Tonight we are hosting our small faith group, so I will be brief (I know you’ve heard that before) but I have been seeing and hearing some concern of late about a supposed change in the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. Just a few days ago the Pope urged priests to extend warmth and sensitivity to couples married outside the Church. News stories quickly follow that “no doctrines will be changed,” but there seems to be a lot of unrest that Catholicism is on the verge of losing its soul and succumbing to the compromises of the modern world.
I think that a great deal of Catholic angst about the sacrament of marriage is brought about by a lack of understanding of the sacrament itself, what Jesus and later church leaders would teach and practice, and to ignorance of Church or Canon Law on the subject of marriage. The best summary of the Catholic marriage tradition remains that of Joseph Martos, Doors to the Sacred, which remains the best one-volume treatment in English for those looking for a thorough treatment. Martos and other scholars believe that the Christian Church left the procedures of marriage to the Roman Empire until the Western Empire dissolved and could no longer maintain civic order, and around 500 A.D. Christian clerics began to assume the office of performing marriages and establishing family law. So, for the first five centuries after Christ—and probably longer in various regions—Christians wedded and bedded by the authority of Roman civil servants, and continued to receive the Eucharist.
St. Augustine (d. 420) was the first Church theologian to speak of an invisible “marriage bond.” But Church practice on the matter of marriage and divorce was not uniform. An Irish confessor’s guide written during the Dark Ages instructed that “if one spouse allowed the other to enter the service of God in a monastery or convent, he or she is free to remarry.” Around the time of Charlemagne the clergy was charged with examining couples prior to marriage, looking for such matters as blood relationship, previous marriage, family arrangement and coercion, for example. Popes of the day argued that only consent was necessary for make a marriage, but Germanic tribal law prevailed, that a marriage must also be consummated to be truly legitimate. Today’s Canon Law works from this Germanic principle, though with obvious exceptions.
By 1000 A.D. all marriages in Western Christian lands fell under the aegis of the Church. By the twelfth century a formal ceremonial came into use by a priest or bishop celebrating a marriage, along with the practice of a nuptial Mass. At just this time, however, the science of Canon Law was coming into its own, and because of the connection of marriage to property, dowries, political connection of dynasties and principalities the technical side of the marriage vow, as well as divorce and remarriage, came under highly technical scrutiny. By the thirteenth century, under the influence of Pope Alexander III and his successors, canonists established that a marriage bond could be broken only if it could be proven that the marriage was nonexistent. A marriage could be declared non-existent if it had not been consummated. This is the principle of the modern annulment, though much later such issues as psychological incapacity, moral depravity, or force and fear at the time of the marriage vows could also serve as grounds that a true marriage had never really taken place.
Interestingly, some of the greatest minds of the medieval Church did not believe that marriage was a sacrament. Peter Lombard considered marriage “a sign of something sacred but not a cause of grace.” One problem was the dowry: its payment at the time of marriage looked to theologians like a purchase of sacramental grace. But as medieval thought evolved, its scholars were divided on the purposes of marriages: more optimistic thinkers like Thomas Aquinas celebrated the procreational nature of marriage as enriching Church society. But the Franciscan John Duns Scotus was representative of some other strains of thought we might find peculiar today. For Scotus, intercourse in marriage was appropriate not just for the begetting of children, but for protecting the marriage bond, in that a wife’s submission to her husband’s needs kept him from serious sexual sins outside the home. Scotus, however, was the first Catholic theologian to teach that the couple administers this sacrament to each other, with the priest serving as official witness; this is our contemporary understanding.
Needless to say, the Church’s difficulties in modern times have hardly decreased. Napoleon decreed, for example, that all marriages would be civil. What of the countless number of couples married in those uncertain times? I bring all of this for your consideration to put the present day pastoral considerations of Pope Francis in a more congenial light. He stands in a long line of saints, popes, theologians and ministers who have attempted to protect the reality of Christian marriage in its integrity and absolute necessity in the Church. The idea that he is “playing with fire” in opening discussion about pastoral and legal practice involving those whose marriages have already failed is quite a stretch, given all that has gone before him. If anything, I trust him at the end of the day to give us a model of the marriage sacrament that upholds the ideal while tending to human weakness. Which is what we do every day.