Contra "traditional marriage": disentangling friendship from the Catholic marital union
The similarity, “not their gender difference, was what made them suitable partners.”
Today, I’m sharing the first part of an essay on marriage, love, and friendship. Today’s portion will give an overview of three understandings of friendship in the Western philosophical tradition, and lay the groundwork for part two, which will explore the relationship and differences between conjugal love and friendship, and how confusions about these contribute to contemporary controversies concerning same-sex love and marriage.
The last decade has seen sharp divisions in claims about the nature of marriage, especially in American political and social life. Many Christian communities have declared themselves against a cultural consensus affirming marriage as including the union of two persons of the same sex. Such Christian communities claim a “traditional view” of marriage and sexuality, responding to this consensus by providing arguments for limiting the institution of marriage to a union between man and woman. This response often presupposes that modernity’s primary deviation from “traditional marriage” is its rejection of “gender complementarity.” Thus, defenders of “traditional marriage” have sought to bolster their claims with arguments and studies claiming a mother and father are essential for the full growth and development of children, in contrast to their opponents who have worked to provide arguments and studies demonstrating that children can grow and develop well in other family forms.
Without dismissing the importance of these arguments, I believe they play a small role in relation to other trends and changes in marital practices and expectations that have led to recent developments in the concept of marriage. Far more important for Christian theology, and Catholic theology in particular, are the frequently unaddressed arguments about marriage relating to man’s solitude, his need for an Other, his longing for lasting and publicly-recognized intimacy, and the bounds and expectations of intimacy. This essay will raise questions related to these arguments, seeking to provide a path for rethinking what constitutes “traditional” Christian marriage by exploring the relationship between marriage and friendship and, in doing so, working towards a more holistic and historically-informed dialogue.
Some Christian defenders of “traditional marriage” ground their arguments in the beginning of the book of Genesis. In Genesis 1, God created humanity “male and female” (“zakhar” and “nekievah”).1 In Genesis 2, God says that it “is not good for man (“adam”) to be alone” and makes man “a partner suited to him”, by taking a rib from man and building it into a woman (“ishshah”).2 Some modern commentators look at these two passages and summarily conclude that man (adam) is made for spousal union.
Thus, Matthew Vines writes in God and the Gay Christian that the condemnation of same-sex marriage is a condemnation of integrated fulfillment for gay persons. He writes:
“The church’s condemnation of same-sex relationships seemed to be harmful to the long-term well-being of most gay people. By condemning homosexuality, the church was shutting off a primary avenue for relational joy and companionship in gay people’s lives.”3
He notes that in Genesis the only thing found “not good” in creation is man’s lack of a created partner.4 In this last assertion, Vines and Pope John Paul II agree, as I will argue below.
Vines argues that the Genesis 2 account of creation does not emphasize Adam’s need to procreate, but, rather, his need for relationship. Vines continues:
“Now, Adam was not alone in only a romantic sense. He also lacked any human friendship or community, which would have made his loneliness all the more profound. But God didn’t respond by giving Adam a group of friends. He gave Adam a spouse.”5
Vines further points out that the text of Genesis 2 emphasizes the similarity, rather than the differences, between Adam and Eve and that the similarity, “not their gender difference, was what made them suitable partners.”6 In a moving account which he unfolds in the remainder of his book, Vines writes that the solution to this loneliness is in loving marital relationship, whether with a member of the same sex or the opposite sex.
The problem of man’s loneliness is also explored in Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (which was first released during John Paul II’s papacy).7 John Paul II writes that the loneliness in Genesis 2 refers not only to “the solitude of man-male, caused by the absence of the woman,” but to “the solitude of ‘man’ (male and female).”8 The solitude in the second account of creation refers to the solitude of humankind, “the solitude of ‘man’ as such and not only to that of the male.”9 John Paul II writes that Genesis 2 concentrates on this loneliness as “a fundamental anthropological issue that is in some way prior to the issue raised by the fact that man is male and female.”10 That is, even before the question of relationship through sexual difference, Genesis 2 presents a person who needs relationship with others simply by virtue of his humanity, whether this relationship be with other men or other women. Setting aside the question of conjugal fulfillment, there is a very real need simply for an Other.
