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The Sanctity of Marriage: Origin of the Sacrament

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How far back does marriage go?

Americans care deeply about the sanctity of marriage. Many hold it as a core value of family life, a path that leads to God's plan for us. Others view it as a legal issue which provides clarification for purposes of taxation, employee benefits, and inheritance. Whatever view you may take, knowing the history of marriage can offer insight into the raging debate that surrounds it.

The Christian faith introduced marriage to its followers much later than most people suspect. The Catholic Church has had seven sacraments, but for the majority of its life it only had five; Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation, Holy Orders, and Last Rites. Each of these came from a Biblical source, such as the Baptism of Jesus, the Last Supper, and Jesus instructing Peter to build His Church.

Although people often quote Genesis in describing marriage as a sanctified union, it has no precedent in the Bible. Marriage in the Christian world held a purely legal connotation until 1215, and people treated it the same as any other contract. Laws of primogeniture--the rights of the firstborn son--required a strict definition of marriage. The Church forced monks and priests to take vows of celibacy not out of holy purity, but to prevent them from willing Church property to their children as an inheritance. Kings and lesser noblemen manipulated it to form alliances, treaties, and larger territories. These aristocrats viewed their daughters and wives as possessions, which they traded to other aristocrats like money. Remnants of this still exist in modern marriage ceremonies; the father "gives away" the bride, and we expect engagement rings to represent a financial commitment as well as an emotional one. Medieval marriage served the function of a social contract, void of religious significance. As such, historians have found instances of same-sex marriages (though not necessarily gay) in the first 1000 years of Christian Europe.

The Fourth Lateran Council met in 1215, and there the Church decided to add Marriage (as well as Reconciliation) to its list of sacraments. Before that meeting, marriage was not sanctified. For perspective, William of Normandy conquered England, several authors had written their own accounts of the legend of King Arthur, and Halley's Comet had already been identified (though not by Halley).

The conservative aristocracy hated the Church's decision. While we may not see any problem with a religious context for marriage, the Fourth Lateran Council granted the Church the power to determine the legality of any marriage. Therefore, if the Pope didn't approve of an alliance, treaty or larger territory that the aristocrats intended to form, he could annul the marriage, which would void the contract.

Things change; nothing in the Universe remains constant except matter and energy. While marriage has only been holy for a relatively short span of history, that does not imply that it can't be held as sacred at all, nor does it imply that it must be held sacred. This is simply a brief history, which will better inform your decision-making.


Kevin V Russell on October 28, 2015:

Thank you for this article. Well done everyone

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