The controversy over gay marriage has at least one positive result: the general public is hearing and talking about the meaning of marriage, and various religious bodies are revisiting and usually reaffirming their traditional beliefs. In the discussions I have heard, one interesting question is that of the origins of marriage. Did God institute it, or did Jesus or Christianity, or did it simply arise from a basic human need?
The fact is that no one knows the origins of marriage. Some form of marriage has apparently been a part of every known prehistoric and ancient culture, and marriage practices in every age have been as diverse as the cultures in which they were found. But in every case, marriage has always been a socially institutionalized way of defining relationships between two people, of establishing and protecting rights and responsibilities for parents and children, and of providing solidarity and continuity in each society. Because social relationships were so important, the marriages that were at their heart were normally considered sacred, and so in a broad sense, they had a religious character.
Since Catholic Christians consider marriage between two baptized people to be a sacrament, and since marriage is regulated by clear and strict church laws and norms, we might be led to assume that Christian marriage has always been in the form we experience it today. We might be surprised to discover this is not the case. Marriage as we know it in the Roman Catholic church, with the required preparation programs, the filling out of forms, and the liturgical ritual, were simply not there through most of the first half of Christianity’s history.
Early in Christian history marriage was considered to be a sacrament in the broad sense, but certainly not in the sense that we today regard baptism and the other official sacraments. Our current understanding of marriage as a sacrament can only be traced to around the eleventh century. Prior to that time civil authorities presided over all marriages, and before the eleventh century there was no such thing as a Christian wedding ceremony. This would change when bishops became increasingly concerned that couples marry legally and with proper witnesses. Eventually all couples were required to have their weddings blessed by a priest, and the clergy increasingly assumed the role previously exercised by civil authorities. Marriages, normally celebrated in civil halls or in homes, were now celebrated near or inside church buildings, and the liturgy of marriage continued to evolve. It was not until the sixteenth century that the standard Catholic wedding ritual came into existence.
Today the civil government still regulates marriage in a number of ways, for example, in the granting of marriage licenses. When a couple is married in a church, the priest acts as the Church’s official witness, and also, in a way, as the agent of the state. Indeed, in some countries, couples must be married first by a civil official, then later they come to the church for the liturgical rite of marriage. In either case, the people as a whole, and the Church, continue to have a serious concern for the protection, rights and responsibilities of those who marry.