Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Gary Wills on Catholic Marriage

Gary Wills argues in a short article on the New York Review of Books website that the idea of a specifically Christian marriage is fiction and a misreading of Scripture, especially the story of the Wedding at Cana.  He argues that the Catholic idea of marriage as a sacrament begins very late, in the 13th century under the influence of Aquinas.  As for the tortuous legal knots this creates for actual couples, he uses the example of his own parents.
In the 1930s, my parents had a civil marriage, but my Catholic mother did not think she was truly married if not by a priest. My non-Catholic father went along with a church wedding (but in the sacristy, not the sanctuary) by promising to raise his children as Catholic. My mother thought she had received the sacrament, but had she? Since mutual consent is the essence of marriage, one would think that the sacrament would have to be bestowed on both partners; but my non-Catholic father could not receive the sacrament. Later, when my father left and married another, my mother was told she could not remarry because she was still married to my father in the “true marriage.” When he returned to my mother, and became a Catholic, a priest performed again the sacramental marriage. Since my father’s intervening marriage was “outside the church,” it did not count. What nonsense.
Wills argues that the prohibitions against full same sex matrimony are similar nonsense.

I've long argued that marriage has always been a very flexible institution subject to changing historical circumstances and to changes in people's needs and desires over time.  It endures precisely because it is flexible.  Marriage is not what it was 5000 years ago, 1000 years ago, or even 50 years ago.   Marriage varies tremendously across cultures, even Christian marriage.  And as so many others have argued, procreation is not necessarily the central reason for marriage, and that Christianity is not a fertility cult.  Also, same sex marriages are not necessarily childless.


Gary Wills also published a blistering attack on the Vatican for its inquisition against American nuns in the most recent issue of the NYRB, but they have yet to post it on their website, so no links.  You will just have to wait, or go out and buy the issue.  He very pointedly contrasts the mission of the nuns to the outcast and the downtrodden with the mission of the bishops, to secure more power and domination.  He contrasts his own experience with the nuns who were his teachers with the current Pope and his efforts to bring the old Lefevrist right wing opponents of the Second Vatican Council back into the official embrace of Rome, a movement full of unregenerate anti-semites.

I think of Gary Wills as nothing less than fully, and loyally, Roman Catholic.  I cannot see him joining (at least not willingly) the Episcopal Church as so many have suggested.  I think he sees himself as a loyal opposition.  However, as Wills himself must recognize, the very idea of a loyal opposition is an 18th century "modern" innovation which I seriously doubt that the current leadership in the Vatican would take seriously in its relentless reverse march back into monarchy and absolutism.


JCF said...

Gary Wills for Bishop of Rome!

JCF said...

Marriage is not what it was 5000 years ago, 1000 years ago, or even 50 years ago. Marriage varies tremendously across cultures, even Christian marriage.

To even say "Duh!" seems superfluous.

rick allen said...

I am surprised that one who wrote a biography of St. Augustine (which I read few years back) doesn't mention that in more than one place he discusses marriage as "sacramentum." But this may not be surprising, because Professor Wills refers again and again to marriage rites (a late development), not to the theology of marriage that began to develop in the first apostolic age.

There is of course no general Christian consensus on marriage(as there is none on Christology, the sacraments, soteriology, or even the canon of scripture). But two ecumenical councils of the Catholic Church have addressed marriage, Trent (briefly)and Vatican II (extensively, in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes). And since we do not adhere to sola scriptura, most of us are untroubled by developments that occurred even in the 13th century.

Like myself, Professor Wills is neither a cleric nor under a vow of obedience. He can profess or dissent from whatever he wants, and, unless he starts monkeying around with illicit ordinations, there will be no question of excommunication. So, there, I agree with you, he is undoubtedly a Catholic, but in the same sense that the Lefevrists are, who, like him, find much of the teaching of Vatican II nonsense, and are outraged that their own personal reading of the past doesn't trump an ecumenical council.

kishnevi said...

The argument over gay marriage is really a disguise for the true situation here.

Marriage started out as a vehicle for raising the next generation, and love was valuable only to the degree it helped produce a stable family.

Beginning about 1600 or even 1700, people started to see marriage as being focused on conjugal respect and love, and it slowly evolved over the years into an institution in which two people combined their lives, and in which producing progeny was a subsidiary goal that might not even enter into the picture.

You can track the change by watching how over the centuries marriages changed from being arranged by senior members of the family to matches in which the couple chose each other based on love. Gay marriage is simply a logical extension of this trend.

The people who oppose gay marriage and laud "family values" so-called still adhere to the old view of marriage as a manufactory of children.