November 2, 2007

7. Remedial Reading

Previous articles in this series (The Sex Articles — see the links in the sidebar) examined the various “causes” or goods or ends of marriage, as laid out in the preface to the marriage liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer, and how these same goods or ends might conceivably find a place within the context of a same-sex relationship. I have argued that such a relationship is capable of providing mutual joy, comfort, and human society no less than a mixed-sex marriage, and is capable of fulfilling some of the ends of procreation, certainly no less than an infertile mixed-sex marriage. In the previous article I addressed the symbolic weight assigned to marriage in the Christian tradition and explored a number of ways in which similar symbolic value can be borne by a same-sex relationship that is equally loving, permanent, and faithful.

I have noted that our present Prayer Book marriage liturgy reintroduces these arguments in favor of marriage — arguments which had been removed in the 1789 revision (the prevailing rationalism of the day felt a supporting case for the institution was unnecessary). However, one of the “causes” from the 1662 version (in use at the time of our ecclesiastical and civil independence) was not restored. This is ironic, because it is the “cause” with a strong scriptural basis, playing a significant part in the most extensive biblical reflection on the institution of marriage, and offering a rationale for the continuance of an institution to which the apostolic church in general gave otherwise only luke-warm endorsement. This is marriage as a “remedy for fornication” — as described in Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians (7:1-9, which I cite here from the Authorized Version):

Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence: and likewise also the wife unto the husband. The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife. Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency. But I speak this by permission, and not of commandment. For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that. I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.

This passage is significant for a number of reasons, not least for the way Paul describes celibacy as a gift not all possess. Paul recognizes that sexual desire is not only powerful, but that it has an appropriate outlet for those who lack the gift to contain themselves in celibacy: marriage. It is in large part from this biblical source that we see marriage described in the Anglican tradition (Articles of Religion XXV, XXXIII) as a state of life allowed in Scripture. The purpose of the authors of the Articles of Religion was not to find Scriptural validation for an institution that had existed in most human cultures in one form or another (validation was dealt with in the expansive Preface to the marriage rite); rather it was to distinguish marriage from the Two Sacraments of the Gospel, and to assert that it was permitted to clergy.

Paul similarly explicitly permits, rather than commands, marriage, and clearly wishes all could be celibate, as he is. But he recognizes the inappropriateness of demanding celibacy from those incapable of living within its constraints.

From the Pauline perspective, then, marriage is, among other things, a license to have sex. It authorizes something that without such authorization would be sinful. It is, in short, for the vast majority of people, who approach the altar as former virgins, a way of blessing sin — and thereby removing its sinfulness. They are permitted to perform (or continue to perform) what before would have been (or was) sinful. Marriage may not cover a multitude of sins, but it covers at least one: fornication (loosely, and from a biblical perspective rather incorrectly, defined as “sex outside of marriage.”)

Stopping the allowance

So can a similar allowance be made for same-sex relationships? Some will at this point say that same-sex relationships cannot be permitted now because they were not “allowed” in Scripture then. They hold that the prohibitions on homosexuality render such an approbation permanently impossible. I will address these negative texts more extensively in the following reflections; here I want to deal with the absence of approbation rather than the purported prohibition.

To understand the biblical (especially the Pauline) view, we must recognize that marriage was a civil institution, a civil option for Jews and Christians. Paul, in particular, recognizes it as the civil option, as well as the moral one, as it counters promiscuity and prostitution (both legally permitted and regulated under Roman law, though widely held to be moral failings). Paul allows participation in this civil institution of marriage even if he does not encourage it.

Same-sexuality fell into the same category as prostitution under Roman law — regulated and in some cases permitted, but seen, especially by Stoics and other moralists, as a failing. Same-sex marriage was not a civil norm in the cultures amongst which Judaism and Christianity came into being. Although same-sexuality existed in many cultures of the ancient world with which Judaism and Christianity were familiar — including, in spite of the protests, Jewish cultures — the phenomenon of lifelong and exclusive same-sex relationships was very rare (or to be more precise, rarely recorded, so that there is little evidence of it), and civil recognition in the form of marriage even rarer. Mixed-sex marriage, on the other hand, was a recognized institution — and although the differences between Jewish, Roman and Christian marriage customs were in some conflict (as Jewish law allowed polygamy and divorce, and Roman law forbade polygamy though it allowed concubinage and divorce), the early Christians accepted the Roman rule and Jewish ideal of monogamy, but frowned upon concubinage and divorce, largely following the opinions of the more moralistic philosophers and legislators of the time.

Thus the marriage of which Saint Paul speaks is marriage as it existed in the civil state, under Roman hegemony, which in the time of Augustus and Tiberius exalted values of hearth and home — even if the emperors themselves often failed to live up to the principles in practice. There was, in Paul’s time, no equivalent for same-sex marriage, even had he been of a mind to recognize it.

Applying old advice to a present situation

So it is very unlikely that Paul understood or grasped the possibility of people wanting to live in a life-long same-sex union. Some have suggested that Paul was aware of sexual orientation, but I find there to be little evidence to support even this claim, let alone any awareness of whatever same-sex marriages might have existed. There are still, after all, a few skeptics around even today who deny that sexual orientation exists, or who say that there is no need to grant “special” recognition to same-sex relationships since all people are free to marry a person of the opposite sex. (It is especially ironic that some who on one hand will deny same-sex orientation exists will on the other posit that Paul knew about it and rejected it.)

Regardless of such glib dismissals, many others have recognized that homosexual orientation, and the desire to which it gives rise to express one’s a love for a person of the same sex in a physical way, is not any more likely to be combined with a gift of celibacy than is heterosexual orientation. (Some conservatives claim that homosexual men are “by nature” more promiscuous than heterosexuals. Their evidence derives largely from anecdotal evidence, or discredited research.) But many have noted — even among the conservatives who reflect upon this issue — that it is irrational as well as unjust to suggest that gay and lesbian persons should be held to a standard in effect stricter than the one applied to heterosexuals; that is, to demand permanent celibacy for all gay and lesbian people, especially while tolerating less than punctilious observance of the same biblical standard for mixed-sex couples, many if not most of whom engage in premarital sex, occasional affairs, or serial monogamy through the unbiblical provision of divorce. For even if many people are promiscuous, there are others who wish to be faithful.

