There is much discussion today of marriage: What is it? Has it always been between a man and woman? What about divorce? Much of the discussion ignores the fact that God established marriage, creating man and woman for a life-long monogamous union. A discussion of marriage needs to take into account God's plan for marriage, expressed in the teachings of the Catholic Church. This is an awkward starting point for our culture, strayed as it has from this understanding of married lovebut it is the only way for the healing of marriages, and for healthy and happy human beings.
The question, Who invented marriage? might seem like a silly one to most of us. For at the bottom of nearly every discussion of marriage in our society is the notion that it is merely a human institution. We are told, for example, that marriage originated in the misty evolutionary past of the human racedoubtless, meeting certain societal needs of the time, and, equally doubtless, adapting itself to differing situations. Thus, in some places, men or women have been able to have more than one spouse; divorce has sometimes been legal and sometimes not; the age of marriage in different societies has differed markedly; and so on. And all this sort of talk has one main effect: to make us think that marriage is a human institution, not only in the sense that it is for us humans, but that it is our invention, our property, and we have the right to shape it any way we like.
Allied to this, and especially popular among lawyers, is the notion that marriage is simply a creature of the laws of any particular country. That just as we can change the speed limit or the income tax rates at will, we can also make marriage pretty much whatever we want. We can make divorce hard or easy, raise or lower the marriage age, and even (so some think) make marriage possible between two men or two women.
Now many Catholics, of course, oppose this last point, and argue that the law should not permit two men or two women to marry each other. But the problem goes deeper than this. It goes back to the title of this article: Who invented marriage? Whose property is it anyway?
In our society, both the anthropological notion of marriagethat it just grew up as an adaptation to societys needsand the legal notionthat it is at the mercy of our lawmakersset the tone of our discussion of marriage issues. Most of us, whether we welcome or deplore same sex marriage, use the term without realizing that we are in fact uttering an absurdity. For constant Catholic teaching makes it clear that marriage is simply not mans property. We cannot set up the conditions of marriage. Those are set by God and by human nature as He created it.
It is true, of course, that different cultures have had different ideas of marriage. But to the extent that those ideas fell short of Gods ideasas expressed in Catholic doctrinethen marriage in those societies was a deviation from its nature and norm. That is why the Church cannot just accept any marriage validated by the civil laws of the country, for example, between two divorced persons. Since marriage, according to God, is by its nature indissoluble, those who believe that the civil process of divorce has ended their union are simply wrong.
In reality, if their original marriage was valid, then it still stands. So we can see that if we begin to take seriously Christs teaching that we dont have total control over the institution of marriage, there are some very far-reaching effects. For it requires us to shape our thinking according to Christs teachings, not according to what our culture or even our laws teach us. And to do so, necessarily sets us Catholics apart from many of our neighborsat least in this matter. But this may be precisely what Christ wants of His people. That we be conformed not to the world, but to Him and to the Church that He founded. All the time, and regardless of what it may cost.
Previously published in the The Sooner Catholic, April 23, 2000.
Thomas Storck, a convert to the Catholic faith from the Episcopal Church, is the author of
The Catholic Milieu (1987),
Foundations of a Catholic Political Order (1998) and the newly released
Christendom and the West (2000), as well as numerous articles and reviews on the subjects of Catholic culture and social teaching. He is a contributing editor of New Oxford Review, a member of the editorial board of The Chesterton Review, and has taught history at Christendom College and philosophy at Mount Aloysius College and Catonsville Community College.