At present, our world’s general understanding of marriage is very, very confused. What we see around us as “normal” would hardly have been seen as normal even twenty or thirty years ago. The world’s concept of marriage is in flux, and even disintegrating. One generation was repulsed by the idea of birth control and abortion. The next generation was scandalized by divorce. Folks living together scandalized the next generation. The generation after that is shocked by the idea of homosexual “marriage.” Our kids don’t know what to think. This is because folks have consciously worked to deconstruct the meaning of marriage over the years and our trust in marriage has waned in the process. Today, many people have lost faith in the institution and choose not to get married at all, and if they do choose to marry, far too many of those marriages end in failure.
To grasp this current conundrum, it is necessary for us to look back at history, because we did not get in this situation overnight. Human sin causes us to fail time and again, and we have all sinned. As modern Catholics, many of us have become cynical on the subject of marriage as well, and too often we fail to defend it, so we share culpability in all this, too. We let the world more and more define marriage for us and in so doing, we became part of the problem. So much of this present quagmire is a consequence of our having ignored our Catholic teachings on marriage, but some of it is because so many have abandoned the Catholic Faith altogether. It is hard to have a Christian understanding of marriage when the world is abandoning their faith in Jesus Christ and His Church. It is the Lord who gives us the meaning of marriage, and we should think of the Catholic Church as the sanctuary that protects this ideal of marriage. But our world is running away from faith, and has subsequently lost track of that ideal almost entirely. But in order for us to understand real Christian marriage, we must first look back to a time even before the Catholic Church existed.
Catholicism emerged from the ancient Jewish people who are our spiritual ancestors. The first book of the Hebrew Scriptures or the Old Testament of the Bible is where we learn about marriage from the beginning. Here we see that it was understood as being a partnership established between a man and a woman (Genesis 2). Please appreciate that this definition of marriage is both pre-Judaic and pre-Christian. The Bible is simply looking back and reporting this reality, not establishing it. This is why the Church can say that marriage is the oldest surviving human institution in the history of the world. This so-called “Biblical notion of marriage” was not just recognized and accepted by the Old Covenant, but even by the wider pagan culture. Our ancient ancestors, Jews and Gentiles, understood that marriage and family were the essential building blocks of all human culture.
But sometimes we forget the fundamentals of family, and we begin to imagine that society trumps marriage and can manipulate it. We begin to see marriage only as a means to build political or economic alliances, but these mere contracts (not covenants) can easily be broken. Wise people understand that marriage has built our human culture, and it is in the self-interest for a society to protect marriage and the family. But clearly, some societies fail to do so, and even today, people use the institution of marriage to garner political support, to attempt to justify sin, and to redefine changing mores. Alas, we cannot escape our own fallen human nature. And so, like today, our ancient ancestors began more and more to reduce the ideal of marriage to that of being merely a contract or a financial arrangement. Consequently, women became less and less respected, and they were given little say in their fates. Polygamy quickly became widespread, as well as divorce. As women were seen as something to be bartered or traded, it became easy for men to discard them by simply saying, “I divorce you.” The contract was broken, end of story. But our Lord declared this misconception of marriage to be an aberration outside the divine plan. His words are recalled for us in 19th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel:
Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ so that, ‘a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no man separate… And yes, because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. So I say to you, whoever divorces (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery.
Clearly, this being made “one flesh” is a unity that our Lord is declaring indissoluble. On top of this teaching by our Lord, St. Paul describes Christian marriage as clearly much more than merely a contract. Paul describes marriage as a sacred union and an act of worship that reflects the love of Christ for His Church (Ephesians 5). Marriage is a sacrament and a source of grace for the couple, the family, and the world. So, this is the Catholic understanding of marriage: one man, one woman, indissoluble, sacramental, and for the benefit of children, family, and ultimately, culture.
Now in time, with the spreading of the Gospel, this Catholic understanding of marriage slowly became the norm and then the law throughout the old empire. This hardly means that all Catholics were sinless, or that every marriage was perfect, but the Lord’s ideal of marriage was upheld. However, by the 16th century, with the rise of Protestantism, things began to change.
