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A Brief Survey of the Traditional Judeo-Christian View of Marriage A Brief Survey of the Traditional Judeo-Christian View of Marriage
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2010-01-18 09:08:06
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Despite the current heated debate on the definition of marriage, few people would deny that marriage is a very old institution deemed by most historians and anthropologists one of the main pillars of any viable civilization. Let’s briefly survey the history of marriage within the four thousand year old Judeo-Christian tradition. According to one source, traditionally marriage is "…a relation of one or more men to one or more women, which is recognized by custom or law and it involves certain rights and duties both in the case of the parties entering the union and in the case of the children born of it." (William Lane Craig, The only wise God: the compatibility of divine foreknowledge and human freedom. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1987, 12). This could serve as a working definition of sort.

There is ample evidence of marriage contracts both from secular and religious sources.  On the religious side, evidence of this is found in the Old Testament narrative of Genesis where the story of Adam and Eve begins. After creating Adam after his image and likeness it is interesting to note that God needed to address a very important issue in regards to Adam. Scripture tells us that "Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him'" It appears that for God it was essential that Adam have a companion. That seems to be just as important as the function of procreation. In this narrative of creating Adam in his own image and finding him a companion is very telling of the importance God has in mind for the union between two people.

Several hundred years later we see that the practice of marriage and its significance had grown to a more sophisticated experience for the Jews. Despite an ongoing struggle to keep marriage, as instituted by God, between one man and one woman, and the outside pagan influences affecting such a tradition, the core value of marriage was preserved through Mosaic Law.   

During the Roman reign a conflation occurred between cultures and customs from all of the nations the Romans had under their empire. Joseph Martos, a church historian, notes some of the peculiarities that developed within Rome from the traditional to the modern. He states, that “what changed the social status of woman and children as well as the institution of marriage was war. When the Romans began to extend their republic throughout Italy and build their empire in the Mediterranean, men were often away for long periods of time, and sometimes they did not return home. Women learned to manage their family's affairs, and children began to make decisions that used to be made for them….Many of the traditional wedding customs were kept, like handing over the bride and eating the cake, but they no longer had the religious meaning they had in the past. (Doors to the Sacred: A Historical Introduction to Sacraments in the Catholic Church. Ligouri, Missouri: Ligouri/Triumph, 1981, 353).

At this point the marriage was primarily a family affair with little or no interaction from a Roman priest; which is to say, the sacred and the secular had effectively been separated. This is redolent of today’s situation. Although there are some remnant considerations found in the text of the early church fathers, there was little involvement from the church clergy. It could be said that the separation of marriage and the church, as strange as this may sound to our ears, might be due to a distorted understanding of what happened during marriage. Origen for example, noted that the Holy Spirit was temporarily lost during sexual intercourse. This rather puritanical view was more neo-Platonic than Jewish. It reasoned that the soul was a prisoner of the body and everything pertaining to the soul was good and anything pertaining to the body was bad or at least suspicious. This gives marriage a very negative connotation and thus was an issue that was addressed but with little understanding in the early church. All this changed in subsequent centuries.

After the fifth century, the Church in Rome was more vocal in her marital pronouncements, especially since the ever enduring issue the dissolubility of marriage had plagued the church and the whole western civilization. This was a matter that the early church fathers, bishops and popes had to address since it affected many of the parishioners that were off to war but never returned. These issues not only had to be answered but also confronted if the church was to provide an answer for this growing epidemic. As early as 458 A.D. Leo the Great has written a letter to Nicetas, Bishop of Aquileia, in which he decides that “liberty in divorce in the Civil Code was no law to Christians; that for instance, a woman whose husband had been carried into captivity was not released from the marriage tie, but remained, in the eye of the church, the wife of the captive as long as he lived…."  

This went on in the Western Church up to the time of St. Thomas Aquinas.  Everything from incest, family inheritance, rogue marriages, etc., were so out of control that the early church writers began addressing these issues through their writings and through the courts. It seems that pragmatically this was the best course of action. If the church was to remain relevant amidst what seemed to be a chaotic atmosphere in the realm of this particular social contract called marriage, it had to make ecclesiastical decisions from above in addition to legal decisions on a case by case scenario.

