Fr. Tobias Haller, BSG, on Marriage – Civil and Religious

MAY 30, 2015

Being and Doing: A Response to an Essay on Marriage

A few weeks ago, John Bauerschmidt, Zachary Guiliano, Wesley Hill, and Jordan Hylden published a response to the report of the Task Force on the Study of Marriage (TFSM), titled “Marriage in Creation and Covenant,” henceforth MCC. This essay appeared on theAnglican Theological Review website along with three responses from Scott MacDougall, Kathryn Tanner, and Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkoski. The three responders took up some of the serious problems with MCC and I commend their essays to your attention.

As one of the authors of “Essay 1″ (Biblical and Theological Framework) in the TFSM report, I had hoped for a better level of engagement than MCC demonstrates; it is largely and off-handedly dismissive, but also mistaken in some of its characterizations of content, leading me to the conclusion that the MCC authors do not actually understand the argument. I have long been an advocate of the position that one can only truly have a meaningful discussion when you can state your interlocutor’s position in language she can recognize and affirm. MCC fails that test, even to the slight extent it engages with Essay 1 at all — the authors spend most of their time disagreeing with the essay on history, and I leave it to the author of that essay to address their concerns.

MCC to a large extent follows the method of questioning motives and form rather than engaging deeply with the content of the TFSM report. Interestingly enough, this seems to me to reflect the deeper issue of what constitutes marriage: MCC expounds a thesis about theform of marriage as a male-female bond that serves as an icon of the relationship between Christ and the Church in a constructive sense (I hope I’ve understood and stated their thesis correctly); whereas the TFSM focuses on the content of the marriage relationship as expressed in the vows, and in the spouses’ living out the loving mutual self-offering inherent in those vows, as an iconic realization of the relationship between Christ and the Church. Some might say, What’s the difference? We are dealing, to some extent, with the old perceived conflict between being and doing. (It also likely reflects the distinction in the honor given to icons as dulia rather than latria.Some, it seems to me, want to exalt marriage to a place it does not belong. However, in the present context, this also reflects the old difference of opinion as to what constitutes marriage: consent or coitus.

Which gives me the opportunity to correct a misapprehension of MCC, one of the few observations about Essay 1. On page 4, in the context of bemoaning the lack of references to the literature, the authors state,

…Brundage’s work makes a brief appearance in “Essay 1” (13), where an incorrect citation is provided, making unclear the reference to a definitive “papal ruling” on the significance of consent and consummation in marriage. Perhaps it refers to Alexander III’s Veniens ad nos or Innocent III’s Per tuas? It is hard to know; neither said quite what the essay states nor offered a final word.

First, the citation is only “incorrect” to the extent that it fails to include “ff” after the page indicated — the page which marks the beginning of a subsection of a chapter dealing with this issue. More importantly, however, is the coy, and erroneous, rejection of what Essay 1 says, which is, “The eventual papal ruling settled the debate (for Roman Catholics) by taking a middle ground: consent makes the marriage, but consummation seals it.” It is true that “seals” is my language for the more convoluted “renders indissoluble by any human power.” But this is the conclusion reached by Alexander III (not in a single decree but in a process of development through many rulings) and enshrined in the Roman canons to this day (see CCL 1141-42.) As George Hayward Joyce, S.J., put it, in a work written long before our current controversies,

Alexander III… settled the dispute between the Schools of Paris and Bologna about the essentials of marriage. He approved the teaching of the Paris doctors that marriage is effected by the consent of the parties…, rejecting that of the Bolognese canonists who held that until consummation the partners were not strictly speaking married. Yet he did not accept the Paris teaching in its entirety, but retained one important feature of the Bolognese system…. Alexander III, though pronouncing consent to be the effective cause of marriage, taught that until consummation the bond was capable of dissolution. (Christian Marriage: An Historical and Doctrinal Study, Second Edition. London: Sheed and Ward, 1948. pp 430-431.)

Now, this may seem trivial, but it appears to me to indicate a problem that the MCC authors, and many others, have when wrestling with the issues surrounding marriage — same-sex and otherwise. There is a reluctance to place the locus of marriage in theaction of marriage, the exchange of vows that makes the marriage, as an act of self-dedication through the human faculties of will and love. Instead there is a repeated retreat — often rhapsodically articulated — to the formal biological reality of male and female. With Augustine, and many since, they emphasize that which is shared with the animal realm rather than that which is uniquely human. (The reponses to MCC detail a few of the other problems with their use of Augustine. I would add to that, their failure to distinguish between sacramental marriage as Augustine understands it, as only existing between Christians, and what is often called “natural marriage” — a point I think fatal to their thesis about the constitutional nature of male-female marriage in and of itself. But that is a point for another essay.)

Of course, the TFSM does not deny this formal reality. However, what we do attempt is to articulate the reasons for our emphasis on the vows rather than the “purposes” of marriage — recognizing that the Episcopal Church did without an articulation of these “purposes” in its marriage liturgy for almost 200 years. But even here MCC misunderstands. For instance, on page 18 they state,

The very idea that marriage is a social form with ends (or purposes, teloi) given by God is not grasped at all; rather, such ends are described as “extrinsic” (perhaps better put, heteronomous) and so run afoul of Kant’s categorical imperative never to treat persons as means rather than ends (21, 24). By this argument, we are told that the marriage vows are what really count, as they represent the moral “commitment” that two make to one another, and that the opening exhortation describing the ends of marriage is extraneous to this deeper reality (20-25).

The last sentence approaches but misses an accurate grasp of our position, though why commitment is in scare-quotes escapes me. However, the first sentence here not only misstates the TSFM position, but presents a thesis Essay 1 explicitly rejects as mistaken. Here is what the report says about “extrinsic” and the way in which the TFSM proposes to balance the Kantian ethical concern with the role of the “ends” of marriage (page 23):

Procreation can become a problematical cause or purpose when it is understood primarily as an extrinsic end, rather than as the natural outgrowth of the loving couple treating each other as ends in themselves. It is acknowledged that as the end in this case is a human life, it has its own inestimable worth. It must also be noted that many, if not most couples, desire this end and work together toward its accomplishment; and that the generation of new life is a tangible expression of their mutual love…. Children are a gift and a grace and a hope — but ought not be understood as an extrinsic expectation or demand, in the absence of which a marriage is deemed to have failed in some intrinsic way. Moreover, the greater and more fully realized the love of a couple for each other, the more likely any child who becomes part of the growing family, by birth or adoption, will be nurtured and raised in a way that expresses the familial virtues.

What the TFSM essay does is attempt to give procreation in marriage its proper place and role as reflected in the Prologue to the marriage liturgy: as a positive good (when possible, and “when it is God’s will” or as the older (1946) canon put it “if it may be”). This stands in opposition to the rhetoric advanced in some circles that it is an “essential element” of marriage. This has never been the teaching of the church. The confusion arises precisely when one drifts from the language of “goods” or “ends” into “purposes.” The issue is that theinstitution of marriage (as the Prologue puts it) may have purposes which never are realized in a particular marriage — and that should not be seen as a reduction in the value of that marriage. The traditional position — which the TFSM paper supports — is that procreation should take place within a loving marriage; not that any given marriage must lead to procreation in order to be a valid and loving marriage that reflects God’s love and generativity.

I hope I’ve adequately addressed these two problems with MCC. A more general concern is that they seem to think that the proposed canon change undercuts the church’s teaching on marriage, and I hope I’ve addressed that in the previous posts on the topic of that change. Obviously, the canon change will remove an obstacle (in some minds) to authorizing liturgies for solemnizing marriages of same-sex couples where it is permitted by civil law, but that in no way alters the teaching concerning the nature of marriage — merely refocuses it on the moral center of marriage, which the tradition holds lies in the couple’s mutual consent to live by the vows they make to each other; not on their capacity to fulfill a “purpose.” It is, in short, the content of marriage, not its form, that ought to be the focus of our canonical, liturgical, and theological attention.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Fr. Tobias Haller, a priest/theologian in the Episcopal Church of North America, here discusses various understandings of the Sacrament of Marriage. The last paragraph of this essay is perhaps the one to focus on, as Christians seek to tease out the origin and purpose of Marriage – both civil and religious. I will not comment on Fr. Tobias’ essay at the moment – off to Mass on Trinity Sunday, 1st June 2015. Perhaps others may like to comment in a way that will bring more light than heat into the conversation.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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