A more tolerant view within church or state does not necessitate the recognition of same-sex relationships as either marriage or matrimony, that is, as either civil or sacred in exactly the same way and to the same extent as mixed-sex marriage. But some form of recognized permanent commitment can be seen to be appropriate as an application of Paul’s teaching that “it is better to marry than to burn” to a situation which Paul himself may well have found inconceivable. Some, such as the Rev Fleming Rutledge, have reflected on the question in this way:

I have great respect and reverence for people who maintain celibacy if they are unmarried, divorced or widowed. This certainly remains the classical Christian standard. However, I do not believe that many people are granted the gift of celibacy. Even St. Paul, who put a high value on celibacy, recognized this in his teaching on marriage. I therefore believe we must find a way to support healthier lifestyles for Christian gay people who are beset every day by invitations to participate in the anonymity and promiscuity of the street, the bathhouse, the bar and the club. We will do well, I think to make an honored place for the devoutly Christian gay people who sincerely want fidelity and stability in their lives insofar as that is possible for them. These couples are in the distinct minority and it seems to me that we should support them in their wish to carve out a more responsible style of life. I therefore agree (I think) with those who say that we should be discussing the possibility of some sort of blessing for gay couples who fit this description not because the culture is demanding this, but because the church has been thinking about this for some time now. (From a December 2003 presentation to a parish facing division on the issue of homosexuality).

Although she stops short of supporting same-sex marriage, then, Rutledge is willing to recognize the human damage caused by unreasonable expectations or requirements, and the moral danger of a double standard (as evidence shows only a “distinct minority” of heterosexuals actually adhere to the rules of stability and fidelity). However, if “marriage” can be understood in the many forms the institution has taken (some of which would now be held to be immoral if not illegal) it appears to me that it is quite possible to apply Paul’s allowance — “If they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn” — to a situation he would not have been capable of imagining — at least in his own time.


What would Saint Paul do — today? Is this a reasonable question, and to what extent are speculations about what Saint Paul might have thought or done — apart from what we actually know he said or did — relevant to the present discussion?

We do not know what Saint Paul would say today, assuming he were supplied with all the relevant information concerning human sexuality and psychology of which he was ignorant. Doubtless Saint Paul, in his own culture and time, would not have applied this rule of “let them marry” to same-sex couples. There is no evidence that he had any awareness or understanding of sexual orientation. On the contrary, his only extended comment on male homosexuality in Romans 1 describes it as an unnatural perversity attendant upon idolatry. (Aside note: I follow Saint Augustine, On Marriage and Concupiscence 2.20, in thinking “their females” who have “exchanged the natural use for the unnatural” are not lesbian. Rather, they are women who allow their husbands to use the opening that is “along side the natural” i.e., generative, one; the husbands then, having abandoned what is “natural with females” turn on each other and “similarly” take advantage of this newfound versatility. This is how Augustine reads the passage, and in support of this reading I suggest it to be unlikely for a biblical or rabbinic Jew — and Paul was both — to think lesbian sex and gay sex are “similar” — one was subject on rabbinic grounds to chastisement, the other on biblical grounds to capital punishment. Saint Augustine himself regarded lesbianism as a far less serious matter than male homosexuality: see Letter 211.14 where he refers to women’s “shameful frolic and sporting with one another” as unseemly for married women and thus much more out of place in nuns! Similarly, the [vague and inaccurate] term sodomy classically referred to all sorts of non-procreative sexuality whether between men and women or only between men, or men with animals — but with very few exception not generally to lesbian sex. “Homosexuality” as a category including men and women is a relatively modern invention; the Mediterranean cultures of the ancient world regarded lesbian sex as in quite a different category altogether from male homosexuality — as, indeed, these cultures regarded women and men very differently in most aspects of life.)

Still, some argue that Paul knew about homosexual orientation and intended explicitly to reject it. Those such as N.T. Wright and R. Gagnon, who argue that Paul must have been familiar with Plato’s Symposium, and Aristophanes’ myth to explain varieties of sexual orientation (or at least preference), are on very shaky ground, as Paul’s writings reveal little or no familiarity with Plato — as if he would take such pagan (and satirical) speculation seriously even if he were familiar with it! However, Paul may have known nothing of Plato at all, as Plato was, outside of Alexandria, long out of fashion in the philosophical world with which Paul was likely familiar — including that of the Stoics, whose thinking is consistent with (though not necessarily a source for) what Paul concludes in Romans 1.

Rather than making questionable surmises about what Saint Paul might say, given his particular gifts and limitations, we should instead look to him for the moral value of what he said, concerning the role of sex within the context of the only kind of faithful, life-long sexual relationship with which we know he was familiar, as a means to cement the relationship and prevent wandering outside it.

Now that we have a better and more accurate understanding of the reality of sexual orientation (quite apart from whether it is genetic — which is actually irrelevant to the discussion), it makes more sense to apply the underlying principles of Paul’s teaching accordingly, much as we apply other underlying principles of scriptural wisdom to changed cultural contexts.

It seems to me that it is better for the church, and for society, to encourage the recognizable biblical virtues of fidelity and mutual support in same-sex relationships, than to hold all gay and lesbian persons to a rigid standard few heterosexuals are able to maintain.

A summary

Thus far I have examined the traditional rationale for Christian marriage and sought to examine the ways in which this rationale can be applied to same-sex relationships. There should be no doubt that from the secular perspective of civil marriage, the state has no compelling interest in prohibiting same-sex marriage any more than it would have in prohibiting mixed-sex marriage in which the couple is incapable of having children. On the contrary, the civil interest in a stable society represents a positive rationale for the provision of civil marriage to same-sex couples, as a preventative to promiscuity (to the extent, of course, that people remain faithful to their vows: no covenant will of itself cause obedience).

When it comes to children, there is no indication (on the basis of many studies and meta-studies) that same-sex couples are any less able to raise their own, adopted or foster children than mixed-sex couples, regardless of any biological connection with the parents. Society provides ample role models apart from biological or foster parents — and in any case many children spend much of their childhood and infancy under the care of adults other than their parents. Need I also note that Scripture provides one particularly striking example of foster-fatherhood. Clearly an increase in the number of stable same-sex couples could be a boon to finding loving homes for unwanted or orphaned children.

When it comes to the religious and moral values imputed to marriage, I have shown that the ability to bear children is universally held to be optional — that is, no Christian tradition of which I am aware requires fertility prior to allowing marriage, or childbirth within marriage as a condition for its continuance. Procreation is thus not an essential element of marriage.

I have demonstrated that the concept of fleshly union is ambivalent, and that the argument against same-sexuality from a purported complementarity of the sexes is specious; and that same-sex couples can enjoy a mutual union that expresses joy, delight, and the self-giving love that is the object of marriage. I have shown that such relationships are capable of bearing symbolic weight in reflecting the goodness of God in relationship to the church, but more importantly the ideal of Christian love within the church. Finally, in this essay, I have reflected briefly upon the stabilizing influence that the recognition of same-sex relationships might provide within ecclesiastical as well as social contexts.

Although I have touched upon them briefly in these essays and in the responses to the many comments these articles have elicited, I have not directly addressed the purported scriptural objections to same-sexuality, which some would hold to render moot all of the discussion up to now. In the next sections of this reflection I will address the content and force of the scriptural case — both against and for same-sexuality — at greater length.

