RECENTLY I’ve been studying up on the history of marriage – in part because of the same-sex marriage debate but also because of the Synod later this year. One thing is clear – the profile of marriage has been anything but consistent through history.
Marriage has been many things down the centuries; and this warns against a static, classicist view which insists that marriage has been understood and lived in one particular way in all times and places.
The facts suggest something messier and more dynamic than that.
The early history of marriage is wholly unclear, but Christianity at first seems simply to have followed the customs of the Hellenistic world in regulating marriage.
The New Testament suggests that Christians would have had their own understanding of what marriage was, tied in particular to the bond between Christ and the Church.
But the contractual aspects of marriage would have been determined by prevailing custom.
In the early Christian centuries, the Church was forced to affirm the good of marriage and procreation against the Gnostics who claimed that the material world and the body – and hence marriage and procreation – were evil.
The Church had to make the same affirmation some centuries later when the Manichees made the same sort of claim.
This time, it was St Augustine who led the charge against Manicheism, to which he himself had subscribed in his early life.
With the changing status of Christianity under Constantine and his successors, the Church moved more into the area of the regulation of marriage.
But with the fall of the Western Empire in the late fifth century, the Church by default began to take over the regulation of marriage such as there was. Marriage was little regulated by today’s standards; and at the time the Church was the only body capable of what regulation there was.
As Church and state came closer through this period, so too did the understandings of marriage as contract and sacrament.
These had been regarded as quite distinct; but they tended to merge as the Church took more responsibility in regulating marriage.
In the 12th century, the Church once again had to reaffirm the good of marriage and procreation – this time against another dualist heresy known as Catharism.
It was in 1184 that the Council of Verona spoke of marriage as a sacrament. The roots of this reach back into the New Testament, but this was the first time the Church had spoken solemnly and explicitly of marriage in these terms.
It was also at this time that the Church insisted on the consent of the spouses for validity, which was a big step forward, especially for women.
The process which reached a point of maturity in the Council of Verona was sealed by the Council of Trent which in 1547 affirmed marriage as a sacrament against the Reformers who rejected it.
For Martin Luther, marriage was “a worldly thing … that belongs to the realm of government”.
With the Reformation, Protestant states began to take over the regulation of marriage, so that once again marriage as contract and marriage as sacrament moved apart.
This historical process led to the Enlightenment which, with its secularist ideology, gave the state the dominant role in regulating marriage.
Against this split of throne and altar, state and Church, marriage as contract and marriage as sacrament, Pope Pius IX in 1852 and Pope Leo XIII in 1880 reaffirmed the unity of them, as European states began to introduce civil marriage through the 19th century.
This was part of the polemic that swirled between the Catholic Church and the modern world at that time.
All this provided the background to the Second Vatican Council which, drawing upon sources both biblical and personalist, spoke of marriage primarily as a covenant.
In doing so, the Council sought to transcend the polemic by offering a new way of linking contract and sacrament together in the understanding of marriage. Covenant refers to God’s faithful and exclusive love for his chosen people; and to speak of marriage as a covenant is to see nuptial love as flowing from divine love and reflecting it in the world.
In the Bible, covenant has contractual aspects but is much more; so too with marriage.
The debate about same-sex marriage has rekindled the polemic.
Same-sex marriage might be accepted as a contract regulated by the state but not as a sacrament regulated by the Church.
The only Churches or ecclesial communities which accept and even bless same-sex unions are those which reject marriage as a sacrament, at least as the Catholic Church understands it.
Same-sex marriage can be understood only on the basis of a new and more radical separation of contract and sacrament, state and Church.
This has many implications, both foreseeable and unforeseeable, short-term and long-term.
One of them may be that, if same-sex marriage is recognised by the law of the state, Catholic clergy will no longer be able to function as state-registered marriage celebrants as they have for a long time here.
This would be because the meaning of marriage as regulated by the state and the meaning of marriage as regulated by the Church would have moved so far apart that it would be extremely difficult to hold the two together.