June 27, 2013

Marriage and the Catholic Tradition

I want to be extremely, perhaps even painfully, clear at the start of this post about two things: my perspective, and my intent. First, I am posting this as a Catholic theologian, from the perspective of Catholic tradition. This article is aimed at a Catholic audience, and it discusses the issue of marriage accordingly in the context of what a properly Catholic worldview ought to be. I put the word "Catholic" in there four times: this paper is about the Catholic Church's idea of what marriage fundamentally is. Second, the purpose of this paper is to draw a distinct line between the Church's ancient understanding of what marriage is, and the modern, secular, non-Catholic understanding. This division goes deeper than the permission of same-sex marriage, and in fact includes a radical, irreconcilable difference in the concept of the purposes, justifications, and culture of marriage. This article will then, in depth, take a look at the Church's understanding of marriage first in the thought of the Fathers, then from a few contemporary sources.

I will start with a look at what we, as Western culture, think marriage is today. The best place to start is with a Disney quote, from Aladdin:
ALADDIN: Jasmine, I'm sorry I lied to you about being a prince.
JASMINE: I know why you did.
ALADDIN: Well, I guess...this... is goodbye?
JASMINE: Oh, that stupid law. This isn't fair--I love you.
This quote, innocuous as it may seem, serves as an example of what we assume marriage fundamentally is. For those of you who haven't seen the movie, I'll fill you in on what's going on: Jasmine (the princess) wants to marry Aladdin (who isn't a prince), even though it's against her country's law. The law, here, is a silly, old, arbitrary rule which is preventing the true, good, and authentic relationship between Aladdin and Jasmine from taking its course. No stupid rule should keep them apart: they are in "love."

Love, then, is both the defining characteristic and the necessary prerequisite for marriage according to modern, American (and more broadly Western) society. This is evident in more places than in Disney movies. For instance, the gay advocacy site "Why Marriage Matters" states in its "Just the Facts" page in answer to the question "Why do gay and lesbian couples want to get married?"
For similar reasons as anyone who wants to marry. To stand in front of friends and family to make a lifetime commitment to the person they love. To share the joys and the sorrows that life brings. To be a family, and to be able to protect that family.
Once again, we see that marriage is about the relationship between two people, a relationship founded upon "love." What, precisely, love is doesn't really matter in this context. Regardless of a finer definition, love in the context of marriage, be it heterosexual or otherwise, refers to the warm and fuzzy stuff that leads to a desire for union with the other. Something to note about this operative definition of marriage: it is fundamentally isolationist. This reason for getting married, provided by "Why Marriage Matters," is that the couple wants to. No outside consideration is made, no wider appeal to society is attempted. Marriage, according to modern society, is about two people, regardless of anyone else.

The Church holds that marriage is not fundamentally about two people loving each other, but rather existentially about human society and the existence of the human race in God's overarching plan. The purpose and definition of marriage according to the ancient Church was fundamentally social. St. Augustine is very clear in his foundational De Bono Coniugali,
Every human being is part of the human race, and human nature is a social entity, and has naturally the great power and benefit of friendship. For this reason, God wished to produce all persons out of one, so that they would be held together in social relationships not only by similarity of race, but also by the bond of kinship. The first natural bond of human society, therefore, is that of husband and wife (Prima itaque naturalis humane societatis copula vir et uxor est).
Without me having to say anything, it should be readily apparent that this definition of marriage is worlds away from Disney's. There is, in fact, no mention of love. The closest we get is the "amicitia" (friendship) relationship which Augustine cites as the foundation for marriage, and also broader human relationships. There is no warm and fuzzy here, no room for "but they really love each other," and no ambiguity about purpose. According to Augustine, the purpose and nature of marriage is tied directly, intrinsically, and inseparably with God's continued creation of the human race and human society. This is simultaneously a statement on both a earthy, corporeal level and existential, spiritual level. Human beings are meant to be tied together by the bonds of kinship: by coming from the same womb, by sharing the same genetic material, and by growing up in the primary human society of a family - that is the purpose of marriage. Human beings, by marriage, can contribute to the continued existence of humanity: by participating in God's continued creation and by organizing society into a structured, rational entity according fundamentally to kinship - that is the purpose of marriage. Marriage is thus the spiritual and physical means by which God creates the human race and forms it according to and for the sake of his ultimate plan of salvation. That is the Church's definition of marriage: one which does not, can not, and will not ever have room for a same-sex union due to the obvious biological inability of two same-sex people to even have the capacity to procreate.