Tobias Haller BSG

The Scriptural discussion begins in the next section of this series, Scripture and its Witness.

Further Update: This post and those that follow, expanded and supplemented with much additional material, form part of Reasonable and Holy, published by Seabury Books and available on order from Church Publishing Incorporated.


Anonymous said...

"When it comes to the religious and moral values imputed to marriage, I have shown that the ability to bear children is universally held to be optional — that is, no Christian tradition of which I am aware requires... childbirth within marriage as a condition for its continuance."

I know there is a lot covered by my ellipsis but the assertion above does not describe the Catholic Tradition. Catholic couples who can have children but choose not to do so are considered to be in an invalid marriage by the Catholic Church and it is an easy thing to get the marriage annulled on that grounds if the couple truthfully testifies during the annulment proceedings.

Personally, I have refused to marry a couple who belonged to this child-free mindset and was fully supported by my diocese when they filed a complaint against me. Answering "no" on the canonical questionaire to being open to having children is always referred to the tribunal-- if the priest does not simply reject the couple for marriage out-of-hand.

The case of a couple in a putative marriage but whose decision to be child-free was not known in the external forum is a bit murkier canonically but not morally. Our canon law is not setup to automatically begin annulment proceedings against child-free couples. However, the moral imperative to correct this sinful attitude is present. I have reprimanded couples both online and in-person for claiming that the performance of a Nuptial Mass "makes up" for their desire to remain without children. I have also criticized couples for their assertion that their child-free "marriage" was as "holy" as any other marriage.

Even if the Catholic marriage canons are not designed to deal efficiently for this rare attitude, our moral teachings address it directly.

"I have shown that the ability to bear children is universally held to be optional —"

There is nothing universal about it at all.


Anonymous said...

As for Paul and his knowledge of same-sex marriage, he need not know of Plato to be exposed to the concept. He had the contemporary examples of Nero and others in Rome who were openly engaging in the practice.


Anonymous said...

Finally, I appreciate your addressing the concern of Paul about marriage as a means to combat sexual concupiscence. To many people in my Church try to hide that teaching... yet everybody knows it exists.

That being said, I'm not familiar with many Christian churches that tolerate extramarital sex. Even though they acknowledge it exists, how many try to justify it as good? The one heterosexual attempt to do so that I'm familiar with is the movement for legally registered domestic partners. That movement's only organized opposition is from the socially conservative churches, be they Catholic, evangelical, or fundamentalist.

Seems to me like these churches are consistent: when heterosexuals attempt to legalize non-marital unions, the churches oppose it. When homosexuals attempt to legalize same-sex unions, the churches oppose it. Don't see any double standard there.


Christopher said...

Fr. Haller,

To be honest, this is your best yet. Perhaps it should be reworked as the beginning of your series?

I do hope you gather these together into a libelli for distribution.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Fr Michael,
In your first comment you confuse "ability" with "intent" -- those are two very different things. I am referring to Canon 1084.3; are you referring to Canon 1096.1? I see your point but it doesn't concern my argument, which is about the incapacity to bear children -- which I take it you admit would be true of a same sex couple!

You second comment assumes St Paul knew about the Nero household. Do you have any evidence to support that statement? In any case, Nero's and others' excesses were not life-long faithful relationships, nor were they seen as such by the Romans. If Paul knew anything about such goings-on they would have fit neatly into his portrait of total depravity in Romans 1.

Finally, it is understandable you do not perceive the double-standard. The obvious solution is to allow same-sex marriage, not recognize some form of "union" -- though from a civil standpoint there is no difference; and from an ecclesiastical viewpoint no civil marriage is a marriage, properly so called, but is simply a legal non-marital union. (This is the RC teaching, I believe; the Episcopal Church recognizes the licitness of civil marriage, though it also provides for the blessing of a civil marriage. We do not hold that the nuptial blessing "makes" the marriage.)

Christopher said...

I might add that openness to life can be found among many same-sex couples. The inability to propogate children in nowise limits us being opening to contributing to life in all sorts of ways, including adoption, taking care of elderly parents, pouring ourselves into our parishes, etc.

June Butler said...

Tobias, I agree with Christopher that this is your best post yet in the series.

Your argument makes such great, good sense, for those within the church and in civil society. Why wouldn't church and state want to give support to faithful and stable monogamous relationships, no matter the sex of the two people? To me, it seems so obviously like a really good thing.

The strict, but unrealistic, requirement for celibacy for all lesbian and gay folks makes no sense to me. Celibacy is a call to a way of life that is between God and the person, with help in discernment, perhaps. It's not something that's laid on a human being from outside.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Tobias. This is where my own reasoning starts, and perhaps for that reason this piece strikes me as particularly good. The weakest part of the reasserter's argument in my view is that they seem to be completely unable to engage the reality of the homosexual experience. Their understanding of homosexual experience seems calculated to support a predetermined theology rather than to describe reality on the ground. Their prescription of universal celibacy strikes me as completely unrealistic and certainly bad pastoral advice. One might as well suggest the Shaker's solution for all heterosexuals.

Paul Martin

Anonymous said...

"Seems to me like these churches are consistent: when heterosexuals attempt to legalize non-marital unions, the churches oppose it. When homosexuals attempt to legalize same-sex unions, the churches oppose it. Don't see any double standard there."

The double standard lies not in opposing non-marital unions, but in giving heterosexual couples the opportunity to get married while denying it to same sex couples.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thank you, Christopher. There is more -- far more -- to life than conception and birth. As with the undue focus on Genesis (thereby wresting it from its mythic import) there seems to be an inability on the part of many in the conservative continuum to see beyond beginnings to the richness and blessedness that follows.

bls said...

Just to make another point: there are many reasons a couple might marry with the intention of not having children.

I know quite a few people who come from alcoholic backgrounds who, when they married, were adamantly opposed to having children because they were certain (and frightened) that they wouldn't be good parents themselves. (At least one of these couples - a man and woman who love one another deeply - did eventually decide to have children of their own, BTW.)

I'm amazed to see from Fr. Michael's comments that this has now become a political issue, instead of a pastoral one. I suppose that's the way everything in the Church is these days, but still.

Anonymous said...

As an aside, Fleming+ was once asked to speak at a retreat for gay Christians at the request of Ralph Blair, founder of Evangelicals Concerned. She declined the request because she had not "made up her mind" at the time. Her writings to date do not seem to suggest that she has gone any further down that road (publicly, at least).

Tobias+, I concur with Mimi and Christopher that this is a wonderful series and deserves wider distribution. I even dare to say that same-sex marriage (sacred and secular) would only serve to strengthen those institutions.

