Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Marriage: The Old, the New, and the Normative

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 08, 2012

The Week magazine has a standard “briefing” page, which it devotes to providing background on a particular issue each week. On June 1st, the briefing was on How marriage has changed over the centuries. The subtitle aptly expresses the point of the briefing: “Critics of gay marriage see it as an affront to sacred, time-tested traditions. How has marriage been defined in the past?” This, we are warned, is not going to be neutral territory.

The briefings are typically subdivided by questions, so the first question is “Has marriage always had the same definition?” The answer is that “the institution has been in a process of constant evolution”. A history professor at Columbia is quoted to drive home the point: “Whenever people talk about traditional marriage or traditional families, historians throw up their hands.” Polygamy is the principal alleged impediment here, and the emphasis is on how common polygamy has been: in ancient Israel, under Islam, and among Mormons.

There are two things to note about this foundational element of the briefing. First, polygamy doesn’t undermine the understanding that marriage is a union of a man and a woman. Second, the convenient emphasis on polygamy as a major marital variant fails to acknowledge that even in societies in which polygamy has been permitted, it has tended to be the exception rather than the rule. As a general tendency, rich and powerful men collect wives, but most ordinary guys have just one. So those in polygamous relationships have always been a tiny percentage of the whole.

One wonders as well whether the authors of the briefing really believe it is just one of many acceptable behavior patterns to subjugate women in this way. There are, in fact, important reasons for not drawing any sort of normative conclusion from sociological/historical sampling. One of them is that such arguments almost always backfire. But let me hold off on this point.

The briefing continues: “When did people start marrying?” Apparently we have evidence for marriage going back 4,000 years, and we are told in no uncertain terms that the purpose of marriage in the ancient world was the “production of heirs”, as if all marital arrangements were made so that possessions could not pass out of family control. Less tendentious is the authors' mention that the Latin matrimonium is derived from mater (mother). This, of course, is a strong argument for a time-honored (and presumably fundamental) understanding of marriage. I might point out, as the briefing does not, that other part of matrimony comes from monium, an action, state or condition. The implication is clear: Matrimony is the action, state or condition within which motherhood rightly occurs. But why? That question, clearly, is above the authors’ pay grade.


After this, things get a bit humorous: “When did the church get involved?” The authors assert that after the decline of the Roman Empire, the Church filled the vacuum, but they seem to believe the Church had no interest earlier, and that she only gradually elevated marriage to a high spiritual state, proclaiming it a sacrament in 1215. But of course, marriage was immediately elevated to a high spiritual state (sacramentalized) by Christ himself. The fact that marriage appears in a list defining the seven sacraments in 1215 does not mean it was not considered a sacrament before that time, any more than an appeal to the Constitution of the United States in 2012 signifies that this document is suddenly being perceived as normative for the first time.

The next two questions, “What role did love play?” and “When did romance enter the picture?” are filled with presumption. The briefing acknowledges that romantic love has in many periods not been considered an important (or adequate) foundation for marriage, but this doesn’t mean that many couples were not romantically inclined from the beginning, or that those cultures viewed love as something that would never happen between the parties. It is undoubtedly true that there was a new emphasis on romance after the Enlightenment; the next era was, after all, characterized by Romanticism. But the briefing suggests that was because the “pursuit of happiness” became a new standard for life.

This assertion demands distinctions. After all, the conviction that the human person acts to maximize his happiness is not a new philosophical concept. It might be more accurate to suggest that modernity has dumbed down the concept of happiness to emphasize superficial, immediate and material gratifications. Is there a modern confusion between pleasure and happiness? If so, what does the collapse of marriage after such a shift tend to suggest? This once again raises the problem of the relationship between what ought to be normative and what we actually observe.

