Marriage: Church Views

views updated

Marriage: Church Views


Marriage as a Means to Salvation. In the course of the ninth century the Church struggled to develop a view of marriage based on the role it played in the order of salvation. From the outset there was an inherent tension between ecclesiastical and secular views of marriage.

The Church considered marriage inextricable from the individual soul’s quest for God and was less concerned than secular society in the importance of marriage to the wider family. As far as the Church was concerned, marriage was “the union of two in one flesh” (Gen. 2.24); it joined two souls, not two families, and it should be undertaken, not for political or economic advantage, but for spiritual reasons.

The Marriage Sacrament. From its early days the Church had attributed a mystical element to marriage, drawing an analogy between the marriage of a man and a woman and the union of Christ with the Church. Though this connection gave marriage a special spiritual quality, however, marriage was not firmly instituted as one of seven sacraments until the twelfth century. As a sacrament, marriage was considered an outward and visible sign of an inner, invisible grace. As the theology of marriage developed, this sacrament was believed to be effected by the couple themselves through their exchange of consent. The Church’s insistence on the indissolubility of marriage is based on its spiritual and sacramental nature. Those whom God had joined together, no human could separate.

Augustine’s Influence. In his important treatise De bono conugali (On the Good of Marriage), St. Augustine (354-430) developed what became the Church’s fundamental concepts of the nature, meaning, and function of marriage. Augustine argued that God had instituted marriage in the Garden of Eden and that it was the only sacrament established before the Fall from Paradise. Augustine also wrote that there were three goods inherent in marriage: the procreation of children, marital fidelity, and mutual obligation. These ideas were encorporated into all subsequent Church teachings on marriage and became the foundations for the doctrines of monogamy and indissolubility, as well as the prohibition of birth control. By the late twelfth century the Church’s theology of marriage was firmly established on the deceptively simple teaching that marriage was one of the seven sacraments and required the consent of the couple alone. The implications of this statement, however, were worked out through the development of a complex canon law that reached its final form in 1234 with the Decretals of Pope Gregory IX.

Defining a Valid Marriage. By the twelfth century, having successfully asserted its jurisdiction over marriage, the Church faced the complicated task of refining its theories and practices. One of the most serious and vexing issues was defining exactly when a valid and indissoluble marriage occurred. In other words, it needed to decide which factors or acts were essential for a marriage and which were simply customary—as well as spelling out when a couple could be sure that they were, in fact, married. Most commentators agreed that the mutual consent of the two parties was required. This consensual theory of marriage accorded with both the precepts of Roman law and the teachings of the Church Fathers. There were many questions, however, regarding the nature of this consent, especially in a period when it was expected that children would obey their parents in such matters. Linked to this concern were questions about the role of sexual relations in the formation of the marriage bond.

Gratian’s Definition. The great canonist Gratian discussed at length the issues surrounding marriage and consent in his Concordance ofDisconcordant Canons (circa 1140), a compilation of canon law better known as the Decretum. Arguing that marriage was both a spiritual union founded on mutual consent and a physical union based on sexual intercourse, Gratian saw marriage as occurring in two stages. The first was the exchange of mutual consent, indieating

the couple agreed to marry one another. This action initiated the marriage, which was subsequently perfected when the couple consummated their union through sexual intercourse. Both stages of the process were necessary to create an indissoluble marriage: neither coitus without consent nor consent with consummation resulted in marriage. For Gratian, consummation, not consent, made marriage a sacrament and henceforth indissoluble. An unconsummated marriage lacked the same force as a consummated one. Thus, after the exchange of consent, but prior to consummation, either spouse could enter religious life without the permission of the other. Moreover, if, for some reason, such as impotence, one spouse was unable to consummate the marriage, the union could be dissolved and the partner who was sexually capable could marry someone else. If the marriage had been consummated, however, even with only one act of intercourse, and the man subsequently became impotent, the union could not be dissolved. Another example of how Gratian believed consummation created a superior bond is the case of bigamy or perceived bigamy. For example, a person who had exchanged consent with someone but had not consummated the union might subsequently marry another person and consummate that relationship. The consummated union would then take precedence over the unconsummated one. Only the second union would be considered a valid marriage.

Clerical Resistence. Gratian’s teaching met with resistance from many churchmen, particularly because of the primacy he accorded to sexual relations. Clergy who were suspicious of sexual relations in particular and the pleasures of the flesh in general rejected his views, questioning how an institution as holy as marriage could require an act as base and sinful as sexual intercourse to give it validity. Moreover, according to Gratian’s theory, the marriage of Mary and Joseph, which was unconsummated, would not have been a “perfect” marriage, a notion that was absolutely unthinkable to many.

Peter Lombard’s Response. The other major twelfth-century theorist of marriage, Italian theologian Peter Lombard, came to quite a different conclusion about the formation of the marriage bond. In his theological compilation, Sententiarum libri IV (Four Books of Sentences, 1148-1151), Lombard rejected the necessity of consummation and sought to refine the understanding of consent. He argued that there were two different kinds of consent involved in marriage as it was then practiced. The first was the consent to marry found in betrothal agreements, which, he argued, was too tentative and remote to form a marriage bond. This consent, in verba de futuro (words of the future), amounted to no more than a promise to marry. What was needed to form the sacramental marriage bond were verba de presenti, words of consent in the present. The marriage ceremony included unambiguous words stating explicitly that the couple agreed they were married to one another from that moment forward; these words made a real, binding marriage. The impact of Lombard’s teaching on the consensual theory was dramatic. He gave full force to the words of the couple: “I take you as my husband”; “I take you as my wife.” Nothing else, he said, was necessary for a valid union. The blessing of a priest, the approval of family and friends, and the bestowing of a dowry were all desirable, but in the end they were extraneous.

Consent and Consummation. Subsequent Church leaders, in particular Pope Alexander III, adopted and adapted Lombard’s notion of present and future consent. Alexander III refined the consensual theory to allow the bond to be established in two ways. The first way was through the exchange of consent in words of the present tense. The second way pertained to a couple who had exchanged o fconse nt marry in words of the future tense and subsequently engaged in sexual intercourse. These two acts together, he said, also formed a valid and indissoluble marriage. In the second case, some of the emphasis that Gratian had given to consummation endured. Sexual intercourse served to ratify the future consent and transform a betrothal into a marriage.


Christopher N. L. Brooke, The Medieval Idea of Marriage (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

James A. Brundage, Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

Charles Donahue Jr., “The Policy of Alexander the Third’s Consent Theory of Marriage,” in Proceedings of the 4th Congress of Medieval Canon Law, edited by Stephan Kuttner (Vatican City: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 1976), pp. 251-281.

Frances Gies and Joseph Gies, Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages (New York: Harper & Row, 1987).

About this article

Marriage: Church Views

Updated About content Print Article