The Myth About Marriage

Paul Collins’ recent article, An Open Letter to Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher, has attracted record numbers of readers for this blog.  The following article by Garry Wills elaborates on the ‘myth about marriage’.

In his article in the New York Review of Books on 9 May 2012, Garry Wills writes:

Why do some people who would recognize gay civil unions oppose gay marriage? Certain religious groups want to deny gays the sacredness of what they take to be a sacrament. But marriage is no sacrament.  

Some of my fellow Catholics even think that “true marriage” was instituted by Christ. It wasn’t. Marriage is prescribed in Eden by YHWH (Yahweh) at Genesis 2.24: man and wife shall “become one flesh.” When Jesus is asked about marriage, he simply quotes that passage from Genesis (Mark 10.8). He nowhere claims to be laying a new foundation for a “Christian marriage” to replace the Yahwist institution.Some try to make the wedding at Cana (John 1.1-11) somehow sacramental because Jesus worked his first miracle there. But that was clearly a Jewish wedding, like any other Jesus might have attended, and the miracle, by its superabundance of wine, is meant to show the disciples that the Messianic time has come. The great Johannine scholar Father Raymond Brown emphasizes this, and concludes of the passage: “Neither the external nor the internal evidence for a symbolic reference to matrimony is strong. The wedding is only the backdrop and occasion for the story, and the joining of the man and woman does not have any direct role in the narrative.”

The early church had no specific rite for marriage. This was left up to the secular authorities of the Roman Empire, since marriage is a legal concern for the legitimacy of heirs. When the Empire became Christian under Constantine, Christian emperors continued the imperial control of marriage, as the Code of Justinian makes clear. When the Empire faltered in the West, church courts took up the role of legal adjudicator of valid marriages. But there was still no special religious meaning to the institution. As the best scholar of sacramental history, Joseph Martos, puts it: “Before the eleventh century there was no such thing as a Christian wedding ceremony in the Latin church, and throughout the Middle Ages there was no single church ritual for solemnizing marriage between Christians.”

Only in the twelfth century was a claim made for some supernatural favor (grace) bestowed on marriage as a sacrament. By the next century marriage had been added to the biblically sacred number of seven sacraments. Since Thomas Aquinas argued that the spouses’ consent is the efficient cause of marriage and the seal of intercourse was the final cause, it is hard to see what a priest’s blessing could add to the reality of the bond. And bad effects followed. This sacralizing of the natural reality led to a demoting of Yahwist marriage, the only kind Jesus recognized, as inferior to “true marriage” in a church.

In the 1930s, my parents had a civil marriage, but my Catholic mother did not think she was truly married if not by a priest. My non-Catholic father went along with a church wedding (but in the sacristy, not the sanctuary) by promising to raise his children as Catholic. My mother thought she had received the sacrament, but had she? Since mutual consent is the essence of marriage, one would think that the sacrament would have to be bestowed on both partners; but my non-Catholic father could not receive the sacrament. Later, when my father left and married another, my mother was told she could not remarry because she was still married to my father in the “true marriage.” When he returned to my mother, and became a Catholic, a priest performed again the sacramental marriage. Since my father’s intervening marriage was “outside the church,” it did not count. What nonsense.

Those who do not want to let gay partners have the sacredness of sacramental marriage are relying on a Scholastic fiction of the thirteenth century to play with people’s lives, as the church has done ever since the time of Aquinas. The myth of the sacrament should not let people deprive gays of the right to natural marriage, whether blessed by Yahweh or not. They surely do not need—since no one does—the blessing of Saint Thomas.

Garry Wills is an American author, journalist and historian, specialising in American history, politics and religion, especially the history of the Catholic Church.  He was a Pulitzer prize winner in 1993. 