The last question in the briefing has more potential: “Did marriage change in the 20th century?” The answer: “Dramatically”. And that’s true, in Europe and America, as we shall see. But the first point made in the briefing is that marital rights and claims began to be adjudicated differently (in the twentieth-century West), in that the law gradually recognized the equality of women, both in the matrimonial contract and across the social order. But even this did not fundamentally change the nature of marriage. In fact, thus far—and we are very close to the end of the briefing—we have been given little reason to think of marriage as anything other than a life-long union between a man and a woman for the begetting and raising of children.

Consider: To say that the State used to witness marriage in ancient Rome, but then the Church witnessed it; or that the Church emphasized the public character of the sacrament more in some periods than it did in others; or that people chose their spouses more to secure their position in the world in some eras and more to satisfy their romantic feelings in another; or that some cultures tended to make males legally dominant, which is not so much the case in the modern West: All these things are like arguing that the fundamental nature of marriage has frequently changed because in some places it has been celebrated on Saturdays, and in others on Mondays or Wednesdays.

Real Issues, Enhanced with Fiction

As the briefing continues with the twentieth century and draws to a close, however, it presents two other changes, changes which at last begin to eat away at the substance of marriage itself: easy divorce and contraception. These have fundamentally altered how we think about marriage by eliminating its permanence on the one hand, and its fecundity on the other—and so also undermining the stability which has always made marriage so important economically, socially and politically. Those who do not by now recognize the connections between these changes in perception and the growing insistence on gay marriage must be very dull indeed. If marriage is primarily a relationship of temporary convenience based on mutual satisfaction, separated from larger concepts of children and family, then it is hard to object to marriage between a man and a man or a woman and a woman.

That even many Christians, who should know better, are reluctant to give up the easy satisfactions of divorce and contraception makes it extremely difficult to argue effectively against gay marriage. In other words, it is difficult to defend an institution against homosexuality when, as the briefing points out, the understanding of that institution has already been deprived of the core elements which make heterosexuality relevant. But this is nothing more than what the Catholic argument against gay marriage has always acknowledged. Our culture has been whittling away at a nearly universal and highly traditional institution for a hundred years now. We have sown the wind, and we are reaping the whirlwind (Hos 8:7).

Two other points remain. First, in what appears as the last section online, but was a sidebar in the print edition, the briefing plays its trump card against the idea of any traditional, universal understanding of marriage (recall that polygamy was a fair contestant, but ultimately not quite effective, and full of obvious unintended consequences for fashionable thinkers). Unveiling its shocker, the briefing explains that gay marriage was widespread in the medieval Church before the 13th century, all across Europe, including liturgies for male bonding.

Now if this were true, it might mean something. But in fact it is not true, though it has become an urban legend. The thesis was dreamed up nearly twenty years ago by a homosexual Yale University historian, John Boswell, who wrote a book about it based on evidence which was either non-existent or more or less deliberately misconstrued. It is no surprise that these claims are being published widely again today, given their convenience in justifying what our chattering classes wish to achieve. But the claims have long since been refuted, and no responsible scholar accepts them. See for example Robin Darling Young’s 1994 article in First Things: Gay Marriage: Reimaging Church History.

Squeezing Norms out of Thin Air

All of this nonsense brings us back to a larger point at which I have already hinted several times: A survey of sociological patterns cannot reasonably be used to prove that one particular pattern should not be normative. Take any “should” statement about human behavior and, if you confine your study to anthropology and sociology, you will be able to find numerous instances in which this “should” has been undermined, rejected or ignored. So when we observe that certain long-held institutional assumptions are changing in our own time, it is never sufficient so say, “That’s OK, because what we are abandoning has not always been valued anyway.” One may gain insights into what ought to be normative from noticing certain trends in human societies over a broad range of space and time. But one cannot deduce that nothing ought to be normative, or that something new ought to be normative, merely from observing the variety of human behavior.

