The Distorted Christian Tradition of Marriage

As the prospect of gay marriage is once again in the news in some American states, American Catholic Bishops are once again railing against the supposed dangers inherent in marriage equality. I am not going to review the flaws in their arguments, or their outlandish claims.  There is one recent statement, though, that cannot be allowed to pass without the strongest objection.   In one cardinal’s words, “We are followers of Jesus Christ, so our message must be what he proclaimed”.

Really? So why then does that cardinal – and leaders in other Churches who take a similar line – not pay closer attention to what Jesus actually said and demonstrated on the subject?

The “official” Catholic understanding of marriage has nothing at all to do with anything taught or demonstrated by Jesus Christ, in words or example. He said nothing at all about marriage, except that it could not be ended in divorce, and nothing at all against same – sex relationships.  Instead, he clearly did much to show by his actions his inclusion of all.

Nor does the modern Church understanding of marriage match that of Paul, who recommended celibacy for those who could cope with it, but for those who could not, recommended marriage as a remedy for lust – not for procreation. Nor is there anything in Paul’s letters that would have been understood as an unequivocal condemnation of homoerotic sexuality by his Greek and Roman audiences, for whom such relationships were commonplace and seen as entirely natural.   It is true that there are some ambiguous hints at a natural Jewish unease with the homoerotic, and it is also true that some of the later letters attributed to Paul proclaim a higher doctrine of marriage.  But the good ol’ proper confetti-and-all virgin-on-the-wedding-night 100%-hetero image of marriage proclaimed by the Catholic Bishops and other conservatives has no foundation whatever in Scripture.

Nor does the bishops’ understanding of marriage agree with that of the earliest Church fathers, many of whom, following Paul, recommended celibacy – even in marriage. Tertullian, for instance, who was himself married, warned his readers that those who marry and want to produce children are being thoughtless. .At about the same time Origen, who was also married, castrated himself to remove sexual temptations.

Nor is the distortion in the modern Christian understanding of marriage limited to the imagined necessary link between marriage and procreation. It also extends to the ceremony itself, where marriage is so often confused with the wedding. For most of Christian and Jewish history, in contrast, these were two completely separate concepts, symbolically marked by a betrothal, public or private, well before the wedding (often years before). This betrothal could be public, often in childhood with arranged marriages, or if later, it could be private – with the commencement of cohabitation. In such cases, the concept of cohabitation before marriage was self- contradictory: the marriage was seen as commencing with the onset of a sexual relationship in a shared household. The public celebration in the wedding followed later, possibly with the onset of pregnancy or even after childbirth.

This conflation of marriage and the wedding has had some disastrous side-effects on modern marriage, with far too much attention paid to planning the wedding as a grand and memorable party, and not nearly enough on the solemn commitment of the marriage. The result, as Mark Jordan notes in “Blessing Same-Sex Unions”, in most modern weddings, the chief presider over “traditional” church weddings is no longer the priest or minister, but the wedding planner, closely followed by the photographer, the caterer and the florist.

In opposing gay marriage and same-sex relationships, the American Catholic bishops and their followers are emphatically NOT following the example or proclamation of Jesus Christ, as they falsely claim, but Vatican ideology, as developed from what Joseph Ratzinger once described as the “distorting tradition” in Christian history, which should be strongly resisted and exposed for what it is.

Terry Weldon

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