According to John Paul II, God, who is love “liv[ing] in a mystery of personal loving communion,”11 created man in His own image. Thus, God “inscribes” in humanity the vocation, capacity, and responsibility of love and communion.12 Love, understood in the Catholic Catechism as willing the good of another,13 is “the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being.”14 The call to love and communion is not simply a call inscribed in man as male and female, husband and wife (zakhar and nekievah, ish and ishshah), a call to the love inscribed in sexual difference, but is rather a call that exists in adam, in humankind. According to John Paul II, the call to love is not simply the call to marital, conjugal love. And the Catechism writes of two callings:
“Christian revelation recognizes two specific ways or realizing the vocation of the human person in its entirety, to love: marriage and… celibacy. Either one is, in its own proper form, an actualization of the most profound truth of man, of his being ‘created in the image of God.’”15
It is important that, even though man (adam) is in relationship with God in the Garden of Eden, God still identifies the human person as “alone.” Again, from the Catechism:
“The first man was not only created good, but was also established in friendship with his Creator and in harmony with himself and with the creation around him.”16
Yet this was not enough. So God, in his love for Adam, decides that he will make adam a “helpmate.”17 God creates Eve, the first woman. And the “partnership” between Adam and Eve, as it is described in the Catechism, “constitutes the first form of communion between persons.”18
Undoubtedly, the question of sexual difference is a significant question, especially given the concluding lines of Genesis 2 and the creation of man in Genesis 1. However, this question only arises in Genesis 2 when Eve is identified as nekievah and ishshah, as both woman and wife. This question of sexual difference, though important, brings a dimension to the fulfillment of man that is distinct from the original dimension of man’s loneliness as adam, as human person, and God’s desire to make a “helpmate” or a “partner,” not simply a “spouse.” Thus, the partnership required for the fulfillment as a human person and the spousal union required for the fulfillment of husband and wife, as will be explored later, can be both overlapping and distinct forms of communion. In the pre-modern Catholic tradition, one is necessary for the fulfillment of man as human person, while the other is necessary for the fulfillment of man as spouse. Part of the contemporary confusion arises due to the collapse of these distinctions, both within and outside of Catholic culture.
What is friendship?
Friendship can mean a number of things, though the Western philosophical tradition has at times spoken of friendship in a specific sense. Here, I will focus on three texts in particular. The first, books eight and nine of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, seeks to give an overview of friendship in its highest form from the perspective of a fourth century B.C. Greek philosopher, referred to by Thomas Aquinas as “the Philosopher.” The second text is Cicero’s De Amicitia. Cicero, a philosopher and politician living in Rome, wrote De Amicitia in 44 B.C. as a dialogue with a number of important characters, including himself. The third text is a dialogue titled Spiritual Friendship, by Aelred of Rievaulx, abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Rievaulx until his death in 1167.
Aristotle writes in the Nicomachean Ethics that friendship arises when two people have mutual goodwill directed towards each other for some reason, and they are aware of this.19 There are three kinds of friendship, each determined by the object of the goodwill.20 In friendships of utility, the friends wish good for each other on account of useful goods they can get out of the friendship.21 In friendships of pleasure, the friends have goodwill for each other because they derive some enjoyment from the relationship.22 These first two forms of friendships can be good in their own way, but they are not friendship in the truest and highest sense, and they dissolve as soon as the pleasure or utility disappears. In contrast, Aristotle writes:
“[The highest and perfect friendship exists] between good men who are alike in excellence or virtue… [T]hese friends wish alike for one another’s good because they are good per se… Those who wish for their friends’ good for their friends’ sake are friends in the truest sense.”23
In other words, true friendship exists when two want to be friends simply for the sake of being friends. Being virtuous, they pursue friendship for the sake of virtue, with and for each other. This true friendship that has developed and been tested with time and familiarity24 is “of its nature unchangeable”25 and thus permanent.
Similarly, Cicero, writing about three hundred years later in ancient Rome, defines true friendship as “an accord in all things, human and divine, conjoined with mutual goodwill and affection.”26 Virtue recognizes and is drawn towards virtue. And virtue provides for the permanence and loyalty in friendship:
“For in Virtue is complete harmony, in her is permanence, in her is fidelity; and when she has raised her head and shown her own light and has seen and recognized the same light in another, she moves towards it and then in turn receives its beams; as a result love or friendship leaps into flame.”27
Here is seen the creative nature of friendship. According to Cicero, virtue in one is a light, while virtue among two “leaps into flame.” Thus friendship arises as a fire among the virtuous when they recognize the virtue in each other.
