Quick Hitter--Maybe Marriage Doesn't Matter as Much as Douthat Thinks It Does

Prior to the coming of the English, Ireland was governed by a set of traditional laws, passed down orally through a class of judges/lawyers, called the "Brehon Code" or "Brehon Law."  Brehon law lasted for a long time in Ireland--in the western part of the Ireland, it was still the operative rule of governance into the Elizabethan period, as can be seen in the tale of the Pirate Queen of Ireland, Grainne Mhaol ("Grace O'Malley").  In fact, one of the interesting things one sees from the story of Grainne is that Brehon Law governed marriage and family relationships in medieval Ireland, not the rules of the Catholic Church.

And the Brehon laws related to marriage were wholly incompatible with the Catholic theology of marriage as currently presented.  Rather than being a singular, life-long commitment of personal and sexual fidelity, marriage under the Brehon laws was a series (as many as ten) of pre-determined relationships that regulated the status of property owned by the couple and the children that might come from such a couple.  For example, there is a marriage type under which the parties agree to have sex with each other, but live under separate roofs and not share property (the "fifth degree marriage").  In other words, Brehon law has a specified legal category for people who were just "hooking up," as we would say today.  Divorce was possible under Brehon law (though, it often involved monetary penalties paid to the individual/family of the wronged party), and it is pretty clear that polygamy was practiced deep into the Christian period.

All of this went on for over a thousand years in Catholic Ireland, and there is little evidence that the Irish themselves, including the native Irish Church, saw much problem with it (the English, on the other hand, exploited the failure of the Irish to adopt the "civilized" law codes (not necessarily the family law part) as a justification for taking control).  This failure to care, at least with regard to marriage customs, was helped by the fact that the status of marriage was very unsettled until the end of the Middle Ages.  The idea of marriage as a sacrament doesn't show up in the West until the early second millennium, and is probably the last of the traditional seven sacraments to be agreed upon.  Having a wedding in a church does not become the universal norm until after the Reformation (if you remember the scene in the movie Braveheart where William Wallace marries Murron in a secret ceremony, the "secret" part of that wedding is that it was done at night and with no public witnesses, but the form of the marriage (in a field, handfasting) would have been the same if it had been public).  The default position for the majority of the life of the Catholic Church was that marriage was something that would be regulated according to local customs and practices, as well as civil law, and was not in the first instance the concern of the Church.

It is with this in mind that we should consider the objections of traditionalist Catholics like Ross Douthat to proposals for allowing divorced and remarried people to go to Communion.  In his most recent piece, Douthat advances a classic slippery slope argument--if you make changes to the rule regarding divorce, then you have no principled reason for forbidding any other change, including changes to core doctrinal teachings about the Incarnation, etc.  Implicit in this argument is the idea that the Catholic Church's position with regard to marriage is as consistent, and as important, as the teaching on the Incarnation.  Because if it is not an apples-to-apples comparison, then his argument falls apart.


Remember, Douthat is a guy who says that the post-Vatican II Church was right to dismantle, or at least de-emphasize, the "Purgatorial economy" of saying X prayer to get Y number of days reduction in one's time in Purgatory.  He is not someone who, in principle, believes that everything the Catholic Church ever said about anything should be accorded equal weight.  Presumably he believes that de-emphasizing the Purgatorial economy is sufficiently peripheral to the core theological commitments of the Catholic Church that changing it will not lead to the collapse of Catholic doctrine of the Incarnation.

So, what Douthat is doing, I think, is making a category mistake.  It's not so much that I disagree with him that Significant Change X will inevitably lead to Significant Change Y in Catholic theology (though, I do think that framing is problematic, as it fosters the "scandal of history"); I think that the divorce issue is simply not that important in the scheme of Catholic theology.  Contra Douthat, the current articulation of the theology of marriage is not some sort of absolutely consistent principle that has been universally applied up to the coming of the Dread Sexual Revolution, but instead a much more contingent and ambiguous part of the broader tapestry of Catholic thought.  My ancestors managed to practice their Catholic faith for generations upon generations without it and seemingly did just fine.  Presumably, at least a couple of them found themselves in "fifth degree" Brehon Law marriages, and the Catholic Church apparently at least tolerated this without any appreciable erosion in its commitment to the Trinity.

So much of our Christian discourse begins from the premise that regulating who has sex with whom is what Christianity is there to do.  Rather than taking sides in these debates, maybe we should be insisting that these issues are just not that important.  Maybe God doesn't care nearly as much as we do.

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