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Medieval Catholic Background

Prior to the sixteenth century, marriage was principally subject to the theology and law of the Roman Catholic Church. The medieval Church treated marriage and the family in a threefold manner—at once as a natural, contractual, and sacramental unit. First, marriage was a natural association, created by God to enable man and woman to "be fruitful and multiply" and to raise children in the service and love of God. Since the fall into sin, marriage had also become a remedy for lust, a channel to direct one's natural passion to the service of the community and the church. Second, marriage was a contractual unit, formed in its essence by the mutual consent of the parties. This contract prescribed for couples a life-long relation of love, service, and devotion to each other and proscribed unwarranted breach or relaxation of their connubial and parental duties. Third, marriage, when properly contracted and consummated between Christians, rose to the dignity of a sacrament. The temporal union of body, soul, and mind within the marital estate symbolized the eternal union between Christ and His Church, and brought sanctifying grace to the couple, their children, and the church. This sacramental perspective helped to integrate the natural and the contractual dimensions of marriage and to render marriage a central concern of the church.

Although a sacrament and a sound way of Christian living, however, marriage was not considered to be particularly spiritually edifying. Marriage was a remedy for sin, not a recipe for righteousness. Marital life was considered less commendable than celibate life, propagation less virtuous than contemplation. Clerics, monastics, and other servants of the church were thus to forgo marriage as a condition for ecclesiastical service. Those who could not do so were not worthy of the church's holy orders and offices. Celibacy was something of a litmus test of spiritual discipline and social superiority.

From the twelfth century forward, the Catholic Church built upon this conceptual foundation a comprehensive canon law of marriage that was enforced by church courts throughout much of Western Christendom. Until the sixteenth century, the canon law of marriage was the law of the West. A civil law or a common law of marriage, where it existed at all, was generally considered supplemental and subordinate. Consistent with the naturalist perspective on marriage, the church's canon law punished contraception and abortion as violations of the created marital functions of propagation and childrearing. It proscribed unnatural relations, such as incest and polygamy, and unnatural acts such as bestiality, buggery, and sodomy. Consistent with the contractual perspective, the canon law ensured voluntary unions by dissolving marriages formed through mistake, duress, fraud, or coercion, and granting husband and wife alike equal rights to enforce conjugal debts that had been voluntarily assumed. Consistent with the sacramental perspective, the church protected the sanctity and sanctifying purpose of marriage by declaring valid marital bonds to be indissoluble, and by dissolving invalid unions between Christians and non-Christians or between parties related by various legal, spiritual, blood, or familial ties. This canon law of marriage, grounded in a rich sacramental theology and ecclesiastical jurisprudence, was formalized and systematized by the Council of Trent in 1563.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsProtestantism - Medieval Catholic Background, Reformation Response, Lutheranism, Calvinism, Anglicanism, Legacy