The Catholic Church did not make marriage a sacrament until the 13th century, and only began to enforce strict religious conformity in marriage in the 16th century — in part as a reaction to criticism from Protestants that Catholics were insufficiently enthusiastic about the institution.
While almost all other religions before or since have held that a single man or woman was less holy than a married one, the early Catholic Church elevated unwed celibacy above marriage. Jesus and his early disciples urged their followers to subordinate family and marital ties to larger community ones. As Paul explained, married people think first how to serve each other, but the unmarried think first of how to serve the Lord, “without distraction” (1 Corinthians 7 32-35).
Christ consistently put forward a notion of family obligations that was based on social rather than biological or legal ties. Once told that his mother and brothers were outside and wished to speak with him, Christ pointed to his disciples instead, declaring: “Here is My mother and My brothers” (Matthew 12, 46-50). A good disciple was not supposed to hunker down in the loving embrace of his or her family but to go build the Christian movement. “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).
The early Catholic Church was exceptional among the major religions in history in its support for freedom of choice over whom to marry and how to marry. Until the 12th century the church held that a marriage was valid if entered into by mutual consent, with or without a witness or the blessing of a priest, and was then sealed by sexual intercourse.
But in the mid-12th century, Peter of Lombard, the bishop of Paris, argued that if sex was necessary for a valid marriage, Joseph and Mary could not have been legally wed. Lombard insisted that an exchange of consent, spoken in the present tense, was sufficient to make a valid marriage. This became official policy, opening the way for young couples to defy their parents and insist that since they had whispered “I do” to each other the church had to support their refusal to accept a match their parents had arranged.
In 1215 the church decreed that a “licit” marriage required that the bride have a dowry and the wedding take place in a church. But an “illicit” marriage was equally binding in the eyes of the church. The children were legitimate; the couple was welcome to receive Communion; and the wife was entitled to her widow’s third of the inheritance when her partner died – a precedent that could easily be extended to the marriages of divorced or same-sex couples.
The church was much more rigid in prohibiting divorce and enforcing monogamy, but even this was revolutionary for its time. Previous religions and legal systems had sanctioned divorce, multiple wives, or legal concubinage if a man’s wife could not bear him a child. When Jesus forbade divorce or the taking of a second wife, this constituted an explicit rejection of the idea that procreation was the criterion for a valid marriage. It can be argued that Christianity foreshadowed today’s emphasis on partnership as the main purpose of marriage, given the church’s willingness to annul a marriage when the man was impotent but not when a partner was infertile.
Even with divorce, however, the church could be flexible. In the Middle Ages, aristocrats often obtained annulments by “discovering” that they were cousins (although that had often been the point of the original alliance in the first place), while commoners could get out of a marriage by claiming that one of them had previously consented to marry someone else. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani is not the only prominent individual in modern times to have obtained an annulment of a marriage that had lasted more than a decade. In his case it was on grounds that his wife was his second cousin. But annulments are also still granted for reasons such as “defective consent,” which allows considerable room for interpretation.
It’s unlikely that Pope Francis will ever champion the radically flexible approach to marriage and family ties of the early church leaders. But as someone who has studied the physical and social sciences, as well as the Bible, he seems to be keenly aware that the biggest threat to family and community solidarity today lies not in our personal but our societal departures from the moral imperatives that Christ championed – feeding the poor, healing the sick and demonstrating mercy in our dealings with others.
The pope’s approach draws on the most traditional of Christian teachings: “Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you” (Luke 6, 37-38).
Stephanie Coontz teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. She wrote the newly revised “The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap.”