Doors to the Sacred: Part III—Marriage
by John Alonzo Dick

This is the third in a multipart series on the sacraments by John Alonzo Dick, professor emeritus of historical theology at the Catholic University of Leuven. We conceive of this series as a kind of seminar or “retreat in writing” that aims to give an historical, pastoral, and theological overview of the sacraments and how our understanding of them continues to evolve. A general introduction to the series is available here. Part I, on baptism and confirmation, is available here; part II, on the Eucharist, is available here—Ed.

During the first three centuries of Christianity, when Christians married they did so according to the civil laws of the time, in a traditional family ceremony, often without any special “church” blessing on their union. There was no liturgical ceremony for marriage, as we saw in the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist.  

Even though Constantine (272–337) gave bishops the authority to act as civil magistrates, there is little indication that they were given any marriage cases to decide. Marriage under Roman law was still by the mutual consent of the parties involved, which often meant by the consent of their parents.   

Even after Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380, there was no great change in civil marriage laws, with the bride’s father playing the chief role in the wedding ceremony. The usual marriage custom was that, on the wedding day, the father gave his daughter over to the groom in her own family’s house. The bridal party then walked in procession to her new husband’s house for concluding ceremonies and a wedding feast. The principal part of the ceremony was the handing over of the bride, during which her right hand was placed in the groom’s, and the draping of a garland of flowers over the couple to symbolize their happy union. There were no official words that had to be spoken and no ecclesiastical ceremony.

Fourth through Seventh Century

In the late fourth century, it became customary in some places in the Eastern Roman Empire for a presbyter (priest) or bishop to give his blessing to the newly wedded couple either during the wedding feast or before it. Presbyters or bishops were not in charge of nor did they conduct the ceremony. Their presence was honorary and not necessary for the marriage to be valid.

Interestingly, by the early fourth century most bishops and presbyters were married but told to abstain from sexual intercourse. The Council of Elvira (306) in southern Spain is often seen as the first to issue a written regulation requiring married clergy to abstain from sex. Its canon 33 decreed: “Bishops, presbyters, deacons, and others with a position in the ministry are to abstain completely from sexual intercourse with their wives and from the procreation of children. If anyone disobeys, he shall be removed from the clerical office.” Nevertheless, even into the 10th century most rural priests would be married and many urban clergy and bishops would have wives and children.

In the fifth century, especially in Greece and Asia Minor, the clergy began to take a more active role in the main ceremony itself, in some places joining the couple’s hands together, in other places putting the garland over them. This ceremony was not mandatory. Throughout the seventh century, Christians could still get married in a purely secular ceremony.

Eighth and Ninth Centuries

By the eighth century, liturgical weddings had become quite common in the eastern empire, and they were usually performed in a church rather than in a home. In the western half of the Roman Empire, however, marriage developed along quite different lines.

The first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne (714–814), initiated legal reforms in his European empire in both church and civil governments. In 802 Charlemagne passed a law requiring all proposed marriages to be examined for legal restrictions, such as previous marriages or close family relationships, before the wedding could take place. Clandestine marriages were a problem, especially in matters of property ownership. 

Interestingly, Charlemagne himself had five wives in sequence, numerous concubines, and 18 children via his wives and concubines. Only three legitimate sons lived to adulthood. The youngest of them, Louis the Pious, survived to succeed him.

In 866 Pope Nicholas I (800–867) sent a letter to missionaries in the Balkans who had asked about the contention of the Greek Church that Christian marriages were not valid unless they were performed and blessed by a priest. In his reply, Pope Nicholas stressed that in Rome the wedding ceremony took place in the absence of any church authorities and consisted primarily in the exchange of consent between the partners.

Pope Nicholas added that, after the wedding, there could be a Mass at which the bride and groom were covered with a veil and given a nuptial blessing. He noted, however, that a marriage was legal and binding even without any public or liturgical ceremony.

Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries

By the 11th century, all marriages in Europe effectively came under the jurisdictional power of the church. It became customary to hold weddings near a church, often in the front, so that the newly married couple could go inside immediately afterward to obtain a priest’s blessing. But the priest did not officiate at the wedding.

At the entrance to the church, the priest asked the bride and groom if they consented to the marriage. Once they said yes, the father of the bride gave his daughter to the groom and gave him her dowry. The priest then blessed the ring that was given to the bride, after which he gave his blessing to the marriage. In some places, after the day’s festivities had concluded, the priest gave an additional blessing to the wedding chamber where the newly married couple would consummate their marriage.

