What Were Weddings Like in Jesus’ Day?

The word family had a wider meaning in both Aramaic and Hebrew than it does in English today. The Hebrew ah and the Aramaic aha could be used to refer to those who were brothers, half-brothers, cousins, and even other near relations. Extended family networks were both insisted upon and essential for survival. To have these ties and be dependent upon them was every Jewish person’s duty.

Marriage – Of course, marriage is the heart of family. The very first order that God gave Adam and Eve was that a man should leave his father and mother cling to his wife, that the two of them should become one flesh, and that they should be fruitful and multiply. Ancient rabbis said that a man really wasn’t a man until he did so. However, especially by the time of Christ, there were some men and women who lived celibate lives so as to be particularly free to serve God, whether by studying the Torah, teaching, or engaging in some great work for God’s people. Paul seems to have been in this category. Jesus praised those who did so in Matthew 19 as did Paul in 1 Corinthians 7.

In the earliest years of Israel there was some tolerance for polygamy even though it was a departure from what God had set forth. Many overlooked it given the urgent need to grow the family of God, the chosen people. Men were often killed in war, leading to an abundance of women who needed husbands. Generally, only wealthier men could afford to have more than one wife. Although the Bible does not explicitly condemn polygamists, it does show that polygamy led to intractable troubles, sometimes between the women but more often between the sons over inheritance rights. By the time of Jesus, polygamy among the Jews had greatly decreased if not altogether vanished; there is simply no mention of it in the New Testament. Jesus summoned each man to love his wife and prohibited other Mosaic leniencies in marriage. He re-proposed God’s original plan of one man and one woman until death.

The call to marriage and engagement – Marriage took place at a very young age for the ancient Jews. Most rabbis proposed age 18 as most appropriate for men, though often a bit younger especially when war was less common. Young women married almost as soon as they were physically ready, generally around age 13 or 14.

In most cases, marriages were arranged by the parents. There were exceptions, however, and arranged marriages were seldom forced on young people who had absolutely no interest in each other. Nevertheless, the view in the ancient world, and even in many places today, was that marriage was more about survival than romantic feelings. Further, it was not merely the individuals who married; the families came together in mutual support. Beauty and romance, while considered pleasant things, were known to be passing; life and survival had to be based on sturdier foundations.

Once a future bride had been chosen for a young man, there followed a one-year period of betrothal. During this time the couple still lived apart while delicate, often-protracted negotiations occurred between the families, especially regarding the dowry. The groom or his family paid the dowry to the father of the bride in recognition of the loss incurred by the bride’s family as a result of her departure as a working member of the household. It was also understood that some money should be set aside for the woman in the event that her husband died prematurely.

Marriage ceremonies – After the period of betrothal was finished and all the agreements had been reached, the wedding could take place. Weddings typically extended over a period of five to seven days. Autumn was the best time for marriage because the harvest was in, the vintage over, minds were free, and hearts were at rest. It was a season when the evenings were cool, and it was comfortable to sit up late at night. Usually the entire village gathered for a wedding.

At the beginning of the wedding celebration, in the evening, the bridegroom, accompanied by his friends, went to fetch his betrothed from her father’s house. He would wear particularly splendid clothing and sometimes even a crown. A procession was formed under the direction of one of the bridegroom’s friends, who acted as the master of ceremonies and remained by his side throughout the rejoicing.

The beautifully dressed bride was carried in a litter and in procession. Along the way people sang traditional wedding songs largely drawn from the Song of Songs in the Bible: Who is this coming up from the wilderness like a column of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and incense made from all the spices of the merchant? (Song of Songs 3:6) When the procession reached the bridegroom’s house, his parents bestowed a traditional blessing, drawn from Scripture and other sources. After the prayers, the evening was passed in games and dancing, and the bridegroom took part in the festivities. The bride, however, withdrew with her bridesmaids and friends to another room.

The next day was the wedding feast and once again there was general rejoicing and a sort of holiday in the village. Toward the end of the day there was a meal at which the men and women were served separately. This was the time for the giving of presents. The bride, dressed in white, was surrounded by her bridesmaids, usually ten of them. She sat under a canopy while traditional songs and blessings were sung and recited. During this time, in the evening, the groom arrived. While the exact ritual words are not known, there seems to have been a dialogue between bride and groom. This is recorded in the Song of Songs. The bride says, Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—for your love is more delightful than wine. Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes; your name is like perfume poured out. No wonder the young women love you! Take me away with you—let us hurry! Let the king bring me into his chambers (Song 1:2-4). The groom responds, Arise, come, my darling; my beautiful one, come with me. My dove in the clefts of the rock, in the hiding places on the mountainside, show me your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely (Song 2:13-14).

Now that the couple was together, all the other men and women also came together. It would seem that synagogue or other religious leaders imparted blessings to the couple, who were together under the canopy. The words of these blessings and rituals are not definitively known and seem to have varied. After these came the evening feast.

Later that first evening the couple would vanish to consummate the marriage. They did not go on a “honeymoon” but rather remained for the rest of the celebration, which often went on for several more days, sharing in the songs, dancing, and general merriment.

Below is a recording of Palestrina’s composition of Surge, Propera Amica Mea (Arise My Love). There is a wonderful musical onomatopoeia in the opening word, “surge,” as the notes run up the scale. Enjoy!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: What Were Weddings Like in Jesus’ Day?

Marriage Is About What Is Best For Children

As a kind of follow-up from yesterday’s Gospel on marriage, we do well to ponder where our focus on marriage is, both personally and nationally.

Finding our way back – Part of the essential work we must do in re-establishing a coherent vision for marriage rooted in tradition, Natural Law, and, for believers, Scripture, is to restore a proper reference point so that all the pieces of the discussion make sense.

What is this proper reference point? Marriage is essentially about children and what is best for them. It is not about civil rights; it is not about two adults being happy and fulfilled. If we use the proper starting point, a lot of other things begin to fall in place.

1. Marriage is a stable and lasting union – Children require 18+ years to come to maturity. A stable environment is obviously best for them. In too many cases, children are ferried back and forth between parents who are either divorced or never married in the first place. One weekend here, another there, one summer here, another there. The instability is devastating for children. Parents should seek, above all, to resolve their differences and stay married.

Living in a stable though imperfect home—and all homes are imperfect—is an important way that children learn values such as trust, commitment, forgiveness, tolerance, generosity, conflict resolution, love, loyalty, and integrity.  It inculcates in them a sense of true marriage and family, knits together important family ties on a multigenerational level, and sets them up to be able to form strong families themselves when they are older. They also learn proper dynamics between men and women: how to treat and regard members of the opposite sex.

Those who simply claim that the traditional, stable family is no better or worse than other arrangement are ignoring what long human experience has taught us in this regard. Scripture affirms the value of a stable family when it speaks of a husband clinging to his wife (Gen 2:24, Matt 19:1ff inter al) and when Jesus forbids divorce (Matt 5, Matt 19, Mark 10 inter al). Marriage is about what is best for children, and as a rule, stability is best.

2. Marriage is the union of two heterosexuals – Though heterosexual relations are obviously necessary for procreation, that is not the main point here, for many homosexuals argue that they can adopt children. The central point here is what is best in raising them.

The fact is that children are best raised by a mother and father together. In terms of simple human formation, children are best raised with both male and female influences. There are things that a father can say to and model for his children that are properly and best done by a father. Likewise, there are things that a mother can say to and model for her children that are properly and best done by a mother. This is what nature herself provides in linking procreation to both a father and a mother. Situations in which there are two fathers, or two mothers, or just one parent, are not ideal for children. As a rule, it is best for children to be raised in a traditional family setting.

There are times when death or illnesses make the ideal setting impossible. There are exceptional circumstances in which a father or mother is unfit, but in general a traditional heterosexual marriage is the ideal environment for children. It is what nature herself has set forth and, for believers, it is what God has set forth. In cases in which a parent is missing from the family, it is essential for the remaining parent to provide opportunities for children to interact in a proper way with mentors of the missing sex. This can be accomplished with aunts, uncles, grandparents, and the like.

The bottom line is that traditional heterosexual marriage is optimal for children and their human formation. All other arrangements are less than ideal. To the degree possible, children should be raised in the optimal setting that nature and nature’s God have set forth.

When placing children for adoption, married heterosexual couples should have priority over single parents and homosexual couples. This is not bigotry, it is what is best for children. There is typically no difficulty finding homes for infants. Sadly, it is more difficult to find homes for older children, but married heterosexual couples should still generally speaking be favored.

Again, the important thing is what is best for children, not whether certain adults may be offended by perceived bigotry, or whether the approach is politically correct.

3. Traditional, heterosexual marriage should enjoy the favor of law and recognition – One of the great battle lines in the marriage debate has been that married couples enjoy certain favors under law such as tax advantages, inheritance rights, and hospital visitation privileges. Most people see some room for give on these sorts of matters. On a case-by-case basis, it may make some sense to allow, under civil law, a greater ability for Americans to legally enact a wider variety of arrangements for power of attorney, inheritance, and the like.

However, if what is best for children remains our starting point, then it also follows that traditional heterosexual marriage should enjoy some legitimate favors. Strengthening traditional marriage is a worthwhile goal for public policy. Some tax provisions encourage forming and keeping traditional families. Granted, the degree to which such proactive policies should go is debatable. Even among supporters of traditional marriage there are some who have a libertarian view when it comes to any government involvement.

In the end, whether through tax breaks, other laws, or simply through special recognition, a strong support of and advocacy for traditional marriage is proper and good, for whatever strengthens the traditional family is good for children. Whatever we can do as a society to uphold traditional marriage, insist on fidelity, limit divorce, and give special recognition and honor to these families is good for children.

This also is why legal recognition of other types of unions as “marriage” is problematic. To use the same term, “marriage,” both for traditional heterosexual marriage and for gay unions implies an equality that is not true. Gay unions are not on the same footing with traditional marriage because they are not what is best for children. Traditional marriage is what is best for children and it should enjoy an elevated status because of this. Using the same word for the two blurs this and traditional marriage loses the favor it should have and the recognition is it should receive.

That’s enough said for now, but remember the fundamental point: Marriage is essentially about children and what is best for them. When we use the welfare of children as our starting point, it is clear that traditional marriage is proper and best. This starting point challenges not only advocates of gay “marriage” but also sometimes those of traditional marriage, for not all those in traditional marriages have what is best for children in the forefront of their minds either. Too often couples do not work at their marriage to overcome difficulties; many are too quick to rush to divorce court. What is best for children often takes a back seat in our culture.

 

Marriage Is a Miracle! A Homily for the 27th Sunday of the Year

Both today’s first reading and the Gospel speak to us of the miracle of marriage. If your marriage is working even reasonably well, it is a miracle! We live in an age that is poisonous to marriage. Many people look for marriage to be ideal, and if there is any ordeal, they want a new deal. Our culture says, if it doesn’t work out, bail out. Marriages are also a miracle because they are, ultimately, a work of God.

Today’s readings bring before us some fundamental teachings on marriage. Let’s look at today’s Gospel in five stages.

I. Rejection – The Gospel opens with the Pharisees approaching Jesus and asking, somewhat rhetorically, “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?” Jesus, aware of their hypocrisy (they do not really want an answer from Him on which to base their lives), asks them in return, “What did Moses command you?” They gleefully respond, in essence, that Moses permitted a husband to divorce his wife as long as he “filled out the paperwork,” if you will.

Jesus will have none of it, telling them that Moses only permitted this regrettable thing called “divorce” because of their hardened hearts.

Among the rabbis of Jesus’ time, there was the belief that this seemingly lax provision permitting divorce resulted because Moses had reasoned that if he were to say to the men of his day that marriage was until death then some of them might very well have arranged for the death of their wives. So, in order to prevent homicide, Moses permitted the lesser evil of divorce. It was still an evil, however. God Himself says in the Book of Malachi,

And this again you do. You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering … You ask, “Why does he not?” Because the Lord is witness to the covenant between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Has not the one God made and sustained for us the spirit of life? And what does he desire? Godly offspring. So, take heed to yourselves, and let none be faithless to the wife of his youth. For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel, and covering one’s garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. Yes … take heed to yourselves, and do not be faithless” (Malachi 2:13–16).

Thus, in the opening lines of today’s Gospel, Jesus highlights how the Pharisees and many other men of His time have rejected God’s fundamental teaching on marriage. Jesus is about to reiterate that teaching. For now, though, just note that the rejection evidenced in the question of the Pharisees is one that Jesus ascribes to hearts that have become hardened by sin, lack of forgiveness, and refusal to accept God’s plan.

God hates divorce not only because it intrinsically rejects what He has set forth but also because it is symptomatic of human hardness and sinfulness.

II. Restoration – Jesus, having encountered their hardened hearts, announces a restoration, a return to God’s original plan for marriage. The Lord quotes the Book of Genesis, saying,

But from the beginning of creation God made them male and female. And for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate.

Note that Jesus begins with the phrase, “but from the beginning of creation.” In other words, anything that may have happened in the aftermath of Original Sin, any compromises or arrangements that have emerged during the reign of sin, are now to be done away with in the reign of grace that will come as the result of Jesus’ saving death and resurrection.

On account of the grace that will be bestowed, we are now able, and expected, to return to God’s original plan for marriage: one man and one woman in a lifelong, stable relationship that is fruitful, bringing forth godly children for God and His kingdom. This is God’s plan, a plan that has no room for divorce, contraception, or anything other than fruitful, faithful, stable love.

In today’s Western culture there have been many attempts to redefine God’s original and perfect plan for marriage, substituting something erroneous, something humanly defined. While current attempts to redefine marriage to include same-sex unions are a particularly egregious example, they are not the first or only way in which God’s plan for marriage has been attacked.

The attempts began in the 1950s, when divorce began to occur among Hollywood celebrities (e.g., Ingrid Bergman). Many Americans, who seem to love and admire their Hollywood stars, began to justify divorce. “Don’t people deserve to be happy?” became the refrain. In this way marriage, which up to that point had as its essential focus what was best for children, began subtly but clearly to be centered on what was best for adults. The happiness of the adults began to take precedence over well-being of the children in the mind of most people.

During the 1950s and 1960s pressure began to build to make divorce easier. Until the late 1960s, divorces had been legally difficult to obtain in America; wealthier people often traveled to Mexico to secure them. In 1969, California Governor Ronald Reagan signed the first “no-fault” divorce law, making divorces fairly easy to obtain. Within ten years most states had similar laws. As a result, divorce rates skyrocketed.

This was the first redefinition of marriage. No longer was a man to leave his father and mother and “cling to his wife.” Now, at the first sign of trouble, men and women could just renege on their marriage vows, in direct contradiction to God’s plan. Thus, we engaged in what amounts to a redefinition of marriage.

The second redefinition of marriage occurred when the contraceptive mentality seized America. It began in the late 1950s and continues to this day. Though God said to the first couple, Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth … (Genesis 1:28), children have become more a way of “accessorizing” a marriage than an integral part and an expected fruit. Children are no longer seen as an essential purpose of marriage, but only an optional outcome based on the wishes of the adults. This directly contradicts God’s instruction to “be fruitful and multiply.”