This language of marriage is not restricted to ancient times. Karol Wojtyla, prior to becoming Pope John Paul II, wrote in his Love and Responsibility,
If we are thinking of the human species as a whole, we can speak of necessity, and hence of a measure of determinacy, in connection with the sexual urge. The existence of the whole species Homo depends directly on it. The species could not exist if it were not for the sexual urge and its natural results. So that a sort of necessity is clearly discernible. Human kind can be maintained in being only so long as individual people, individual men and women, human couples, obey the sexual urge.
And later in the same chapter:
A man and a woman, by means of procreation, by taking part in bringing a new human being into the world, at the same time participate in their own fashion in the work of creation. They can therefore look upon themselves as the rational co-creators of a new human being.
JP II is here talking about the purpose specifically of the sexual urge, and not of marriage, but the relevance to our current discussion is nonetheless obvious. The Church clearly holds, and has held through the ages, that the sexual act is only fully realized within marriage and that the sexual act is necessarily only in its proper form when viewed existentially as part of God's continued creation of the human race. This language is also not foreign to the Catechism, which states,
The vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator. Marriage is not a purely human institution despite the many variations it may have undergone through the centuries in different cultures, social structures, and spiritual attitudes. These differences should not cause us to forget its common and permanent characteristics. Although the dignity of this institution is not transparent everywhere with the same clarity, some sense of the greatness of the matrimonial union exists in all cultures. "The well-being of the individual person and of both human and Christian society is closely bound up with the healthy state of conjugal and family life." (The Catechism is there quoting Gaudium et Spes, a Vatican II document.)

So, there you have it. Despite the isolationist, romantic notion of modern culture which permits gay marriage because "hey, they love each other too," the Church sees marriage as something fundamentally different. Because of the existential significance of the institution of marriage, it is not possible for the Church to ever permit the union of a man and a man or of a woman and a woman as equivalent sacramentally and institutionally to that of a man and a woman. Whatever the Supreme Court, sociologists, or gay pride activists might say, marriage is fundamentally social, and allowing homosexuals to "marry" fundamentally changes society. This is the Catholic position, to which I obediently, enthusiastically, joyfully, rationally, and (God-willing) perpetually submit.

For further reading on this issue, of what the Church actually teaches, I suggest you look at CCC paragraphs 1601-1620, as well as 2331-2391, especially 2357-2359.

I hope that this writing was clear and enlightening. It is honestly difficult to write this, because I know that I have friends who disagree for deeply personal reasons and hold their dissent from the Church's teaching as a testament to their conviction and love. I hope that, in this writing, I have not hurt anyone by my explication of Church doctrine: such was not my intention. As I said, this is an analysis of the Catholic Church's position on what marriage fundamentally is, according to the Fathers, as exemplified by Augustine, and contemporary thought. As usual, I encourage thoughtful, charitable, and honest discussion in the comments. I will answer any questions to the best of my ability.



Blogger Ambrose said...

As an added source showing this idea of marriage's presence in Liturgical tradition, here's a quote from the Gelasian Sacramentary, which dates to the 8th century. The folliwing is my translation of the collect for the marriage rite, found on page 265:

Listen, O Lord, to our supplication, and assist with kindness your institution, which you ordained for the propagation of the human species; so that what may be joined by your authorship may be protected by your help, through Christ our Lord.

Hope that helps,

June 27, 2013 1:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Appreciate your efforts to think through this tense topic. One word of caution... "the church will never, ever" type statements may be rhetorically exciting but rarely justifiable. Can also be very damaging to dialogue with those who conscientiously dissent on such topics. The history of our church attests to the complexity ofthe discernment of the holy spirit that guides the church and it seems to me that such statements limit God in God's relationship with God's people. Anyways, just something to think about from the perspective of someone who finds himself stuck somewhat in the middle of this complicated issue.

June 27, 2013 4:07 PM  
Anonymous Ava said...

That was well argued, well delivered, and understandable, Ambrose; a good read! I think my favorite part though was when you said, "This is the Catholic position, to which I obediently, enthusiastically, joyfully, rationally, and (God-willing) perpetually submit." I miss you. Hope things are going well!

June 27, 2013 5:00 PM  
Blogger Ambrose said...

Things are indeed doing well! Thanks for reading! It took two or three rewrites for me to be happy with that sentence, so I'm glad that you like it. =D

I'll admit that "never, ever" is a hard statement to justify, and that I may very well have been carried away rhetorically. I get excited with words. =D However, I think that, in this case, there is a very serious and complete argument for the ex cathedra position of the Church on this issue, which, if so, could not be changed.

