Christ among the Doctors of the Law



Friday, November 21, 2008

"Same-sex marriage" in medieval canon law

Increasingly, it seems, the Church has to explain the most rudimentary things to people, things like, it is always wrong to deliberately kill an innocent human being (John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 57), or lately, that marriage can exist only between a man and a woman (1983 CIC 1055, CCC 1601 ff.) Sometimes, the world's penchant for mangling the truth leaves Church officials scrambling to find (among other things) an historical text on a controverted topic, not to demonstrate the veracity of the truth in question, but rather to show that the Church has always taught that truth, even if in times past there was little need to point out what folks already understood. As I watch bishops and others trying to respond to the sudden emergence of "same sex marriage", I sympathize with their bewilderment that they find themselves even having to explain the matter, and I've wondered, might historians be able to find a "paper trail" of Church teachings against "same sex marriage" that could be used for pedagogic purposes? Maybe so.

Recently I came across a passage in a medieval canonical treatise, the Summa Aurea by
Hostiensis (d. 1270), wherein the great lawyer paused, as it happens, to point out (at the risk of preaching to an audience who took such a truth for granted) that marriage can only exist between a man and woman, and one of each at that. How ironic that words penned by a canonist 750 years ago are more helpful to us today than they were to their original audience! Of course, Hostiensis went on to discuss other canonical aspects of marriage, but his brief observations that marriage is possible only between one man and one woman are, I think, useful to us who, many centuries later, are defending marriage against an appalling redefinition.

Preserving the clipped prose typical of medieval canonistics and omitting citations, I here offer my rough rendering of Hostiensis' thirteenth century text on marriage.

"What marriage is. The conjoining of a man and a woman holding to an individual manner of life; a mutual sharing with divine and human aspects. Marriage is between a man and a woman; two of the same sex cannot be married. For, in the beginning they were not created two men nor two women, but first a man and then a woman. A wedding therefore that is not a commingling of the sexes would not have within itself a sacrament of Christ and the Church. Marriage is also spoken of as being between a man and a woman in the singular, and not of men and women in the plural, for no one man can wed several women, nor can one woman wed several men."

Henricus de Segusio (Cdl. Hostiensis, c. 1200-1270), Summa Aurae [1253] una cum summariis et adnotationibus Nicolai Superantii (Neudruck der Ausgabe Lyon, 1537 / Scientia Aalen, 1962) 194 bis (b).