Thomas L. McDonald has been a writer and editor for the past 25 years, covering technology, history, archaeology, games, and religion. He has degrees in English, Film, and Theology with a concentration in Church History. He’s been a certified catechist for twelve years, and taught Church History for eight. His other writing can be found at Weird Catholic.
When examining the roots of Catholic teaching on marriage on it's permanent character, it’s not enough to quote Matthew 19: 3-9 (Mark 10:11–12, Luke 16:18), then sit back and ponder a job well done. Too much is going on not only in these passages, but in the subsequent actions and writings of the Church and Church Fathers, to reduce it to a mere scriptural imperative. We need to go beyond these familiar words.
The first question is why did Jesus do this.
And he didn’t just do it, but he did it in the boldest and most symbolic way possible. In Luke, he changes the law on divorce in sentence following his claim that not “one dot of the law” shall become void.
In Matthew (the longest passage devoted to this teaching) we’re even told where he does it: “the region of Judea beyond the Jordan.” What else happened in the region of Judea beyond the Jordan? Moses explained the laws of Deuteronomy (Deut. 1:6), among them Deut. 21:1-4, allowing a man to divorce his wife: the very law Jesus is about to revoke. This is also where John baptised and preached against the divorce and remarriage of Herod and Herodias.
This context gives the teaching extremely symbolic, politically charged, value. Jesus was restoring marriage to its ideal state as found in Genesis. That ideal had been lost as hard-hearted humanity struggled to make a go of their covenants with God, generally doing a pretty poor job of it. In the New Covenant, true marriage as God intended would be restored, but how would it fit into Christian approaches to sex, continence, family, and the social fabric of the Christian community?
This rebirth of marriage as sacred and unbreakable was preached along with a call to celibacy. The presence of Jesus at the marriage feast of Cana ran headlong into eunichs for the kingdom, requiring the growing Church to think through a number of complex, seemingly contradictory points. It exercised the mind of St. Augustine for decades, and as that fertile intellect turned over these ideas and responded to different heresies and controversies, he refined and developed what would become the foundation of the Catholic understanding of marriage.
Celibacy vs Marriage
We have to be frank here: the Church fathers are mostly hopeless on the subject of marriage. Taking their cue from St. Paul and the model of Jesus they exalted celibacy above all other states, and considered marriage at best a tolerable evil for those who coudn't remain continent. It took until St. John Paul’s Theology of the Body to develop a profound and nuanced theology of sexuality and marriage that was both true to scripture and tradition and meaningful to the human experience.
Augustine started wrestling with marriage and celibacy idea early on, and returned to it frequently, with different promptings and subtly different results, throughout his life. These desires were not abstract for him. He was a man of deep passions who led a sexually active life, lived with a woman, and fathered a son, all prior to his conversion. Indeed, he was unwilling to end the relationship. Only when his lover converted, entered a convent, and turned his son Adeodatus over to him did they break. As he wrote: “She was stronger than I, and made her sacrifice with a courage and generosity which I was not strong enough to imitate.”
And he still wasn’t strong enough. He took up with a new mistress, and didn’t stop until that voice whispered “tolle, lege” in his ear.
One of the early questions about marriage and divorce was how did it fit into the ideal of celibacy, and why was the right to divorce changed?
After his conversion, Augustine considered marriage no more than a nuisance and a distraction: something for those who were incapable of remaining continent. He didn’t give it any particularly profound thought until crafting his anti-Manichean works, which had to confront the Manichean disdain for intercourse and reproduction. This is led him in turn to defend the patriarchs and their behavior. Abraham, for example, was only polygamous out of obedience to the Lord and to produce a child. The sexual intercourse of Abraham and Sarah was good because it created the line of descendants that led to the incarnation of Jesus.
It is in defending against the Manichees that Augustine articulates the core symbolism of the changes Jesus made to the rule on divorce. Multiple marriages of the Old Testament signified “the future multitude subject to God in all peoples of the earth.” He also saw the practical need to fill the earth with the People of God. But with the New Covenant, “the single marriages of our time symbolically signify the unity of all of us subject to God which is to be in one heavenly City.” One stage of salvation history emphasized a certain expression of fecundity, while the next exalted unity. “The sanctity of the sacrament is of more importance than the fecundity of the womb.” (All quotes from “The Good of Marriage/De bono coniugali,” in Treatises on Marriage and Other Subjects, ed. Roy Joseph Deferrari, trans. Charles T. Wilcox)
Augustine’s later responses about marriage were in dialog with Jovinian and the Pelagian Julian, who asserted, respectively, that celibacy and marriage were equally pleasing to God and that concupiscence itself was not evil.
Marriage as Sacramentum
Augustine had to the thread the needle between arguing that chastity was the ideal while also defending the good of marriage. The complex arguments about the will need not detains us here, but instead let’s focus on Augustine’s “three goods” of marriage: offspring (proles), fidelity (fides), sacrament (sacramentum). Offspring assured the continuation of mankind in the divine order for fruitfulness. Fidelity encouraged continence and the building up of families, and contained sexual desire within monogamy.
The most important aspect, however, was sacrament. Sacramentum did not have the fullness of meaning to Augustine that it does to us today, and he tended to use it flexibly, but in essence it means something more than a symbol. Augustine doesn’t argue from nature or law, but from a rich understanding of the true meaning of union itself. The relation of husband and wife is a sacramentum of the union of Christ the Bridegroom to the Church. To be true, a marriage must be as close to that ideal as possible, and one of the aspects of that is indissolubility. A husband could no more leave his wife than Christ could leave the Church. One participates in the other. Thus, each divorce wounds a portion of the body of Christ.
In On the Good of Marriage, he writes
I do not think that this bond could by any means have been so strong, unless a symbol [Latin: sacramentum], as it were, of something greater than that which could arise from our weak mortality were applied, something that would remain unshaken for the punishment of men when they abandon and attempt to dissolve this bond, inasmuch as, when divorce intervenes, that nuptial contract is not destroyed, so that the parties of the compact are wedded persons even though separated. Moreover, they commit adultery with those with whom they have intercourse even after their repudiation, whether she with a man, or he with a woman.
The City of God demands that a valid marriage be indissoluable because it is a figure of the very relation at the heart of the Church. Christ and His Spouse are united eternally. Our unions—man to woman—help repair a wound of the fall by rejoining in one flesh that which was separated, and in doing so they participate in the mystical marriage of Christ the Bridgeroom and his Bride. If it is a genuine marriage to begin with, how could such a thing ever be torn asunder by man?