Consenting Adults

This one’s for you, Milo and John!

I know that this is going to be difficult for many of you to hear, but the Catholic Church (that is, the Church taking the Pope as its institutional head) has not always recognized marriage as a sacrament.

Yes, yes, I know that that is what it says in the Catechism, that Scripture “speaks throughout of marriage and its ‘mystery,’ its institution and the meaning God has given it,” but until the twelfth century, Latin theologians weren’t convinced.

(I don’t know the Greek argument as well as I know the Latin, so we’re going to go with Peter Lombard & Co. here. Maybe some of my Orthodox friends can help with the Greek side of the story.)

The argument is more or less an open secret among historians of canon law, that is, the law of the Church, but judging from the comments on my Facebook feed under my share of Milo and John’s wedding photo, my guess is the priests aren’t telling. So let me tell you, for Milo and John’s sake, because I know some of you are mad at them.

Just to review, do you all remember what the Catechism says about what makes a marriage? Hint: It isn’t sex. Yes, the Catechism says things about the man and the woman being made for each other and it being good that they love each other (which it is!), but the actual sacrament, the thing that makes them married, is not that they were made for each other. It is their consent.

Here’s what the Catechism says:
The Church holds the exchange of consent between the spouses to be the indispensable element that “makes the marriage.” If consent is lacking there is no marriage. [Which, by the by, excludes marriage by rape. Just saying.]
The consent consists in a “human act by which the partners mutually give themselves to each other”: “I take you to be my wife” – “I take you to be my husband.” This consent that binds the spouses to each other finds its fulfillment in the two “becoming one flesh.” [NB: The consent is still what makes the marriage, it is simply fulfilled in the union of the flesh.]
The consent must be an act of the will of each of the contracting parties, free of coercion or grave external fear. [Again, no rape, no parents telling you that you have to get married, no threats to your life if you don’t say yes.] No human power can substitute for this consent. If this freedom is lacking the marriage is invalid. 
And that’s it. Nothing about having children, although that can be one of the blessings of marriage. Nothing even about proving that the couple has had sex (not unheard of in other traditions). Solely the voluntary consent of the contracting parties. They don’t even have to take communion, although that is nice, too.

You’d almost think the Church was a little embarrassed about it all.

Well – before the twelfth century – it was. You’ve heard of the Church Father Jerome, right? I’m sure you’ve heard of him. How he enraged all the pious Romans in the fourth century by convincing good Roman matrons like Paula and her daughter Eustochium to vow themselves to celibacy and virginity? He was corrupting the family, they said. He was killing women, they said. When Eustochium’s sister Blaesilla died of her asceticism because she had been following Jerome’s advice, they ran him out of town.

But, of course, in the long run, Jerome won. As the Protestants love to point out, the medieval Church was all about repressing people’s sexuality. All those monks and nuns, vowing themselves to lifelong virginity, or, if they couldn’t manage virginity, lifelong guilt about their sexual desires. For the greater part of the Latin Church’s first thousand years, the ideal was not Married-with-Children but Married-to-God.

During these first thousand or so years, marriage, insofar as the laity insisted on getting up to it, was a matter for the family, not the Church, although some couples might go to church afterwards for Mass or to ask for a blessing. But the elements of the marriage ceremony – the dowry, the bride’s veil, the feasting, and, above all, the joining of right hands (dextrarum junctio) and the exchange of consent – came not from the Church of Rome, but from Rome. That is, ancient pagan Rome. Because, after all, this was about property – and sex.

And then something amazing happened, around about the year 1100. Canon lawyers started talking about marriage as if it might be a matter not just for the family, but for the individuals involved. Above all, they started talking about it as if the consent of the woman mattered. (See, I told you “white men” were a good thing.)

Noble families hated it, particularly the kings. Here were the priests insisting that brides ought to have a say in whether their fathers and brothers handed them over to men their families had chosen for them. Popes started telling kings who their wives actually were. And the theologians started arguing about what exactly it was that made a marriage a marriage, and whether even it might be counted as a sacrament.

Some, like the Bolognese canon lawyer Gratian, argued that it was consummation, that is, sexual intercourse that made the marriage. A couple might be betrothed in words, but it was the sexual act that made them married. Others, like the Parisian theologian Peter Lombard, insisted rather that it was the moment of consent – the “I do” of the individual parties, who would be truly married even if they never had sex. The argument continued for the better part of a century, but (as we have seen) the consensualists won out. After all, you wouldn’t want to argue that Our Lady and Saint Joseph were living in sin, now would you?

