The Meanings of Marriage
John Witte Jr.
Emory University School of Law
October 1, 2002
First Things, Vol. 126, pp. 30-41, 2002
A conversation about marriage should be apt, but a candid conversation can be painful. The conversation should also be cheerful, but blissful ignorance can strain the aptness of a conversation. Thus, a worthy conversation about marriage must be both apt and cheerful. Such a discussion is not a hearkening back to the golden days or an abandonment of hope for the future. However, the institution of marriage is facing a crisis caused by divorce and broken families.
American marriage law was born from two traditions: Christianity and the Enlightenment. The Catholic tradition claimed that marriage is a natural, contractual sacrament formed within the hierarchy of the church. The Protestant faith argued that marriage was not a sacrament, but was instead a covenant within the community governed by state and civil law.
In the Enlightenment, marriage was viewed instead as a voluntary contract between two parties whose terms were set by the parties themselves instead of God or the state. The first wave of Enlightenment thought entered America in the early 20th century, and was designed to bring equality to women and to protect children. The second wave of Enlightenment thought may break traditional marriage by turning marriage into a terminal sexual contract designed only for gratification. The Enlightenment school of thought is winning, but it may not have changed anything.
In divorce, the economically stronger partner survives, and that party is usually male. However, there is a way out of this marriage crisis by looking back to the sources of the American marriage tradition while maintaining an enlightened sense of equality. Marriage cannot be understood from a single perspective. Stronger understandings of the differences between betrothal, espousal, engagement, and marriage should be understood; likewise, the difference between an annulment, which is a misrepresentation, and a divorce, which is a moral failing, must be attained. Through this understanding, a balance between the norms of marital formation and dissolution can be attained.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 13
Keywords: Marriage, Christianity, Enlightenment, Protestant, CatholicAccepted Paper Series
Date posted: March 30, 2011
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