Brother David said... Christian tradition of which I am aware requires fertility prior to allowing marriage...

Fr. Michael doesn't mention it in his posts, but there have been a number of scattered incidents over the years in the US where the Roman church has refused marriage to infertile couples specifically for that reason. There have also been denials to couples for whom the procreative sex act was physically impossible due to a handicap.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...


There are two different things addressed by the RC Canons.

The RC Canon Law does not allow marriage for couples incapable of sexual intercourse, but it does allow marriage for couples incapable of having children.

Canon 1084.1 states, "Antecedent and perpetual impotence to have intercourse, whether on the part of the man or of the woman, which is either absolute or relative, of its very nature invalidates marriage." The Canon continues in paragraph 3, "Sterility neither prohibits nor invalidates marriage, with due regard for the prescription of can. 1098." (Canon 1098 refers to cases of fraud. If a man or woman concealed the fact that they were sterile, there would be grounds for invalidation.)

There was a celebrated case a few years ago in which a quadriplegic man and a woman were not permitted to be married according to the the RC rite, due to his inability to have sexual intercourse. This had nothing to do with fertility, however. If as you allege someone has been denied marriage on the basis of sterility (or infertility) alone, then those who have done so are acting in violation of, not in accordance with, the RC Canons (unless fraud was involved, which is quite a different matter).

I stand by my statement that no Christian tradition of which I am aware -- including the Roman Catholic -- requires fertility prior to the solemnization of matrimony.

John D Bassett said...

Paul's "...only extended comment on male homosexuality in Romans 1 describes it as an unnatural perversity attendant upon idolatry."

I disagree a bit. In the western Christian tradition we usually look on Romans as being Paul's "summa", an extended essay on the nature of sin and grace. We read it that way because those are the questions that interest us.

But the constant theme of the letter from the beginning to the end is the place of Jews in salvation history and the relationship between Jews and Greeks in the church. We tend to ignore those latter chapters of Romans about "grafting" because this question is not a particularly relevant one for us. But really those chapter are the climax of a carefully-argued essay on a narrow topic.

Looked at it in this light, the list of sins in Romans 1 is only up there as a kind of theological banana peel, designed to induce a smug sense of moral superiority in the Jewish reader before tripping them in the next chapter with the proof that they are no better. I do not think that Paul had any particular intention here to comment on same-sex relationships or reflect on why they were sinful. He was just rehearsing the prejudices of his readers before reminding them that they had no right to judge.

In that light, maybe we should parse the words of the letter less carefully and look more at the larger point Paul wanted to make -- none of us have any right to judge others because we are all fall so far short of what God wants.

Anonymous said...

" makes more sense to apply the underlying principles of Paul’s teaching accordingly, much as we apply other underlying principles of scriptural wisdom to changed cultural contexts."

It seems to me that you have taken Paul's observation that "it is better to marry than to burn" far outside of its original context.

Surely Paul does not approve of marriage as the remedy for all "burning." Just two chapters back he is scandalized by a case of porneia not found even among the gentiles. That the two burn for each other matters not a fig to him. Marriage is not recommended for them.

Paul's remark comes in the context of a very important point. He prefers celibacy. He teaches it is better to remain so. But he emphasizes that that doesn't make marriage a sin.

That one thing is better than another doesn't make the lesser thing bad. It's a point any child can understand, but it needs to be stated more often than one would expect.

Marriage for Paul is no "sex license." It is not something that makes sin good, but something itself good.

So, in laying down as a "principle," "it is better to marry than to burn," Paul is specifically speaking to those, not choosing between good and evil, but between good and better, and warning those, who wish to pursue the best path, with no gift for it, that they risk a greater fall. It is not something that simply licenses sin, because marriage includes but is of course a great deal more than simply sex between a man and a woman.

For Paul it is not simply a matter of obviating "burning," thwarted desire. There are many afflictions that Christians must endure and overcome. A married man may burn for a woman not his wife. Marrying her in addition to or in substitution for his first wife is not a "remedy" suggested by Paul, unless one take "better to marry than burn" as a general principle applicable outside of the particular context in which Paul puts it.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

I quite agree about the overall intent of Romans. What I am referring to is Paul's understanding of the etiology of same-sexuality in men, which he, following Jewish traditional teaching (as in Wisdom of Solomon 13-16) relates the collapse of what is regarded as good order in heathen society to the introduction of idolatry. I'll address Romans at greater length in a subsequent article; I agree with you completely concerning the rhetorical thrust of the opening chapter.

You appear to me to be kicking against the goad here. The underlying principle in Paul's teaching is not that marrige is "good." On the contrary, while he admits it "is not sin" he does not portray marriage as good-in-itself. As my NT professor used to say when we asserted Scripture "said" something, "Show it to me in the text." Clearly, in this passage, Paul is arguing that marriage is "permitted" -- neither mandated nor particularly praiseworthy. It is "better" to marry than to burn with unrequited passion; and certainly better to marry than to resort to prostitutes (=porneia).

Marriage is acceptable and approved for those incapable of remaining celibate. At most, it might be said to be "good-for-them." This is what the church has understood Paul to be saying, and taught itself, until very recent times, when perceiving the institution of marriage to be under assault in the secular culture, began to idealize marriage; and I would say to some extent idolize it. (Nor do I think I have anywhere said that marriage is bad! But a Scriptural case for its objective and uncontextual goodness is very hard to make. It is at most a subjective good, in certain circumstances, for certain people. It is a state of life allowed in Scripture, capable of being lived well, or poorly.)

As to the matter in Chapter 5, and your other comments:

Obviously there are some situations in which marriage would not solve the "burning" problem. In the case of the father and son who both have resort to the same prostitute (this is how I read the situation in Chapter 5, as Paul refers to this as porneia, and the simplest solution is to take that word in its basic meaning of prostitution) the matter is complicated by Jewish notions of incest by affinity; so there would be a problem if either the father or the son married the woman in question in an effort at resolution. This is clearly a very unusual case, and I have not yet seen an explanation that makes sense of why the Corinthians would have "approved" of this peculiar household arrangement.

Obviously Paul is not offering marriage as a solution for all sexual desire -- but he clearly and explicitly means it to be a check on sexual desire even between a married couple. That is, in the case of the man you posit (who is married to his wife but burns for another), Paul would say, not that he should take a second wife, but that he should be content with the wife he has and work out his sexual desire (the "burning") with her. This is precisely what Paul means when he says that the married state provides for an outlet, as he does in verse 5: Married couples should not refrain from sexual intercourse with each other for extended periods, lest they be tempted to stray to other outlets. This is really transparently clear.

