Marriage: Developments in Catholic Theology and Ethics. (Notes on Moral Theology)

By Cahill, Lisa Sowle | Theological Studies, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Marriage: Developments in Catholic Theology and Ethics. (Notes on Moral Theology)


Cahill, Lisa Sowle, Theological Studies


DISCUSSIONS OF MARRIAGE in recent decades almost invariably begin with allusions to the fragility of the institution and the high rate of divorce. Dismay at negative consequences for children quickly follows, along with concern for the status of women, both in the marriage relationship itself and after marriages end. Indeed, a published volume and a TV documentary--both produced in 2002--intending to rehabilitate marriage on the basis of ecumenical Christian insights share the title: Marriage--Just a Piece of Paper? (1) Meanwhile, Catholic treatments of marriage since Vatican II have adopted a striking optimism toward the marriage relation, its sacramental power, and the Christian family as "domestic Church," developing a hermeneutic of marriage as above all an expression of interpersonal love. Official teaching documents and theologians alike have recast the tradition's focus on marriage's procreative purpose accordingly, saying that the commitment of Catholic spouses to parenthood is ultimately grounded in their own love relationship, as prior and foundational. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

man is created in the image and likeness of God who is himself love. Since God created him man and woman, their mutual love becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves man. It is good, very good, in the Creator's eyes. And this love which God blesses is intended to be fruitful and to be realized in the common work of watching over creation.... (2)

In the writings of John Paul II and his advocates, the interdependent love relationships of marriage and parenthood are also based on and require sexual complementarity, including gender roles. Given the dismal state of the institution of marriage in modernized Western cultures, widely differing forms of marriage in other cultures, and continued systemic disadvantaging of women within marriage around the globe, it is imperative to ask whether the standard Catholic personalist framework, with its confidence in free, individual commitment, is adequate to confront and challenge the social realities of marriage today.

This segment of Notes on Moral Theology reviews a spectrum of recent attempts to affirm and renew marriage. First, biblical and historical studies shed light on formative periods of church history. They display how the freely undertaken and consummated marriage of two Christians has come to be viewed as indissoluble, and how the thought of the Vatican II era brought a new emphasis on the mutual love of spouses. A second set of authors proceeds more or less within this now standard framework, including those who agree on its basic terms, but want to renegotiate the meaning of indissolubility so as to provide for flexibility in the face of marital dissolution. A more radical stance, also with roots in the 1960s and 1970s, presses the feminist critique as essential to any real reform of the institution of marriage, challenging whether the complementarity model of gender can truly provide for equality. A fourth approach is represented by emerging scholars who are especially sensitive to the cultural and socioeconomic conditions, including gender, that are propitious for or destructive to the success of two persons' marriage commitment. Finally, some theologians bring distinctive aspects of Latin American, African, and Asian culture to bear on the theology and practice of marriage and of gender roles in marriage. The focus will be largely though not exclusively on Catholic contributions from the past five years.

A guiding thesis is that an important shift has occurred in the work of the new generation of Catholic scholars who write from a culture and for an audience pervaded by transcience of relationships, trivialization of sex, and exploitation of just about every area of human meaning by market capitalism. Unlike the generation of theologians who reached maturity in the era of Vatican II, the mission of these younger scholars is not to affirm the goodness of sex and marriage over against a religious culture used to giving it second-class status. …

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