What is Marriage?: Part I

Editor’s Note: This is a first in a series of articles to explore the American Bishops’ Pastoral Letter, “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan.” Read Part II here, Part III here, Part IV here, and Part V here.

“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.” (Gen 1: 26-27: RSV-CE).

In the beginning was marriage. It was part of the creator’s plan from the commencement of all ages. It was the way through which God wished not only to continue the race of men which He had created, but to reveal the very mystery of His inner life in the Trinity.

Men and women were created with complete, but at the same time complementary, natures. In a very real way, men and women were made for each other in both nature and spirit. The necessity for love and unity is built into the nature of mankind, and it is intimately connected with the fruitfulness of family life. Indeed, as we shall see, the union towards which men and women are called is inseparable from the manifestation of that very love’s fruitfulness: children and the creation of society’s most basic unit, the family.

Of all of the gifts that God bestowed on humanity at the time of its creation, supernatural, preternatural, and natural, nearly all was lost by the disobedience of Adam when, as representative head of the human race, he succumbed to pride and ate the fruit offered by his helpmate Eve.

Men and women united in love were united in the first sin and their relationship was consequently damaged. Yet, as the Nuptial Blessing given at all wedding Masses in the Latin rite alludes, married love — unitive and fruitful — alone was not lost, of all the superlative gifts of God, destroyed neither by original sin, nor washed away by the purifying flood. Indeed one might say that this married love alone, though damaged and distorted in many manifestations, saw humanity through the long dark night that covered the preparation of the salvation of the messiah. Throughout the Old Testament from the Psalms to the prophet Hosea, from the Song of Solomon to the story of Tobit, marriage kept returning, a recurring theme of the faithful lover who had not abandoned His spouse.

When Christ came He came not only to teach and to heal, but also to restore. He renewed for men and women the vision of God first articulated in the Garden, a vision of married love shocking to His contemporaries because of its purity and holiness. It was the vision of the Male and Female, as one flesh, inseparable, keeping for one another not only their bodies unsullied but also their minds, solely for one another.

Marriage had been renewed, but Christ had not yet finished. Marriage was to be elevated from merely the good natural outcome of tendencies built into the human person, but it was to be raised, to become a supernatural sign of the union and love of Christ for His bride, the Church. It was to be a sign that became a sacrament, an occasion of grace, one of the precious channels of divine life left by Christ to His Church.

Not content with simply teaching an elevated, heavenly doctrine of marriage, not content with even leaving the most powerful example of spousal love ever given, he further enriched Christian marriage with sanctifying grace, fortifying it and strengthening it against all the challenges that would arise against it, from the ancient world to the present day.

Since the beginning of the Church, faithful married love has been a witness, a testimony of the holiness that Christ intended for it. Since St. Paul outlined his vision of marriage as the symbol of Christ and His Church, faithful Christian marriage has stood out in every society that Christians have been a part of.

Since the beginning, the Church has defended it as well. No one has been stronger proponents of the sacredness of marriage than the Roman popes, from St. Calixtus in the third century, to St. Nicholas I in the ninth, to Clement VII in the sixteenth, and to the popes of the previous 100 years, the papacy and the episcopacy has been at the forefront of attempts to defend marriage from those who would wish to challenge the words of Christ.

It always astonishes me, as a Church historian, of the charges made by contemporary thinkers over the last 50 years or so, that marriage has damaged women’s freedom, that it has impaired and impeded their success, and that it has reduced them to the status of second-class citizens. It reminds me of the revolutionary character of marriage in the early Church.

I will make the perhaps audacious claim that no institution has ever done more for women’s rights and dignity than the Roman Catholic Church.

At the time Christ articulated His vision of marriage (which is God’s vision) women were forced into marriages against their will. They had no say. They had no choice over their intended spouses (often indeed the young men did not either). There were no other options than fulfilling the wish of the head of the family. If their spouses later became disinterested, they could be cast away like discarded property in divorce.

Three things revolutionized marriage and human society, courtesy of Christ and his Church.

The first: no one could be forced into a Christian marriage. Both parties had freely to consent.  This is because spouses take vows, and the Church recognized that any vow not taken freely was no vow at all. Therefore both parties were required to be free to contract marriages, to contract them with no compulsion on either side, and were therefore more free to make their choice of partners.

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This reminds me of the beginning of Romeo and Juliet, when Capulet is incensed that Juilet will not consent to marry. Capulet needs her consent, she cannot be married without it. In a real sense Christianity neutralizes outside powers, requiring freedom of its young as a precondition to real marriages. It is also why the priest in Romeo and Juilet marries them, all he needs is their freely manifested consent (we will discuss other issues surrounding consent in a later consideration).

Second, for the first time in history, women were free not to marry. Since their free consent was needed, they could not be forced into it. They could choose to remain virgins and perhaps join convents, just as young men could vow continence and enter monasteries. This opened up a whole new world of possibility, freedom, and education for young women.

Finally, Christ and the Christian Church forbade divorce, an unblushing rebuke to the world.  Women and men who freely entered marriage could not cast each other off. This raised the stature of women considerably, added stability to human society, and refused to give vent to publicly sanctioned adultery and human weakness. Christianity was truly a social revolution.

Donald S. Prudlo is Associate Professor of Ancient and Medieval History at Jacksonville State University in Alabama. He is also Associate Professor of Theology and Church History at Christendom. His specialty is Saints and Sainthood in the Christian Tradition, and he is the author of The Martyred Inquisitor: The Life and Cult of Peter of Verona (+1252) (Ashgate, 2008) and has recently edited The Origin, Development, and Refinement of Medieval Religious Mendicancies (Brill, 2011).
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