Succinctly put, the doctrines of Protestantism rejected the Catholic sacramental notion of marriage. Protestants were not trying to devalue marriage, but they argued that this Catholic sacramental notion of marriage was an unbiblical, overly pietistic or priestly view, and simply wrong. They insisted that marriage was just part of nature (there was nothing supernatural or spiritual about it). Protestants also rejected Catholic authority over the institution of marriage as well. While early Protestants generally praised marriage almost to a fault, they also tended to see it as something from the Old Testament, and so it was for them more contractual than it was sacramental. They believed that the Catholic Church was “unnatural” with its emphasis on celibacy, and they saw Catholics as not having a great respect for marriage. Protestants wanted to emphasize marriage, but they also downgraded it in a sense, while still clinging to a basically Christian practice of marriage. So the fathers of Protestantism, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Thomas Cranmer, all rejected the sacramental nature of marriage and moved that the state should thereafter police the institution of marriage. In such a world, it was inevitable that lawyers and judges became the new “priests” of this merely contractual notion of marriage.
But while all Protestants rejected Catholic doctrine on marriage, they did not necessarily agree even amongst themselves on what that doctrine should be. Their precise teachings on marriage differed, and in time, their doctrine even evolved considerably away from what their original founders had established. For example, in the 16th century, all Protestants rejected contraception and abortion as sinful, if not iniquitously so. Martin Luther, who started the Protestant Reformation, had been a Catholic monk and a priest who rejected celibacy, married a nun, and declared that women were not created to be virgins, but to be married, and that they ought to all be continually pregnant, for he argued this was why they existed. Martin Luther taught the world to reject Catholic authority and tradition, and that trend caught on. But soon Protestants began to reject the authority of Martin Luther, too. By dismissing the pope, there was no authoritative voice among the Protestants to speak clearly on marriage, and more and more folks felt free to define marriage essentially to suit themselves. So by the 20th century, Protestants were embracing contraception, rejecting any teaching against contraception as “weirdly Catholic.” Sadly, by embracing contraception, they also stepped onto the proverbial slippery slope which has led to abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia, and ultimately, their own extinction.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church was still maintaining that marriage was a sacrament, that it was between a man and a woman, and that it was for life (not just the life of the couple, but for the potential new life of children as well). This of course did not mean that all Catholics were living by our Church’s teachings – more and more Catholics were swept up by the secular storm and lost sight of their own Church’s doctrine. But thanks to the popes in Rome, the teachings remained intact. Bishops and priests may not have bothered to preach these doctrines. Catholic laypeople may have refused to live by them. So-called Catholic politicians may have stood in direct and public dissent to these teachings. But the Catholic doctrine held strong even as the media ridiculed the Church and mocked the papacy for being “old fashioned and out of date.” (That is the Catholic’s prophetic task, by the way – to proclaim Christ’s truth in season and out of season.) The Catholic Church is the beacon that burns on despite tempest and gale. (As a side note, divorced Protestants who want to become Catholic are often surprised to learn that they may also need an annulment – after all, as Protestants, they were not taught that marriage is a sacrament. But our Catholic understanding is that marriage between two baptized Christians, even if they are both Protestant, is a sacrament until it is declared otherwise).
Now, why does all this matter? Well, historically speaking, these relatively minor conflicts within the various Protestant teachings on marriage led us to where we are today. First of all, it is a fact that Protestantism and Nationalism arose simultaneously. Where there had been many different empires or kingdoms of fiefdoms in the Middle Ages, the new nations with their established Protestant churches began to re-configure Europe. Whereas the Catholic Church had been the unifying agent in the Middle Ages, now Europe was divided amongst itself. In this new milieu, the Catholic Church was rejected as being too international by many Protestant kings who drove the Church out of their nations by force. Subsequently, the jurisdiction over marriage was moved into the realm of their national governments. Whereas the international Catholic Church had once defined, defended, officiated over, and recorded Christian marriages – now the civil, secular governments took over that responsibility more and more, each establishing its own rules for marriages. Now again let’s be clear – initially most of those early Protestants lionized marriage and family, but they had rejected the sacramental nature of marriage and declared marriage to be a worldly thing that belonged to the realm of the secular. Clearly, they believed that their governments would always be Protestant. But Protestantism just kept changing, and the secular governments they founded remained suspicious of the papacy and of Catholic teachings. And alas, once Protestantism began to lose steam, its accompanying secularism did not.
Those same Protestant Christians established our original thirteen American colonies that eventually became our first states. So Americans had differing ideas about marriage depending on which state they lived in and which Protestant denomination held sway there. Subsequently, our U.S. government would, from the start, leave the issue of marriage and the issuing of marriage licenses to the states. And lo and behold, the states’ ideas of marriage also began to change. For example, the 17th century New England Protestants believed that marriage was only a civil contract and rejected any need of a religious ceremony; they also legalized divorce. These were Puritans, and they imagined that their government would carry on being Puritan. Those Puritans could never have imagined that their descendants would be among the first to legalize homosexual “marriage.”
