Changing Attitudes Towards Marriage and the Religious Right

Perhaps no other news item generates as much controversy as debates over whether gay marriage should be legalized. And perhaps no other issue is as poorly understood or historically myopic either.

For those familiar with either church history or the history of marriage, the saying ecclesia semper reformanda est- "The church is always to be reformed"- is as apt today as it was in the sixteenth century, when the Protestant reformations tore apart European societies at their seams. Critics of marriage equality in the United States particularly, but elsewhere too, often invoke pericopes from the book of Matthew, 1 Corinthians, and others to buttress their criticism against gay marriage. The majority of criticism against the idea, therefore, is grounded in religious or confessional rhetoric and belief.

If I understand the religious perspective from which many critics of gay marriage approach the debate, and I think I do, the crux of the problem lies in sexual and marital order being equated with communal order. In its most simplistic form, a sinful community or country will suffer divine punishment regardless of whether God's elect are among the sinful.

It's difficult to imagine, but the very same debates about marriage took place in the late Middle Ages and early sixteenth century. The change in attitudes towards marriage arguably began with a critique of celibacy among churchmen in various places across Europe. Churchmen cited 1 Corinthians 7:9, "But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion." But the debate really accelerated in Zurich in the 1520s when, under the leadership of a preacher and church reformer named Huldrych Zwingli, the town sought to regulate marital dysfunction and immoral behaviour (sodomy, bestiality, spousal desertion, abuse, adultery, etc.). Having a pure society meant that Zurich's inhabitants were, and remained, part of God's elect. It was therefore absolutely necessary to regulate matrimony, something which was previously difficult to do over the vast expanses of Christendom.

Identifying the problems was one thing, but how the town would regulate sins like sodomy was another. To accomplish their goal in regulating marriage, Zwingli and his followers introduced a marriage court (which also acted as a morals court). For quite sometime, various Protestant cantons across the Swiss Confederation set up these types of courts, sentencing those found guilty to penance, monetary fines, imprisonment, exile and, in extreme cases, death. This system of regulation would be perfected by later reformer and lawyer John Calvin, whose ideas spread to Scotland, the Netherlands, and eventually America, where they would undergo further change during the period of American religious rivival known as the Great Awakening in the mid-eighteenth century.

The point that I'm trying to make is that church policy regarding marriage has undergone near context change since roughly the sixteenth century, and I only begin there for the sake of brevity. One could very well go back to the lack of systematic canon law governing marriage in the Middle Ages, and there is not enough space to mention the inconsistent application of marriage law in Europe.

Aside from adopting Augustine's bona matrimonii (the Goods of Marriage), which identified children, the virtue of fidelity, and the sacred commitment for life (sacramentum vinculum) as the primary "goods" of marriage, the medieval church lacked a practical, coherent, and systemized teaching on marriage. During the pontificate of Pole Leo IX (1048-1054), some churchmen wanted to renew canon law and revive Roman law, and they believed that a coherent marriage law ought to govern Christendom and, in particular, remedy sins like adultery. Around 1140, Gratian compiled his Decretum, which granted the church exclusive rights over cases of heresy, schism, apostasy, and simony, as well as cases regarding the system of sacraments, which included matrimony.

In the 1980s, historian John Boswell wrote Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality in which he argued that the medieval church had not always condemned homosexuals throughout its history. Instead, Boswell suggested, until the twelfth century the church had shown little concern for homosexuality and, on occasion, celebrated fraternal love between men. Later, in a 1994 book, Boswell demonstrated that early Christians had actually accepted same-sex relationships in various circumstances. His research persuasively underscored the eclectic nature of the medieval church's view on marriage equality. From that twelfth century to the Protestant reformations, therefore, theologians grappled with what to do about marriage. Even then, however, matrimony in theory had limited impact on its practice.

For those who vehemently oppose marital equality, the key issue to bear in mind is that the very institutions many cling to have transformed and reformed throughout Christianity's long and sometimes tumultuous history. Some hang on to what they see as tradition being eroded by the progress of human rights. This goes for all Christian confessions, although some are more opposed to reform than others, whether one is Roman Catholic, Methodist, Anglican, Presbyterian, Mennonite or Amish. Perhaps it is time to come to terms with Christianity's constantly changing past. Another key issue, though, is whether various confessions will be able to reconcile two claims to freedom of expression. Whatever route each church chooses to take, the debate concerning marriage equality highlights the important and continued relevance of churches in North America and elsewhere.

So for those who adopt a hardline stance against marriage equality, isn't it time to support the Christian tradition of reformation? Which one is the lesser of two evils? After all, "they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion."