Thursday, May 17, 2012

Garry Wills on the Sacrament of Marriage

Garry Wills has an extraordinarily bad piece on the sacrament of marriage at the "NYRBlog" in which he confuses together all sorts of issues and shows that he doesn't actually understand much about Catholic sacramental marriage, despite being able to make a good show of fooling the masses over it. Some basic problems with the piece:

(1) Wills confuses marriage as a religious ritual with marriage as a sacrament. A sacrament is, at its most basic, a sign of spiritual things. There is no getting around the fact that marriage is a sacrament or mystery in some sense, since Ephesians 5 explicitly treats of it in those terms, and, contrary to Wills, calling marriage a sacrament goes back as far in Christian history as we can find explicit statements on the subject, not just to the eleventh century. Augustine, for instance, writing well before the eleventh century, explicitly discusses the sacramental character of marriage. The big dispute over marriage as a sacrament that later took place was not over whether marriage was a sacrament but over three things, the relation of marriage to holy virginity, the precise sort of sacrament it was, and the minister of the sacrament, and it indeed took a long time before general agreement took hold in the West that Scriptural principles and Church practice required that it be regarded as one of the seven -- but that list was long in forming, as well -- and that the ministers were the espousing couple rather than the priest. Marriage as a specific religious ritual was also long in forming, and mostly arose out of the attempt of the Church to reduce fraudulent or dangerous marriage practices; but it is an entirely distinct matter. It is utter nonsense, however, to claim that a lack of such a religious ritual means that "there was still no special religious meaning to the institution." This is an obvious non sequitur, and manifestly false; you can easily see that a religious meaning is assigned to the institution in both Johannine writings ("the marriage feast of the Lamb") and Pauline writings ("the body of Christ"), and no one can read, say, Tertullian's writings on marriage and conclude that Christians of his day attributed "no special religious meaning to the institution." Further, Wills seems to have difficulty grasping the notion that 'no specific ritual' or 'no single ritual' is not logically equivalent to 'no associated rituals at all'.

It is perhaps worth pointing out that even today it is recognized that the distinctive religious ritual associated with Catholic marriage -- the Nuptial Mass -- is not strictly required for the sacrament, and the primary role of the priest is simply to act as a guide and to certify that the conditions have been met for a genuine sacramental marriage.

(2) Wills is wrong about the history of marriage's association with grace. Wills says, "Only in the twelfth century was a claim made for some supernatural favor (grace) bestowed on marriage as a sacrament." But this is manifestly false. Augustine, again, who lived well before the twelfth century, explicitly says that spouses are assisted by grace associated specifically with marriage.

(3) Wills engages in a number of anachronisms. One of the most blatant is when he says, "This sacralizing of the natural reality led to a demoting of Yahwist marriage, the only kind Jesus recognized, as inferior to 'true marriage' in a church." There was, however, no such thing as "Yahwist marriage" in the medieval period. Indeed, there never has been such a thing as "Yahwist marriage," properly speaking; this is merely a modern category for distinguishing, after the fact, periods in development of the idea, not anything that would have ever been recognized. Wills is deliberately trying to institute a sharp division where there is none. He wants to say that there is a "true marriage" -- what he calls "Yahwist marriage" -- and he wants to deny that marriage according to canon law -- which he mistakenly and misleadingly calls "sacramental marriage" -- is it. This is, first of all, nonsense, since the sharp division is utterly arbitrary, and, second, is inconsistent with the actual theology and canon law of the Church.

What happened in the medieval period was that marrying specifically in a church became more important. Despite Wills's claims, and although developing ideas about the sacraments may have had some influence, this happened due to the changing role of marriage in canon law, not sacramental theology. And, in fact, it is still mostly a matter of canon law. Catholics are required to marry in church, in the sense that they need to marry before a priest or deacon and must be celebrated in a parish church or some place authorized as appropriate. Failure to do so is illicit, or noncanonical. But illicit is not invalid, and if certain other forms were observed and conditions met, the marriage is presumed valid, i.e., genuinely sacramental.

(4) Wills seems not to understand the difference between distinct statuses of marriage. In particular, he doesn't understand the distinctions among the various categories of 'marriage in general', 'marriage in canonical form', and 'marriage as a sacrament'. That Wills is really and truly in utter confusion about these sorts of distinctions arises from his discussion of his parents. Not all genuine marriage recognized by the Church is canonical or sacramental: the Church's position is that marriage is a rational institution, and can be found in some legitimate form wherever human beings are, assuming certain conditions. But obviously not all these genuine marriages are canonical or sacramental. Not all sacramental marriage is canonical; there are illicit but valid marriages. There are reasons for all these distinctions. But Wills doesn't want to look at these reasons, glosses over the distinctions, and clearly leaves out information that would be necessary for explaining or evaluating the actions he dismisses as nonsense.

In short, pretty much every paragraph of the piece makes use of misleading half-truths or outright falsehoods. The most charitable interpretation one can make of the piece is that Wills is utterly confused about the subject, and has simply badly digested various bits and pieces from different sources without exercising the critical thinking skills required to mingle them. Despite the fact that most of his claims are controversial at best, he hardly bothers to defend them, and when he does it's a defense that fails to recognize obvious evidence or make obvious distinctions. It shows no actual understanding of the arguments of those it is criticizing, and the historical claims are all simply baffling because he can't even be bothered to give them the explanations and support that they would need. It is a truly embarrassing piece.