The third redefinition of marriage—the current rage—is the attempt to extend it to include same-sex unions. The absurdity of this proposal flows from the sinful conclusions of the first two redefinitions, which in effect state that marriage is simply about two adults being happy and doing whatever pleases them.

If that is truly the case, then there seems little basis to protest same-sex couples getting “married,” or, frankly, any number of adults in any combination of sexes, getting “married.” (Polygamy and/or polyandry are surely coming next.)

The heterosexual community has misbehaved for over fifty year now, redefining essential aspects of marriage. The latest absurdity—and it is an absurdity—of gay “marriage” flows from this flawed and sinful redefinition. We have sown the wind; now we are reaping the whirlwind.

In the end, Jesus will have none of this. He rejects the attempts of the men of His time to redefine marriage. Through His Church, His living voice in the world today, He also rejects the sinful and absurd redefinitions that our culture proposes, be it divorce, contraception, or homosexual “marriage.”

God has set forth that a man should leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, and that the two of them become one flesh. In making a suitable partner for Adam, God created Eve, not Steve; hence homosexual unions are excluded. A man is not a suitable partner for a man; a woman is not a suitable partner for a woman. Further, in making a suitable partner for Adam, God did not make Eve and Ellen and Jane and Sue and Beth. Hence, polygamy, though mentioned and tolerated for a time in the Bible (but always a source of trouble) is also not part of God’s plan.

God intends one man, for one woman, in a relationship of clinging; that is, in a stable relationship that bears the fruit of godly offspring.

This is the Lord’s plan; Jesus does not entertain any notion from the people of His day that will alter or compromise the original design for marriage. He thus announces a restoration of God’s original plan for marriage, as set forth in the book of Genesis.

III. Reality – As is true today, Jesus’ reassertion of traditional, biblical marriage was met with controversy. In Matthew’s account, many of the disciples react with disdain, saying, If that is a case of a man and his wife, it is better never to marry (Matt 19:10).

In today’s Gospel we see that the disciples are somewhat troubled by what Jesus says and ask Him about it again later. Jesus does not back down; He even intensifies His language, saying, Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.

There will be no apology from Jesus: divorce/remarriage is adultery. There may have been some in Jesus’ time (and today) who would hold up their divorce papers and say that they have a divorce decree. Jesus implies that He is not impressed with some papers signed by a human judge and is not bound by the decision of some secular authority. What God has joined together, no man must separate. Jesus once again establishes that once God has joined a couple in Holy Matrimony, the bond which God has effected is to be respected by all, including the couple.

Marriage has a reality beyond what mere humans bring to it or say of it. Marriage is a work of God; it has a reality and an existence that flows from God’s work, not man’s. All of our attempts to redefine, obfuscate, or alter marriage as God has set it forth are sinful and not recognized by God.

IV. Reemphasis – Now comes an interesting twist, which includes a reminder of one of the most essential purposes of marriage:

And people were bringing their little children to Jesus that he might touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he became indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

This is not a new element to the story; neither have we gone into a separate pericope. Rather, Jesus’ remarks about children remind us of the essential reason that marriage is structured the way it is. Why should marriage be between two heterosexuals? Why should it be stable? Why should it include a father and a mother rather than two fathers, or two mothers, or just a mother, or just a father?

The fundamental answer is that the essential work of marriage is to procreate and then raise those children. Because children are marriage’s most fundamental fruit, it makes sense that marriage should be structured based on what is best for them. The fact is, children are best raised in a stable, lasting environment in which their parents have committed to each other in mutual support and partnership in raising them. Further, it makes sense psychologically that a child should receive influence from both father and mother, the male parent and the female parent. There are things that a father can teach a child that a mother cannot; there are things that a mother can teach a child that a father cannot. Psycho-social development is best achieved in the environment that God and nature have set forth: every child growing up with both a father and a mother, a male and a female influence.

Anything else amounts to something that is less than ideal. To the degree that we intentionally impose the less-than-ideal on children, we are guilty of doing them an injustice. Bringing children into the world prior to marriage or apart from it, such that they will be raised in a single-parent home, is an injustice. It is even more unjust that children conceived under these promiscuous circumstances are far more likely to be aborted.

This preference for stable, lasting, heterosexual unions clearly excludes homosexual ones. Same-sex “parents” are far from ideal for a child. To raise children in such circumstances intentionally is an injustice, for it is to subject them to that which is unnatural and far from ideal.

Catholics have every obligation both to uphold and insist upon traditional marriage as what is right and just, not only because it is God’s plan, but because it is clearly what is best for children. Marriage is fundamentally about children. It is not simply religious sensibility that should lead us to this position; it is a position deeply rooted in natural law, common sense, and what is best for children.

Traditional marriage should be encouraged in every way. Becoming “fuzzier” about what marriage is, or “defining it down” does not help our culture to esteem traditional marriage. Traditional marriage has pride of place because it is focused on raising the next generation and is critical to the essential functioning of our society.

There is much talk today about the rights of people to do as they please. So-called gay “marriage” is presented within this framework. Sadly, many who discuss rights only refer to the rights of adults; they seem to care much less about what is best for children. What is good and right for children needs to have a much higher priority in our culture today than it currently does.

Jesus reemphasizes the teaching on marriage by pointing to the young children before them and telling the disciples not to hinder the children. One of the clearest ways we hinder children from finding their way to God and His kingdom is with our own bad behavior: promiscuous sexual acts (endangering children through abortion or single-parent households), divorce (placing children in divided situations and saddling them with confused loyalties), and insistence on adult rights taking precedence over what is best for children. To emphasize all of this bad behavior, Jesus points out the young children and says, “Do not hinder them.” Our bad behavior does hinder them.

V. Reassurance – To be sure, this teaching about marriage is to some degree “heavy weather.” Indeed, many in our culture have tried, and failed, to attain to the vision of marriage that the Lord teaches. There are complicated reasons, too many to note here, that so many people struggle to live this teaching today.

Whatever our own failures have been, we need to go to the Lord with a childlike trust, a trust that cries out for help. Jesus says at the conclusion of today’s Gospel, Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.

Children often feel overwhelmed, and when they do they run to their parents for help. It is in this spirit that the Lord asks us to receive this teaching. Indeed, many may well have to run to God and say “Abba, God, I don’t know how to live this teaching. My marriage is in ruins, and I don’t know how to save it. I’ve tried, but my spouse is unwilling. I can’t go back and undo what I did years ago.”

Note how the Lord embraces the child in this Gospel. He is willing to embrace us as well, in our failures and our difficulties. If we have failed, we should be like a young child and run to the Father. What we should avoid most is being relentlessly adult-like, digging in our heels and saying, “God is unreasonable; the Gospel is unreasonable!”

In the end, only God can accomplish strong marriages and strong families for us. We must run to Him as Father and seek His help. Even if one has failed in his/her marriage, one must still impart to the next generation what God teaches.

God’s plan remains His plan for everyone, no matter our personal failings. We have every obligation to run to Him, trust Him, and ask for His help. Even in the midst of our own personal failures, we can and must announce and celebrate the truth to others. In the end, God does not give us His teaching in order to burden us or to accuse us but rather to bless us. We must be assured of His mercy and His ability to write straight, even with the crooked lines of our lives.

If we in this generation have failed, and many of us have failed, we must still announce God’s plan for marriage to the next generation. We must not cease to hand on God’s perfect plan.

It’s a Glorious, Glorious Life

Last week, in preparation for our celebration of the Archdiocese of Washington’s Marriage Jubilarian Mass, we produced this video about Bob and Laurin Balkam, a husband and wife from the Greatest Generation.