Friendship cannot last among those who are not virtuous. Cicero warns against befriending those who are untrustworthy or who cajole or flatter, because friendship fails among those who are “fickle, changeable, and manifold.”28 Cicero calls these “friendships of the ordinary kind,” which he contrasts with friendship among the wise.29 In contrast to “ordinary friendship,” the highest form of friendship requires openness of heart and a deep union. Thus Cicero writes fondly of his friendship with Scipio:
“I feel as if my life has been happy because it was spent with Scipio, with whom I shared my public and private cares; lived under the same roof at home; served in the same campaigns abroad, and enjoyed that wherein lies the whole essence of friendship—the most complete agreement in policy, in pursuits, and in opinions.”30
More than a millennium later, Aelred of Rievaulx adopts Cicero’s definition of friendship as “mutual harmony in affairs human and divine coupled with benevolence and charity.”31 Aelred establishes Cicero’s De Amicitia as a foundation for the Christian understanding of friendship, though Cicero’s understanding is not complete. Ivo, a younger monk in Aelred’s dialogue, points out Cicero’s limitation. Cicero, he says, “was unacquainted with the virtue of true friendship, since he was completely unaware of its beginning and end, Christ.”32 Aelred agrees, saying that friendship “ought to, and is proved to, begin in Christ, continue in Christ, and be perfected in Christ.”33 Aelred, like Cicero, describes friendship as an eternal union. He calls friendship “that virtue by which spirits are bound by ties of love and sweetness, and out of many are made one.”34 Drawing from Scripture and the writings of St. Jerome, Aelred derives friendship’s permanent and persevering nature from the love of Christ: “Although he be accused unjustly, though he be injured, though he be cast in the flames, though he be crucified, ‘he that is a friend loves at all times.’”35
Aelred lists four elements particularly pertaining to “spiritual friendship” which he contrasts with the lower forms of “worldly friendship” and “carnal friendship”: love, affection, security, and happiness.36 Love, which should never be withdrawn even from a former friend, “implies the rendering of services with benevolence.”37 Affection is a manifested inward pleasure.38 Security involves revealing counsels and confidences without fear and suspicion. And happiness involves “a pleasing and friendly sharing of all events which occur, whether joyful or sad, of all thoughts, whether harmful or useful, of everything taught or learned.”39
Aelred’s account of friendship, though drawing from and grounded in the ideas of Aristotle and Cicero, differs from his predecessors in a number of ways. While the two pre-Christian writers concluded that true friendship will be rare since virtuous men are rare, Aelred finds abundant Christian examples of friendship, especially among Christianity’s numerous martyrs who “gave their lives for their brethren.”40 In contrast to Aristotle who wrote of the importance of circumstance and fortune for virtue,41 Aelred argues that “the Christian ought not to despair of acquiring any virtue since daily the divine voice from the Gospel reechoes: ‘Ask, and you shall receive…’”42 Further, in writing Spiritual Friendship as a kind of handbook, Aelred speaks of friendship as a good not limited to those who have already reached perfection. Rather, it “can begin among the good, progress among the better, and be consummated among the perfect.”43
Friendship proceeds simultaneously from reason and affection, with the love of God as its foundation and constant reference point.44 Those cannot enter into friendship who are quarrelsome, irascible, fickle, suspicious, or loquacious and are unable or unwilling to regulate or restrain these passions.45 Thus we don’t bring everyone into the “secrets of friendship,” which arise with the “formula of friendship” given by Saint Ambrose:
“‘That we do the will of our friend, that we disclose to our friend whatever confidences we have in our hearts, and that we be not ignorant of his confidences. Let us lay bare to him our heart and let him disclose his to us. For a friend hides nothing. If he is true, he pours forth his soul just as the Lord Jesus poured forth the mysteries of the Father.’”46
Thus friendship especially flourishes in its complete unity, permanence, loyalty,47 and open-heartedness.
It is also important to note that, according to Aelred, friendship is a good necessary for human flourishing. “[W]ithout friends absolutely no life can be happy.”48 At the very least, man needs some form of relationship with others. A man who is completely self-sufficient and without a need for the society of others, as Aristotle puts it, “is either a beast or a god.”49 Aelred writes similarly:
“[T]hose men are beasts rather than human who declare that a man ought to live in such a way as to be to no one a source of consolation, to no one a source even of grief or burden; to take no delight in the good fortune of another, or impart to others no bitterness because of their own misfortune, caring to cherish no one and to be cherished by no one.”50
A kind of friendship, though possibly in a form lower than true friendship, is necessary for life. But friendship in its highest and true form is that which both manifests and enables man’s highest flourishing:
“[F]riendship is a stage bordering upon that perfection which consists in the love and knowledge of God, so that man from being a friend of his fellowman becomes the friend of God, according to the words of the Savior in the Gospel: ‘I will not now call you servants, but my friends.’”51
In friendship two are made one. Aelred calls friendship “that virtue by which spirits are bound by ties of love and sweetness, and out of many are made one.”52 In contrast, “[h]e is entirely alone who is without a friend.”53
This brief look at friendship may bring to mind common tropes about marriage, such that one wonders whether marriage itself is a form of friendship and, further, whether marriage is friendship’s highest form. Pope Francis says as much in Amoris Laetitia, where he quotes Thomas Aquinas:
“After the love that unites us to God, conjugal love is the ‘greatest form of friendship’. It is a union possessing all the traits of a good friendship: concern for the good of the other, reciprocity, intimacy, warmth, stability and the resemblance born of a shared life.”54
The United States Supreme Court, in establishing same-sex marriage as a Constitutional right in the case Obergefell v. Hodges, stated:
“The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality… Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one is there. It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other.”55
Obergefell draws on Griswold v. Connecticut, which defined marriage as “a coming together for better or for worse, hopefully enduring, and intimate to the degree of being sacred. It is an association that promotes a way of life… a harmony… a bilateral loyalty.”56 Obergefell also draws on United States v. Windsor, which says that the right to marry dignifies couples who “wish to define themselves by their commitment to each other.” The account of marriage which has culminated in the Obergefell decision seems to be nothing other than a kind of friendship.
