Benjamin Wiker is Professor of Political Science, Director of Human Life Studies, and Senior Fellow of the Veritas Center at Franciscan University. His newest book is In Defense of Nature: the Catholic Unity of Environmental, Economic, and Moral Ecology. His website is www.benjaminwiker.com.
Given that the state has now taken upon itself the power and authority to redefine marriage, it’s a very good time to ask why the Catholic Church defined marriage to begin with.
Now it might seem nonsensical to say that the Catholic Church defined marriage, as if no one had ever heard of marriage until about 2000 years ago. But in a very real way, that’s true. Marriage defined in terms of lifelong, heterosexual, sexually exclusive monogamy was a Catholic invention, in somewhat the same way that the university itself, as an institution, was a Catholic invention.
This is a very important point. We tend to think that the particular definition of marriage we affirm—again, lifelong, heterosexual, sexually exclusive monogamy—has been shared by all cultures up until very recently. And then suddenly, out of nowhere, we’ve got the sexual revolution in the 1960s, which in turn leads to the redefinition of marriage to include gay marriage in 2015.
On this view, nearly all of history holds the right and obvious definition of marriage, and only within the last year has marriage become derailed.
But that is not true. The truth is, more or less, the opposite. Marriage defined in terms of lifelong, heterosexual, sexually exclusive monogamy is the historical odd bird, so to speak. That is, the Christian definition of marriage is the exception, not the rule.
This exception became the rule in the West, not only in regard to the Church itself, but legally and culturally, only because the early Church evangelized the Roman Empire, thereby creating Christianized Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.
Here is an odd sign that I am right is this: the homosexual movement embraced—at least publicly—lifelong, sexually exclusive monogamy as its own definition of marriage and the stated aim of its sexuality.
This is strange for two, related reasons. The first is that there is no natural reason at all to make homosexuality monogamous or sexually exclusive—and in practice, it almost never is, even among the gay married. Second, there is no historical precedent for homosexuality expressing itself that way; i.e., although homosexuality existed prior to, and outside of, Christianity, it has never before aimed at Christian-defined monogamy before, in any other time or place.
The only reason, then, that the homosexual movement has chosen lifelong, sexually exclusive monogamy as its prime public definition of marriage is that it is redefining Christian marriage, coopting an artifact of Christianized culture. The homosexual marriage movement may have done it for the sake of moral legitimacy, or cultural legitimacy, or as a matter of strategy, or for legal reasons, but that it has done so at all, makes sense only in terms of the original definition of marriage given to the West by the Catholic Church almost 2000 years ago.
So, even to understand the form that the homosexual movement has taken publically in regard to marriage, we have to go back to the original definition of marriage given by the Catholic Church in the midst of the pagan Roman Empire.
Now you might think that, if you were transported back to that time period two millennia ago, you’d find the good old Romans toga-ing about, having lovely lifelong, heterosexual, sexually-exclusive monogamous marriages, and periodically giving impromptu but polished speeches on virtue. But what you would actually find—what the early Christians in fact did find—was exactly the opposite.
There was monogamy, but what that meant was that while the wife should be sexually faithful to the husband, the husband could have his own concubines, visit prostitutes, view pornography, or have sex with his male or female slaves, not just adults, but his boy and girl slaves as well. There were no restrictions for males on premarital sex or extramarital sex.
Needful to say, contraception use was very widespread, abortion was entirely acceptable, and so was infanticide. There were also no prohibitions against pedophilia, in fact, the sexual ideal among the Romans, an ideal given to them by the Greeks, was sexual relations between an older man and a boy between the ages of 12-17. And yes, there was even homosexual marriage—if it was between a man and a man, one of the men would dress up as a woman for the ceremony—but it was not defined in terms of being lifelong or sexually-exclusive. All this I detail in my Worshipping the State.
So, did the Romans believe that heterosexual monogamy was the only way to define marriage? Yes, in a way. Even then, homosexual marriages that occurred very publicly, most notably by Emperor Nero, were generally considered to be something unnatural. But when the Romans boasted that they were morally superior in their view of monogamous marriage to the surrounding barbarians, what they meant was that they detested the polygamy of the German tribesmen.
Just to say the Romans had a monogamous view of marriage isn’t enough, then, because what the Romans meant by heterosexual monogamy did not accord with the definition that Christianity would soon give. Roman heterosexual monogamy was not lifelong: the Romans allowed easy, no-fault divorce, and multiple remarriages. It was not sexually exclusive: as already noted, it included the man’s right to have concubines, sexual slaves, prostitutes, relations with girls and boys, etc. Unlike Christianity, heterosexual marriage didn’t define the goal of sexuality: a man could have sex with whomever he liked; marriage was more a contract for having children and handing on property.
That is how the Romans defined heterosexual monogamy. That (at least in part) is why Christianity had to redefine marriage 2000 years ago, against the defective view of marriage and sexuality held by the Romans. And that is why the gay marriage movement took over the Christian definition, if only to subvert it.
Now that we know a bit about why the Catholic Church Defined marriage, we can ask the follow-up question: Can the Catholic Church redefine marriage?
I’ll take up that question in the next blog post.