Christianity, although it did not overturn the basic pagan view of marriage, strengthened and disciplined the institution. Christian marriage is as much a break with Jewish traditions as with the somewhat easy-going pagan customs of the Empire. Polygamy had been taken for granted in the OT, and even an apparent prohibition (Deut 17) on a ruler taking multiple wives is really a warning against rulers who would monopolize valuable resources: The same passage condemns multiplication of horses. It is then perhaps odd that Jesus Christ nowhere referred to polygamy, neither to condemn nor approve it, though the tenor of his teaching would seem to be solidly against it:
The early Church’s teaching on marriage is declared in the epistles of Peter and Paul. In addition to condemning adultery, fornication, and homosexuality, St. Paul emphasizes the mystical unity of the couple and stipulates that church leaders be men of only one wife (in 1 Timothy and Titus), but whether this is a limitation on polygamy, divorce, or remarriage after bereavement, it is not clear. Perhaps it refers to all three.
One basic question faced by early Christians was whether nor not to marry at all. St. Paul praises celibacy but grants marriage as an indulgence to the weak. This may be the influence of some Judaic sect like the Essenes, who are said to have banned marriage and despised women. In his Epistle to Polycarp, St. Ignatius follows Paul’s lead, in praising celibacy but celebrating marriage as a true union to be solemnized in the presence of a bishop. Once a marriage was made, it was not to be broken off lightly. Paul does not approve of a man living with his wife in chastity. The opening of the 7th chapter of I Corinthians captures much of his thought:
“Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence: and likewise also the wife unto the husband. The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife. Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency. ”
What if a decent husband is faced with an adulterous wife who either leaves voluntarily or is expelled by her virtuous spouse? This question is taken up by Hermas in The Shepherd in the context of sin and repentance. Some Christians, apparently, had taken the position that after conversion and baptism no sins (perhaps only major sins like murder, robbery, adultery, etc.) could be forgiven. In one way and another, one can connect this rigorism with other heretical rigorisms that emphasized perfection after baptism (Montanists, Novatianists, Donatists) or radical free will independent of Grace (Pelagianists)
In his vision (Mandate IV.1), Hermas is told that a man should remain pure in heart, and if he has carnal thoughts of other women, he should think of his wife, instead. A man who lives with an adulterous wife in ignorance does nothing wrong, but he should separate from her if he finds out. However, he should not himself remarry, because if his wife repents and returns to him, he is obliged to take her back as his wife. He is also informed that a widowed person may remarry, though it would be more glorious to remain celibate.
Hermas appears to have been criticized for his laxity, but he is a good witness, in general, to the strictness of the early Church on marriage: Marriage, though less glorious than a life of celibate devotion, is an honorable estate but limited to one man and one woman; no grounds for separation exist except adultery; a man should not live with an adulterous spouse, but he should not remarry after he has put her out of the house. One might quibble with the details, and both the Eastern and Western Churches would find ways of accommodating the rules to human reality, but the principles have not changed.
To the Christian way of thinking, “one flesh” was not so much an ideal as a fact of life. St. Paul admonishes us to avoid fornication, because erotic intimacy binds us, willy-nilly, in a permanent union. If one indiscretion brings us into bondage–as it does, at least in the permanent records of our memory and imagination–then cohabitation, with or without benefit of clergy or license, ties up our habits and our imaginings so tightly that divorce or no we can never cut ourselves free from what we were, so-and-so’s man, the woman of such-and such:
Many women ‘still felt married,’ regardless of whether they had any relationship with their former spouses. Divorce could not erase the memory of their married years or negate the presence of their children, who were a constant reminder of shared parenthood.”
Although the revolution did not take place all at once, the Christian doctrine of “one flesh” influenced virtually every aspect of European and American marriage. Celibacy remained the highest ideal in the Middle Ages, but marriage was an institution created by God for the procreation of the human race and, though the pursuit of sexual pleasure for its own sake was condemned even in marriage. Since most of the information on the secondary status of marriage and the sinfulness of conjugal pleasure comes from clerics, one may well doubt how representative such opinions were in any other class.
In the ancient world, marriage was not primarily an affair of the heart but a practical requirement for the
propagation of the family and the preservation of its property. A woman’s adultery, which would cast doubt on the legitimacy of the heirs, would naturally constitute grounds for a divorce. We know so little of Greek divorce that it is difficult to generalize. There is little or no evidence of divorce in the Greek myths preserved in Homer or later writers: Helen is a runaway wife, not a divorcée. Medea, in Euripides’ play, is divorced by her husband, but she is not a citizen of the state where the divorce takes place or even a Greek, and under Athenian law her marriage would not have been valid.