The tradition of the Catholic Church and the history of its treatment of marriage, however, challenges the concept of marriage as a form of friendship. It even challenges the idea that friendship in its “true” sense is either essential or intrinsically aspirational within marriage. This raises a tension regarding common Christian tropes about same-sex marriage advocates.
It is a common view among some that those who hold same-sex marriage as an institution in consonance with Christianity have a stinted and perhaps ignorant view of the history and tradition of Church teaching and practice. Some claim that those supporting same-sex marriage have a view of marriage that is fundamentally opposed to the tradition of Christian marriage and that such support departs from this tradition. But Christians today should be cautious with this claim, lest it be turned back against us. The historical expectations, practices, and experiences of marriage within Christianity have been remarkably different from those held not only by American advocates of same-sex marriage but also by Catholic Christians seeking to uphold what they understand as the “traditional” teaching and practice of marriage.
Take Augustine, for example. Today’s Christian readers of Augustine sometimes view and dismiss him as an overly pessimistic thinker when it comes to the foundations and ends of marriage, in contrast--so they say--to what others see as a positive image for marriage presented by John Paul II. Yet Augustine must be taken seriously, not only because he is considered one of the most important thinkers in the history of Christianity, but because his views on love and marriage were not only his but also the prevalent views of many in a broader Church distinguishing itself from non-Christian pagan practices for hundreds of years. To dismiss Augustine’s thought on marriage as a limited view of the distant past is simply to pick up the alleged rhetorical brush of some same-sex marriage advocates and paint with it over a different section of Christian history.
Augustine’s view of marriage is commonly considered negative or perhaps demeaning. Though Augustine speaks of a “natural companionship” between the two sexes,57 he does not speak of a friendship between the two spouses. In Augustine’s De Boni Conjugii, “friendship” occurs three times, and two of these times for the purpose of distinguishing between types of goods. He writes, for example: “Surely we must see that God gives us some goods which are to be sought for their own sake, such as wisdom, health, friendship; others, which are necessary for something else, such as learning, food, drink, sleep, marriage, sexual intercourse.”58 According to Augustine, friendship is an intrinsic good, while marriage is an instrumental good, for the sake of procreation and as a solution to concupiscence.59 Marriage is for “one purpose of procreating children,” but it also serves as a remedy for men who lack the self-control required of celibacy.60 “The crown of marriage, then, is the chastity of procreation and faithfulness in rendering the marriage debt.”61
Augustine even says that men and women are not particularly well suited for friendship with each other and that the creation of woman was for the sake of reproduction:
“Now, if the woman was not made for the man to be his helper in begetting children, in what was she to help him? She was not to till the earth… If there were any such need, a male helper would be better, and the same could be said of the comfort of another’s presence if Adam were perhaps weary of solitude. How much more agreeably could two male friends, rather than a man and woman, enjoy companionship and conversation in a life shared together.”62
Like John Paul II, Augustine separates the original solitude of man from the distinction between the sexes, though John Paul II will develop the Church’s understanding of conjugal love over the course of his papacy.
Aquinas writes within a hundred years of Aelred. He comes several hundred years after Augustine, but in answering whether sexual reproduction would have taken place prior to the Fall of man, Aquinas seems to agree with Augustine in suggesting that man and woman are not well suited for friendship with each other. He seems to say that the reason for creating woman, rather than another man, was for the purpose of sexual reproduction, “to which the distinction of sex is ordained.” Aquinas writes:
“Moreover, we are told that woman was made to be a help to man (Genesis 2: 18-20). But she is not fitted to help man except in generation, because another man would have proved a more effective help in anything else. Therefore there would have been such generation also in the state of innocence.”63
This, of course, can be contrasted with the previously quoted passage, in which Aquinas asserts that the “greatest form of friendship” can be found in marriage, but I will respond to this tension later. What should be clear from these passages in Augustine and Aquinas is that, far from assuming or expecting friendship within marriage, prior to the modern era the Catholic tradition seems to treat friendship and marriage as distinct goods that were not likely to overlap, with friendship as the higher good.
