All marriage as moral danger?
“Nothing is so powerful in drawing the spirit of a man downwards as the caresses of a woman,” St. Augustine said in the fifth century. Like many spiritual thinkers of his time, St. Augustine did not believe in the sacredness of sexuality or of women—let alone marriage.
Today you might hear something similar said about the moral dangers of gay marriage drawing down the sacred spirit of heterosexual marriage in our society. However, since the Catholic Church has so thoroughly changed its opinions on heterosexual marriage since the time of St. Augustine, one speculates if the Church might one day adapt its teaching to welcome gay members to the sacrament of marriage.
Spouses say “I Do.” Church says “We don’t.”
In the early years of Christianity, there was no sacrament of marriage—civil unions wed husbands and wives. However, “since women up until the modern period were regarded as inferior and subordinate to men, the union of spouses could hardly have been considered the mutual and reciprocal self-gift idealized by Paul VI and now by John Paul II,” reminds Catholic theologian Lisa Sowle Cahill. Not only were women seen as inferior in the marriage relationship, but marriage itself was considered inferior to a celibate lifestyle.
The inferior status of marriage may explain why marriage was not a sacrament in the Church until the 12th century. Even though the Church finally recognized the sacred union of two people, the Council of Trent in the 16th century continued to proclaim that a celibate lifestyle was superior to marriage.
“Love and marriage”
Finally, in the early 1960’s the Church changed the teachings on marriage. Prior to this, the Church considered marriage’s purpose to be procreation. A Vatican II document declared for the first time that marriage was not solely for procreation, but that partners “render mutual help and service to each other through an intimate union of their persons and their actions.” Although many couples experienced this truth before Vatican II, this was the first time the Church had officially acknowledged that marriage is also about the love and fidelity of the couple.
Gays and church history
As I learn more about the Church’s ever-changing understanding of marriage, I wonder if gay marriage might one day be included in the Church’s evolution of marriage teachings. Indeed, as we learn more about biblical and Church history, we recognize that the New Testament never explicitly condemns gay unions as we understand them. Early Christianity did not really have a word to describe the loving, life-affirming gay unions that we witness today in our society.
John Boswell and other scholars also offer us a new look at the history of the Church that reminds us that many gay laity, religious, priests, bishops, and saints have contributed to the richness of our Catholic tradition.
“Do you Jane, take this woman to be your lawful wedded wife…”
As gays struggle for the right to have their unions blessed in their Catholic faith communities, heterosexual couples will continue to promise to remain with one another “for better or for worse.”
I wonder if it is time for the Church to also make a vow to its members who identify as gay and lesbian, that it will love them and include them in the sacrament of marriage for better or worse. I suspect the Church will find it is for the better.
Editor’s Note: Church teaching on gay marriage
According to Catholic teaching, marriage is an intimate lifelong partnership between a man and a woman, a sign of God’s love that mirrors the covenant between Christ and his Church. Because of this and because the Church believes the purpose of marriage (and sex) by the laws of nature and divine purpose (see Genesis 1:27-28 and Genesis 2:18-24 ) to be always for both the mutual good of the spouses and the procreation and education of children, it does not believe that a same-sex relationship can be sacramental or marital, nor that it is in society’s common interest to recognize it as such ( Catechism, 1601-1605 ). However, the Church never sees insult or “unjust discrimination” of gay people as legitimate (Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recogniation to Unions Between Homosexual Persons, 4).