At Athens, where we have the most information, divorces must have been extremely uncommon. Apart from a handful of legal cases, known from speeches that have been preserved, there are few references. A man was supposed repudiate an adulterous wife or an alien that had been fobbed off him as a citizen. A wife had to denounce her husband in a public tribunal, and a father might under some circumstances take back a daughter from her husband and marry her to another. These are all very rare, even exceptional cases. An epikleros (an orphaned heiress0 could be claimed, even if she were married, by her father’s closest kinsman, but in one case for which we have evidence, the heiress remained married to her husband and signed away her rights to the ancestral property.
The rarity of occasions on which Athenians had recourse to divorce should not be surprising. The most common cause—a wife’s adultery—could not have been an easy matter, since the chastity of Athenian women, before and during marriage, was rigorously supervised. Besides, there was a dowry at stake, as well as relations with the wife’s family: “Marriage in Athens joined two families as well as two individuals, and the man who would divorce a wife, even for a dazzling improvement in his circumstances, would need to consider carefully his potential advantage as against the almost certain enmity of the family he was rejecting.
In the Roman republic, marriage was typically a bargain between families. There was no government authority to ratify or even record the bargain. The Laws of the Twelve Tables stipulated only that a year of uninterrupted cohabitation would constitute a simple though legal form marriage, that a drunken or adulterous wife might be put to death, that divorce would consist of restoring a wife’s dowry and taking the household keys away from her, that a posthumous child would be legitimate if born in the tenth month after a husband’s death. In the two final tables, the provision was added to forbid intermarriage between patricians and plebeians.
Since Roman marriage arrangements often involved dowries, to insure the wife’s dignity and independence, a husband who divorced his wife might attempt to hold on to some of the money or property and his former wife (more likely her family) might have to sue to recover. But the government had little say in the actual divorce.
Ancient Jewish law recognized various justifications for divorce, and the more liberal rabbis were willing to grant it on the grounds that a man disliked his wife’s cooking or had found a more attractive woman to marry. Jesus recognized both the difficulties of the situation and the bad faith of many husbands. Divorce, he said, was granted by Moses because of the hardness of the people’s heart, but, he concluded, [Mark 10:11-12] “Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery”. In Matthew [5:32 a fuller form of the sentence is given, with the concession “except it be for fornication.”
The Early Church was suspicious of remarriage under any circumstances, and one could point to Jesus’ answer to the Samaritan woman, who said she had no husband (John 4): “Thou hast well said, I have no husband: For thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband: in that saidst thou truly.” We are not told–perhaps it does not matter–whether she lost her husbands through death or divorce. However, when the Sadducees tried to trap Him by citing the imaginary case of a woman married in sequence, as was the custom, to 7 brothers, each of whom failed to sire an heir (Mark 12: 19-25) and asked to which man she would belong after the resurrection, He answered with something approaching contempt for the intricacies of Mosaic regulation: “For when they shall rise from the dead, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage; but are as the angels which are in heaven.” Some moral theologians have wrestled with the problem, trying to ameliorate Jesus’ severe teaching but with no convincing results.
It is fairly easy to specify the conditions under which a marital relationship should be terminated, as in cases of desertion, infidelity, and non-support, but does any of them justify remarriage? In the early church it was even debated whether or not a widow or widower could remarry, and if so how many times. But despite the variety and nuance of Christian doctrine and the evolution of Canon Law, the main point has never been in any doubt, at least among honest men and women. From the Christian perspective, marriage–and not just Christian marriage–is a merging of identities, intended to be permanent, dissoluble only under the most extreme circumstances (e.g. infidelity, impotence, desertion) which do not necessarily legitimate another union.
In Medieval France it was centuries before the polygamous Franks were able to reconcile themselves to the notion of permanent monogamy. Charlemagne and his descendants followed the scandalous precedent set by the family of Clovis, whose marital relations, as set forth by Gregory of Tours, would make a Hollywood film producer blush. “On the all-important question of indissolubility, the variance between the church and Germanic law was almost total.” By the end of the 9th Century, however, the Church’s authority had become paramount in matters of marriage and divorce, and while individual cases provoked lively debates–particularly when they involved state marriages–“a firm foundation in law had been laid by the legislators and theologians of the Frankish kingdom.” Nonetheless, French kings continued to put aside their wives, for a variety of reasons both personal and political, and were at loggerheads with Popes who maintained (as French bishops did not, necessarily, the sanctity of marriage.