Nonetheless, change has come and is reflected in a new term appeared with the 1983 Code of Canon Law’s treatment of marriage. For the first time, bonum coniugum, “good of the spouses,” appeared as an end of marriage in Catholicism’s canon law, alongside the traditional end of procreation.64 Cormac Burke identifies the introduction of bonum coniugum with a debate in the mid-twentieth century over the ends of marriage, in which Catholic magisterial authorities initially rejected a “secondary end” in marriage gaining primacy alongside the end of procreation. Nonetheless, Burke also traces in the twentieth century the development of what he calls a “personalist” vision of marriage as an institution directed towards a broad flourishing of the spouses, the seeds of which can be found even before Pius XII. Pope Pius XI’s Casti Connubii in 1930 states that conjugal consent and union involve the “generous surrender of one’s own person.”65 In 1965, Gaudium et Spes describes marriage as an “intimate partnership of life and love” and marital consent “as the mutual giving of two persons,” in which husband and wife in mutual service to each other “become conscious of their unity, and experience it more deeply from day to day.”66
In 1983, the bonum coniugum first appears in the Code of Canon law. Canon 1055 describes the matrimonial covenant as “a partnership for the whole of life ordered by nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring.”67 Burke argues that the bonum coniugum speaks to the personalist aspect of marital love. However, he rejects a “superficial analysis” of the bonum coniugum which sees it as “consisting in the psychic, affective, physical, or sexual ‘integration’ of the spouses.”68 Burke argues that this view is “inadequate from a Christian standpoint” partly because “it tends to resolve the bonum coniugum into a question of natural ‘compatibility.’”69
Though such an integration and compatibility are part of the grounding of friendship, Burke rejects these as an adequate understanding of the “good of the spouses” and, rather, treats the bonum coniugum as an end interrelated with and inseparable from procreation.70 He clarifies that the bonum coniugum and procreativity have a natural complementarity, such that conjugality “means that both the man and woman are destined to become spouses: to unite themselves to each other in an act that is unitive precisely because it is oriented to procreativity.”71 He points out that a “happy married life together is no doubt the aim or hope of almost all who marry. Yet to identify the bonum coniugum as a divinely given end of marriage with ‘shared happiness’ is anything but adequate.”72
In addition to the introduction of bonum coniugum, the 1983 Code also introduces a new definition of marital consent. In the previous 1917 Code, marital consent was defined as “an act of the will by which each party gives and accepts perpetual and exclusive rights to the body, for those actions that are of themselves suitable for the generation of children.”73 Canon 1057 changes matrimonial consent to “an act of the will by which a man and a woman mutually give and accept each other through an irrevocable covenant in order to establish marriage.” Burke also emphasizes the personalism involved in this definition’s “give and accept.”74 We can see in canon law a shift from a focus primarily on biological procreativity to a more general focus on personal consent.
It is difficult to overstate the significance of this development in Catholic theology and canon law. A 1951 address by Pope Pius XII “clearly emphasized the hierarchical notion of the ends of marriage” and recalled how a 1944 decree by the Holy See “had considered unacceptable the opinion of those who ‘taught that the secondary ends are not essentially subordinate to the primary end [of procreation,] but are of equal importance and independent of it.’”75 Nonetheless, change does occur, and bonum coniugum is added alongside procreation as one of the primary ends of marriage in canon law. As a historical matter, one might explore the correlational history in the development of Catholic canon law in the late twentieth century which adds “good of the spouses” alongside procreation as the goods of marriage, in addition to a moral “personalist” vision of marital consent, and the development in American civil law from marriage as an institution limited to those capable of biological procreation to those who can consent to a mutual commitment.76 One might consider the extent to which the changes in Catholic canon law in the late twentieth century anticipate those in American civil law in the early twenty-first.
Friendship and Conjugal Love
One can see possible seeds for friendship planted into the Church’s understanding of marriage in the twentieth century. Yet the Code does not describe marriage as a friendship. Rather, Canon 1055 describes the matrimonial covenant as a “partnership.” The word “friendship” occurs only once in the Code, in discussing the formation of clerics among other seminarians.77 Canon 245 states: “Through common life in the seminary and through relationships of friendship and of association cultivated with others, they are prepared for fraternal union with the diocesan presybterium whose partners they will be in the service of the Church.”78 Using the classical distinctions between imperfect and true friendships, the distinction between “friendship” and “association” can become clearer, as well as the distinction between “friendship” and “partnership.”