So I will stand by my plain reading of what Saint Paul says: sex outside of marriage is wrong, and a couple who are having sex prior to marriage are sinning, and they should get married. Once they are married, they should make use of the "marriage license" and enjoy each other sexually, lest they be tempted to other outlets.

I am suggesting that we apply this understanding to a situation which Paul would not have: same-sex relationships, which I suggest should be held to exactly the same standard of faithfulness and permanence.

Morally speaking, it is like the difference between stealing and buying --- walking out of the store with something is in itself morally neutral; if it is something you have not paid for it is theft; if paid for, it is purchase. The "walking out of the store carrying something" is in itself a moral neutral; what makes it theft or purchase is the context, the license of ownership obtained through paying for the item. Sexual intercourse (between a man and a woman) is sinful in one circumstance and moral in another: but it is the circumstance that makes the difference. I am suggesting applying this same standard to same-sex relationships. That, I should think, is simple enough that a child could understand it. And, thanks be to God, it appears, on the basis of many surveys and studies, that the next generations are beginning to understand.

P Stanley said...

I have two questions about this very interesting piece in a very interesting series.

First, on the "marriage is morally neutral" question. If I recall my RC catechism correctly (and it's been a while), the Roman church considers marriage a "sacrament", and as such an outward sign of "grace". Does that alter the position at all? (It seems odd to regard a "sign of grace" as morally neutral ...) If so, when was that position (historically) arrived at? And does it make any difference that the Anglican tradition rather explicitly, IIRC, does NOT regard marriage as a sacrament?

I have a slightly related question about the "incapable of procreation" / "unwilling to procreate" distinction. I rather suspect that discussion does not belong in this piece, but in an earlier discussion.

I suspect that there was a time (when medical science was much less advanced) when people we would regard as "incapable of procreation" were not so regarded. I have in mind that an arcane rule of property law (the rule against perpetuities) proceeded on the basis that a woman was *never* "past childbearing". Could it be that the RC canons are simply confused, treating any man and woman (if physically capable of sexual intercourse) as theoretically able to bear children, however absurd that might seem. If so, it might be that there is an *implicit* underlying principle in the RC canons to the effect that the couple should be both open to and able to procreate, albeit mitigated or distorted by a pre-modern and unscientific understanding of when exactly that is and/or a strong "presumption" that procreation is possible when it is not clearly impossible. That position, if correct, would rather tell against the argument here, at least from a Roman point of view.

I say this not in any sense wishing it to be so, but ...

Anonymous said...

"The underlying principle in Paul's teaching is not that marrige is "good." On the contrary, while he admits it "is not sin" he does not portray marriage as good-in-itself. As my NT professor used to say when we asserted Scripture "said" something, "Show it to me in the text.""

I think it's there in v. 38:

"...ho gamizon ten eautou parthenon kalos poiei kai ho me gammizon kreisson poiesei."

It's pretty literally a good/better rather than a bad/good.

Anonymous said...

"I have in mind that an arcane rule of property law (the rule against perpetuities) proceeded on the basis that a woman was *never* "past childbearing"."

Oh, no! The Case of the Fertile Octogenarian! Can we never escape these nightmares of the past?

[Though seriously, I think what might have been of greater influences were all those biblical tales, beginnng with Abraham and Sarah, where a couple thought incapable of children turned out to be nothing of the sort.]

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

I'll have to get back to you on that. I'm just heading out to a meeting.

I think this is tendentious. First of all, it is a comparative, as you note. It is not a statement that "marriage is good" in the abstract. It is dealing with a specific situation that might even be about fathers marrying off their daughters.

In any case, I fail to see the relevance to anything I'm discussing -- as I've never said "marriage is bad." I've said there are good marriages and bad ones. I'm not really sure what point, if any, you are trying to make. Do you disagree that recognizing same-sex marriage is "better" than forcing people unequipped for it to live in celibacy or promiscuity? That is the real issue.

Anonymous said...

"I've said there are good marriages and bad ones. I'm not really sure what point, if any, you are trying to make."

I get the impression that people believe we try to devalue marriage because only then can we have a claim to be married too. If it's a holy state we cannot aspire to it, so we have to show that it's only second best.

Anonymous said...

"I'm not really sure what point, if any, you are trying to make."

I thought we were trying to understand St. Paul. And my point was simply that I thought you misapprehended his take on marriage. I don't read in him the critical attitude that, say, Augustine exhibits when he puts sexuality under a philosophical microscope.

If, then, we look to Paul to help understand what our religion teaches us about the way to live, I don't think we ought to treat marriage as a remedy for relationships that are otherwise forbidden. I don't doubt your good intentions in trying to do so, but I think you go far beyond any principles that Paul would recognize. That's all.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Rick, as we are trying to understand Saint Paul, then I think it important to see that he is indeed saying that marriage is the "cure" for a situation that is "forbidden." It has nothing to do with marriage being "good-in-itself" or morally neutral in itself. The issue is the "end" or "good" of marriage as Paul, and the later tradition, have defined it. It is a "remedy for fornication" --- and I don't think that can be stated any more clearly than the church stated it.

Yesterday, I attended an address by the Rev, Dr. Paul Clayton, at the General Theological Seminary, on the subject of Theodoret of Cyrrhus. One of the problems in the Christological controversies of those days revolved around the different meanings or shades of meaning that the Antiochian and Alexandrian theologians gave to the same words. (Obviously there was more to the division than just these differences of meaning; but the differences of meaning exacerbated their inability to communicate effectively.)

It occurred to me on the subway trip home that perhaps our difference of opinion over the word "good" is of a similar nature. I am speaking of good in the moral sense, that is in the sense of virtue. So what I mean when I say that marriage is morally neutral is that in themselves the marriage vowels do not enforce or enable the couple to keep them; that, as I say, there are good marriages and bad marriages. It now occurs to me, in light of reflecting on it, that you are perhaps using the word more in an ontological sense. If that is the case, then I can agree that "marriage is good" --- in the same way I can say that "food is good." That is, the existence of the institution itself is a good thing. So, perhaps, we can put that aspect of the argument behind us -- if, that is, I have understood your intent.

So, in light of the present discussion, one of the reasons marriage is good is that it provides a forum or institutional way for a couple to live a moral life rather than an immoral one. This appears to be what Paul is saying --- as the Church has understood --- that one of the "goods" of marriage is as a remedy for fornication.

What I have been suggesting in this piece is the extension of this institution to include those for whom heterosexual marriage would not provide a remedy, and who are not equipped with the gift of celibacy. As I said in the article, it is doubtful Saint Paul would have seen this as appropriate, in his day and in his culture; we have no way of knowing if he'd change his mind on this (as he did on other things, Damascus Road experiences notwithstanding) were he to be around today to address the matter -- with the advantage of the understandings of human nature that have accumulated since his time.

