A Case For Religious History Classes

marriageRaise your hand if you knew that the linkage of “marriage” and religious norms is an artifact of the Catholic Church’s fight for its life in the 16th century?

I’m guessing that many Americans would shudder if they realized that their current religious beliefs were so wedded to the Church’s fight with Protestants. The supremacy of The Church in all things marriage was formalized with The Council of Trent (1545 – 1563), which was organized in response to the “heresies” of the Protestants, led by Martin Luther. From Wikipedia (emphasis added):

The council issued condemnations on what it defined as Protestant heresies … When announcing Vatican II, Pope John XXIII stated that the precepts of the Council of Trent continue to the modern day, a position that was reaffirmed by Pope Paul VI.

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In the decrees on marriage (twenty-fourth session) the excellence of the celibate state was reaffirmed (see also Clerical celibacy), concubinage condemned and the validity of marriage made dependent upon its being performed before a priest and two witnesses

What, exactly, did the Church decree in the 16th century that 20th century Popes have affirmed? From the text of the 24th session, some highlights. (Note, the Canons are written as double negatives … “If this, then anathema”.)

  • CANON I asserts that marriage confers grace and is divine in nature (not “invented by men”).
  • CANON II prohibits having more than one wife.
  • CANON III – VIII assert the Church’s authority in conferring or breaking the marriage contract, including issues of divorce (not named as such), consummation, adultery, separation.
  • CANON IX prohibits clerics from marriage.
  • CANON X asserts that celibacy trumps marriage: “better and more blessed to remain in virginity, or in celibacy, than to be united in matrimony.”
  • CANON XI asserts the Church’s authority to prohibit wedding ceremonies during certain times of the year and the Church’s supremacy regarding benedictions and other ceremonies.
  • CANON XII asserts that “matrimonial causes … belong to ecclesiastical judges.”

In addition, the Canon lays out the rules surrounding marriage:

  • Public announcement required: “…before a marriage is contracted, the proper parish priest of the contracting parties shall three times announce publicly in the Church, during the solemnization of mass, on three continuous festival days, between whom marriage is to be celebrated; after which publication of banns, if there be no lawful impediment opposed, the marriage shall be proceeded with in the face of the church…”
  • Only marriages made by the Catholic Church are valid: “… Those who shall attempt to contract marriage otherwise than in the presence of the parish priest, or of some other priest by permission of the said parish priest, or of the Ordinary, and in the presence of two or three witnesses; the holy Synod renders such wholly incapable of thus contracting and declares such contracts invalid and null, as by the present decree It invalidates and annuls them…”
  • Prohibits co-habitation before marriage: “…the same holy Synod exhorts the bridegroom and bride not to live together in the same house until they have received the sacerdotal benediction, which is to be given in the church…”
  • The Church maintains marriage records (in the absence of what we would, today, think of as “government”): “… The parish priest shall have a book, which he shall keep carefully by him, in which he shall register the names of the persons married, and of the witnesses, and the day on which, and the place where, the marriage was contracted…”

Contrary to modern rhetoric, “marriage” has not always been a function of the Church in western civilization. In Rome, for example, marriage was a “personal, civil agreement” and “did not need the stamp of governmental or religious approval.” Until the Catholic Church set out this edict in the 16th century, marriage and divorce had continued to be a civil matter.

Why this focus on the marriage sacrament? Because Luther had “declared that marriage was not a sacrament but “a worldly thing . . . that belongs to the realm of government.” Yes, this doctrine was developed in direct opposition to the Protestant Reformation! Thus, the “marriage and church” linkage that we see in the rhetoric around California’s Prop 8 is inextricably linked to the Catholic Church. Does anyone else see the irony?*

The rhetoric surrounding California’s Prop 8 has its roots in the evolution of marriage from a means of male lineage preservation (Jews and the God of Israel and the Old Testament) to a convenience of economics (where women were chattel) to a ceremony of religious sanctity. It is time for America to truly throw off the shackles of the Church and embrace marriage as “an expression of the right to happiness,” a journey with a major milepost during my lifetime — Loving v Virginia. We need a clean break between state and church, marriage that is a private contract between two consenting adults. Period.

All rights that the government currently confers upon those who are “married” should be conferred on those who enter into this civil contract. No more “my religion trumps your worldview.”

And yes, this would nullify “federalism” to the extent that a contract entered into in California should be valid in every other state in the union. Need a legal argument? Use the Interstate Commerce clause, because failure to recognize these contracts would be akin to restricting the movement of labor.

Will this happen in my lifetime? It’s possible, if enough of us can resist the pull of tribal emotion and engage the reasoning centers of our brains.

* In the U.S., 51% claim to be Protestant; 24%, Catholic; 16%, unaffiliated; 3%, “other Christian”; 2%, Jewish. Pew.
Related: Marriage Is a Fundamental Constitutional Right
Photo by jcoterhals; used with permission.

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