The exception that proves the rule was the troubled marriage of King Robert I (996-1031), the son of Hugh Capet. King Robert was most famous for his marital problems. Growing tired of his lawful wife, he decided to espouse his widowed third cousin Bertha. The marriage was prohibited on general grounds of consanguinity but even more by the fact that Robert was godson to her child (a relationship treated as the Romans would have treated an adoptive child). His marital life strained Robert’s relations with church, and Pope Gregory V eventually annulled the marriage. When the couple would visit a towns, masses were halted, but bells were rung on their departure. “Look, my love,” Robert is supposed to have said on one such occasion, “They are ringing us out.”
There was some sympathy for poor Robert and Pope Sylvester II—who, (as Gerbert of Aurillac) before assuming the papal tiara, had eased the way of the Hugh Capet to the throne—rescinded the excommunication on condition that he put aside Bertha, which he did not, in fact. His son and successor Philip, a chip off the old block, lived openly with Berthrade the wife of the hapless Fulk le réchin of Anjou, whose marital experience included five “legitimate” wives,” in addition to concubines, istresses, and casual flings. After a bogus ceremony, Philip and Bertrade lived openly as man and wife, despite the fact that each had a living legal spouse. Philip’s interference in church affairs and attempts to control the elections of French bishops had not made him popular in Rome, and after a series of papal warnings, Urban II—who was at Clermont preaching the First Crusade— excommunicated Philip. But he would not be the last King of France to violate his marriage vows—so hard it was and is for the Church to enforce Christian marriage on the rich and powerful.
In his essay on divorce, the French Counter-Revolutionary, Louis Gabriel Ambroise de Bonald took the strong position that not even a separation brought about by adultery could justify remarriage and argued that in the case of adultery, divorce merely set the adulterous party free to gratify his or her wishes. The injured party, he suggested, could gain spiritual profit by learning to bear his affliction.
If Bonald sometimes sounds as if he heard the moral universe collapsing around him, it was because of the savage destruction of all Christian institutions that had taken place during the French Revolution. The Church had been first nationalized and then outlawed, churches were pillaged of their sacred objects then turned over to secular and even profane uses; priests and nuns were bullied and threatened into marriage. Even the primary social bonds of marriage and family were not left untouched. The solemn Christian sacrament of marriage was replaced, in September, 1792, with a civil service consisting of a few formalities concluding with, ‘You are married.’ In principle, at least, the Catholic marriage had been an indissoluble union, although it had taken the French Church nearly a millennium to civilize the Franks on this point. Under the new law, divorce was as easy as marriage. Walter Scott describes the divorce law as something which fiends might have devised as a means to perpetuate their mischief from one generation to another, and he quotes the actress Sophie Arnoult’s witticism, that “republican marriage was the sacrament of adultery.”
For this new sacrament, the procureur of Paris, the Hebertiste Chaumette (an anti-Catholic who closed the churches in Paris for two days) gave a little sermon to divorcing couples (80): “Young people whom a tender engagement had already united, the torches of Hymen are lit again for you on the altars of liberty; marriage is no longer a yoke, a heavy chain; it is no more than what it ought to be–the fulfilling of Nature’s grand designs, the payment of a pleasant debt which every citizen owes the Patrie.”
Children were also a debt to the Patrie, according to the pro-natalist propaganda, and in the children’s literature and republican catechisms of the day, children were to describe themselves as children of the Patrie. According to Robespierre’s fanatical colleague St. Just, children belong to their mothers until the age of five, after that to the Republic until they die. The institutional innovations actually carried out by the Jacobins, distracted by wars and domestic crises, were more modest–civil marriage, no-fault divorce, and a rudimentary state system of public schools, although some of them, at least, must have sympathized with the suggestion that suspects be deprived of the right to raise their children.
It has been left to the men of the Twentieth Century to carry out the implications of the French experiment. When people speak of the divorce revolution, they are right in a profounder sense than they may know. The secularization (or rather nationalization) of marriage by the state which then revolutionized the institution by rendering it less binding than a vendor’s contract has been the most profound revolution of modern times, and its effects are far more grave than the nationalizations of property and mass executions that have attended other revolutions. But here we are in Europe and America, where no nation has been untouched by revolution. How are we to respond to this moral crisis in practical terms?