Before the interview could start, Bob said, “I’ll tell you my life story and you see what you think. And I’ll try to do it in about five minutes.” But you can neither tell a 75-year love story in five minutes, nor help but take away some life lessons.

The first lesson to take away is the transformative power of faith. Bob and Laurin were not Catholic when they married. They were Protestant. And that’s just how Bob liked it. Until one day, that is, when he came home and Laurin was reading a book about the Blessed Mother. “Uh oh,” he thought. Laurin then went on to tell Bob that she had met a Catholic priest … and that he was coming for dinner. Bob wasn’t happy.

Even worse for Bob: after meeting the priest, he really liked him and would go on to meet with him several times. Bob said after that, he “knew in the soles of his feet” that God wanted him to become Catholic. The Balkams converted and raised all eight of their children in the faith, with God guiding, correcting, loving and just being present with them.

The second lesson involves the power of marriage. In the video, Bob says of his union, “Like the faith, Laurin has enriched me, instructed me, corrected me and encouraged me. She loves me.”

When they were first married Bob was about to take a job until Laurin told him, “No, Bob, you’re not going to take that job. It’s not good enough for you.” He went back the next day and asked for another position and got it. He ended up staying in that job for 20 years, but the most important thing that he received, he said, “was a gift from my wife … a transformation in my view of myself.”

The third lesson is the true meaning ofvisible signs.” A few years ago, Laurin was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. For both Laurin and Bob it was a terrible shock. There is little doubt that their faith has helped carry them through challenging times. But if ever there were a couple who serve as a visible sign of an abiding faith in the love of God and faith in the path that He presents each of us – should we choose to follow – it is the Balkams.

For example, Laurin is no longer able to speak, and I wondered how they communicated. Bob showed me. As I watched from a distance so as not to intrude, Bob began speaking to her in their own “language.” He took his bride’s hand and looked into her eyes, and she responded immediately, full of life and animated. It is a language of joy and of laughter; it is their language of love. It is the language of a 75-year marriage that Bob calls, “a glorious, glorious life.”

* * *

Join us for the Archdiocese of Washington’s Jubilarian Mass for Married Couples, celebrated by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, on Sunday, June 25, at 2 p.m., at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.

Christopher Baker is Director of Multimedia Production for the Archdiocese of Washington. To view more inspiring videos produced by the Office of Multimedia Production, please go to the WashArchdiocese YouTube page.

How to Discuss Same-Sex “Marriage” With Dissenting Family Members

SocratesI was out on the preaching circuit this past week and spoke at five parishes (including my own) on the biblical vision of Holy Matrimony (marriage) as set forth by God and the Church. The talks were sponsored by the pro-life group Defend Life.

While I cannot succinctly reproduce the talk in today’s blog, I spoke from notes that are available here and here. A video of one of the talks will be posted soon.

I heard a consistent concern voiced by those in attendance that pulpits have been too silent on this critical matter of marriage, and by extension, sexuality and the family. Since I don’t get around to many other parishes on Sundays, and I don’t have statistics or polls to consult, I can only assume that this complaint is widespread. That said, nothing prevents a Catholic layperson from breaking out the Catechism and teaching his or her children and grandchildren. There seems to be a lot of waiting around for the Church to “do something” regarding ignorance of the faith. Pulpits must get better, but so must adult religious education. Parents, too, must actively seek out sources for instruction so that they can learn and hand on the faith. I recommend two places, among many, to start: The Institute of Catholic Culture and Catholic Answers.

Another common question that came from distressed parents at the talks was how they could counteract the bewitching effect of modern culture on their children (30 and under) when it comes to the redefinition of marriage. Many of their young-adult children see “no problem” with same-sex unions (a.k.a. gay “marriage”) and parents wondered how to counter this position.

My recommendation would be to use the “Socratic method.” This method, rooted in the teaching style of Socrates, uses questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw a person to find answers by examining his own premises. Rather than simply refuting the position of their young-adult child, it is often more helpful for parents to ask questions that permit him or her to see for himself/herself the faultiness and/or emptiness of the logic underlying this modern thinking. Today it seems that logic, critical thinking, and proper premises are often lacking.

The additional value of the Socratic method is that it requires the “accuser” (the one who wishes to set aside biblical and Catholic teaching) to account for his view rather than the faithful Catholic to mount a complete defense. The method also involves listening respectfully as the accuser speaks.

Consider a scenario in which an adult son or daughter makes some remark that indicates opposition to the Church teaching on traditional marriage. You might ask,

Do you oppose the fact that the Church upholds only traditional Marriage and rejects same-sex “marriage”?

Assuming the response is yes (or some form thereof), follow up with this question:

How do you define marriage?

Now just wait as long as necessary. Give no assistance, just wait patiently. Let the question hang there. It is quite likely that he or she will struggle to answer the question because those who have redefined marriage have not really redefined it at all; they have simply made it increasingly devoid of content. Saying what marriage isn’t is not the same as saying what it is.

The response might be something like this: “It’s when two people love each other and want to be together.” You might then pose some of the following questions:

Could you be more specific? For example, why do you say two people? Could it be more than two? Why or why not?

Or,

When you say, “two people” do you mean any two people? For example, what if the two people are related, such as being brother and sister, or two brothers, or a father and his? Must the two people who love each other have to be unrelated? If so, why?

Or,

You say that they love each other. Must this be the case? Are there other reasons they could marry other than love?

These are not intended to be merely “gotcha” questions. The purpose is to force the dissenter to stake out a cogent position by carefully thinking through his premises and where they lead. If the dissenter responds to the above questions with some limits, it forces him to consider why those limits make sense while others (such as one man and one woman) do not.

The Church knows what marriage is and so does God, who taught us clearly (in Genesis 2 and other places) that marriage is one man for one woman in a life-long, committed, and faithful relationship, open to the procreation and rearing of children.

This traditional definition is clear, sets limits, and has been the way marriage has been understood for thousands of years. Those who wish to remove these limits must account for what restrictions are left and why they think those should be kept rather than also set aside.

Just ask these questions. Wait for answers. Wait as long as necessary and don’t help. Let them think through it and become more responsible for what they think and the implications that emerge from it.

In this video from Catholic Answers, Trent Horn makes significant use of the Socratic method. In this case the topic happens to be atheism, but it gives a good idea illustration of how the method might work. Atheism is a complex topic. Defining marriage is far less complex since the field of the discussion is more focused.

Men Are More Disinclined to Marry Than Ever – A Reflection on a Serious Problem

A 2012 report on men and marriage by the Pew Research Center shows statistically what many of us have noticed anecdotally: men are finding marriage less desirable than in the past and are now marrying later, if at all.

In today’s post I want to present some excerpts from a hard-hitting article that appeared at Lifesite News in 2013, commenting on the Pew study. The full article can be read here: Men Giving Up on Marriage.

As usual, I present the text from the original article in bold, black italics, while my own poor commentary is in plain red text.

Fewer young men in the US want to get married than ever. … The number of young adult men saying that having a successful marriage is one of the most important things dropped from 35 percent to 29 percent [since 1997].

The latest census data showed “barely half” of all adults in the United States are currently married, a “record low.” Since 1960, the number of married adults has decreased from 72 percent to 51 [percent] today and the number of new marriages in the U.S. declined by five percent between 2009 and 2010.

Moreover, the median age at first marriage continues to rise, with women getting married the first time at 26.5 years and men at 28.7 [years]. The declines in marriage are “most dramatic” among young adults. Just 20 percent of those aged 18 to 29 are married, compared with 59 percent in 1960.

In my mere 26 years of priesthood, I have seen the number of weddings I perform each year decrease from 35 to 5, and the average age of engaged couples increase from 24 to 31. These are startling changes, and they largely match those experienced by other priests with whom I have discussed the matter.

