to practice equality and inclustion as Christian Gospel values, is to contravene the important Catholic principle of freedom of religion.


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5 comments for “My Catholic Vision of Marriage.

  1. Chris Morley
    March 10, 2012 at 6:09 pm

    Terence – Thanks for this clear and well explained perspective. I hadn’t appreciated quite how many different Catholic ways there are to look at gay marriage.

    I particularly value your point that the Bishops’ pastoral letter provides just one (of many) Catholic perspectives on marriage, your real world emphasis on why people decide to marry these days (to share an intimate supportive life together, with any babies secondary), your pointing out the sometimes strange varieties of Christian marriages, and the practical public demonstrations of support for gay marriage equality shown by contemporary prominent Catholics (such as Governors in US States).   

    You make a telling point when you say that since the Catholic Church disregards civil marriages, it really should not make such a fuss about those for gay couples, because in the Church’s eyes neither heterosexual nor gay civil marriages count.

    [A very minor factual detail, under ‘Catholic Values’ you list several countries where same sex marriage is now available which “have majority or near majority Catholic populations”, and include the Netherlands.
    It’s certainly true that the largest religious denomination are Catholics, but RC people are now only about a quarter of the Netherlands’ population. My long familiarity with the Netherlands made me doubt your wording.
    I’ve not checked the other countries for whether Catholics are close to 50% but I suspect Canada will be well below 50%.]

    (It’s my long experience in needing to challenge inaccurate media reporting of HIV statistics that has made me hawk-eyed for precision in statistical wording).

    • March 10, 2012 at 11:24 pm

      Thanks for the correction, Chris (now fixed). I really appreciate your careful attention to fact checking. I sometimes get sloppy with details, especially when I’ve been under pressure, as I was today.


      I had checked all of these myself some time ago

    • Luke
      March 11, 2012 at 7:31 pm

      “Provides just one of many”- no Mr Morley you are wrong. The teaching of the Bishops is the teaching of the Church so therefore is the official Catholic perspective.

  2. Luke
    March 11, 2012 at 2:08 pm

    “It is not “the” Catholic view of marriage”- yes it is “the” Catholic teaching. Catholic teaching is determined by the Pope or church council not by laity. I am personally glad that + Nicholas has finally decided to stand up for the teaching of the church on marriage.

  3. Robert Eccles
    March 11, 2012 at 2:33 pm

    Well, after the morning Masses here in Cambridge it was clear that some people at least felt affirmed in their own married lives. They recognized their own understanding of Christian marriage and liked the serene and non-judgmental tone of the letter. The issues were somehow opened up, and we could pray that discussion be informed and be carried on in a climate of mutual understanding and respect. The presiding priest (me) could make the point that genuine selfless love is always a grace and a blessing, wherever it is found.  And an elderly lady came up and said that she found wonderful affection and happiness in gay couples and the whole Church should be celebrating that.

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