In a mystical sense and under ideal circumstances, Bonald was surely right to reassert the Christian teaching that even the injured spouse should refrain from remarriage. Marriage indissolubility is the ideal we should strive to reacquire, but as I pointed out earlier, it took the Franks many centuries to acclimatize themselves to Christian marriage, and it will take us at least several centuries to relearn the lesson.
The Christian elevation of marriage to the metaphysical plane is one of the Church’s greatest gifts to believers and non-believers alike, but the counsels of perfection will not always in these evil times lead to the best results. Consider the case (real, not imagined) of a girl married at sixteen to a husband who is quick to provide her with two children but reluctant to get a job, who in fact sends out his wife to work and beats her if she holds back money for the children’s food. Any sane person would applaud her decision to throw the bum out, but is she morally entitled to marry again, assuming we take marriage seriously as a life-long commitment?
Of course, we could mitigate her case by bringing up the youthful age at which she married, her eagerness to escape from harsh and (at least in her own mind) oppressive parents, and the seductive wiles practiced by the young man and his mother, who had prevailed upon the girl’s innocence by constantly praising her son’s virtues and proclaiming her belief that the marriage was predestined. But a marriage is a marriage, and while a girl of sixteen can act foolishly, she is probably acting of her own free will in making so serious a decision. No, the mitigating circumstances change little.
ut what of the children? They not only need the strong hand of a father; they would also benefit from the income of the hardworking man who has proposed marriage to the young divorcee–to say nothing of the benefit of having their mother at home for a longer time during the day. If the ultimate purpose of marriage is the begetting and rearing of children, a second marriage that helps the children ought to be acceptable as the lesser of two evils. The same principal might be applied to a father who needs a wife to take of children deserted by their mother. I am not advocating or defending remarriage but raising the question of whether or not it is the lesser of two evils in the world we live in.
On a lower level, one might even make the case that a deserted man or woman are better off morally, if they find themselves a permanent companion and avoid the temptation to engage in frivolous erotic affairs. If the outcome is, on balance, a more temperate and more moral life, is it not possible to justify remarriage even when there are no children (provided, of course, that the divorcé[e] is the innocent victim of a bad marriage)?
Real-life situations are rarely as simple as the examples in a religious marriage manual or as insoluble as the cases described in counseling texts, but if the primary objects of marriage are kept in mind, it should not be impossible for moral individuals to reach decisions that make the best of an admiittedly bad situation. The universal primary object of marriage is children, and other important objects include companionship, the avoidance of promiscuity, and the social stability that is promoted by the unification of two families. (The last two objects are of comparatively little account in contemporary society.) None of these purposes of marriage can be fulfilled except by a couple that intends to enter into a permanent union. The very expectation of permanence is self-fulfilling. While a skeptical critic of the institution compared marriage without divorce to a galley slave in which partners chained to the same oar are forced to get along with each other,
“Send me to the galleys and chain me to the felon whose number happens to be next before mine; and I must accept the inevitable and make the best of the companionship. Many such companionships, they tell me, are touchingly affectionate; and most are at least tolerably friendly. But that does not make a chain a desirable ornament nor the galleys an abode of bliss. Those who talk most about the blessings of marriage and the constancy of its vows are the very people who declare that if the chain were broken and the prisoners left free to choose, the whole social fabric would fly asunder. You cannot have the argument both ways. If the prisoner is happy, why lock him in? If he is not, why pretend that he is?
As a naïve believer in progress, George Bernard Shaw naturally thought that men and women would find some less restrictive means of producing and rearing children, but, like most advocates of liberal marriage, he failed to grasp the essential point that no cooperative relationship is possible if either party is free to dissolve the partnership at a moment’s notice.
That is the conclusion reached by George Axelrod in The Evolution of Cooperation. Axelrod’s theory is derived from his study of the “Prisoner’s Dilemma” game. The question he posed was which strategy, overall and in the long run, would work best in a series of choices confronting two imaginary prisoners being interrogated: Should one “cooperate” with one’s fellow prisoner by saying nothing or should one “defect.” (The rules are actually a good deal more complicated). Axelrod concluded that while more aggressive and dishonest strategies could succeed in the short run, ultimately the best strategy was TIT FOR TAT: Begin by cooperating and then repeat the other player’s last move. If he cooperates, then cooperate. If he defects, you defect.
In addition to various restrictions and stipulations, Axelrod insists upon one caveat: The principle of cooperation only works if both parties expect to continue playing the game. Otherwise, the incentive to defect becomes too great. Axelrod applies his theory very narrowly to divorce proceedings by suggesting that cooperation between divorced parents can be enhanced if the custodial parent is given the power to withhold visitation rights from former spouses default on child support. There is obviously a much broader application. If husband and wife believe there is virtually no escape from marriage, they will not be so easily tempted into quarrels and infidelities.