Beyond the argument I already raised (Catholic worldview as evident in the Fathers, contemporary theology, and the Catechism is inconsistent with same-sex marriage), there are several Church documents that deal with the issue and essentially rule out a future change to the Church's opinion. Some examples include the Code of Canon Law, particular paragraph 1055; Casti conubii, an encyclical of Pius XI, of which paragraph 1 is particularly clear; and Arcanum, an encyclical of Leo XIII, of which pragraph 5 is excellent. These three serve only as examples: a deeper look could be provided, but those three are an excellent place to get a start.

As far as the difficulty of this, admittedly, knotty, personal, and highly divisive issue, all I can say is that I pray the Holy Spirit will lead us all into a fuller understanding of the truth of God the Father which has already been revealed to us in its fulness through His Son, the Logos.


June 27, 2013 5:30 PM  
Anonymous Sean@whiskeydrinker.thisguylovesthegays.com said...

So, I think I'm going to have to agree with Anonymous here. Seems to me that the Church has definitely taken a strong stance on this issue, but that is a very different thing than being said infallibly. This is something that the Church could one day reverse, although I don't think that it is something that will be reversed. Despite the Church's position on what marriage should be, however, I fail to see why this has anything to do with yesterday's Supreme Court decision or the way that the country views marriage. If gay people should not be allowed to be legally married because it goes against "God's good", then, by the same logic, the same limitations should be in place for chronic masturbaters. The only thing the Church has done in standing against legal gay marriage is insure that no matter what, more gay people leave the Church. I am no "safer" and neither are you or America's children. As a Catholic theologian, the Church gives me a way to stand in tension with them on certain issues without it being a moral failing on my part. So I, too, can "joyfully" submit to the Church's teaching while still arguing for what I believe is best for the Church. That is the role of the theologian.

June 27, 2013 6:27 PM  
Blogger Ambrose said...

Sean, who loves the gays:

(That is your officially-chosen formal epithet now. I hope you're happy with your decision...)

I'll admit that this is the point where Dr. Portier would start going off about lack of a formulaic definition, and as such, technically there is no formal ex cathedra statement from any papal document. I was hoping not to talk about that nit-picky, legalistic side of the argument, because frankly I'm not very good at it. I have friends who are canon lawyers; I certainly am not. I was rather hoping to get some insight into Catholic ontology by means of an examination of the ethos of the Church's language concerning marriage in contrast to secular discussion of the issue. At doing so, I think I've been fairly successful: if you have any problems with that part of my explication, I'd be grateful to hear it.

In regards to the pastoral path the Church should take, I need to confess that I'm a terrible candidate to suggest a global or even nation-wide course of action. My specialty is not anthropology or sociology, but rather casuistry and talking to individual people. In that regard, I'd like to play off of one of your statements a little: "The Church has definitely taken a strong stance on this issue..." I think you may have understated this. Back in undergrad, I spent a semester with Fr. Neil Roy going over just about every document up through Humanae vitae discussing marriage and the family. As far as I know, until modern times, the Church has not only overwhelmingly supported the view of marriage I described, but I think it's unanimous. I could be wrong there, but if I am, it's a few isolated thinkers. I'll ask Susan, she'll know...

At any rate, regardless of a few isolated dissenters, the (at least nearly) unanimous opinion of the Church has been against an ontology which permits of same-sex marriage. As such, if this does not fall under extraordinary magisterium, it certainly falls under ordinary magisterium, which, if my faulty memory serves, still requires intellectual obedience and serves as the basis for an ex cathedra statement once the times and culture permit. As such, it would seem to me that such teaching is solid enough to teach from the pulpit, and ought to be at least to some extent morally binding. And, it would then follow that it would be really bad practice to in any way, shape, or form encourage such acts which would, I guess, constitute a deviation from God's plan for the human race as I talked about in the main post. It doesn't seem to me to be pastorally sound to encourage something wrong, in any scenario.

But you've heard that argument from me spelled out at greater length, and I'd rather not hash out the whole right-to-sin argument here (although you're still wrong. =P )

In regards to DOMA, I started to write a post about that, but I quickly realized that I know nothing about the legal precedent or circumstances for the case, so I decided to write about what I had studied instead. If you want my opinion of the decision, it seems to be in conformity with American legal practice, but you also know what I think about that as a judge for actions.

At any rate, I'll ask Susan to fact check me if she feels so inclined. Thanks for commenting!

June 27, 2013 10:03 PM  
Blogger Ambrose said...