In the 19th century, American Protestants had large families and divorce was rare, but by the 20th century, their birthrates had dropped significantly, no-fault divorce laws were established, and nearly half of American marriages ended in divorce. In the wake of all this, there arose groups that began to try to redefine marriage even further so that it was no longer exclusive to only heterosexual couples. This new chaotic direction alarmed our federal government so much that it passed a law in the late 20th century to try to officially limit the definition of marriage as being exclusively between one man and one woman, but it was too little too late. The ill-fated law could not even protect the most fundamental aspect of marriage from the branches of our government that simply ignored it and dismissed it out of hand. So by the turn of the century, states had begun to legalize same-sex “marriage” with presidential and judicial support, even over the protest of the majority of American voters.
All of this change meant some of the great, great, great, great grandchildren of those first Protestants were now looking at the Catholic Church with a more sympathetic view than had their ancestors. Still we might say that while some individual Protestants became less anti-Catholic over time, the more radical of their members pushed towards more and more change, and certainly the secular governments they founded tended to remain very defensive towards the papacy and of Catholic teachings. But it wasn’t just the secular governments that were changing – it was also Protestantism itself. Take, for example, their evolving understandings on sodomy. Martin Luther called it a “monstrous depravity” and even went so far as to blame the Catholic Church for introducing sodomy to the Germans – seriously – as if we invited the sin. His contemporary King Henry VIII in England, the founder of the Anglicans, passed the first sodomy law in England in 1533 making it punishable by hanging. But over the centuries, sodomy laws were ignored, relaxed, or changed, and in time, those same Protestant denominations began blessing same-sex unions, ordaining active homosexuals and lesbians as clergy, and even accusing the Catholic Church of being the primary source of bigotry and hate crimes against homosexuals.
Now we cannot blame the muddled mess we are in solely on any one group. The so-called Sexual Revolution has taken its toll on all of us, and even our Catholic clergy have too frequently failed to hold the lines of orthodoxy. As scandal after scandal has broken in the media in recent years, we have more than ample evidence that not every Catholic bishop or priest lived out their vows of celibacy in earnest. Certainly the psychological establishment was instrumental in the redefining of sexual mores in the last century. Clearly the creative industries are likewise culpable. Obviously our governmental and educational systems are part of the problem. Even our Catholic universities have failed us here. And of course, lawyers make money on litigation and contracts, so divorce can be a financial windfall for some. Frankly, too few Catholics have stood up for truth, too few priests have preached it, and far too many Catholic politicians have, for the most part, been disastrous in their lack of defending the truth. There is plenty of blame to share. Sadly, looking back at history, we should have the courage to admit that the undoing of the institution of marriage is largely an inside job. That is to say, the people whose best interests would have been served in the long run to have preserved and protected the institution have nevertheless failed again and again to do so. Moreover, we should admit that all our sins have worked to undermine this great sacrament. Today “hooking up” and fornication and living together and adultery and even pornography have reduced our respect for sexuality and marriage.
What is interesting is a link between celibacy and marriage. Protestantism not only rejected Catholic notions of marriage as being unnatural, but they also rejected Catholic teachings on virginity and celibacy as being unnatural. But without an appreciation of virginity and celibacy, the Catholic understanding of marriage becomes lost. It was a celibate, St. John the Baptist, who died defending marriage. It was a Virgin who brought the Redeemer into the world by her fiat. It was a celibate Jesus Christ who reminded the world what the ideal of marriage should be.
The ruination of marriage went hand in hand with the rejection of the celibate vocation. Martin Luther walked away from his vows of celibacy as a monk and as a priest to marry an ex-nun who had walked away from her own vows. Henry VIII ordered the destruction of the shrines of the Virgin Mary and drove out the monks from his realm; his subsequent history of six “marriages” is almost too ridiculous to mention. Suffice it to say that he had the head of St. John Fisher cut off, seemingly the only bishop in England who had the nerve to stand before Henry and demand that he respect the institution of marriage and the authority of the Church.
The lessons of this history are that if we cannot keep our own vows to God, and if our guilt is only assuaged by our subsequent compulsion to drive away the celibate monks and sisters from our land, then we are not really rescuing marriage, but imperiling it. Soon, there will be no prophetic voice left to remind us of the truth, and we shall, ourselves, harden our hearts.
This history lesson is a Catholic perspective of why things are the way they are. We had to look at doctrine and history and law and secularism within our pluralistic world to understand how marriage came to be so muddled. If you want to better understand the Catholic doctrine on marriage, you should turn to the Catechism of the Catholic Church that lays out our Church’s teaching with beautiful clarity.