By the time of St. Thomas there were already several works that addressed marriage as a whole by several notables such as Peter Abelard, Francis Gratian, Peter Lombard and even Pope Alexander III. Not only were there  practical reasons the canonist lawyers addressed these issues, but spiritual ones as well. These medieval writers touched upon the spiritual condition of marriage by stressing the sacramental aspect of marriage.  As a result, marriage and its implied idea of intercourse were finally ridding themselves of the heavy neo-platonic notion (according to Origen) that only the spiritual union between two people was superior to the sinful act of intercourse. Theologians from Thomas Aquinas onward admitted that the sacrament gave a positive assistance toward holiness in the married state of life. This sacramental view was reinforced by Paul’s notions of the fidelity of God to his chosen people, a sort of marriage, and especially the marriage of Christ to his bride, the Church.

When St. Thomas (1224-1274) enters the medieval stage there is already a concerted effort to deal with marriage and clear it from negative neo-Platonic connotations. Not for nothing Aquinas chooses to found his philosophy not on Plato but on Aristotle. This sets the stage for some of the main principles St Thomas teaches, corrects, and at times rebukes with what has to be said about marriage. One of the first places to start is the Summa or his summary of theological commentary where he addressed a wide variety of questions and answers for the students of his day. For example, he considers one of the first ingredients for marriage in question forty-five of the Summa when he deals with "The Marriage Consent Considered in Itself."  Here he considers the past historical elements in marriage whereby women were given away as property and usually negotiated by the father To this he answers that matrimony as a sacrament is a kind of "spiritual joining together" and it is also a "material joining together" insofar as it relates to the natural goods and desires they both have. It follows from this that since this is a sacrament in its fullest sense then it also follows that consent is its efficient cause because, according to Aquinas, this (as a sacrament) is empowered from above.

But what is marriage according to St. Thomas? One can only extrapolate the answers from the different questions he entertained. One of these questions succinctly gives Aquinas the pathway to define marriage in its proper context. When answering whether Joseph and Mary were married he sets up his answer by providing what marriage is. He says that “Marriage or wedlock is said to be true by reason of its attaining its perfection. Now perfection of anything is twofold; first, and second. The first perfection of a thing consists in its very form, from which it receives its species; while the second perfection of a thing consists in its operation, by which in some way a thing attains its end. Now the form of matrimony consists in a certain inseparable union of souls, by which husband and wife are pledged by a bond of mutual affection that cannot be sundered. And the end of matrimony is the begetting and upbringing of children: the first of which is attained by conjugal intercourse; the second by the other duties of husband and wife, by which they help one another in rearing their offspring.” (ST.II-II, q. 29, a. 2). This is the heart of many of his arguments. As a scholastic he divides his species, which in this case is marriage, into form and operation. Then, in classical Aristotelian form, states that the very operation of what marriage is functions as its end. He expounds this further by saying that "matrimony consists in a certain inseparable union of souls."  This in turn contributes to the mutual enjoyment and obligation a husband and wife have towards each other. Certainly, his view of marriage is a lot stronger and closer to the biblical account than any of his predecessors.

In answer to the question of whether matrimony is of natural law, Aquinas quotes Aristotle: "The Philosopher firmly states that ‘man is naturally a political and gregarious animal….’Therefore he is naturally inclined to connubial union, and thus the conjugal union or matrimony is natural. It is our design to be political (thus reasonable) and gregarious (thus social), and that is what makes us different from the animals that do not have a will or an intellect but rather rely on instinct for their interaction.” (ST., XP II, q. 41. a. 1, ad 1).

Next, St. Thomas deals with matrimony as a sacrament. This is the crux of his argument and this will elevate marriage to within its proper setting before the church and before God. Since the priestly involvement in the marriage celebration was not a standard event, St. Thomas' answer to the first question not only establishes the priestly role but also answers the first objection that questions the validity of marriage as a sacrament. First, the objection states, "It would seem that matrimony is not a sacrament. For every sacrament of the New Law has a form that is essential to the sacrament. But the blessing given by the priest at a wedding is not essential to matrimony. Therefore it is not a sacrament.”(ST., XP II, q. 42. a. 1, ad 2). The objector assumes that the priest at the wedding is not essential to it. St. Thomas here differentiates the sacrament from that which is sacramental. In his answer to this objection he states that although the priest's blessing is sacramental it is the consent between the two parties that make the act a sacrament.

To summarize his main points in the supplemental, Aquinas' view on marriage and sexuality is that it has three main purposes: (1) Reproduction, (2) the production of a family unit that together form a strong bond and a unit in society (3) companionship and friendship. Couples who cannot have children can still marry for the third reason. What is also very essential to marriage is the exchange of mutual consent. Without consent, this is violence or forced love and forced love is no love at all. As a matter of fact, real union is a result of love and there is no real marriage if the couple does not have this principle in mind.  In fact when such a principle is violated, the marriage is invalid to begin with and can be annulled.