This was the sticking point for the argument from consummation. It said so, right there in the Gospels, that Joseph and Mary had gotten married, after the angel convinced Joseph it was okay to go ahead with Mary pregnant (Matthew 1:24). But of course – of course – Mary and Joseph never actually had sex! (We’re talking Mary’s perpetual virginity here, not Mary and Jesus’s brothers standing outside trying to see him; Jerome took care of that argument.) But Mary and Joseph must have had a perfect marriage, nevertheless. So clearly marriage could not be only about sex. Or even primarily about sex. It had to be about consent.

Other exciting things happened in the twelfth century. The troubadours began singing more and more about love. Commentators on the Song of Songs explained the way in which Solomon’s love song might be read as the story of Christ and Mary’s love (yes, you read that right, as a love song between the Mother and her Son). Great ladies and queens like Eleanor of Aquitaine and her daughter Marie patronized artists and singers telling tales of courtly love (a much contested topic then as now – I’m sure my colleagues in medieval literature will have much to say about this!) Love was in the air – and it became associated more so than ever before with marriage.

But the Church stuck with consent, the free exercise of the will.

Fast forward to the sixteenth century, when yet again the kings – or, at least, one king – came into conflict with the Pope over whether he could put away a wife for another woman, and many things changed, including the place that virginity was to have as an ideal. (You think our contemporary political rhetoric is divisive? You should read what Luther said about the Pope!) Nor, of course, is marriage considered a sacrament by those who protested against the sacramental system established by Peter Lombard in his Sentences. (Oh, did I not say? Peter Lombard is the one who came up with the list of the canonical seven; before Peter there were any number of lists.) But even Christians who do not recognize the authority of the Pope still recognize the solemnity of the “I do.”

What does any of this have to do with Milo and John’s exchange of vows? I just said it. They said it to each other. “I do.” “I consent to be your husband until death do us part.” (Knowing Milo, I’m trusting that they said something like this; it certainly looks from their photo that this is what they said.) Not because saying so somehow makes the sex okay – it doesn’t, not even for a woman and a man. But precisely because the only way for there to be the possibility of virtue in sex is for it to be protected by the marriage vow.

How was it the Apostle Paul put it? “Better to marry than to burn.” Better to stay faithful to one person than to burn with lust for many. The argument, of course, is rather different in the Greek Orthodox Church, less infected than the Latin tradition with Augustine’s arguments about original sin. But in the Latin West, and indeed in the twelfth century, when the theologians and canon lawyers were arguing about whether Mary had married Joseph or only married God, this was the question: how could you declare something a sacrament that was, in effect, about sex?

So they dodged. Marriage wasn’t about sex, it was about consent, and it was a sacrament not because it was about sex but because it was about the free exercise of will. Sex, now, that was another matter, because sex after the Fall is always to a certain extent out of our control. Always, that is, somewhat sinful, even when sanctified with love.

I know that Milo has written previously against the argument that (sacramental) marriage is for gays and lesbians as well as for heterosexual couples. He is also sincerely concerned about what it means to try to force the Church to change its teaching about marriage – and rightly so. If it was only in the twelfth century that the priests managed to wrest control of marriage out of the hands of noble families and kings, it was because the State is always interested in the way in which property changes hands, and whatever it may be sacramentally, marriage remains a concern of those who would like to be able to hand their property on to their kin.

But as a sacrament, the whole point is that marriage is not about the State or even families, but about the freedom of the will. And what could be more sacred than pledging oneself to be faithful to the love of one’s life? In the modern world, we talk a lot about love as if it excuses all things, but love without virtue is still sin. Milo and John have now pledged themselves to live together virtuously, just as heterosexual couples pledge themselves to live. If it is hard for a man and a woman to keep faith together, it is no less challenging for two women or two men. Faithfulness is always in short supply, and true friendship is arguably even rarer than true love. Most heterosexual couples struggle with it, and we are supposed to be the ones made for each other by God. Perhaps we should worry more about our own propensity to sin than what it means for others to make such promises unto death.

Recommended reading

On the history of the law of marriage in the Latin West, see James Brundage, Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).

On the struggle of the Church with the noble families of Europe to redefine marriage in the twelfth century, see Georges Duby, Medieval Marriage: Two Models from Twelfth Century France (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991). 

On the Song of Songs read as the marriage song of Mary and Christ, see Rachel Fulton, From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800-1200 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

On the parallels between the Greek and Latin marriage ceremonies for heterosexual couples with ancient and medieval ceremonies for blessing unions of “brothers,” see John Boswell, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe (New York: Vintage Books, 1994). 

NB: John Boswell died of AIDS the year Same-Sex Unions was published. Like Milo, Boswell was a devout Catholic; according to Wikipedia, he was fully “orthodox in most of his beliefs...despite differences with the church over sexual issues.” He is buried with Jerone Hart, his partner of some twenty years, at Grove Street Cemetery, New Haven. May they rest in peace, and rise in glory.

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