29 percent of young adult men desiring marriage is an amazingly low figure. The article notes that the things that once motivated men to marry in the past are largely in eclipse now. Men once enjoyed the esteem they garnered by marrying, and were motivated by the challenge of being breadwinners. Getting married was once a proper and approved way of attaining status, and legitimately enjoying sexual intimacy. It was part of the passage to manhood.

But today, many (if not most) women don’t need (or don’t think they need) men to provide for them economically. It’s goodbye to any notion of the esteem of being a provider.

Further, in an age of promiscuity, most men don’t need marriage to open the door to sexual encounters. Only a few “old-fashioned” Catholic priests and traditionalist Catholics raise any eyebrows at men’s “playing the field.” And women as a group (with certain notable exceptions) seem less insistent on expecting men to connect sexual intimacy and marriage.

Add to this the financial bondage introduced by the racket that college education has become. Many young people graduate from college with six-figure debt. And when undergraduate degrees no longer open doors, advanced degrees became necessary, bringing on even more debt.

And finally, add one more thing: pornography. It is more available than ever before. And though it is theoretically more privately accessible than previously, I would point out that there is nothing private about the Internet; Internet service providers know every site you have ever visited.

Sadly, many young men honestly admit that they prefer pornography to real women. Pornography doesn’t talk back or have preferences or moods. Real relationships are complex and require navigation and negotiation. Pornography, it would seem, is a narcissistic paradise. Click through to your current preference; it’s all about you and what you want. And at the end, the object of your fantasy disappears and does not have issues or attitudes with which you must deal.

The overall image is of a cauldron, filled with a witch’s brew or a satanic stew. That men and women marry at all today is increasingly miraculous. I always make a point of congratulating and thanking engaged couples that get to my rectory door for beating the odds and having the gumption to swim upstream.

Pew’s findings have caught the attention of one US writer who maintains that feminism, deeply entrenched in every segment of the culture, has created an environment in which young men find it more beneficial to simply opt out of [marriage] entirely

Suzanne Venker [in her] article, “The War on Men,” … points out that for the first time in U.S. history, the number of women in the workforce has surpassed the number of men, while more women than men are acquiring university degrees. …

With feminism pushing them out of their traditional role of breadwinner, protector, and provider—and divorce laws increasingly creating a dangerously precarious financial prospect for the men cut loose from marriage—men are simply no longer finding any benefit in it. …

“When I ask [men] why, the answer is always the same: women aren’t women anymore.” Feminism, which teaches women to think of men as the enemy, has made women “angry” and “defensive, though often unknowingly.” 

“Men are tired,” Venker wrote. “Tired of being told there’s something fundamentally wrong with them. Tired of being told that if women aren’t happy, it’s men’s fault.”

Most men I know perceive that they are often considered by the wider culture as deficient, even depraved. The “men are stupid” commercials and sitcoms abound. Men are often presented as buffoons, who need women and children to “set them straight” on the simplest of things.

Schools, dominated by feminist ideology, have made a pathology of the normal behavior of boys, which includes competition and roughhousing. They seek to feminize boys, going even so far as to encourage medication for them. Most of these boys merely have the spit and vinegar that was once considered normal, needing to be curbed somewhat rather than suppressed with drugs.

It is little wonder that fewer young men make it to college and are falling behind young women in almost every category. Being told (even indirectly) on a regular basis that you are fundamentally flawed has a significant effect over time.

The article says that feminism has emboldened many women to direct suspicious anger toward men and generally presume that they have bad or evil motives. But it has also caused a lot of men to draw back from the healthy confidence that once bolstered them to go out and seek a wife and to take a leadership role in the community, the Church, and the family.

A feminist culture in effect shames these desires as being “patriarchal.”

This is a situation that should not be celebrated by feminists, Venker says. “It’s the women who lose. Not only are they saddled with the consequences of sex … The fact is, women need men’s linear career goals … in order to live the balanced life they seek.”

Yes, in the end it’s usually the biology that kicks in. Truth be told, men and women are meant to be complementary not competitive. Our very body bespeaks a difference that requires the opposite sex to complement it. The design of women’s bodies speaks to bearing children and nurturing them.

A woman who wants to have and raise children well needs time and flexibility. The 9-to-5 career world does not facilitate that. Thus her husband complements her need by taking up the linear and less-flexible career world, leaving her freer to nurture the children.

This used to be obvious to us. But ideology is often disinterested in the obvious. It may be true that we were once too restrictive, limiting certain jobs and careers to men. But for most women, the freedom to work has become the duty to work, even in the childbearing years. It’s a raw deal for everyone: women, men, and especially children.

The bottom line is, it’s never good for anyone, or for civilization as a whole, when huge numbers opt out of or find no access to our most fundamental building block: the traditional family. We must save traditional marriage if we stand any chance of saving our dying civilization.

For further reading, consider Men and Marriage by George Guilder and Eggs are Expensive, Sperm is Cheap by Greg Krehbiel.

Marriage Is a Miracle! A Homily for the 27th Sunday of the Year

Marriagesymbl1Both today’s first reading and the gospel speak to us of the miracle of marriage. If your marriage is working even reasonably well, it is a miracle! We live in an age that is poisonous to marriage. Many people look for marriage to be ideal, and if there is any ordeal, they want a new deal. Our culture says, if it doesn’t work out, bail out. Thus, successful marriages today are a miracle. But marriages are also a miracle because they are, ultimately, a work of God.

Today’s readings bring before us some fundamental teachings on marriage. The following homily is not short. But many problems beset Holy Matrimony today and the vision of God must be set forth clearly and thoroughly. Let’s look at today’s gospel in five stages.

I Rejection The gospel opens with the Pharisees approaching Jesus and asking, somewhat rhetorically, “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?” Jesus, aware of their hypocrisy (they do not really want an answer from Him on which to base their lives), asks them in return, “What did Moses command you?” They gleefully respond, in essence, that Moses permitted a husband to divorce his wife as long as he “filled out the paperwork.”

But Jesus will have none of it, telling them that Moses only permitted this very regrettable thing called “divorce” because of their hardened hearts.

Among the rabbis of Jesus’ time, there was the belief that this seemingly lax provision permitting divorce resulted because Moses had reasoned that if he were to say to the men of his day that marriage was until death then some of them might very well have arranged for the death of their wives. So, in order to prevent homicide, Moses permitted the lesser evil of divorce. But it was still an evil and still something deeply regrettable. God Himself says in the book of Malachi,

And this again you do. You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering … You ask, “Why does he not?” Because the Lord is witness to the covenant between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Has not the one God made and sustained for us the spirit of life? And what does he desire? Godly offspring. So take heed to yourselves, and let none be faithless to the wife of his youth. For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel, and covering one’s garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. Yes … take heed to yourselves, and do not be faithless” (Malachi 2:13–16).

Thus, in the opening lines of today’s gospel, Jesus spends time highlighting how the Pharisees and many other men of His time have rejected God’s fundamental teaching on marriage. Jesus is about to reiterate that teaching. For now, though, just note the rejection evidenced in the question of the Pharisees, a rejection that Jesus ascribes to hearts that have become hardened by sin, lack of forgiveness, and rejection of God’s plan.

God hates divorce not only because it intrinsically rejects what He has set forth, but also because it is symptomatic of human hardness and sinfulness.

II. Restoration – Jesus, having encountered their hardened hearts, announces a restoration, a return to God’s original plan for marriage. The Lord quotes the Book of Genesis, saying,

But from the beginning of creation God made them male and female. And for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate.