The question could be asked "what happens if there is more than one person involved?" St. Thomas also has an answer for this when he says in his work Summa contra Gentiles “The reason why a wife is not allowed more than one husband at a time is because otherwise paternity would be uncertain. If then while the wife has one husband only, the husband has more than one wife; there will not be a friendship of equality on both sides, friendship consisting in a certain equality. There will not be the friendship of a free man with a free woman, but a sort of friendship of a slave with her master. The husband might well be allowed a plurality of wives, if the understanding were allowable, that the friendship of each with him was not to be that of a free woman with a free man but of a slave with her master.”

Aquinas argues that once you introduce a plurality of spouses in the marriage, then there will be a significant reduction in the very things that make it right. As a side note, It is real easy to make use of these arguments with people who do not accept neither the authority of the church nor the inspiration of the Bible because the way Aquinas sets them up is so that he could lead the person through an argument and by way of reason and then reinforce it with what the word of God says. In regards to his answer to polygamy, it is not the best pragmatic option to have the multiplicity of wives or husbands because in that moment the opposite party becomes a slave to the other. Finally, he mentions that establishing paternity would be difficult (at least for those times) when a wife is allowed more than one husband at a time.

One of the last articles in this annotated translation of the Summa Contra Gentiles called Of God and His Creatures, St. Thomas deals with indissolubility of marriage. By far one of the strongest arguments for marriage, these articles express the final cause for marriage. According to Aquinas, marriage (and consequently sex) is based on right reason and rationality. Reproduction is rational because it is needed for the preservation of the species. Thus he summarizes in one paragraph all the reasons for the indissolubility of marriage. He states that “Thus understood, good manners involve the indissolubility of the union of male and female: for they will love one another with greater fidelity, when they know that they are indissolubly united: each partner will take greater care of the things of the house, reflecting that they are to remain permanently in possession of the same things: occasions of quarrels are removed, that might otherwise arise between the husband and the wife's relations, if the husband were to divorce his wife; and thus affinity becomes a firmer bond of amity: also occasions of adultery are cut off, occasions which would readily offer themselves, if husband could divorce his wife, or wife her husband.” For Aquinas, when there is love, there is fidelity; then, they will take care of their possessions and reduce the amount of conflict between them. They will also not consider divorce because of the mutual love for each other. However if there is divorce then the possibility of adultery is removed because of the strong love that existed between them.

Aquinas deals with the subject matter of marriage in a clear, yet precise manner. His works paved the way for a deeper and spiritual understanding of marriage as a sacrament. He realized, as did other scholastics, that marriage existed long before the coming of Christ, but for him this was no different from the fact that washing existed before the institution of baptism or that anointing existed before the sacraments that used oil. Indeed, the Christian tradition on marriage is a rich one and much of it is based on the theology/philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. Before accepting some of the more shallow and pernicious modern views of marriage based on a mindless “political correctness,” it may prove wise for both believer and non believers alike to acquaint themselves with it.

 


    
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Emanuel Paparella2010-01-18 10:22:22
A footnote:: in the Judeo-Christian heritage marriage is more than a mere contract to be honored by two parties; it is a covenant. The distinction is crucial. Within a contract, when one partner fails to honor the terms of the contract (which are usually mutually beneficial), the other is released from her/his obligations. Not so with marriage within the Judeo-Christian tradition which mirrors the covenant of God with his people. A covenant transcends a mere contractual obligation. Within a covenant, the dishonoring of the terms of agreement by one partner does not release the other from her/his obligations to love and faithfulness. That is to say, within the covenant God remains true to her/his promises independent of the faithfulness to the covenant of his/her chosen people. The union remains indissoluble because God is true to his/her promises. He/She remains faithful independent of the other’s faithfulness or lack thereof because He/She remains true to Her/Himself. Once that is understood, what people engage in as a sort of contract, be it heterosexual, homosexual, lesbian, monosexual, multisexual, multi-racial, monogamous, multipartner, is qualitatively different from a covenant which properly speaking is a marriage. In other words a marriage is a sacrament reflecting the covenant of God with his people. Outside of that conception what obtains is a contract even if one insists on calling it a marriage. It is so by name only. So what remains the essential issue to be honestly debated is the very nature and definition of marriage.


ap2010-01-19 04:33:50
What I did not understand was: do you accept or are you against gay marriage?
Or don't you even consider it as a type of marriage, so that it doesn't have to be a 'problem' for you?


