Marriage and the church


A chara, – “Marriage was the last resort of weak Christians. As a consequence the early church placed a low value on the family”, writes Patsy McGarry (“The changing face of marriage in the Catholic Church”, Opinion & Analysis, April 8th).

There was indeed a strong tradition in support of virginity in the church, and this was counter-cultural, but Mr McGarry’s broad assertions do not reflect the historical situation.

St Augustine, to whom he refers, wrote a treatise On the Good of Marriage, and another On Marriage and Concupiscence. Augustine wrote in the context of controversies of his own day. In the latter work he wrote: “It is certainly not fecundity only, the fruit of which consists of offspring, nor chastity only, whose bond is fidelity, but also a certain sacramental bond in marriage which is recommended to believers.” Augustine does not use the word “sacrament” in the more precise sense which had developed by the 12th century, but he clearly places a high value on marriage.

Mr McGarry writes, “. . . the idea of marriage as sacrament in the Catholic tradition has existed for 831 years, less than half the history of Christianity”. The definition by the Council of Verona in 1184 was by no means the start of the idea. In a similar way, the conclusions of the Second Vatican Council had a long history prior to the council.

He quotes Archdeacon Gordon Linney: “‘Personally, I think the claim of the churches to own marriage in any sense just doesn’t stand up because marriage was there long, long before there was ever a Christian church’, he said. It was ‘a civil matter’.” I have never heard a claim by any church “to own marriage in any sense”.

We cannot judge in the same way what was done in previous times when there was not the separation of church and state as we know today. Civil registration of marriages only came fully into operation in Ireland in 1864.

Mr McGarry wrote that the Council of Trent “made it a requirement that a valid marriage must take place in the presence of the parish priest and at least two witnesses”. That was an eminently sensible step to deal with the custom of “clandestine marriage”, where a man and woman could simply agree in private to be husband and wife. The lack of verification could and did lead to many difficulties. – Is mise,



Dublin 16.