Developments in the History of Marriage

We are working on a project involving helping others understand the sacrament of marriage.  In the process we explored the history of marriage in secular society and the Catholic Church.  We came across a 2004 letter from Jesuit priest and Boston College Professor of History, Stephen Schloesser, to Massachusetts State Senator Marian Walsh. It provides an interesting summary of how marriage has been viewed in the past and a history of changes over millennia.  Our space is limited so we will select some background from earlier times, but focus more on the changes in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  The letter is long, so we will extract some quotes containing the main ideas.  If you wish to see more of the discussion surrounding the quotes, you can read the full document here.  Quotes will be presented in italics.  Bold print in the quotes is from the original letter.  The quotes and our comments (marked C:) follow.

It seems helpful to me to recall what traditional marriage is: it is a community’s legal arrangement in order to pass on property. In it, a male acquires (in the sense of owning and having sovereignty over) a female for the sake of reproducing other males who will then inherit property.

C: This doesn’t sound much like a 21st century understanding of marriage, but the move away from it is recent, as you shall see reading the following.

The tradition in nearly every major ancient culture – at least, for those players who had power and thus for those whose marriages we have written records of –  has been polygyny: one male who owns several (or many) females.

C:This included the early Jews – remember the Old Testament references to Solmon’s wives, among many others.

St. Paul thought the world was ending the day after tomorrow; understandably, since there were perhaps only weeks, days, hours or minutes to live, he counseled his followers: “It is better not to marry.”

Although he himself fairly ruthlessly exiled his own concubine after his conversion, Augustine did (following St. Paul) counsel marriage for others as a remedy for concupiscence – i.e., satisfying male sexual desire in a non-sinful way – even though it was the means of transmitting the Original Sin.

C: St Augustine had concubines!  It is also interesting that there was concern about having children because it transmitted original sin.  Does this continue to lurk in the background in the discomfort the Church leaders and the faithful have in dealing with sex?

Marriage, both in the Roman and the early medieval periods, was the moment that marked the passing of the rights over a woman from her father to her husband

C: The interesting thing about this is that in a way we still follow this today in the tradition of a father “giving” his daughter away as he walks her down the aisle on her wedding day.

…be noted that serial polygyny was regularly practiced by early medieval kings famous for their Christian piety. Their marital practices – Charlemagne, for example, and Cnut the Great (whose polygyny wasn’t even serial) – did not trouble the Church.

Concubinage was also widely practiced among the European elite, and this practice was unproblematic, even in the eleventh century. Divorce was also completely unproblematic until the twelfth century.

C: Many people are aware that divorce was practiced by the Jews in Jesus’ time, but we were surprised to learn that it was also practiced among Christians in the early history of the Church.

In the twelfth century, the idea of marriage as a “sacrament” – i.e., as something fundamentally regulated by the Church – was established along with priestly celibacy and primogeniture. The simultaneous appearance of these practices shows the way in which the preservation of property suddenly became an issue of great anxiety

C: As marriage came to be recognized as a sacrament, the motivations seemed as much secular as it was spiritual, since it was associated with the inheritance of property.  This occurred at the same time as priestly celibacy and for the same reasons.

Marriage as an “emotional unit” as opposed to an “economic unit” was largely an invention of the early nineteenth century – not coincidentally, along with the idea of a warm safe “family” or private sphere, the invention of “childhood,” “birthdays,” Victoria and Albert’s Christmas toys, trees, and cards, and everything else Charles Dickens. In this new arrangement, bourgeois women stayed at home in the “private sphere” and made it a cozy refuge for their husbands to return to after a long day in the cold-hearted public sphere of risk, finance and politics.

C: This is the beginning of a changing understanding of marriage leading to the present-day expectation that marriage will involve a life of loving as well as shared finances and property in addition to providing a male heir.  At this time women were still viewed as economic assets and dependent on their husband’s good will for material things.  The new idea was that she was also an emotional companion who cared for both his emotional and sexual needs.  Little if nothing was said about the wife’s emotional and sexual needs.

Divorce, finally legalized again in France in the 1880s, emancipated men but perhaps not women unless they had reserved some independent means. It too was part of the new emotional understanding of marriage, i.e., as something not arranged by parents but rather entered into partly because of emotional desires.

C: The divorce laws favored men and left women with the children and little financial support.  While a woman could legally ask for a divorce, most women could not afford to do so.  In affect women who chose to divorce were often left destitute and in many instances had to give up their children.  Most women chose to remain in the marriage while experiencing emotional, spiritual, economic abuse.  In some instances, women left their marriage responsibilities including their children and went to the convent.

…statistics seem to show that the average longevity of today’s marriage is identical to those a century ago. The difference is that a century ago people (mostly women) died – i.e., often died from childbirth, too many pregnancies, or dangerous deliveries. Thus, whereas the people of the mid-19th century could not have imagined 21st-c. marriage/divorce rates, likewise, we cannot really imagine the marriage/death rates of the mid- 19th century.

Moreover, the Church only came to allow for state authority over marriage after a century. …In France, before the Revolution, the idea of there being a marriage that was not a church marriage would have made no sense – after the Revolution, the Church continued to rail against what Pius XI called (as late as 1930) “civil matrimony, as it is called.”

Catholic canon law is complicated and fuzzy about these distinctions (between civil and sacramental marriage)

C: For more information on this, read our blog:  The Difference between Civil and Sacramental Marriage.

Catholic ideas about marriage and sexuality are in constant conversation with the wider society/culture’s evolving values and needs. The 12th-c. institutions of priestly celibacy and sacramental marriage are good examples.