Marriage can be viewed strictly on the low level of a commercial contract in which both parties will incur certain costs and benefits throughout the duration of the relationship. The one or the other party may have to forego certain present benefits and pay heavy costs with the expectation of being “paid back” in the future. The classic case is the wife who puts her husband through professional school, sacrificing her own educational ambitions and bearing several children, only to find herself abandoned in favor of a trophy wife, once her husband has a well- established career. In responding to the uncertain market situation presented by no-fault divorces, a spouse may choose to “invest less in this marriage or in being married”. The results, according to one analyst, are a tendency toward fewer children and a greater investment into the wife’s earning capacity.
Throughout this discussion I have been saying “spouse” or “husband and wife” as if their situations were equal. In fact, they are not. In a modern society, almost all the advantages lie with the husband, so long as he can escape the trammels of the law. The wife typically (although not always) is more concerned with the children and is more likely to be awarded exclusive or primary custody. The husband may be required to pay child-support (he may or may not comply) but not alimony, which is excluded by the doctrine of sexual equality. The liberalized divorce laws of the 1960’s, therefore, plunged large numbers of women and their children into poverty, and the “feminization of poverty” became one of the cant terms of the 1980’s. Estimates on the effects of divorce on women and their children range from an over 30% to as much as 73% decline.
So far the only response has been a largely rhetorical attack on defaulting fathers and a call for further socialization of domestic life along the lines of European family assistance plans that pay households a month stipend based on the number of dependent children. There moral dangers lurking in both plans.
Defaulting fathers do constitute a problem, but it is not clear how many of them actually can afford to make the child-support payments stipulated in their divorce settlements nor what the collection costs would be to taxpayers. The demonization of “dead-beat dads” overlooks the many cases in which wives have unilaterally decided to break up a marriage. There is a also a moral problem that has been created by the Supreme Court’s decisions on abortion. Under current law, a husband and potential father has absolutely no say in whether or not a baby is born. The decision is made by a wife in consultation with her physician. Until this inequity is remedied, divorced fathers can make an excellent bad-faith case that they were only tangential to the child’s existence.
Family assistance plans seem, on the surface, attractive, but setting aside the vast expense and social distortions that have accompanied the Swedish experiment in socialized child-rearing , the inevitable result of all such plans is to lessen, not increase, the sense of individual responsibility felt by parents. Even if such plans proved to be the only possible remedies in the post-modern world, they should only be considered as a desperate, final resort for a society beyond redemption. A more practical approach to the problem would be to find the way to discourage husbands from walking out on their families. If marriage is only a contract, as it is so often said, then it ought to be no less than a contract.
Rough Draft of Notes
There has been a controversy over the dating and identity of Hermas, but the easiest solution that has been proposed is to assume that he wrote the work at different times, making the reference to Pope Clement I as a contemporary and the information that Hermas was brother to Pope Pius I in the 140’s, not necessarily incompatible. In much of the Shepherd, an apocalyptic allegory mixed with commentary, the question is whether or nor one can be forgiven for sins committed after baptism. Strict constructionists, apparently, said no, while Hermas said, “Yes, once,” so long as the sinner repents. Repentance is not simply the personal feeling of being sorry for having done wrong, but a corporate act of penance within the Church. His thinking is a bit muddled, since at times he seems to distinguish between little sins and big sins.
[Terry Arendell 102]
Georges Duby, Medieval Marriage, chapter two.
Louis Cohn-Haft, “Divorce in Classical Athens. JHS CXV (1995), pp. 1-14.
Op. cit., p14.
For some of the arguments see Augustine, who takes the unusual position that a husband’s infidelity justifies divorce; for impotence ; generally see Esmein.]
Jo-Ann McNamara and Suzanne F. Wemple, “Marriage and Divorce in the Frankish Kingdom” in Women in Medieval Society, ed. by Susan Mosher Stuard (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1976) 95-123; for a similar process in England, cf. .
Brooke, The Medieval Idea of Marriage, pp. 120-125.
L.G.A. de Bonald, Divorce.
Jean Robiquet, Daily Life in the French Revolution, tr. James Kirkup (NY: MacMillan 1965) 77-86.
Walter Scott, Napoleon ch. Xvii.
Bouloiseau 181, by Societe Populaire des Cultivateurs of Ecully]
G.B. Shaw, Man and Superman, III