And in fact everyone on both sides of the debate knows this. This is why the polygamy argument is so dangerous; if we say that polygamy is proof that there is no norm in marriage (something we may want to be the case), are we also saying there is no norm for the treatment of women (something we do not wish to be the case)?  Do we think for a moment that the authors of The Week’s briefing do not believe that easy divorce and contraception should be normative, that the effort to eliminate these things should be opposed? But why should they think this? After all, there were many (in fact, most) periods in history in which divorce and contraception were extremely uncommon and specifically disapproved. So surely that must be okay. And are we to suppose that those in favor of gay marriage do not believe that its approval and support should be normative? But why? Here the evidence that other societies have taken a different view is almost universal. So if we choose to proscribe gay marriage, should this not be perceived as one of many perfectly acceptable arrangements? And yet this is not what the proponents of gay marriage believe.

In reality, of course, in order to come to a conclusion, we have to look at other forms of knowledge, specifically the kinds of knowledge that can actually make the transition from what we observe in human culture (anthropology, sociology) and what we ought to foster in human culture (based on moral evaluation). The study of Revelation (theology) is one such discipline. Reasoning about the nature, design, purposes and ends of things (philosophy) is another. The study of the natural law is particularly appropriate, as I have recently argued in reviewing two recent books on this theme in The Natural Law and Sex. Not so long ago, back in the same twentieth century which gave us easy divorce and contraception, Pope John Paul II worked very hard (and very effectively) to develop a rich theology of the body, arguing that the very design of our bodies indicates that they have a nuptial meaning, and exploring that meaning through a combination of philosophical analysis and theological insight.

Indeed, in all long-lived cultures certain fundamental understandings have been exceedingly strong:

  1. Men and women are complementary beings;
  2. They are so designed as to couple sexually, which produces children;
  3. Children are of fundamental importance—in themselves, for personal happiness and the delights of family, for material security over time, for the strengthening of the social order, for the continuation and development of culture;
  4. The complementary qualities of men and women take their highest natural form in permanent marital unions which not only maximize the potential of the spouses but provide stable environments for the sound formation of children.

Now, it is not so hard to derive norms from such basic recognitions of specific forms of being in their designs and purposes; this is the proper path from is to ought. A good airplane is one that can actually carry something significant from point A to point B through the air. Whenever the understandings enumerated above have been lost or have been incapable of implementation over an extended period of time, societies and cultures have, well, crashed.

Clearly, The Week’s briefing on marriage did not tell us very much. Yet it did attempt to imply an odd normative point, the point that because human behavior has varied in the past, we must welcome new variations of that behavior now. Loosely translated, this is the same point always made by those who wish to shatter what they regard as conventional morality. The argument is this: Since the evidence of differences in human behavior shows that what we once thought was normative really was not normative, therefore what we want to do now must be accepted as the new norm. There was even a photo with the article showing two men exchanging rings. You could tell it was a marriage because one man wore a T-shirt labelled Bride and the other wore one labelled Groom. But does this mean that norms are derived from T-shirts? Unfortunately, at the level of every human study, including and especially logic, this argument is not an argument at all.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: rfr46 - May. 04, 2018 8:16 AM ET USA

    If you don't get sex right, it is almost impossible to get anything else right. Thank you, Dr. Mirus for your wise analysis.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Jun. 11, 2012 11:51 AM ET USA

    There is no such thing as “gay marriage...” Even to say the term smells of sin. It is a self-contradiction. It would be like saying “hot snow” or “dry water...” Two people “joined” in a dysfunctional relationship satisfying their needs diabolically and dragging each other down to Hell in the process is not a “right...;” but rather it is an abomination..., a horror.

  • Posted by: - Jun. 10, 2012 9:45 PM ET USA

    Excellent and charitable analysis. I appreciate your focus on the centrality of complimentarity; the fundamental nature of marriage, properly understood, emerges from the innumerable DIFFERENCES between the genders, differences which combine to make a complete whole, culminating in procreation as well as countless augmentations of the individuals joined. A relationship comprised of two persons of the same sex cannot overcome this deficit, and no amount of vehement insistence will compensate.