Note that Jesus begins with the phrase, “but from the beginning of creation.” In other words, anything that may have happened in the aftermath of Original Sin, any compromises or arrangements that have emerged during the reign of sin, are now to be done away with in the reign of grace that will come as the result of Jesus’ saving death and resurrection.

On account of the grace that will be bestowed, we are now able, and expected, to return to God’s original plan for marriage: one man and one woman in a lifelong, stable relationship that is fruitful, bringing forth godly children for God and His kingdom. This is God’s plan, a plan that has no room for divorce, contraception, or anything other than fruitful, faithful, stable love.

In today’s Western culture there have been many attempts to redefine God’s original and perfect plan for marriage, substituting something erroneous, something humanly defined. And while current endeavors to redefine marriage to include same-sex unions are a particularly egregious example, they are not the first or only way in which God’s plan for marriage has been attacked:

The first attempts happened in the 1950s, when divorce began to occur among celebrities in Hollywood (e.g., Ingrid Bergman, followed by many others). Many Americans, who seem to love and admire their Hollywood stars, began to justify divorce. “Don’t people deserve to be happy?” became the refrain. And thus marriage, which up to that point had as its essential focus what was best for children, began, subtly but clearly, to be centered on what was best for adults. The happiness of the adults, rather than the well-being of the children, began to take precedence in most people’s thinking about marriage.

During the 1950s and 1960s pressure began to build to make divorce easier. Until the late 1960s, divorces had been legally difficult to obtain in America; wealthier people often went to Mexico in order to secure them. In 1969, California Governor Ronald Reagan signed the first “no-fault” divorce law, making divorce a fairly easy thing to obtain. Within ten years, most of the fifty states had similar laws. As a result, divorce rates skyrocketed.

This was the first redefinition of marriage. No longer was a man to leave his father and mother and “cling to his wife.” Now, at the first sign of trouble, men and women could just sever their marriage vows. But this is in direct contradiction to God’s plan, which tells them to cling to each other. Thus we engaged in what amounts to a redefinition of marriage.

The second redefinition of marriage occurred when the contraceptive mentality seized America. It began in the late 1950s and continues to this day. Though God said to the first couple, Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth … (Genesis 1:28), children have become more of a way of “accessorizing” a marriage rather than an integral part and an expected fruit. Children are no longer seen as an essential purpose of marriage, but only an optional outcome based on the wishes of the adults. This, too, is a redefinition of marriage; it is in direct contradiction to God’s instruction to “be fruitful and multiply.” The happiness and will of the adults is now preeminent; children, rather than being an essential fruit, are only a possible outcome.

The third redefinition of marriage, the current rage, is the attempt to extend it to include same-sex unions. The absurdity of this proposal flows from the sinful conclusions of the first two redefinitions, which in effect state that marriage is simply about two adults being happy and doing whatever pleases them.

And if that is the case, there seems little basis in most people’s mind to protest same-sex couples getting “married,” or, frankly, any number of adults in any combination of sexes, getting “married.” (Polygamy and/or polyandry are surely coming next.)

We in the heterosexual community have misbehaved for over fifty year now, redefining essential aspects of marriage. And the latest absurdity—and it is an absurdity—of gay marriage flows from this flawed and sinful redefinition. We have sown the wind; now we are reaping the whirlwind.

In the end, Jesus will have none of this. He rejects the attempts of the men of His time to redefine marriage. And He, through His Church, His living voice in the world today, also rejects the sinful and absurd redefinitions that we in our culture propose, be it divorce, contraception, or homosexual “marriage.”

God has set forth that a man should leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, and that the two of them become one flesh. In making a suitable partner for Adam, God created Eve, not Steve. And hence homosexual unions are excluded. A man is not a suitable partner for a man; a woman is not a suitable partner for a woman. Further, in making a suitable partner for Adam, God did not make Eve and Ellen and Jane and Sue and Beth. Hence, polygamy, though mentioned and tolerated for a time in the Bible (but always a source of trouble) is also not part of God’s plan.

God intends one man, for one woman, in a relationship of clinging; that is, in a stable relationship that bears the fruit of godly offspring.

This is the Lord’s plan; the Lord Jesus does not entertain any notion from the people of His day that will alter or compromise His original design for marriage. He thus announces a restoration of God’s original plan for marriage, as set forth in the book of Genesis.

III. Reality As is true today, Jesus’ reassertion of traditional, biblical marriage was met with controversy. In Matthew’s account, many of the disciples react with disdain, saying, If that is a case of a man and his wife, it is better never to marry! (Matt 19:10)

In today’s gospel we see that the disciples are somewhat troubled by what Jesus says and ask Him about it again later. But Jesus does not back down; He even intensifies His language, saying, Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.

There will be no apology from Jesus: divorce and remarriage is adultery. There may have been some in Jesus’ time (and today) who would hold up their divorce papers and say that they have a divorce decree. Jesus implies that He is not impressed with some papers signed by a human judge and is not bound by the decision of some secular authority. What God has joined together, no man must separate. In other words, Jesus once again establishes that once God has in fact joined a couple in Holy Matrimony, the bond which God has effected is to be respected by all, including the couple.

Marriage has a reality beyond what mere humans bring to it or say of it. Marriage is a work of God; it has a reality and an existence that flows from God’s work, not man’s. All of our attempts to redefine, obfuscate, or alter marriage as God has set it forth is sinful and is something that God does not recognize as a reality.

IV. Reemphasis Now comes an interesting twist, which includes a reminder of one of the most essential purposes of marriage. The gospel text says,

And people were bringing their little children to Jesus that he might touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he became indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

This is not a new element to the story, neither have we gone into a separate pericope. Rather, Jesus’ remarks about children remind us of the essential reason why marriage is structured the way it is. Why should marriage be between two heterosexuals? Why should it be stable? Why should it include a father and a mother rather than two fathers, or two mothers, or just a mother, or just a father?

The fundamental answer is that the essential work of marriage is to procreate and then raise those children! Since children remain marriage’s most fundamental fruit, it makes sense that marriage should be structured based on what is best for them. And the fact is, children are best raised in a stable, lasting environment in which their parents have committed to one another in mutual support and partnership in raising them. Further, it makes sense psychologically that a child should be receiving influence from both father and mother, the male parent and the female parent. There are things that a father can teach a child that a mother cannot; there are things that a mother can teach a child that a father cannot. Psycho-social development is best achieved in the environment that God and nature have set forth: every child growing up with both a father and a mother; a male and a female influence.

Anything else amounts to something that is less than ideal. To the degree that we intentionally impose the less-than-ideal on children, we are guilty of doing them an injustice. Bringing children into the world prior to marriage or apart from it, such that they will be raised in a single-parent home, is an injustice. It is an even greater injustice that children conceived under these promiscuous circumstances are far more likely to be aborted. To kill a child through abortion is a horrific injustice; it is also an injustice to raise a child apart from a marriage situation.

This preference for stable, lasting, heterosexual unions clearly excludes homosexual ones. Same-sex “parents” are far from ideal for a child. To raise a child in such circumstances intentionally is an injustice, for it is to subject the child to that which is unnatural and far from ideal.

Catholics have every obligation both to uphold and insist upon traditional marriage as what is right and just, not only because it is God’s plan, but because it is clearly what is best for children. And marriage is fundamentally about children. It is not simply religious sensibility that should lead us to this position; it is a position deeply rooted in natural law, common sense, and what is best for children.

Traditional marriage should be encouraged in every way. Becoming more “fuzzy” about what marriage is, or “defining it down” does not help our culture to esteem traditional marriage. Traditional marriage has pride of place because it is focused on raising the next generation and is critical to the essential functioning of our society.