According to Susan, she can't find any evidence of a dissenting theologian prior to 1800. She did find a story about two male martyr/saints who were reported to be lovers, but other than that she doesn't find anything. She would like to point out the anachronistic nature of the term "homosexual" to such a question, and further said something about the question of lesbianism not being considered because women weren't considered to have sexuality.

June 27, 2013 10:36 PM  
Anonymous Sean@whiskeydrinker.thisguylovesthegays.com said...

Fair enough, I do have a few comments pertaining to the content of your discussion. First, I think that I certainly do have some issues with your treatment of the "love." It cannot be ignored that your discussion of the origins of Catholic understandings of marital love come from a time when society as a whole looked a marriage much more in terms of a social contract rather than one based on the idea of love and commitment. Marriage as a social contract was necessary because women had very few rights, children even less, and thus, there needed to be a way to ensure that women and children were protected so that they could adequately perform their roles necessary for a functioning society. This should not be raised up as a good thing. We live in a society in which women do have rights and are therefore in much less need of protection through a marriage. Marriage, while still being looked at as having very certain societal implications and as still being between two people and the Church as a whole, can return to one in which "love", as you call it, which is of course much more than "warm fuzzies", as you put it, plays a more prominent role. Our concept of marriage today seems to better echo the sentiments of, "and for this reason, a man will leave his father and mother and be joined together with his wife, so that the two will become one flesh." As you know from Bunta's class, this idea of "one flesh" carries with it an existential longing to be again whole with one's literal "other side". This same origin story is employed in Plato as expressed equally between heterosexual and homosexual love. So the concept of homosexual love being on a par with heterosexual love was already present within society. Now it may in fact be the case that such love is immoral, but it should establish the idea that homosexuals are capable of love, the same as you and I, and that whatever they experience cannot be downgraded to "love" (standing in for warm fuzzies) with out serious argument to that effect. So now I ask, why is such love immoral. Perhaps the idea of homosexual love was never a part of God's plan and is the result of the Fall, but that does not necessarily imply that particular instances of homosexual love involves culpability on the part of the participants. Again, a logical argument must be constructed between the two. The Church allows that because of the state of sin, there might be those whose participation in sin (of a generic nature, not specifically homosexual acts) can be rendered nonculpable by the degree to which that state of sin has determined their actions. For instance, hating Christianity might be immoral but if one hates Christianity as a result of a bunch of soldiers coming into town in the name of Christ and proceed to rape, murder, and steal, then it seems that they are to a large degree not responsible for the sinful stance of their hatred.

June 28, 2013 2:20 PM  
Anonymous sean@whiskeydrinker.thisguylovesthegays.com said...

The site made me split this in two.

So, my question would be, as we discussed in Bennett's class a little bit, consequentialist claims on the metaethical reality of our ethical experience are false, but we still tend to use consequentialist calculuses to determine that which is immoral (even if it's immorality is due to virtue, kantian, or some other metaethical concerns). So, while it is not logically certain, our experience has seemed to lead us to the idea that if an act is sinful, evidence to this effect will become present in the consequences of the action. What are the consequentialist concerns for gay marriage. What is the harm that is being done (other than an insistence that it harms the person because it is immoral, which is simply to restate the thesis that homosexuality is immoral)? How is the Church harmed by the idea of two men living their lives together in holy matrimony (again, to say that it is not possible for two men to live in holy matrimony is simply to restate the thesis, not engage the argument)? Perhaps it would be harmful for the children adopted by such a union in that they wouldn't have a mother and father? It seems, however, that we can all think of sacramental marriages that have been extremely harmful for the children of such a union. I would choose every homosexual couple with whom I am friends (roughly 6 couples) as providing safer and more flourishing environments for children than many, many heterosexual relationships. If such a thing is a sin, that sin should be born out in negative consequences by the act (which, again, to be clear is not a claim about what makes the act sinful, simply a claim about what demonstrates the sinfulness of the act.) Where are these negative consequences? Why would the Church be harmed by such a thing? In a world in which abortions are happening at such a disgusting rate, shouldn't we want to promote the union of two Christians (yes, if masturbators can be Christians, then so can homosexuals, even if homosexuality is a sin) whose only option for children is one of adoption? I quite simply fail to see why such a thing should be viewed as sinful.

As for the canon law stuff, in my talks with Portier on this issue, it is his belief that the nature of how such a topic has been discussed in the Church allows for it's reversal. It is not spoken ex cathedra. Ex cathedra proclamations are proclaimed as being ex cathedra, they are not implied, they are explicit. But, I'll be able to speak more to this issue after this upcoming class.

Sean, the gay lover.

June 28, 2013 2:21 PM  

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