In order to address again the problem of clandestine marriages, church laws increasingly required that all marriages be witnessed by the local priest and recorded in the parish registry, where baptisms were also recorded. This led to weddings being conducted in churches rather than in homes, and to priests being asked to bless the newly married couple.

Eventually, priests displaced the parents who had previously conducted the wedding ceremony. By the late 12th century, the exchange of wedding vows had become a church ritual. Nevertheless, marriage was still understood—as it is today—as a commitment between two people.

The Medieval Period: Marriage as a Sacrament

There was much debate during the medieval period about the number of sacraments. The Benedictine monk and later cardinal Peter Damian (1007–1072), for example, listed 11 sacraments, including the solemn blessing of kings. Hugh of Saint Victor (1096–1141), a major theologian who spent most of his life at the Abbey of Saint Victor in Paris, enumerated close to 30.

Hugh also said the ideal Christian marriage was one of union between husband and wife, preferably without any sexual intercourse. He was strongly influenced by the theology of Augustine of Hippo (354–430) and considered sexual activity not only unnecessary but dangerous and sin-laden. His ideal historical marriage was that of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and her celibate husband Joseph. Like many medieval churchmen, Hugh believed that Mary was a perpetual virgin, before, during, and after the birth of Jesus, and that the Holy Spirit, not Joseph, had mystically impregnated her. It comes as no surprise, then, that marriage was not found on some medieval lists of sacraments. In its place was the solemn consecration of virgins, which, like ordination, could only be done by a bishop.

Marriage was often viewed negatively, as a remedy against the desires of the flesh, rather than positively, as a way to become holy. Church authorities like Albert the Great (1200–1280), the teacher of Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), considered sexual desires themselves as sinful, or dangerous at best. Most theologians held that sexual activity motivated by anything other than the desire for children was sinful.

Gradually, however, the development of a Christian wedding ritual blessed by the clergy came to be understood as the church’s positive affirmation of sexual relations in marriage. Sexual experiences within marriage were no longer considered sinful. But the primary purpose of marital sexual activity was understood to be propagation, not pleasure.

By the early 13th century, marriage and not the solemn consecration of virgins came to be viewed as one of the church’s seven official sacraments. This was confirmed by the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1213 and the Council of Florence in 1439, and was reaffirmed by the Council of Trent that met off and on from 1545 to 1563. Nevertheless, the bishops at Trent condemned the ongoing practice of priests marrying, and strongly declared that Catholics had to believe that virginity and celibacy were superior to marriage.

Seventeenth Century through the Present

To safeguard the permanence of marriage, Roman Catholicism gradually developed an elaborate system of church laws and ecclesiastical courts, which was challenged by the Protestant reformers as being unscriptural and unnecessary.

As part of the 18th-century French Revolution, civil marriage in France became the legal norm. There could still be religious marriages, but only for couples who had already been married in a civil ceremony. Napoleon (1769–1821) later spread this custom throughout most of Europe. Today, a religious ceremony can be performed after or before the civil union, but it has no legal effect.

Many contemporary Catholic theologians and canon lawyers believe it is better to let the legal regulation of marriage be a matter of civic control, without denying that church weddings are important communal celebrations or that Christian marriages are sacramental. Marriages are sacramental because two baptized people are making a commitment to each other; the priest or minister is an official witness.


Divorce and remarriage have become important issues in the Catholic Church. People who marry in the church today have about a 50 percent chance of later getting divorced.

The apostle Paul allowed for the possibility of divorce in certain circumstances (1 Cor. 7:15), and divorce was allowed by law in the Roman Empire even after Christianity became the state religion. Some bishops from the second through the fifth century cited Mark 10:11–12 to prove that divorce is a sin, while others cited Matthew 5:32 to prove that sometimes it wasn’t. Regardless, it is a matter of historical fact that for 11 centuries Christians in the Western Latin church could divorce and remarry, and Christians in the Eastern Orthodox tradition have always been able to do so.