There is much talk today about the rights of people to do as they please. So-called gay “marriage” is presented within this framework. But, sadly, many who discuss rights only refer to the rights of adults; they seem to care less about what is really best for children. What is good and right for children needs to have a much higher priority in our culture today than it currently does.

Jesus reemphasizes the teaching on marriage by pointing to the young children before them and telling the disciples not to hinder the children. One of the clearest ways we hinder children from finding their way to God and to His kingdom is with our own bad behavior: promiscuous sexual acts (endangering children through abortion or single-parent households), divorce (placing children in divided situations and saddling them with confused loyalties), and insistence on adult rights over what is best for children. To emphasize all of this bad behavior, Jesus points out the young children to us and says, “Do not hinder them.” Our bad behavior does hinder them.

IV. Reassurance To be sure, this teaching about marriage is to some degree “heavy weather.” Indeed, many in our culture have tried, and failed, to attain to the vision of marriage that the Lord teaches. There are complicated reasons, too many to note here, why so many people struggle to live this teaching today.

But whatever our own failures have been, we need to go to the Lord with a childlike trust, a trust that cries out for help. Thus, Jesus says at the conclusion of today’s gospel, Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.

Children often feel overwhelmed, but in the midst of that, they run to their parents and seek help. It is in this spirit that the Lord asked us to receive this teaching. Indeed, many may well have to run to God and say “Abba, God, I don’t know how to live this teaching. My marriage is in ruins, and I don’t know how to save it. I’ve tried, but my spouse is unwilling. I can’t go back and undo what I did years ago.”

But note how the Lord embraces the child in this gospel. He is willing to embrace us as well, in our failures and our difficulties. If we have failed, we should be like a young child and run to the Father. What we should most avoid is being relentlessly adult-like, digging in our heels and saying, “God is unreasonable; the Gospel is unreasonable!”

In the end, only God can accomplish strong marriages and strong families for us. We must run to Him as a Father and seek His help. If we have failed, we must not fail to tell the next generation what God teaches, even if we have not been able to live it perfectly.

God’s plan still remains His plan for everyone, whatever our personal failings. We have every obligation to run to Him, trust Him, and ask for His help. But even in the midst of our own personal failures, we can and must announce and celebrate the truth to others. In the end, God does not give us His teaching in order to burden us, or to accuse us, but rather to bless us. Our assurance must be in His mercy and His ability to write straight, even with the crooked lines of our lives.

If we in this generation have failed, and many of us have failed, we must still announce God’s plan for marriage to the next generation. We must not cease to hand on God’s perfect plan.

It Happened, but It Wasn’t Holy or Helpful – Biblical Teaching Against Polygamy

the Word of God

Given cultural trends and recent court decisions to redefine marriage, the move to accept and legalize polygamy and polyandry has intensified. For example, an essay at Politico declares, “It’s time to legalize polygamy.” Another article at Slate Magazine is entitled “Legalize polygamy.”

Some are already coining the term “trouple” or “throuple” to describe “marriages” of three people (of any combination of sexes).

Such moves are not unexpected and are sure to beginning coming through the courts and legislatures soon. Clearly, the Catholic Church does and will oppose such moves based on Natural Law and biblical arguments.

But the biblical stance on polygamy is less clear than it is on homosexual acts (which are unequivocally condemned at every historical stage of biblical record). Polygamy, on the other hand, while not envisaged by God in His plan for marriage (see below), was tolerated in biblical history. Some of the greatest biblical patriarchs had numerous wives. And God does not punish them for this. Indeed, He works with them and blesses them to lead Israel.

Yet as we shall see, the Scriptures do teach against polygamy, but more phenomenologically than legally or theologically. In other words, the fact that the patriarchs engaged in polygamy is presented to us as a fact, as a phenomenon, and little direct explanation, defense, or condemnation is given. However, the phenomenon of polygamy almost always led to trouble. And this reality is presented, too, as we shall see.

Thus the Bible does teach against polygamy, but more in the form of a morality tale than a direct condemnation. The fact is, polygamy leads to serious trouble. Departing from God’s plan always leads to trouble. This is all the more so for marriage. So while admitting that the biblical approach is different in the case of polygamy, let’s survey what the Scripture reports of the trouble that polygamy causes.

God’s clear plan for true marriage – When God sets forth marriage as described in the Book of Genesis, there is poetically but clearly set forth a definitive form for marriage: one man and one woman in a stable, lasting, fruitful relationship of mutual support. For God said, It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a suitable helpmate for him (Gen 2:18). Already we see that “helpmate” is singular, not plural. After teaching the man that animals are not suitable companions, God puts Adam into a deep sleep and fashions Eve from his rib (cf Gen 2:21). Note again that in presenting a suitable helpmate for Adam, God created Eve, not Steve. And so we see that marriage does not include any notion of homosexual union. But neither did God create Eve and Ellen and Sue and Jane as collective helpmates for Adam. And so implicitly and poetically, but clearly, we see excluded the notion of polygamy.

God’s plan for marriage is one man and one woman. Scripture goes on to insist that marriage be a lasting union, for it says that a man shall “cling” (Hebrew = דָּבַק  = dabaq) to his wife (singular, not plural), and the two (not three, four, or more) of them shall become one flesh (Gen 2:24). God then went on to tell them to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28).

So far, it’s clear enough: one man and one woman in a stable, fruitful relationship of mutual help and support.

But then, what to make of the polygamy of the patriarchs (Jacob, Moses, Gideon, David, Solomon, and many others)? Does God approve of this? There is no evidence that He thunders from on high at their seemingly adulterous and clearly polygamous behavior. The fact that they have several wives goes unrebuked, and is mentioned more in passing in the Scriptures, narrated with little shock. For example, Nathan the Prophet has many things for which to rebuke David, but having multiple wives is not among them.

What of this polygamy?

We ought to begin by restating that the Scriptures teach in various ways. There is the methodology of straight rebuke, wherein sin is both denounced and punished. But there is also a more subtle and deductive way, in which Scripture teaches more through story than prescription. And in this way, the Scriptures do teach against polygamy. For we learn by story and example how polygamy causes nothing but trouble. In fact it leads to factions, jealousy, envy, and at times, murder. But as we shall see, the problem is less the wives themselves than the sons they have borne.

But, to be clear, polygamy was a common thing among the Old Testament patriarchs. The list is not short:

  1. Lamech (a descendant of Cain) practiced polygamy (Genesis 4:19).
  2. Abraham had more than one wife (Genesis 16:3-4; 25:6, some are called concubines).
  3. Nahor, Abraham’s brother, had both a wife and a concubine (Genesis 11:29; 22:20-24).
  4. Jacob was tricked into polygamy (Genesis 29:20-30) and later he received two additional wives, making a grand total of four wives (Genesis 30:4, 9).
  5. Esau took on a third wife to please his father Isaac (Genesis 28:6-9).
  6. Ashur had two wives (1 Chronicles 4:5).
  7. Obadiah, Joel, Ishiah, and those with them “had many wives” (1 Chronicles 7:3-4).
  8. Shaharaim had at least four wives, two of which he “sent away” (1 Chronicles 8:8-11).
  9. Caleb had two wives (1 Chronicles 2:18) and two concubines (1 Chronicles 2:46, 48).
  10. Gideon had many wives (Judges 8:30).
  11. Elkanah is recorded as having two wives, one of which was the godly woman Hannah (1 Samuel 1:1-2, 8-2:10).
  12. David, had at least 8 wives and 10 concubines (1 Chronicles 1:1-9; 2 Samuel 6:23; 20:3).
  13. Solomon, who breached both Deuteronomy 7:1-4 and 17:14-17, had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:1-6).
  14. Rehoboam had eighteen wives and sixty concubines (2 Chronicles 11:21), and sought many wives for his sons (1 Chronicles 11:23).
  15. Abijah had fourteen wives (2 Chronicles 13:21).
  16. Ahab had more than one wife (1 Kings 20:7).
  17. Jehoram had multiple wives (2 Chronicles 21:17).
  18. Jehoiada, the priest, gave king Joash two wives (2 Chronicles 24:1-3).
  19. Jehoiachin had more than one wife (2 Kings 24:15).