Nonetheless, in arguing for the indissolubility of marriage, Aquinas makes an argument about “the greatest friendship between husband and wife.” He writes in the Summa Contra Gentiles:
“Furthermore, the greater that friendship is, the more solid and long-lasting it will be. Now, there seems to be the greatest friendship between husband and wife, for they are united not only in the act of fleshly union, which produces a certain gentle association even among beasts, but also in the partnership of the whole range of domestic activity.”79
A careful reading demonstrates that Aquinas was not actually arguing for marriage as “the greatest form of friendship”, as stated by Pope Francis.
First, note that Aquinas says that “there seems to be (esse videtur) the greatest friendship between husband and wife.” He does not state that this greatest friendship actually occurs, but that it appears to occur, using his classic formula of esse videtur to signal that he will critique or probe this point. Second, Augustine states that there seems to be this friendship, not simply because the two are married, but because of their “partnership of the whole range of domestic activity,” in addition to the “gentle association” produced by the “act of fleshly union.” The partnership in domestic activity and gentle association, a key mark of friendship, arise not as essential elements of marriage, but, rather as a consequence of the conjugal act and the fact that spouses share in domestic life. Partnership and gentle association are linked to friendship, and, like the lack of actual offspring, do not invalidate or dissolve a marriage in their absence. For, though perhaps not ideal, marriages in which couples do not share in domestic activities and do not derive “gentle association” from the conjugal act can be just as valid as marriages where couples do find these.
However, especially in light of the development of a “personalist” vision of marriage, it is important to note that, while marriage itself is not a form of friendship, and true friendship is not a required element of marriage, spouses will benefit greatly from a deep friendship in the highest sense. In directing mutual goodwill towards each other in the pursuit of marital life, spouses can already be said to partake in a certain form of friendship, even if only in the utilitarian sense presented by Aristotle or the worldly sense presented by Aelred, in which this friendship might be directed towards the sharing of a household and the raising of children rather than for the sake of friendship itself. Their marriage can only be deepened by pursuing a friendship for friendship’s sake, with and for the good of each other. Just as friendship “is a stage bordering upon that perfection which consists in the love and knowledge of God, so that man from being a friend becomes the friend of God,”80 spouses benefit from establishing friendship’s love, affection, security, and happiness, with its bond of unity, permanence, loyalty, and open-heartedness.
Indeed, contributing to a spouse’s development into such a friend might be a natural implication of the bonum coniugum. Burke argues that the “genuine bonum coniugum” is directed not only to the earthly good in conjugal intimacy, but must find its end in the calling of each person to eternal life.81 One might interpret this directedness towards eternal life to indicate that the highest friendship is implicated in the “good of the spouses.” That is, one might argue that since marriage is directed towards the “good of the spouses” and this good finds its final end in eternal life, and since the highest form of friendship brings man closest to eternal life, as argued by Aelred, that marriage is directed towards the highest form of friendship between the spouses. Though such a friendship is a great good for spouses which achieve it, this is not necessary for the establishment or existence of a good and true marriage.
Consider, for example, how a parent directs parenting towards the good of the child. Simply saying that the parent-child relationship is directed towards the good of the child does not imply that the parent and child will be friends in the true sense. Equality is essential in friendship, especially equality in the pursuit of virtue.82 In friendship you have “someone to whom you dare to speak on terms of equality as to another self.”83 Thus the parent-child relationship will not necessarily have true friendship. However, the good of the parent-child relationship will include forming the child such that he or she can achieve friendship, even if that friendship is not necessarily with his or her parent. In a similar way, the good of the spouse will involve the formation and development of one’s spouse into someone who can achieve friendship in the highest sense, even if for some reason this friendship is not with his or her spouse.
Nonetheless, it is difficult to overstate the hopes for intimacy presented by the Church’s teachings on marriage, especially as they have changed and developed in recent centuries. The Catechism writes that marriage helps spouses to “overcome self-absorption, egoism, pursuit of one’s own pleasure, and to open oneself to the other, to mutual aid and to self-giving.”84 The goodness of marriage is confirmed by Jesus’ presence at the wedding at Cana, which also gives a “proclamation that thenceforth marriage will be an efficacious sign of Christ’s presence.”85 The grace in marriage “is intended to perfect the couple’s love and to strengthen their indissoluble unity,” and in this grace couples “help one another to attain holiness in their married life and in welcoming and educating their children.”86
This essay began with the question: “What is ‘traditional marriage’?” At this point, it should be clear that “traditional marriage,” meant as the institution understood by and practiced in the Catholic Church and particularly in Western society in past centuries, is not simply the “highest form” of friendship. Indeed, it does not appear to be a friendship at all, at least not in the highest sense discussed by Aristotle, Cicero, and Aelred of Rievaulx. Nor has marriage been understood as the highest or most all-encompassing form of human relationship. Rather than marriage, friendship has been understood as the highest and most all-encompassing relationship, even if the Catholic tradition today pushes married Catholics to seek friendship in its highest form with their spouses. Indeed, neither Augustine nor Aquinas could have anticipated the “personalist” vision now used to define marriage in the Western world, and one might wonder about the extent to which recent developments in Catholic theology and canon law represent a break in the tradition.