But Paul is not with us at this moment, and the responsibility falls upon us to make the best use of what we have not only inherited from him, but accumulated in the centuries since he wrote.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear Paul (S)
Now that my mind has been refreshed by hearing that excellent lecture on the Christological controversies...

I think the difference of opinion about the status of marriage as a sacrament may reflect some of the disagreement here between Rick and Father Michael, and myself.

Part of it is, of course, another question of the meaning of a word, in this case, "sacrament" --- which as you point out, Anglicans define in such a way as explicitly to exclude marriage. And one of the reasons marriage was so regarded by Anglicans had to do precisely with the fact that, as The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church so pungently puts it, the Anglican divines were hesitant "to recognize as [a sacrament] a rite which did not appear to be manifestly productive of grace." (This is what I mean when I say that vows do not confer the grace to keep themselves.) This view derives from Saint Augustine, who --- it might be said --- in the long run had more influence on Anglicanism than he did on Rome! As the same dictionary says, Augustine "concentrated on the negative aspects of the union and did not see in matrimony a means of grace."

The same source notes that "from Saint Thomas Aquinas onwards the schoolmen taught that [matrimony] conferred grace." It is the last of the Christian rites so to be recognized. So in answer to your question, a sacramental character in marriage was fairly broadly recognized in western Christendom for about 300 years from the mid-13th century to the mid-16th century. Hardly the "2000 years of Christian teaching" one so often hears about.

As to the distinction between sterility and impotence, I think the Roman Catholic Canons are really quite clear. They duly recognize the medical reality of both, and distinguish between them. Given this recognition I do not think the canons assume that anyone physically capable of sexual intercourse is also theoretically fertile. I think the present edition of the canons has accepted the findings of modern science in this regard. It is certainly true that the earlier teaching of the Church concerning "openness to procreation" has not quite caught up with the canonists' more precise and realistic thinking.

As I read the present Roman Catholic Canons, it appears to me that rather than being "open to the possibility of procreation" (which makes no sense for sterile couple) that what is required is that the couple understand that procreation is a primary function of marriage, and not willfully choose to frustrate it. This would cover the situation that Fr Michael mentioned: that is, a fertile couple who came to him and said that they deliberately intended never to have children (not that they are incapable of having children) could not properly be married. As the Canons put it: "For matrimonial consent to be valid it is necessary that the contracting parties at least not be ignorant that marriage is a permanent consortium between a man and a woman which is ordered toward the procreation of offspring by means of some sexual cooperation. Such ignorance is not presumed after puberty (Can 1096)" Further, "if either or both parties through a positive act of the will should exclude marriage itself, some essential element or an essential property of marriage, it is invalidly contracted. (Can 1101) "

What I have suggested, of course, is that a same-sex couple would fall under the category of a sterile couple. One could well argue that if the church wanted to have a consistent position, it should have stuck with the Jewish law that required fertility. However, a sounder biblical view shows us that procreation is not the primary purpose, from God's point of view, for marriage: "it is not good for the man to be alone" attests to the fact that the society of persons engendered through marriage is equally valuable in the sight of God.

Thanks for the questions, as it does advance the discussion.

P Stanley said...

Thank you Tobias, that's very interesting, particularly on the sacrament question.

One thing I think we sometimes lose sight of in these discussions is that while "marriage" is an ancient institution its significance (the social functions it serves) and all manner of expectations about it have changed quite a bit over time. There's a certain risk in assuming (I don't say you do) that "marriage" is always and everywhere the same institution with the same expectations and functions.

I appreciate that seems more a sociological point than a theological one. But there may be some mileage in the idea that marriage is a social institution, conformable to our created natures and acceptable to God, and which the Church participates in as it may many aspects of our lives, rather than a divine institution, whose outlines must be regarded as "fixed"--the subject of template that is immutable in saeculo saeculorum.

That, after all, is not an unprecedented way of looking at institutions (the sabbath created for man etc). There is also a long but sad history of getting these things backwards. Thus, for instance, the idea that our political institutions may be of concern to God becomes "divine right" or its puritan successor--the subtly but damagingly different idea that God has "ordained" some particular form of government.

So, it seems to me, with marriage. One starts with a social institution, meeting human needs. Because our family relationships are so close to the core of our being, God properly belongs there, and the Church properly takes an interest in the marriages we make. Because "human needs" and social structures are not fixed or static, the institution exhibits a certain degree of flexibility over time and place.

But then a subtle process of reversal takes place, and the idea that marriage is a social institution in which God is concerned is transformed into the idea that marriage is a divine institution in which society happens to be interested. The consequence is, as usual in these cases, arbitrary and rigid inflexibility, fearful conservatism, and a displacement of sensible and answerable questions ("Is this fair? Does it work? Is it damaging people?") with abstract and unanswerable ones ("Is this the Divine Will, with respect to marriage?").

C.B. said...

Tobias - Here's 2 more cents, if I may. The disagreement between you and Rick, to me gets at the crux of the disagreement between progressives and conservatives on this issue. Is marriage as described in the Bible neutral or "good" in of itself? From the answer to the question much flows.

For conservatives it matters very little what the "gay experience" is - because to allow it to matter would mean that they would have to reexamine their assumptions about marriage.

But what I am constantly, constantly struck by is not only the blindness to the "gay experience" of sexuality, but of our experience of family. All this talk about the place of sex and procreative sex - please - while we blather - the gay community, to which the church has a calling to reach out to, has moved on - not only are gays not going to be celibate - they going to have faithful unions and they ARE going to have children (one way or another). Lots and lots of children who are going to be unchurched - because the church does not recognize that "goodness" of their parents' non-celibate union. But somehow can find a way to recognize polygamous marriages (in Africa) and serial marriages (in the West). Good Grief!!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thank you, Paul and C.B.

I have touched on some of these issues earlier in the series, and agree 100% concerning the different models of marriage not only in human culture, but in Jewish and Christian history. The facts show that the religious attitude to marriage is not only multivalent, but positively ambivalent, both in practice (in the forms it took) and in the symbolic values attributed to it. Thus, as I noted in a previous article, the image of God in relation to Israel and Judah could be modeled onto a polygamous and incestuous marriage (it is a violation of the Law for a man to marry a woman and her sister, yet God is portrayed as married to Judah and her sister Israel.) Similarly, the movement from Augustine's statement that all sex, even within marriage, serves as the locus for the transmission of Original Sin, gets smoothed out or downplayed by the time of Aquinas, and is fairly well forgotten these days, as part of the rearguard effort to shore up what are perceived to be "threats" to marriage. Marriage is, to a very large extent, a "social construction" even within the Church. Just as the church was forced to reexamine its approbation of the cultural institution of slavery (which Paul also used as a symbol for the Divine/human relationship!), so too a reexamination of the social construct limiting marriage to mixed-sex couples (purportedly joined for life) is also subject to

Christopher said...