Throughout the 20th century as well, Catholic ideas about marriage/sexuality have been rapidly changing in subtle but important ways. As late as the Code of Canon Law of 1917, the official position continued to be depressingly materialist: the purpose of marriage was considered to be “procreation,” while a secondary end was a “remedy for concupiscence.”

This genuinely two-millennia-old view changed on New Year’s Eve, 1930: on that day, …the papal encyclical Casti Connubii introduced a fairly shocking innovation: one of marriage’s “second ends” was the “unity” between the spouses. In other words: the 19th-c. invention of marriage as an “emotional unit” in which two persons came together not merely to procreate but in order to form a sphere of emotional support – a thoroughly modern meaning of marriage – was accepted by the papacy. This has often been overlooked because readers concentrate on the main aim of the encyclical which was, indeed, to state in the strongest terms possible a condemnation of newly-invented contraceptive technologies…

On October 29, 1951 came a second important innovation in Catholic views. In one of the most insignificant settings possible – i.e., not an encyclical or synod but rather an address to Italian midwives – Pius XII suggested that couples, as long as they did not use “artificial” contraception, could arrive at a moral decision to be sexually active in a way that did not lead to procreation….this 1951 speech shows the way in which Catholicism was coming to accept the modern invention of marriage as an emotional unit.

At the Second Vatican Council, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) led many Catholics in 1965 to expect that contraception would be permitted for Catholics. In its emphases on both the urgency of population control and also on the freedom of conscience ‹ as well as some poignant passages on marriage as a unit of emotional support, acknowledging the value of marriage even when procreation was not a physical possibility for the couple – the document seemed to point in the direction of a reversal. As is now well-known, the Papal Birth Control Commission did in fact arrive at its decision that contraception was morally permissible; but that Paul VI in the end did not accept its findings and, in his encyclical Humanae Vitae re-stated the prohibition against contraception as “intrinsically disordered.”

(In Humanae Vitae)

…he also reaffirmed Pius XI’s idea that the “unitive” end of marriage is a constitutive element, and Pius XII’s idea that couples can limit the number of children. In addition, he wiped out the distinction between “primary” and “secondary” ends, so that for the first time in two millennia of Catholic teaching, the modern idea of marriage as an emotional unit was not made “secondary” to the “procreative.”

C: This is another place where the contraception issue has gotten most of the attention while the unitive aspect gets little attention, although it has implications for the sexual part of marriage and far beyond.

In 1969, a very important decision set a precedent for Catholic marriages: the Rota ruled that when two people consent to a lifelong union in marriage, what they are consenting to is not merely the “right to the body” (ius in corpus) for sexual acts, but rather “the right to the community of the whole life.”

C: Although not specifically stated, this quote shows that at last women were finally seen as persons in the marriage.  She now could receive something spiritually and emotionally from marriage other than merely being a machine that produced children, cared for their needs and the needs of her husband.  In the official church the purpose of marriage at last takes on a new focus.  This brings us a long way from woman as property and married sex as a remedy for lust.

To summarize: when one compares the 1917 Catholic view of marriage – “procreation” as a primary end, “a remedy for concupiscence” as a secondary end – with the 1969 view expressed in both the Vatican Council and encoded in canon law – “the community of the whole life” that includes both the “unbreakable compact between persons” as well as the “welfare of the children,” one can see that the change in Catholic doctrine and law has been nothing short of astonishing. It has also resulted in what, to me at least, is a very appealing (if perhaps sometimes unattainable) Catholic ideal of marriage: the creation of a lifelong communion which allows the flourishing of the two persons who have made their compact as well as of their children, biological and/or adopted.


Sometimes we hear the claim that the Catholic Church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality have been constant for over 2000 years.  This short history shows the inaccuracy of this claim.  What we find most surprising is the rate of change through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  We grew up with the statement of the 1917 Code of Canon Law on the purposes of marriage and were married just as the Second Vatican Council concluded.  In the early years of our marriage,  the new insights from the council, Humanae Vitae and the 1969 statement from the Rota about “the right to the community of the whole life,” began to emerge.  We were intrigued by this and as a result we continued to explore its implications.  Whenever we could, we read, spoke with priests and other couples about what this might mean in how we were to live together as husband and wife. It has led us on a fantastic journey spiritually, physically, intellectually and emotionally.  It has required us to work harder than we ever did in our careers as we were determined to live our marriage by fully sharing our whole lives, to become a community of the whole life.   The work in actuality has been minor and the fulfillment is far more than our careers and anything else we have done in our years together.  We have grown as individuals and as a couple in ways we could not have imagined when we said our vows.

While some of the consequences of advancing Catholic understanding are still being worked out, we are very grateful that the Church teaching on marriage is advancing and is likely to continue do so.  We trust that the Holy Spirit will continue to exert its influence in unexpected ways as this century continues.  The possibilities continue to intrigue us.  It is one of the things that keeps us working to enrich our marriage as well as those of others.  We hope to live long enough to see at least a little bit of what promises unfold.

You can read the complete document here.

Did you find this history interesting?  Please leave a comment below.


Bob & Rita’s book:  Forever and a Day:  An Invitation to Create a Marriage that Lasts a Lifetime, is available on  Also available for Kindle and Nook.  Check out our Marriage Enrichment Programs at


About Rita & Bob Boeke

Rita Boeke has experience teaching scripture and with her husband Bob has experience in enriching marriages through workshops and retreats. They post a weekly blog at and co-authored Forever and a Day: An Invitation to Create a Marriage that Lasts a Lifetime.
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