Thursday, August 8, 2013

What is a Marriage?

The question about the true nature of marriage is not new, despite the current discussion of same-sex unions. Most people opposed to such unions argue that marriage "has always been" about creating a family. But has it?

When I taught the work of Milton and the 17th century, I often surprised my students by telling them how "radical" the poet of Paradise Lost was when, in 1644, he advocated divorce when a man and woman were incompatible; and he defined the early modern attitude toward marriage: that it was a union of souls, not merely a means of producing offspring.

I was taught a narrow view of marriage in my Catholic education: that procreation was the ultimate end of marriage. Luckily, the Church has shifted a bit on this simplistic view, putting pastoral emphasis on love on an equal footing with or ahead of procreation. There is still more work to be done on this before Catholic practice catches up with reality.

A recent article, found on the internet, by Thomas M. Finn, a religion professor at William and Mary, puts the issue of marriage in a fuller, historical light. He shows that Augustine in the 4th century changed his earlier view after the pastoral experience he gained as a bishop of Hippo: what made marriage marriage, he said, was mutual consent to a life together by two people (one of each sex, presumably) who were committed to love, support and respect each other.  The importance of offspring took second place in his mind, says Finn, as he encountered countless childless marriages that he considered true marriages.

Since he was the only early Church father to write extensively on the topic, Augustine remains a key figure in the Western idea of sex and marriage. Medieval arguments among scholars at the early universities ended up, says Finn, following Peter Lombard's text which said that consent, given in the present, to live together as partners, with mutual affection and respect--the very idea advocated by Milton--was the essence of marriage.

So, for 1,600 years, the definition of marriage hinged on consent, from which its secondary benefits, including children, flowed. Whether a couple could have children was not what made marriage marriage.

The historical lesson is always important in illuminating the present, and Finn sums up clearly what is at stake in today's debate about same-sex couples getting married even though they can produce no offspring.  Some 60% of Americans, he reports, including Catholics, agree with the historical consensus about what constitutes marriage: the consent of two people to live together in mutual respect and affection. It all comes down to love.

All too often, people of my generation, especially Catholics, tend to think of marriage as monolithic, unchanged since the Garden of Eden, rather than an evolved understanding of a commitment to love.

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