Well, you get the point. So we have to be honest: polygamy, at least among wealthy and powerful men, was practiced and its practice brought little obvious condemnation from God or His prophets.

But the silence of God does not connote approval, and not everything related in the Bible is told by way of approval. For example, it would seem that God permitted divorce because of the hard hearts of the people (cf Matt 19:8). But to reluctantly permit, as God does, is not to command or to be pleased. Jesus would later withdraw divorce and remarriage from the range of tolerated behaviors. And polygamy seems to have largely abated by the time of Jesus.

And, as we have noted, God teaches in more than one way in the Scriptures. For the fact is, polygamy, whenever prominently dealt with (i.e., mentioned more than merely in passing), always spelled “trouble” with a capital “T”.

Consider some of the following internecine conflicts and tragedies.

  1. Jacob had four wives, whom he clearly loved unequally: Leah (with whom he felt “stuck” and whom he considered unattractive), Rachel (his first love), Bilnah (Rachel’s maid), and Zilpah (Leah’s maid). Leah bore him six sons and a daughter (Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulan, and Dinah). Rachel was stubbornly infertile but finally bore him Joseph and Benjamin. Bilnah bore him Naphtali and Dan, and Zilpah bore him Gad and Asher.

Now all these sons by different mothers created tension. But the greatest tension surrounded Joseph, of whom his brothers grew jealous. His father Jacob favored him because he was Rachel’s son. This led to a plot by the other brothers to kill him, but Joseph ended up being sold into slavery to the Ishmaelites. At the heart of this bitter conflict was a polygamous mess. The unspoken but clear teaching is, “Don’t do polygamy.”

  1. Gideon had many wives (Jud 8:30) and by them many sons. Scripture tells a story of terrible violence and death that results from these many sons by different mothers, all competing for kingship and heritage.

Now Gideon had seventy sons, his direct descendants, for he had many wives. His concubine who lived in Shechem also bore him a son, whom he named Abimelech. At a good old age Gideon, son of Joash, died and was buried in the tomb of his father Joash in Ophrah of the Abiezrites. Abimelech, son of Jerubbaal (i.e., Gideon), went to his mother’s kinsmen in Shechem, and said to them and to the whole clan to which his mother’s family belonged, “Put this question to all the citizens of Shechem: ‘Which is better for you: that seventy men, or all Jerubbaal’s sons, rule over you, or that one man rule over you?’ You must remember that I am your own flesh and bone.” When his mother’s kin repeated these words to them on his behalf, all the citizens of Shechem sympathized with Abimelech, thinking, “He is our kinsman.” They also gave him seventy silver shekels from the temple of Baal of Berith, with which Abimelech hired shiftless men and ruffians as his followers. He then went to his ancestral house in Ophrah, and slew his brothers, the seventy sons of Jerubbaal (Gideon), on one stone. Only the youngest son of Jerubbaal, Jotham, escaped, for he was hidden (Judges 9:1-5).

At the heart of this murderous and internecine conflict was polygamy. These were brothers who competed for kingship, power, and inheritance; brothers who had little love for one another since they were of different mothers. Abimelech’s loyalty was not to his brothers, but to his mother and her clan. Thus he slaughtered his brothers to win power.

Among other lessons in this terrible tale is the lesson of chaos and hatred caused by polygamy. It’s as if to say, “Don’t do polygamy.”

  1. King David had at least eight wives (Michal, Abigail, Ahinoam, Eglah, Maacah, Abital, Haggith, and Bathsheba) and ten concubines. Trouble erupts in this “blended” (to say the least) family when Absalom (the third son of David), whose mother was Maacah, sought to overcome the line of succession and gain it for himself. When his older brother Chileab died, only his half-brother Amnon stood in the way. The tensions between these royal sons of different mothers grew very hostile. Amnon raped Absalom’s sister Tamar, and Absalom later had Amnon murdered for it (cf 2 Sam 13).

Absalom fled and nourished hostility for his father David. Eventually he sought to overthrow his father’s power by waging a rebellious war against him. Absalom is killed in the ensuing war and David can barely forgive himself for his own role in the matter (2 Sam 18:33).

But the family intrigue isn’t over. Solomon would eventually become king, but only through the intrigues of his mother, Bathsheba, David’s last wife. As David lay dying, his oldest son Adonijah (son of David’s wife Haggith), the expected heir (1 Kings 2:15), was acclaimed king in a formal ceremony. But Bathsheba conspired with Nathan the Prophet and deceived David into thinking that Adonijah was mounting a rebellion. She also reminded David of a secret promise he had once made to her that Solomon, her son, would be king. David then intervened and sent word that Solomon would be king. Adonijah fled, returning only after assurances of his safety by Solomon. Yet despite those assurances Adonijah was later killed by Solomon.

Here, too, are the complications of a messed up family situation. Sons of different mothers hating each other, wives playing for favorite, securing secret promises, and conspiring behind the scenes. At the heart of many of the problems was polygamy. Once again the implicit teaching is, “Don’t do polygamy.”

  1. Solomon, it is said, had 1000 wives (700 wives and 300 concubines). Again, nothing but trouble came from this. Scripture says,

King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women. … He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray. As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been. He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord (1 Kings 11:1-6).

The tolerance of pagan religious practices encouraged by these wives, along with other policies, led to great hostility and division in the kingdom. Finally, after Solomon’s death, the northern kingdom of Israel seceded from Judah.  There was never a reunion and both kingdoms were eventually destroyed by surrounding nations.

Lurking in the mix of this mess is polygamy. Once again, the lesson is, “Don’t do polygamy.”

  1. Abraham’s dalliance with his wife’s maid Hagar, while not strictly polygamy (more adultery, really), also leads to serious trouble. Hagar bore Ishmael at the behest of Abraham’s wife, Sarah. But Sarah grew cold and jealous of Hagar and Hagar fled (Gen 16). She eventually returned and gave birth to Ishmael. Later, when Sarah finally bore Isaac, Sarah concluded that Ishmael was a threat and had to go. She had Abraham drive Hagar away (Gen 21).

Ishmael went on to become the patriarch of what we largely call the Arab nations. Isaac’s line would be the Jewish people. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Polygamy, once again, lurking behind a whole host of problems. Don’t do polygamy.

So the Bible does teach on polygamy and, through stories, teaches us of its problematic nature. We ought not to be overly simplistic when interpreting these stories, as if to say that polygamy was the only problem, or that these things never happen outside polygamous settings. But polygamy clearly played a strong role in these terrible stories.

It would seem that in the Old Testament God tolerated polygamy, as he tolerated divorce, but nowhere did He approve of it.

In Matthew 19, Jesus signals a return to God’s original plan and hence prohibits divorce. For he says, Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, unless the marriage is unlawful, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matt 19:8-9). He also says, Have you not read, that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate (Matt 19:4-6).

Back to Plan A – So, whatever one may argue with regard to the Old Testament’s approach to marriage, Jesus makes it clear that we are going back to Plan A: one man and one woman in a stable, fruitful relationship of mutual support.

And thus the Scriptures do teach against polygamy. Even if it was tolerated, God taught them through bitter experience, “Don’t do polygamy.” It is trouble with a capital ‘T.’

While the first video accurately but lightly depicts the polygamy of Jacob, the next two videos recall the problems it engendered.