The Theology and Spirituality of Marriage

By Osborne, Kenan B. | The Catholic World, May-June 1995 | Go to article overview

The Theology and Spirituality of Marriage

Osborne, Kenan B., The Catholic World

On reviewing the almost two thousand years of the Christian Church, one finds that initially the early church leadership spoke only briefly about marriage. One also finds that the early church as such was only peripherally involved in the marriage process. Early church leadership only gradually and over many centuries began to provide either regulations or rituals for the marriages of Christian couples. During the first millennium of the Christian Church, there were many changes in the church leadership's pastoral care of marriage as well. Over the centuries, however, church leadership has rather consistently stood for marriage. It has been pro marriage, not against it. Even though many famous church writes presented celibacy and virginity as "higher states" above that of the married life, the Christian Church has been a major voice in our world pro marriage. For me, personally, this has been one of the key factors in the church's theology and spirituality of marriage. While other groups have belittle marriage in the past, and still do today, the Christian church has been different voice: a voice of affirmation.

Nonetheless, the affirmation has not always been clear or fully consistent. This is true today in the post-Vatican II church, just as it has been true in times past. There are many factors which have entered into this clarity-unclarity positioning on marriage. Without going into a long and detailed history of Christian marriage practices, I would like to list some of the salient points which factor into this clarity-unclarity situation of today.



First of all, in the New Testament there are only a few passages regarding marriage, for marriage was by no means a central theme of Jesus' preaching. Only occasionally did Jesus express some key ideas on marriage. In both the Mark tradition (10:2-12) and the Luke tradition (16:18) one finds Jesus stating that all marriages - not just Christian marriages, but all marriages - are meant by God to be lifelong commitments. In the Matthew tradition (5:32 and 19:12) and in the Pauline passages (I Cor 7:10-16), this call of Jesus for a lifelong commitment in marriage is repeated, but in both of these authors an exception is made for some sort of pastoral reason: Matthew on two occasions makes an exception on the basis of "pornea." This is a word whose exact meaning remains controverted down to the present day. Nonetheless, in Matthew some sort of exception to the lifelong rule of Jesus is being made. In Paul, the issue revolves around a marriage in which one of the parties is a believer and the other is not. If the non-believer asks for a divorce. No mention is made that the Christian party cannot remarry, and the presumption must be that she or he could remarry.(1) Again, one sees an adaptation of the lifelong rule of Jesus.

As Fr. George MacRae, S.J. has written:

We cannot rest Church practice regarding marriage and divorce upon a supposedly divinely revealed law - to the extent that the New Testament serves as the vehicle of that revelation. Instead, we must discern the process by which the teaching of Jesus was remembered, communicated, interpreted, adapted and enshrined in the practice of the early Christian communities. That process, we have seen, is one of accommodation to circumstances that were not the context of the preaching of Jesus himself.(2)

However, the major New Testament writing on marriage, which has been used again and again as the basis for a theology and spirituality of Christian marriage, is found in Hebrews. Marcus Barth has analyzed this brief passage at great length, and noted that throughout the passage it is the love of Jesus for the church and the church for Jesus which is the primary model for the loving relationship between husband and wife. Only in so far as a husband reflects Jesus is the wife to respect him. He in turn, Barth writes, is to LOVE her, and then love HER - as a person. …

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