Sunday, 20 April 2008

Patricians talk: contractual marriage

If marriage in both the ancient pagan world and in the Catholic faith is seen as a sacred and religious union, how did the modern concept of marriage as a mere contract of convenience come about? How did it become desacralised? There are of course many reasons why this happened, but I think by far the most significant in forming the modern view has been the protestant reformation.

In Catholic belief, the joining of man and woman in marriage for the procreation of new life is a participation not only in the creative plan of God, but also in the life of grace and in the life of the Trinity. But there is one thing that also needs to be stressed: the human body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and is sacred. Consequently the nuptial joining of man and woman in a loving sexual union is an emphatically holy act. Indeed the Sarum rite of marriage consisted of the promise to be 'bonny and buxom in bed and board'!

Adultery, fornication and sexual perversions are grave sins precisely because they are acts of sacrilege and profanation against the dignity of the human person and what is a holy act. This is why sacred scripture treats both idolatry and sexual immorality as nearly identical evils. Sexual sins seek a pleasure in the wrong way and in the wrong place, without acknowledging the intrinsic sanctity of the human body.

The protestant reformation however rejected this sacramental view of marriage, and completely denied that it was a state of holiness. This was because of Luther's doctrine that the human state and condition was radically corrupted by sin. The human body is no longer the temple of the Holy Spirit, but a living corruption of sin. Hence it could not participate in the life of grace, but only be at best covered by God's mercy while remaining corrupt from within.

Consequently the marital sexual act is no longer a participation in a sacramental life of grace, but a participation in sin and corruption. Sex becomes an almost intrinsically sinful act. Nevertheless, the reformers could not deny that scripture taught that marriage was divinely instituted. Hence marriage now became a matter of utility, not a state of holiness. It is not difficult to see that this was one factor in the development of the view of bourgeois marriage whereby it becomes a mere institution of respectability and convenience. Married love is not seen as an essential component: instead it is something to be downplayed.

The reason why I say this is that I believe that the view of modernity at heart is one of Manichean despair, viewing erotic love is intrinsically evil: a legacy from protestant theology. It may seem that modernity may worship erotic love, but it is in a way that is completely cut off from the natural order of procreation. It has become a destructive force in the world. This is one reason why people today cannot understand the notion that erotic love ought to be subject to the law of grace and of reason. For them they are irrevocably opposed.

Eros, having been condemned by protestantism as part of human corruption, and pushed out of marriages of convenience, was bound to rebel. This was what happened in the Romantic movement, culminating in the operas of Richard Wagner, which have had untold influence on the modern consciousness. This will be subject of the next post.

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