I would also say that when marriage is so fully co-opted by the church and no longer properly placed as social institution "good for neighbor" as Luther might put it, it loses its character within the secular realm, and hence, and its vocational quality as a way of living out the grace given us in Baptism and Eucharist amongst the rest of humanity around us. It sets up a sacred/secular divide not truly appropriate to Christianity.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Amen, Christopher. The other strange thing we've been seeing is the collusion on the part of the state: how many politicians on all sides have said, in regard to the legalization of same-sex marriage, something like, "Marriage is a religious institution"? The church's late medieval assumption of the civil role in marriage was probably unwise, and has had various unintended consequences, among which is a devaluation of "civil marriage" rather than a strengthening of the social fabric.

Anonymous said...

Tobias, you last series of comments captured the nuance in the "good" of marriage that Mr. Allen and I were trying to get across. I'm glad you went to that lecture.

Here is a few short responses to various points made:
to Fr. Tobias-- I would like to point out to your question about whether St. Paul knew about Nero's excesses, that they were hardly secret. Even to our day Suetonius' chronicles of Nero's same sex "marriages" survive, and there is no reason to think he was the only one in the Empire to be aware of them.

to bls-- your example of the alcoholic couple is a clear one where their marriage could not have taken place in the Catholic Church since they positively excluded children.

Also, this question is neither political nor pastoral at its heart, it is theological. That is, was the marriage of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2, referred to by the Christ in His teaching on no divorce in Mk 10, the model for Christian marriage. The majority of Christians say yes. A strident minority says no. Politics and pastoral considerations naturally follow from this profound theological difference.

to Paul Martin-- I agree, we heterosexists (I love the label) disregard homosexual experience in favor of a predetermined theology. Since we hold that the theology of marriage comes from God via Scripture and Tradition, why wouldn't we? Contemporary human experience is a weak reed compared to Sacred Scripture and Apotolic Tradition.


Anonymous said...

More responses:

Fr. Tobias, you have a slight misunderstanding about the RCC take on non-Catholic marriages. We assume ALL civil heterosexual and monogomous marriages, not between divorced persons, are valid unless demonstrated otherwise. Thus the pastoral nightmare of conducting a Catholic annulment process of a wedding between two divorced non-Catholics because one of them subsequently wants to marry a Catholic.

Furthermore, we assume ALL valid marriages between baptized non-Catholics are sacramental. That is, they are incapable of being dissolved by any human power.

In your analysis (later in this thread) regarding the sterily of homosexual couples, I believe you to easily combine sterility deriving from a defect of a person (i.e. non-functioning reproductive system) with sterility from the nature of the act, as is the case with homosexual activity. These are much different moral cases in our view.

c.b. and Paul Stanley-- you clearly point out that the conservative and liberal take on marriage is based on whether it is a social institution or divinely instituted. That's why one doesn't find a lot of common ground here.

That being said, I hope Fr. Tobias keeps up this series because it is far better than anything else I have read from his side of the question.


Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear Fr. Michael,

Thank you for the response. As to Nero, I think you miss my larger point -- his excesses, whether Paul knew about them or not, do not qualify as "monogamous, life-long, and faithful" same-sex marriage. The fact that Suetonius reports these excesses does not mean, necessarily, either that they were accurately reported, or that Paul would have know about them. But my thesis is that Paul was not aware of same-sex marriages that were faithful, life-long and monogamous. His explicit writings strongly suggest otherwise, and we should stick with what he actually wrote rather than theorize about what he might have known. His only descriptions of same-sex behavior are intimately linked with idolatry and prostitution. (I will be addressing this at greater length in the following articles.)

When it comes to the theological issue, the question is whether the first two chapters of Genesis are meant to be exhaustive and limiting, or -- as appears to be the case -- descriptive of the etiology of an institution with which the authors were familiar. In any case, the Genesis 2 account emphasizes the social construction of marriage rather than the procreative end -- and this is the passage Jesus emphasizes in his teaching on divorce (contra the Jewish mandate for infertile couples to divorce.)

I do realize that the RCC Canons on marriage are complex. There is also a subtle difference between validity and licitness. My understanding is that a civil marriage between two baptized persons is not necessarily valid in and of itself. For instance, the couple who intend not to have children might well obtain a civil marriage, yet that marriage is explicitly invalid; as would be any of the other civil marriages that fell under one of the various ecclesiastical impediments, but which are legal under the civil law. If one of the parties is not baptized, a dispensation is required for validity -- and so such a civil marriage would not be valid under RCC law. The same would be the case with a Roman Catholic who divorced and remarried civilly. Finally, and most importantly, Canon 1108 states, (emphasis mine) "Only those marriages are valid which are contracted in the presence of the local ordinary or the pastor or a priest or deacon delegated by either of them, who assist, and in the presence of two witnesses...&c." This would appear to raise a question not about the sacramental nature of a civil marriage between baptized persons (since consent is the operative); but it does strongly suggest that the religious rite conducted by the legitimate authority is necessary for validity. A civil marriage may be "licit" but it is not "valid" -- at least as I understand the regulations.

Finally, I do understand the RC position on the differences in forms of incapacity to have children. My point is that in both cases of sterility and same-sex relationships the incapacity is not merely related to the act, but to the persons. Part of the problem here is that RC thinking is still rather stuck in the medieval (i.e., Aristotelian) world-view that didn't understand the operation of the reproductive system, and the nature of sterility. This undercuts the philosophical/theological foundation from underneath the teaching: that is, it was based on a false understanding of reality. In both cases, sterility involves both the act and the persons -- as acts can only be performed by persons, this is, philosophically speaking, a somewhat questionable distinction in any case, and especially in this one. Moreover, sterility and "gender" are both "accidents" rather than "essences" -- which indeed is part of the problem: RC thinking has erroneously applied essentialism to gender (which contradicts the doctrine of the Incarnation, as I've shown before).

Thanks again for the comments. Your challenges continue to encourage me to think that I am heading in the right direction.

Anonymous said...

Fr. Tobias, just a quick note.

Canon 1 states that "The canons of this Code regard only the Latin Church." They do not apply to non-Roman Catholics at all except for those who have some interaction with our Church, primarily through marriage or desiring to enter the Catholic Church as a candidate for Confirmation or a catechumen.

While our theology would address, to some extent, the marriages of non-Catholics, we work out of a general assumption that first marriages for everybody are valid and licit. So the marriage of two Southern Baptists before a justice of the peace, who have no denomination-specific requirements to be married before a SBC pastor, would be considered a valid, licit sacramental marriage by us. Likewise the marriage between a nondenominational Christian and an atheist before a civil magistrate would be considered a natural marriage by us. We have no canonical requirement that they would have to seek a Catholic bishop's dispensation to get married.