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6 Responses to The Myth About Marriage

  1. Peter Johnstone says:

    “Those who do not want to let gay partners have the sacredness of sacramental marriage are relying on a Scholastic fiction of the thirteenth century to play with people’s lives” – that’s the heart of it unless you want to condemn and belittle people of different God-given sexuality, which is clearly counter to Jesus’ teaching to love one another. Let’s get on with it: marriage equality is a necessary step to remove an unjust discrimination.

    • David Upton says:

      Exactly, let’s get on with it. I commend you as a Christian to endorse what many, if not most christians would not care to endorse

  2. Cathy Taggart says:

    My reason for favouring gay civil unions over gay marriage is very different from the one discussed here. In fact, I could accept same-sex Christian marriage, as in my view its main role is to enable the spouses to support each other in their discipleship. But when it comes to natural marriage, it seems glaringly obvious that there is a SIGNIFICANT difference between gay and straight relationships, and this difference should be recognised. I’m referring, of course, to the potential of the male-female union to produce a new human being. Yes, I’m aware that not all hetero couples reproduce, but could you ever find a definition for marriage (or anything) that fits absolutely every case? Since we’ve been hearing a lot about love during the campaign to legalise gay marriage, if the campaign is successful, will it no longer be legally possible to marry for money or any reason other than love? At the very least, I think my concern is a valid reason for opposing same-sex marriage that has nothing to do with homophobia!

  3. Dr John CARMODY says:

    Ms Taggart writes, “I’m aware that not all hetero couples reproduce”, but this ought to be “CAN reproduce” because in this era of far greater longevity, many people are marrying at a life when they and every celebrant would be well aware that reproduction is frankly IMPOSSIBLE. Does that mean that, in the Catholic Church, they are precluded from marriage? The evidence shows that very many such marriages are conducted and “sanctified”.
    Plainly, that criterion should be abandoned. And if it were, another casuistic “obstacle” to a same-sex union would be disposed of.
    A little anthropology would also dispose of a lot of the self-serving episcopal cant about children being raised in households of two women. In many societies in the past, men were careless of or indifferent to any role in the upbringing of the offspring: that was a task for women — mothers, aunts, grandmothers, sisters and the women of the extended tribe. Such societies seemed to have flourished reasonably well.
    So the churchmen’s arguments look rather threadbare. Perhaps they have persuasive grounds for their “No” position, but, if so, they have not yet deployed them.

    • David Upton says:

      To John Carmody – brilliantly put in every respect. Yes, there are many successful, healthy and well adjusted adults of today who have been raised by men only or women only, That cannot be a criterion.
      To Cathy Taggart – Why should you deprive someone of something they really love if it in no way affects you or your way of life. I’m sure you could carry on exactly as you do now, if gay marriage were enacted or not. How could it hurt you? Just let it happen, and it will all go away! Then all this damning and unhealthy dialogue will at last come to grief. How good will that be. It will not go away, possibly even grow dirtier, if it is not legalised this time.

  4. Cathy Taggart says:

    In reply to Dr Carmody: I was trying to be brief, but my short statement was meant to imply that couples may either choose not to reproduce, or they may be unable to, either because of something being physically wrong or because of the age of the bride at marriage. I just can’t help feeling that this matter of reproduction is of central importance. This is something which links us in with the world of nature, where reproducing itself is probably the single most important thing a species has to do. For most species, and of course for us as mammals, this reproduction occurs through the union of male and female Now, I DO NOT support the Church’s teaching the every sexual act has to be “open to life”, nor am I saying we have to imitate nature in every way. But for me, to put same-sex unions on the same basis as hetero ones, i.e., to make a complete disjunction between sex and reproduction, seems to be (in effect) a denial that we are part of the natural world. And it was this same sense that we are separate from the natural ecosystem that led to the present environmental crisis!
    I’m not sure I’m going to convince anyone, but I’m just hoping that people will accept that there is a LEGITIMATE reason to be concerned about the introduction of same-sex marriage, a reason other than being homophobic or having romantic ideas about marriage as we know it being created in the Garden of Eden!

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