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Priest’s Blessing or Approval Necessary to Get Married in Early Christianity (with political sidenote)

Posted by Tony Listi on January 22, 2014

Many people incorrectly believe that it was in the 16th century at the Council of Trent that the Catholic Church first began to require a priest’s or bishop’s approval to get married.

Actually, the need for a priest or bishop to bless the union of a man and woman in marriage (when one of them is Christian) goes back to the earliest centuries of Christianity.

Here are two quotes from two early Church fathers that demonstrate this historical fact:

“But it becomes both men and women who marry, to form their union with the approval of the bishop, that their marriage may be according to God, and not after their own lust. Let all things be done to the honor of God.” -St. Ignatius of Antioch (died around 98-117 AD)

“Since the contracting of marriage must be sanctified by the veiling and the blessing of the priest, how can there be any mention of a marriage, when unity of faith is wanting?” -St. Ambrose (340-397 AD)

At the Council of Trent in 1563, the Catholic Church merely reaffirmed what was taught by the earliest Christian leaders: “the approval of the bishop” and/or “the blessing of the priest” is necessary for marriage, at least for a sacramental marriage between two baptized Christians. The council did not declare anything new; it merely reaffirmed early Christian doctrine on marriage because Protestant heresiarchs were contradicting and rejecting such apostolic doctrines.

Political Sidenote:
With the cultural and political ascendancy of Christianity in the 4th century, the State began to recognize as valid civil marriages only those marriages blessed by the Catholic Church. The State did not define marriage ultimately but merely recognized in civil law the definition of marriage in ecclesial canon law.

It was only after the Protestant Revolution that the State began to arrogantly presume the authority to define marriage however it wanted (cf. Henry VIII in England). Almost 500 years later, the State now presumes to call a same-sex sexual relationship a “marriage.”

3 Responses to “Priest’s Blessing or Approval Necessary to Get Married in Early Christianity (with political sidenote)”

  1. Monocular Milkman said

    Such arrogance indeed, to allow persons of equal stature to get married like the rest of us. And why, of course, would we *ever* not look at politics through a Christian lens? Everyone *knows* that the U.S. a Christian nation, not anything secular and evil.

    • Tony Listi said

      This post is almost entirely descriptive in nature, describing early Christian doctrine regarding ecclesiastical approval of marriage and then describing the historical relationship between Church and State with respect to marriage. Your comment is making normative claims. This post is not making normative claims, at least not explicitly.

      But one need not use the Christian lens necessarily to understand why the State should not give special legal status to a sexual relationship between two people of the same-sex. The State should not get involved in purely private relationships. But sexual relationships between one man and one woman are not purely private because they naturally have the potential to bring a child, another rights-bearing person, into the world.

    • Tony Listi said

      I would also clarify that the Catholic Church has never required non-Catholics to receive its approval before getting married. The Catholic Church assumes that a marriage between a non-Catholic man and non-Catholic woman is valid. But marriage by nature is not just any sexual relationship but rather requires sexual difference.

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