Marriage: An historical perspective

On so many levels, marriage is an absolute truth – one that defies defining. However, in recent history, the very structure, the very definition of marriage, has come under great scrutiny as governments throughout the world consider whether the union of two members of the same sex should be considered “marriage.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, states that marriage is “sealed by God himself. From their covenant arises an institution, confirmed by the divine law, . . . even in the eyes of society.”

"Society owes its continued survival to the family, founded on marriage," reads the newly released Vatican document "Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons."

But what exactly is marriage? How has it been defined throughout the ages? And why is it being challenged today?

According to Dennis O’Neil, a professor of anthropology at Palomar College in San Marcos, Calif., marriage “functions as a glue in the organization of society. It establishes social relationships that are the foundation for families and households. In many societies, it also is an important tool for creating economically and politically valuable links between families.”

In a comprehensive tutorial depicting the cultural rules regarding sexual access and marriage (, O’Neil stresses that marriage is “a universal method of regulating heterosexual intercourse by defining who is acceptable as a sexual partner and who is not.”

Even in societies where “homosexuality has been widely accepted,” such as that of Papago Indians of southern Arizona, marriage was never considered anything but the union of man and woman.

The newly released Vatican document traces the root of marriage one step further. “The natural truth about marriage was confirmed by the Revelation contained in the biblical accounts of creation… God has willed to give the union of man and woman a special participation in his work of creation... Furthermore, the marital union of man and woman has been elevated by Christ to the dignity of a sacrament.”

The document, issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, also points out that “The Church’s teaching on marriage and on the complementarity of the sexes reiterates a truth that is evident to right reason and recognized as such by all the major cultures of the world. Marriage is not just any relationship between human beings. ... No ideology can erase from the human spirit the certainty that marriage exists solely between a man and a woman.”

Advocates for same-sex marriage strongly disagree, however. In his 1996 book, entitled “The Case for Same-Sex Marriage,” William Eskridge, professor of law at Georgetown University, asserts that “While numerous Americans are willing to tolerate same-sex relationships, and even to sanction them to some extent, few consider them to be marriages… Though few critics like to admit it, same-sex marriages are commonplace in human history.”

The book goes on to cite several different cultures and societies — such as the North American Indian tribes, the inhabitants of West Africa, and other ancient civilizations — in which homosexual marriages were accepted, if not commonplace.

However, the arguments used by Eskridge have been challenged. In 1998, two scholars sought to verify the accuracy of Eskridge’s claims. Their findings were published in an article that appeared The Catholic University Law Review.

"In looking at the evidence that William Eskridge purported to have amassed -- that is, by following his own footnotes and going to his sources -- it was impossible to confirm his thesis. In fact, his thesis was baseless; no major culture appears to have elevated same-sex unions to the status of whatever, in that culture's context, constituted marriage," commented P.G. Lubin, who co-authored the article with professor Dwight Duncan of the Southern New England School of Law. "Whatever other arguments one wishes to make on behalf of same-sex marriage, the appeal to history is not one of them," he added.

Their article states, “There is no ‘rich history of same-sex marriage’ that he [Eskridge] has ‘uncovered,’ that was ‘suppressed in recent Western history, and is only now coming to light.’ The ‘resistance’ to same-sex marriage is not limited to ‘Western culture’ with its age-old ‘anti-homosexual hysteria and bigotry,’ but extends to almost every culture throughout the world, including even those, such as Tahiti, that provide an officially sanctioned social role for homosexuals, but do not extend society’s official approval to same-sex marriages.”

"Throughout history, across cultures and religions, the concept of marriage is universal," underscored Duncan. "As far as historical arguments are concerned, there is a much stronger case for polygamy than for same-sex marriage."

Given the fact that historically, culturally and socially, marriage has always been heterosexual in nature, why then has modern society attempted to tinker with the definition of marriage?

One American theologian, speaking to The Pilot on background, believes that the key to understanding the shift — at least in Western society — dates back to the 16th century. During the Reformation, as Calvin and Luther denied the sacramental nature of marriage, the state was given authority over marriage for the first time. Over the past 400 years, he argues, marriage has evolved from being a sacred union recognized by society to a civil union dictated by the state.

Another factor that has played an important part in the redefining of marriage is the division between the unitive and the procreative aspect of married love. Due to the widespread use of contraception, that procreative aspect is no longer considered a fundamental part of marriage.

According to Michael Pakaluk, associate professor of philosophy at Clark University, when the procreative aspect of conjugal love was removed from the sexual act, what remained was only “sexual pleasure and personal enjoyment.”

This, says Pakaluk, is not what marriage was intended to be. The Catechism states that “by its very nature the institution of marriage and married love is ordered to the procreation and education of the offspring.”

"Essentially, we've had men and women in lasting friendships who have been calling themselves 'married' for 30 or 40 years, and we, as a society, have allowed that definition to stand."

Professor Duncan agrees. “If marriage is nothing more than a friendship recognized by the police, then of course homosexuals say that they should be married,” he stated.