The Council of Trent declared that God instituted marriage and rendered it perpetual and indissoluble: “What God hath joined together, let not man separate” (Matt. 19:6). And the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church declares:

Divorce is a grave offense against the natural law. It claims to break the contract, to which the spouses freely consented, to live with each other till death. Divorce does injury to the covenant of salvation, of which sacramental marriage is the sign. Contracting a new union, even if it is recognized by civil law, adds to the gravity of the rupture: the remarried spouse is then in a situation of public and permanent adultery (2384).

I understand that some married people grow apart. Can’t they also grow back together with help and support? For some couples, of course, divorce and often remarriage with new partners becomes a fact of life. How do we best minister to the divorced? Should we have specific rituals? How can the Christian community best welcome and minister to the remarried? These are important questions to consider.


In canon law, an annulment is a legal declaration of marital nullity, that a valid marriage was never contracted. Since the marriage in question was an apparently valid marriage, entered into in good faith by at least one of the partners, Catholic teaching states that any children born from such a union are not considered illegitimate.

For Catholics who had married outside the church, the annulment process in preparation for a second marriage in the church is very simple. But the practicing Catholic who gets married in the church has to endure the lengthy, arduous, and expensive process of a canonical trial. What is on trial in an annulment process is the bond of marriage. Did it or did it not take place at the time of the marriage?

I have always seen annulment as a particularly Catholic dilemma. What does one say about a couple seeking an annulment who had pledged their love and fidelity to each other and who had enjoyed the fruits of their relationship for more than a few years? When one thinks about the complexities of the annulment process, one can only ask: “Is this what Jesus would have intended?”

Same-Sex Marriage

One of my very good friends is a Catholic priest who always blesses same-sex marriages and considers them sacramental. Certainly, if the partners are baptized, their marriage is a sacrament.

Nevertheless, the Catholic Church is officially opposed to civil and religious same-sex marriage. Pope Francis has called it an “anthropological regression.” Several well-known figures in the Catholic hierarchy actively oppose civil same-sex marriage as well as adoption by same-sex couples.

There is strong and growing support from Catholics around the world for civil unions and same-sex marriage. Among North American and Northern and Western European Catholics, there is even stronger support for LGBTQ rights, including civil unions, civil same-sex marriage, and protection against discrimination, than is found in the general population at large.

The Greek word agápē is usually translated as “love” in the New Testament. It really means care or caring. When Jesus tells his followers to love one another, as we read for instance in John 13:34–35, he is telling them to care about each other and to take care of one another.

Jesus never said it mattered if someone was gay, lesbian, transgender, or straight. Agápē is not a feeling word. It is an action word. Loving and committed people are bound together in agápē.

Conclusion: Contemporary Pastoral Ministry

Times change. We acquire new knowledge and new insights about our human identity. In many respects, we have better biblical and historical perspectives on the past. Our understandings evolve. Accepted patterns of human behavior change.

Contemporary pastoral ministry confronts a number of issues and concerns. Some have been resolved in other Christian traditions but remain problematic in the Catholic tradition, because many in church leadership have difficulty understanding that all church doctrines are time-bound and provisional.

We need to be alert to and reflective about the signs of the times. A golden thread binds us to the past, but it does not strangle us nor make us blind to new discoveries today and tomorrow. Take, for instance, the issue of domestic partnerships. For many people, the wedding ritual is no longer a rite of passage from being single to being married. Many couples live together before getting married, as though they were married. Such arrangements have become socially accepted by family and friends.

Unmarried couples often have children. How does one best minister to couples living together before marriage, or living together without marriage? Are condemnation and discrimination appropriate pastoral responses? I hardly think so. Compassion, communication, and collaboration are better Christian responses. We grow and learn together. More than ever, we need a strong and supportive pastoral ministry that promotes interpersonal marital growth, communication, and reconciliation. ♦

John Alonzo Dick is a retired professor of historical theology at the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven). He holds licentiates in historical theology from the University of Nijmegen and KU Leuven, and doctorates in religious studies and historical theology from KU Leuven. For 30 years he taught courses about religion and values in American society at KU Leuven and the University of Ghent. He is the author of The Malines Conversations Revisited (1989), From Malines to ARCIC (1997) with A. Denaux, and Aggiornamento?: Catholicism from Gregory XVI to Benedict XVI (2013) with J. Mettepenningen and K. Schelkens. This year he published Jean Jadot: Paul’s Man in Washington. He maintains a weekly blog at

Image: Detail from Maurice Denis, Wedding Procession, 1892.
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