Marriage, Celibacy and the Catholic Church

by Jani Farrell Roberts. c2000

An extract from her book "Seven Days: Tales of Magic, Sex and Gender."


"Life gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.

Love possesses not nor would it be possessed;

For love is sufficient unto love.

When you love you should not say, "God is in my heart," but rather, "I am in the heart of God."

And think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course...

But if you love and must needs have desires,

let these be your desires;

To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night." (Gibran )

Gibran wrote with an ancient Lebanese Middle-Eastern understanding that human love unites us with the very spirit of the Divine, that when we love, we are "in the heart of God." This concept is as old as the human spirit. In ancient rites of pre-Christian times as well as in many ancient cultures that have survived, the wedding of humans was a sacred image of the wedding of Deity and Earth, of the Oneness that love creates, uniting Divinity and Matter. The cycle of the year, the crops, the pups, the foals - all were seen as dependent on and part of the creative energy of the Creating Spirits, Deities or Ancestors.

Early Christian documents recorded similar thinking about marriage. They spoke of it as a symbol of the oneness between Christ and His people. "Husbands love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her... Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself... For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and he two shall become one flesh.." Ephesians, 5/22-32 The God and his people become one, women and men likewise become one.

This text also embodied an ancient concept of the God having to die that we have life, just as the wheat must die that we live - a mystery the Greeks celebrated in the Eleusian Mysteries.

But "one flesh"? The anti-flesh, the anti-women faction of the early church must have been deaf to this verse. They could not easily reconcile it with their belief that the flesh had been corrupted by the Fall - and so they concentrated on other biblical texts that they could make fit better.

They twisted Paul's chauvinism making it much worse. Letters written after Paul's death were quoted as if from him (and still are). But those that are still thought of as authored by him were misinterpreted. "Wives be subject to your husband ", Ephesians 5/22 ,is quoted, ignoring the adjacent clause, "be subject to each other."

Some quoted Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, 7/25 which said "do not marry". But Paul in the same chapter emphasised that Jesus had not say any such thing. "Now concerning the unmarried, I have no command of the Lord." I Cor 7/25. Because he was convinced that the world was about to end, Paul's personal opinion was that it was better to avoid marrying in such circumstances. He however ended with this instruction to those who were already married: "do not refuse each other except perhaps by agreement for a season that you may devote yourselves to prayer.. but then come together again." There is no hint here that he believed that sexual relations were not entirely good.

St Augustine misinterpreted a saying of Jesus about the need for couples to stay together. The apostles had protested to Jesus against this saying of his, saying that if one could not divorce, it was better not to marry. Jesus then conceded "not all men can receive this" adding "I say this by way of concession". His response applied to his statement about divorce, but Augustine took it as if Jesus had endorsed the view of the apostles that it was better not to marry.

St Jerome went ever further than Augustine. In translating the Bible into Latin, creating the Vulgate version that would be used for centuries, it seems he deliberately doctored the text to make it advocate celibacy - when in fact it held that marriage was most sacred. He dropped from Tobias a verse that said "it is not good for a man to be alone" p12Eu Jerome fundamentally set himself against St Paul by teaching that sex in marriage intrinsically dishonours those who take part. "If we abstain from coitus we honour our wives; if we do not abstain, - well what is the opposite of honour but insult?" (Adversus Jovianian 1/7}

It is worrying to think that it was this same Jerome who was asked by Pope Damascus in 382 C.E. to revise the Latin Gospels and who went on to revise the rest of the Christian bible. The Emperor Constantine sixty years earlier, in 322 C.E., had given Eusebius of Caesarea, an enemy of the gnostic Christians, the task of selecting which books went into the New Testament as we have seen. (Xref tues) Jerome was now given the sole responsibility for revising the text of the selected books. His version would be that accepted in the Western Christian world until modern times. Scholars have remarked that the whole of the New Testament has Jerome's style. (Cambridge History of the Bible Vol 2 p 84). Jerome in a preface addressed to Pope Damascus said: "You asked me to revise the Old Latin version and , as it were, to sit in judgment on the corpus of the Scriptures which are now scattered throughout the whole world, and in as much as they differ from each other, you would have me decide which of them agreed with the Greek original ... for there are almost as many texts as there are copies." The Eastern Christian Churches never fully accepted Jerome's version and there are remained small differences between these Churches as to what books made up the New Testament until today.

The Fathers of the Church did not go quite so far as to say that marriage was evil. They saw it as a regrettable but necessary for a highly dangerous and potentially spiritually lethal activity. Sex was so dangerous that it should only be employed for the procreation of children and never for pleasure. Ambrose, the teacher of Augustine, praised marriage for its usefulness - but said "virginity is the one thing that keeps us from the beasts."

There were women who welcomed this advocacy of celibacy for many found male demands on them were arrogant and controlling. In virginity one could seize back control of one's life by banishing men from it. Even in 1999 a survey among young adult American women found that a large percentage found intercourse painful

When St. Augustine had become a Christian at the age of 29, he deserted the women with whom he had been for 12 years and by whom he had a child. In his book "De Genesisi ad litteram", written around 415AD, he said there must have been sex in the Garden of Eden for what else were woman created for, for what else were they good for? "I don't see what sort of help woman was created to provide man with, if one excludes the purpose of procreation. If woman is not given to man for help in bearing children, for what help could she be? To till the earth together? If help were needed for that, man would have been a better help for man. The same goes for comfort in solitude."

The influence of Augustine sadly reached through nearly a thousand years to influence Thomas Aquinas who taught that marriage was the least of the sacraments and then reached on for another few hundred years more to Martin Luther and Calvin. Luther wrote. "No matter what praise is given to marriage, I will not concede it to nature that it is no sin... How foul and horrible a thing sin is, for lust is the only thing that cannot be cured by any remedy! Not even by marriage, which was expressly ordained for this infirmity of our nature." Commentary on Genesis 3/9 Luther 103 He also wrote: "A woman is never truly her own master. God formed her body to belong to a man, to have and to rear children."

But in the New Testament there is no suggestion that sex in marriage is only permitted for the generation of children. Marriage was seen as good in its own right, a sacred symbol of a bonding of God with life, of Christ with the Church - and the apostles showed no sign of shame in travelling with their wives. This was the common understanding in a society which glorified the family as did Judaism - and in most of the surrounding Greek and Egyptian religions which celebrated the "sacred marriage". The Gnostic Christians taught that "the bridal chamber" was sacred and reflected the union of human and divine. Their views were far from those that Augustine and Martin Luther taught in Christ's name.