Still, the Catholic tradition must be seen not only as historic but also as dynamic. Catholic teaching and canon law change and develop in response to social, political, and intellectual changes in the world. The current state of Catholic marriage in the United States and abroad has changed in significant ways in the modern era, both canonically and in practice. A return to or affirmation of “traditional marriage” is not as simple as limiting marriage to a male-female relationship. Advocates who claim as much risk demonstrating not only an ignorance of, but also a disregard for, the treatment of marriage in the actual Catholic tradition, trading for it instead a “tradition” of their own making.
Stephanie Coontz has written on how the prioritization of the nuclear family, with a working father and homemaker-mother, is only as old as the mid-twentieth century. David Bentley Hart has shared cursorily how narratives of a consistently strong Catholic opposition to divorce are ahistorical accounts of both Catholic teaching and practice,87 even if David O’Connor has compellingly argued that the strong opposition to divorce of the Catholic Church today represents a stronger adherence to Scripture.88 Hart writes that “history is ambiguity.” Whatever it is, history is never as simple as we want it to be, and every narrative of history will be a fairy tale to some degree, even if some tales are more consistent with reality than others. For those seeking to sustain marriage as an institution in consonance with Catholicism’s actual history and tradition, humility and openness will be essential virtues.
Finally, advocates of “traditional marriage” cannot treat the cultural shifts in favor of same-sex marriage as solely the result of a move away from “gender complementarity,” even if such a move is deeply intertwined with these shifts. Rather, the move towards same-sex marriage comes as one part of the larger package of changes to friendship, marriage, and public union over the last couple of centuries. Even Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body represents a significant change in Catholicism’s treatment of marriage and sexuality, from Paul to Augustine to Thomas More.
This essay is not meant to advocate the merits of same-sex marriage. Nor is it meant to bolster the claims of its opponents. Rather, I hope that it can contribute to a dialogue that is deeper, more honest, and more fruitful on all sides. It benefits neither side of the marriage debates to put forward bad arguments in support of their positions. I will leave for future work to explore how the arguments presented within this essay might come to bear specifically on the merits of modern marriage.
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Genesis 1:27. The New American Bible, Revised Edition (NABRE). Confraternity of Christian Doctirne: Washington, D.C., 2010 (hereinafter “NABRE”).
Ibid., Genesis 2:18, 22.
Vines, Matthew. God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-sex Relationships. New York: Convergent, 2015. 12.
This is recognized by Vines himself in God and the Gay Christian. Ibid., 46.
Pope John Paul II. Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body. Trans. Michael Waldstein. Boston, MA: Pauline & Media, 2006 (hereinafter “Theology of the Body”). 147.
Ibid., 147-48 (emphasis added).
Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Familiaris Consortio. 22 Nov. 1981. Web. 21 Apr. 2016. <http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_19811122_familiaris-consortio.html>. Par. 11.
Catechism of the Catholic Church (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2000), par. 1766.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, at par. 374.
NABRE, at Genesis 2:18.
Catechism, supra note 16 at par. 383.
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. Martin Ostwald. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999 (hereinafter “Nicomachean Ethics”). 218.
Nicomachean Ethics, supra note 19 at 220.
Love and Friendship, at 16.
Cicero, Marcus Tullius. De Senectute ; De Amicitia ; De Divinatione. Trans. William Armistead. Falconer. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1923. 131.
Aelred of Rievaulx, and Dennis Joseph. Billy. Spiritual Friendship. Trans. Mary Eugenia. Laker. Notre Dame, IN: Christian Classics, Ave Maria, 2008. Classics with Commentary. 34.
Ibid., 33. The dependence in friendship also differs from the independence conveyed in some of Cicero’s account (for example, see Cicero 141). Alasdair MacIntyre also criticizes Aristotle’s account of virtue for failing to recognize the dependent nature of man, and he offers Aquinas and others as a corrective to Aristotle’s account (Macintyre, Alasdair. Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues. Chicago and La Salle (Illinois): Open Court, 2002. 5-10).
For example, material wealth is necessary for the practice of the virtue of generosity in Aristotle’s account (Nicomachean Ethics 83). Aelred disagrees, opening up virtue and thus friendship to those without material wealth (Aelred of Rievaulx 72).
Aelred of Rievaulx 38.
Aelred says that nothing is “more praiseworthy in friendship than loyalty, which seems to be its nurse and guardian.” Ibid., 100.