I suppose that this discussion of Catholic canon law is a bit of a sidetrack, but for the non-Catholic readers of your blog it might be instructive to note that marriage is one of the few areas of liturgical/worship/sacramental praxis where we consider non-Catholic practices to be equal to ours, at least potentially. That is, though our take on Ordination, Confirmation, Eucharist, Anointing, Confession, etc. is basically a stance of Catholic supremacy vs. questionable validity, but when it comes to marriage we assume a basic equality assuming the "basics" are intended: the unitive and procreative ends. So a young Baptist couple being married in a short summer ceremony in a country church is as "equally married" in our view as a couple married by Pope Benedict XVI in St. Peter's.


Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Fr Michael,

Thanks for the further elucidation. The matter is very complex, and has taken us rather far from the primary concerns of this series.

I will stand by all of my previous comments apart from the statement that "A civil marriage [between baptized non-Catholics] may be 'licit' but it is not 'valid'." I acknowledged that it is sacramental, in virtue of the couple being the "ministers" of marriage. I see that a civil marriage between non-catholics is granted its validity on the basis of civil law. However, I think I am not mistaken in thinking that if Roman Catholics entered a civil marriage, there would be a question of validity -- per the canon I cite. The matter is made all the more complex due to the changes in canon law from the time of Trent (Tametsi) up through the 18th century reforms and then Ne Temere -- and now the current code, which gradually relaxed the requirement for church marriage for all persons in a jurisdiction. Perhaps this is yet another example of the falsity of "as we have always taught"!

In any case, as you note, we have wandered very far from my original thesis: that the church does not require fertility for a valid and sacramental marriage. I will also note that The Episcopal Church diverges from the RCC on the matter of marriage for those suffering from permanent impotence. The capacity to perform sexual intercourse is required under the RCC canons; but TEC only declared impotence an impediment if it was undisclosed prior to marriage. This reference has since been removed from our canons.

Anonymous said...

Fr Tobias
I found your conversation with Fr Michael fascinating, but I keep stumbling over my lack of understanding of what the church does when it "marries" a couple.

I thought that during a marriage service the church recognises and confirms the couple's marriage, rather than create it.
The church publically affirms that which God has already created.

I'm not sure whether that distinction has any practical consequences, but it strikes me that a couple could theoretically feel (be?) rightfully married even if the church withholds that official recognition.

I would be grateful for some clarification.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear Erika,
You've put your finger on the problem. The Christian tradition, up until the Council of Trent (hence, after the split between Rome and England) was that "the couple make the marriage." The RC Church still teaches that the "ministers of the sacrament" are the couple themselves. Unfortunately, they've introduced this notion of "validity" which -- to my mind, not only confuses things, but is logically a mess. Baptized non-Romans who get a civil marriage have a "valid" marriage; but a RC couple who get a civil marriage without a dispensation have to have their marriage "convalidated" to be officially recognized in the RCC. I would say this is a problem created by the Trent, which made the presence of the church a necessary condition for validity.

From the Anglican perspective (which represents the broader Christian consensus prior to Trent), this has not been confused, as we recognize the full validity of marriage (whether people are members of the Episcopal Church or not) as well as marriages performed in other churches, without the need for dispensations and so on (except, of course, in the case of a divorced person remarrying). The sole function of the church in marriage is to witness and to bless: the marriage itself is made by the couple. (And, of course, in some places the church acts as the civil authority as well.)

Anonymous said...

Thank you Fr Tobias.
So could I go a step further and say that some of us believe in the possibilty of same gender marriage before God, and that those of us who see our relationships reflected in the traditional Christian ideal of what a marriage is, ARE indeed married in the eyes of God, whether the official church "validates" this or not?

There is an important difference in terms of whether the church indeed stops GLBT people from getting "married", or whether it simply refuses to give that marriage an official seal of approval.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear Erika,
You've hit the proverbial nail squarely on the head and hammered it home in one blow. Gay and lesbian people are, as far as I am concerned, and I believe as far as God is concerned, married when they commit to each other in the same form of lifelong monogamous and faithful commitment as a mixed-sex couple. They do this whether the state or the church recognize it or not. This is a natural right of the human person.

If you'd like to read more on my thoughts on this from another perspective, my thesis on the subject is here: Lawfully Joined.

Anonymous said...

Fr Tobias

Thank you for your reply and for the link to your excellent article.

Of course, it's not surprising that the official church struggles with this. In our modern world this sets up quite a theological and practical minefield, where cohabiting couples could be deemed to be married, and those who have previously cohabited with someone else considered to be "divorced", although no formalisation of any marriage ever took place.

I can just imagine individuals having to prove that there had been or had not been an intention to stay together for the rest of their lives, that both partners had or did not have that intention, and the church having no means of verifying either claim.

Add in same gender couples and you can really see why those who need clear labels find it all so terribly threatening.

Anonymous said...

I've just read this all in one go and I'm still wrestling with the idea that the RCC believes that a quadraplegic who can't have sex (but can certainly father a child, with some minimal assistance) CAN'T be married, but an 80 year old couple who in no way can have children but can have sex, CAN be married.

I mean, even leaving same sex marriages out of it, there is no logic there.

Well, yet another example that Catholicism is never logical, which is yet another reason why I am no longer Catholic.


Anonymous said...

"I would say this is a problem created by the Trent, which made the presence of the church a necessary condition for validity."

That was indeed a reform mandated by Trent, but according to Blackstone it was also English law in the eighteenth century. He specifically states that a clergyman must be present for the exchange of marital promises to be valid.

It's not quite clear where his rule comes from. Obviously the Tridentine legislation had no authority in England. Blackstone says that the rule originated with Innocent III, which is probably incorrect. On the other hand, Maitland, in his great book on medieval English law, quotes the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc, in the eleventh century, condemning private wedding vows as a kind of fornication.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

I think the issue is the inability to "consummate" -- although in the debates between what made a marriage in the middle ages (consent vs consummation) consent generally won out, consummation was still there as a necessary element in the "full" recognition of marriage -- that is, in becoming "one flesh" the couple truly accomplish this "end." As the RCC does not permit artificial insemination or invitro fertilization, that is ruled out in this case. I agree that there are some serious logical inconsistencies here, if only in once again putting the biological above the truly human virtue of love, care, and support.

I think you are correct in dating the English custom to Lanfranc -- thoguh I think there was a misunderstanding about the difference between private vs. clandestine marriage. This was a major issue in the role of the church as the public witness -- rather than in "making" the marriage as such. The issue was validity.

The English eventually got out from under this by creating civil marriage (the registry office) in the 18th - 19th centuries. The French, of course, did the same in a much more violent fashion!