ADDED LATER: It says something about Wills's piece that it is raising considerable skepticism even in self-consciously open-minded venues like National Catholic Reporter blogs.

ADDED LATER II: (This post was mentioned at First Thoughts, and David Nickol provided some criticisms. The following is a slightly abridged version of my comments there in reply, because I think they may help clarify some things.)

‘Sacrament’ is a broad term meaning ‘spiritual sign’, and Augustine uses it in precisely this sense, with the full application of this sense. But as I pointed out, the sacramental character of marriage has never been in question: it’s always been recognized as sacramental in some sense, because you cannot read Scripture and not regard marriage as a sacred sign of holy mysteries, since it is repeatedly treated as such. The big dispute was whether it was a sacrament on the level of baptism or the Eucharist. ‘Sacrament’ can apply to both genus (sacraments in general) and a particular species in that genus that most fully and completely exhibits the characteristics of the genus (the Seven). Augustine wrote in a time when the later, specific or special usage, had not developed at all; however, the specific things he says about marriage as a sacrament in the general usage were a major influence on those who argued that marriage should be considered a sacrament in the special sense.

There has never been any problem with recognizing that, for instance, Jewish marriages were sacramental in the general sense, just as there was never any problem with saying that circumcision or passover were sacraments without committing anyone to the claim that they were equal in importance to the Seven Sacraments. Augustine calls the marriage of the patriarchs sacramental, for instance, and the terminology is regularly found in all the major scholastic theologians in precisely the period Wills places his major division. But the major dividing line between Christian sacraments and Jewish sacraments is that the former directly represent the Passion of Christ in some way, and this, far from being something invented in the High Middle Ages, has always been part of the Christian conception of marriage, because it is how the Church has generally read Ephesians. And it’s not difficult to find Church Fathers like Augustine, or, farther back, Tertullian, making reference to this.

In the general sense, marriage has always been a sacrament. The only dispute, as I explicitly noted, was whether it met the conditions for being considered a sacrament in the fullest sense of the term, like baptism or the Eucharist. And its general acceptance as such was indeed long in developing (as I also said). But while it has become a common habit today to talk about sacraments mostly in terms of the special sense of the term, this has not been the ordinary state of things through most of the history of Christian theology, and thus we must both avoid conflating the two senses, and recognize that what made the Seven Sacraments sacraments was that they were sacraments in the general sense and, all were recognized as such by the Church even before the list of the Seven was developed — what set them apart so as to be sacraments in the special sense, on the other hand, was that they were specifically sacraments of Christ Himself in some way. What are really the questions are (A) whether Christian marriage throughout this period was regarded as a religious sacrament — and it provably was — and (B) whether it was one of The Sacraments — and this is undeniably a more complicated story.

I should add, incidentally, that Wills misunderstands Raymond Brown. Brown is dealing with a particular set of arguments: that it is definitely the Evangelist’s intent to be using the Wedding at Cana story to make a point about marriage as a sacrament in the way he obviously uses many of his other stories to make points about baptism and the Eucharist. Brown recognizes that there are a fair number of (Catholic) scholars who hold this position or something like it, and inclines against it in favor of saying that the Evangelist probably also has the Eucharist specifically in view here as well; but although he doesn’t think that the evidence is strong, he also doesn’t try to pretend (like Wills) that the evidence is nonexistent, and eventually concludes that it is “remotely possible” that for the Evangelist or his community this was seen specifically as a comment on the special character of marriage. (Brown’s categories are “Acceptable”, “Remotely Possible”, and “Rejected”.) He also is quite explicit that his conclusions are derived from very specific criteria, some of which are controversial, and that he is trying to find a middle position between strongly sacramental readings of John and highly de-mythologizing Bultmann-style readings of John. His comments must be taken in this context.

Whether the Evangelist himself should be seen as definitely seeing Christ as giving a special spiritual significance to marriage as a sign of his Passion, however, it is not at all difficult to see how someone could read it in that way. In what does “raising something to the dignity of a sacrament” i.e., one of the Seven Sacraments, consist? It consists in making it a sign of Christ Himself with regard to some facet of His Passion. And reading the story in conjunction with Pauline claims about the body of Christ and Johannine claims about the marriage feast of the Lamb, makes that a very reasonable argument to make. Some won’t consider it definitive, to be sure, but pretending that it doesn’t make any sense is simply silly.


  1. Saint Augustine must have thought that HYPOCRISY was a sacrament superior to his common law marriage. He put away a wife even though he had a son by her named
    Adeodatus. She seems to have loved him. He seems to have loved his son who died as a young adult. His rejection of his son's mother is described in the Confessions.

    anymore than
    GOOD Catholics are ---Saint Acrimonius
    The purpose of eating is NOT PLEASURE
    but simply to sustain life. Anything more
    is SIN.---- Saint Ambrosius

  3. branemrys9:41 AM

    Augustine had no common law marriage; he had a concubine (not his first, either). Common law marriages require common law recognition as marriage; merely because people shack up doesn't make them married, and people who take serial lovers are not polygamists.  Also, contrary to your suggestion, we have almost no information on the actual state of  their relationship. It is true, though, that he certainly loved his son.

    In any case, it's all irrelevant; it does not bear on the argument in the post, it does not constitute a defense of Wills, and is merely an attempt to pretend you have anything worth saying on the subject.


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