Emanuel Paparella2010-01-19 11:44:51
Ms. Pereira, if you survey my survey once again you may notice that mine was not my own pet personal view of marriage, but the traditional Judeo-Christian view of it over a period of four thousand years. It seems to have worked well for civilization as a whole. Currently it is not my personal problem but a societal and civilizational problem. You will notice that I start with a working definition with which in fact I don’t agree (that of multiple marriages at the same time…) but then look at its development over centuries culminating with Aquinas’ clear distinctions and definitions mostly honored within Catholicism. Actually, if you re-read the footnote carefully, it is obvious that within such a tradition there is a definition of marriage understood within the context of fidelity to one’s promises or the idea of the covenant elevated to the position of sacrament, as Aquinas teaches. That sacrament is not conferred by the presiding witnessing priest but by the couple (a man and a woman) freely exchanging vows with each other. (continued below)


Emanuel Paparella2010-01-19 11:45:57
For those who find that view reasonable and according to natural law, what is outside such an understanding is viewed as a civil contract of sort, not marriage. Within a democracy we remain free to draw any contract we wish as long as they don’t violate the law. So the cardinal of Lisbon is consistent with the traditional view when he says that gay marriage and its legality is not a concern of the Church but of the state since the Church does not consider it a marriage to begin with but a mere contract over which the State has legal claims, just as she does not consider a shot-gun coerced marriage a marriage either and therefore fully annullable. Vis a vis other more recent “politically correct” beliefs on marriage, one can disagree with such a traditional view but still understand it and respect it. Those who have axes to grind will insist on calling it irrational and bigoted. As previously mentioned the issue at its core has to do with the very definition of marriage and when it is no longer a marriage but a mere legal contract.

P.S. Stay tuned. In the near future I intend to forward another contribution on the lost distinction between marriage and shacking up together vis a vis community and solidarity. Perhaps we can dialogue on that issue too.


Emanuel Paparella2010-01-19 13:56:38
P.S. It occurs to me that it is highly ironical that in an age when most young heterosexual couples conider marriage an unnecessary formality signifying nothing, at best a convenience, a way to avod the censure of society, gays are clamoring for the right to marry and be acknowledged as such by society. Indeed, it is a tupsy-turvy world that we live in.


ap2010-01-19 19:01:05
Oh, crazy world!
So you are against it, right?


Emanuel Paparella2010-01-19 19:30:04
Ms. ap, being persoanlly for or against s particular practice, according to one's preferences and the trends of the times to pigeon-hole somebody or brand her/him an anacrhonism of sort, is absolutely meaningless within the branch of philosophy we call ethics. What is important rather is to be on the side of truth arrived to by reason properly understood, even when it is inconvenient to one's life-style and preferred image...Those who can due that are truly "enlightened,"


ap2010-01-20 03:37:24
On the side of truth...
So tell me, on the side of truth, are you for or against it, honestly?
I'm just asking. This is an opinionated magazine after all.


Emanuel Paparella2010-01-20 05:10:32
Tell me honestly asks the Gestapo to its interlocutor: “are you hiding sny Jews in your attic?” Tell us honestly Jesus of Nazareth, should we not stone this adulteress we just caught as the law prescribes? Should we not pay taxes to Caesar our Emperor? Despite Kant’s categorical imperative there are those to whom truth is not due even when they feign an interest in it, since they are not in the least interested in it but in scoring political points and using it for their misguided agenda within a deceptive political activism parading as progressive thinking, deluding themselves that they possesses a superior ethical position, when if truth be told they have lost the moral compass.


Emanuel Paparella2010-01-20 05:13:28
Errata: possess.


ap2010-01-20 17:29:06
It strikes me as peculiar that you have such a difficult time assuming where your position on this is. Your own speculation about superiority complexes, especially coming from one who considers himself superior (morally and intelectually - to the point of comparing himself with Jesus Christ or the Holocaust Jews) to others all the time is also extremely bizarre. Why should you be offended if somebody asks you for a direct answer?
Sorry. I've lost my moral compass but I still know where the north is.


ap2010-01-20 17:32:52
Also very significant that, for you, those who defend the right to gay marriage all lost their 'moral compass'. The 'virtue' is on your side, you seem to assert already - and you didn't even bother to give me a straight answer yet.


Emanuel Paparella2010-01-20 20:22:36
You have put many words in my mouth but they are mostly your words, as any perceptive reader can verify.


ap2010-01-20 20:32:44
on the contrary.


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