Aristotle. The Politics. Trans. Carnes Lord. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1985. 37.
Aelred of Rievaulx 69.
Aelred of Rievaulx 60.
Aelred of Rievaulx 35. The unity of friendship is also, in part, what makes for its permanence: “For when friendship has made of two one, just as that which is one cannot be divided, so also friendship cannot be separated from itself.” Aelred of Rievaulx 96.
Aelred of Rievaulx 59.
Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, 13 Mar. 2016. Web. 21 Apr. 2016 <https://w2.vatican.va/content/dam/francesco/pdf/apost_exhortations_documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20160319_amoris-laetitia_en.pdf>. Par. 123. As will be explored later, this is actually a misquote, and one which is tellingly ignored by critics of Amoris Laetitia.
Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S.Ct. 1584, 2599-2600 (2015).
Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479, 486 (1965).
Augustine. Treatises on Marriage and Other Subjects. Trans. Charles T. Wilcox. Vol. 27. Washington, D.C.: Catholic U of America, 1999. Fathers of the Church Series. 12.
Augustine. The Literal Meaning of Genesis. Trans. John Hammond. Taylor. Vol. 41. New York, NY: Newman, 1982. Print. Ancient Greek Writers. 75.
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. Translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Online Ed. 2008. Web. 29 Apr. 2016. <http://newadvent.org/summa/1098.htm>. Ia, Q. 98, Art. 2. Elizabeth Schiltz argues that the Catholic teaching of gender complementarity is not meant to suggest that women are in some way inferior to men or that women are incomplete persons in the absence of men. Eve is not somehow inferior to Adam. Both are equal in dignity. Indeed, their complementarity does not indicate that they are somehow incomplete, as if they are, in marriage, one-half plus one-half, only becoming a complete whole in conjugal love. Rather, they are each whole, and their union is not simply one plus one equals two, but, as Schiltz argues, in the creativity of their love, they are one plus one equals three (Schiltz, Elizabeth. “A Contemporary Catholic Theory of Complementarity.” Failinger, Marie A., Elizabeth R. Schiltz, and Susan J. Stabile, eds. Feminism, Law and Religion. Surrey, GA: Ashgate Limited, 2013. 3-24.).
Burke, Cormac. The Theology of Marriage: Personalism, Doctrine, and Canon Law. Washington, D.C.: Catholic U of America, 2015. 50.
Code of Canon Law, Latin-English Edition. Washington, D.C.: Canon Law Society of America, 1983. Can. 1055 (also available at http://www.vatican.va/archive/cod-iuris-canonici/latin/documents/cic_liberIV_lt.html#TITULUS_VII) (hereinafter “Code”).
Ibid., 65 (emphasis added).
Peters, Edward N. The 1917 or Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law: in English Translation: with Scholarly Apparatus. Ignatius Press, 2001. Canon 1081 §2.
For this development in Canon Law, see Burke, 50-70. For this development in American civil law, see: Obergfell.
Similarly, references to friendship occur only four times in the Theology of the Body (Theology of the Body, supra note 20 at 554, 562, 576, and 584).
Code, supra note 92 at Can. 245. In Latin: “per vitam in seminario communem atque per amicitiae coniunctionisque necessitudinem cum aliis excultam praeparentur ad fraternam unionem cum dioecesano presbyterio, cuius in Ecclesiae servitio erunt consortes.”
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Contra Gentiles. Web. 29 Apr. 2016. <http://dhspriory.org/thomas/ContraGentiles3b.htm#12>. III-II. Ch. 123. And though Ch. 125 of the Summa Contra Gentiles argues that existing relatives should not be married, in part, to support the “widening of friendships” in human society, this may be read in a couple of ways. The “friendships” being formed here may not necessarily be that between husband and wife, but between their families. One can hardly overstate the significance of marriage in forming political and economic alliances in the medieval world. (Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage.Penguin Books; Annotated edition. 2006. 88-122.) But even if one were to argue that Aquinas views marriage as a type of friendship, he does not view it necessarily as friendship in the “true” sense outlined by Aristotle.
Aelred 45. Note, however, that Aristotle argues that friendship of a certain kind can exist among those who are not equals. This is not the highest or true form of friendship, but it is friendship in a sense (Nicomachean Ethics, supra note 19 at 227-228).
Catechism, supra note 13 at par. 1609.
Ibid., par. 1613.
Ibid., par. 1641.
David, Hart Bentley. “Divorce, Annulment & Communion: An Orthodox Theologian Weighs In.” Commonweal Magazine, 26 Aug. 2019, www.commonwealmagazine.org/divorce-annulment-communion.
O'Connor, David K. Plato's Bedroom: Ancient Wisdom and Modern Love. St. Augustine's Press, 2015. 160-166.