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St Thomas and marriage: beyond the Augustinian impasse

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Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

During the 13th century golden age of scholasticism, the number of the sacraments was settled at seven, the septenarium, and marriage was listed among them, albeit last. In 1208, 20 years before St Thomas Aquinas was born, Pope Innocent III had included marriage among the seven sacraments in the profession of faith required of converted Spanish Waldensians.

In the year of St Thomas’ death, 1274, at the Second Council of Lyons, Pope Gregory X included marriage among the sacraments in the formula of faith for reunion prepared for Emperor Michael Paleologas of Byzantium. This was well accepted by Eastern Christians, at a time when political considerations made possible some steps towards the healing of the Great Schism of 1054.

In the development of the doctrine that marriage is a sacrament, the schoolmen moved beyond what St Augustine had taught towards saying marriage is a means of grace. They emphasised how marriage is contracted by consent here and now, de praesenti, not a future promise, betrothal. Debate continued as to whether consummation is essential to make a marriage binding, hence the disputes between the Northern tradition emphasising consummation, represented by the canon lawyers of Bologna, and the Roman legal tradition emphasising consent, represented by the theologians of Paris.

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The contribution of the schoolmen to a deeper understanding of marriage is a clear example of their role in the development of Christian doctrine. The incremental approach involves resting each step of development on precedents, that is, building on the teachings of predecessors, particularly the teachings of Popes, Councils, authoritative theologians and canonists, which accords with Newman’s analysis of this process of development.

The Augustinian Impasse

In the incremental process everyone relied on the greatest Western father, St Augustine of Hippo who taught that there are three goods in marriage: prolesfides and sacramentum, that is, the gift of children, mutual fidelity and the sacrament. By “sacrament” he did not mean what we mean; more his way of describing indissolubility or the bond derived from the Great Mystery or Nuptial Mystery that shapes Christian marriage, Christ the Bridegroom married for ever to his beloved bride, the Church.  The Vulgate Bible rendered the Greek word musterion as sacramentum in Ephesians 5.

While St Augustine secured a stable scriptural and rational basis for recognising marriage as a sacrament, his successors raised a barrier which I call the Augustinian impasse. The Augustinian tradition could not move beyond a deeply felt difficulty: how could a sacrament involving sexual intercourse be a means of grace? This led to a paradox, marriage alone of all the sacraments did not impart grace. This is what Peter Lombard taught.

We can understand why theologians of that era had a problem with sexuality when we set Christian marriage in the context of the eight centuries between St Augustine and the scholastic theologians. The medieval era was marked by the flowering of the religious life for men and women in monasteries and convents, accompanied by a defensive emphasis on asceticism, chastity, virginity, purity. In the eleventh and twelth centuries the struggle to enforce the discipline of celibacy among diocesan clergy was a key element in the papal reform programs and in resisting feudal lay power based in families. St Augustine’s own struggle with purity in his earlier years obviously influenced his writings, but I believe the powerful monastic traditions had greater bearing in maintaining a negative attitude to sexuality in married life.

Marriage was seen as a second-best Christian way of life, a remedy for powerful sexual desire, as St Paul taught “better to marry than to burn” (1 Corinthians 7:9). The key word was concupiscentia, disordered desire. In practice concupiscence was, and is, understood as lustful desire, although Augustine understood it more broadly as all disordered desires and unruly appetites, effects of original sin. Theologians who followed Augustine thus came to the strange conclusion that because of concupiscence in sexual union, marriage is the only sacrament that does not give us grace. Two Dominicans, a pragmatic German bishop and his student, a creatively rational Italian priest, took the Church beyond the Augustinian impasse.

St Albert the Great

The life of St Albert the Great (1200-1280) is wrapped around the shorter life of St Thomas. Known as the “great” during his own lifetime, Albert was regarded as the outstanding Dominican theologian. From our point of view he marks the transition to St Thomas, his most brilliant pupil later to become more famous than his master.  But in Albert we find much of St Thomas’ interpretation of marriage.

St Albert came from a noble German family. After an academic career in Padua, in 1223 he entered the Order of Preachers. He lectured in Paris, where he taught Tommaso d’Aquino, a sturdy Italian friar sent out of Italy by the Order to keep him away from his domineering family. Albert later lectured in several Dominican schools of studies particularly at Cologne, except for a few years spent as Bishop of Ratisbon (Regensberg), an office he never sought.

Renowned in his lifetime for learning and holiness, we appreciate his original mind. He marked a revolution in philosophy and theology, the transition from Plato to Aristotle. The great Greek philosopher was now more accessible because of the arrival in Europe of manuscripts preserved by the Arabs, especially Avveroes.

This Islamic scholar was the key interpreter of Aristotle. Born in Cordoba in 1126, until his death in 1198, Avveroes taught in southern Spain and in Morocco. Because of his somewhat independent mind and his interest in Aristotle, an “infidel philosopher”, he was not a major influence in the Islamic world, but he had great impact in the North, in Christian Europe because he helped Christians rediscover Aristotle.

In keeping with the Aristotelian approach, but going beyond it, Albert was interested in observing how things work. He was devoted to Aristotle, but not slavish whenever he found the philosopher wrong on empirical matters and he also corrected errors in Avveroes. As an observer of nature, Albert studied methods of industry, seeking to bring all human knowledge together, so he is regarded as the father of Western science.  This empirical element in his life and thought is evident in his close examination of marriage.

St Albert on Marriage

In his Tractatus de Matrimonio, St Albert saw marriage as indissoluble, containing individuitas (invulnerability from dissolution). But a non-consummated marriage could be dissolved in specific circumstances by mutual agreement between the couple.  By consent, sacramental marriage images the love of Jesus bound to his bride the Church. A higher, more binding love could be invoked to dissolve it, e.g. vows of chastity in religious life. However, if marriage passes to the next stage, consummation, then marriage images the union of the divine and human natures in the Person Christ. In the Incarnation Jesus is united to his bride the Church, a union that is utterly indissoluble.  The sign of the sacrament is complete here and such a marriage cannot be broken.

Not all marriages include this indissolubility by their very nature, only Christian marriages. They receive indissolubility from what they express and image, this unique union of Christ and his bride the Church, based on the Incarnation. This is how he understood the Great Mystery of Christ and the Church in Ephesians 5.

St Albert favoured the view that grace is imparted in marriage as a true sacrament, but he did not spell this out. He rejected the Augustinian view that while marriage is a symbol of Christ’s union with the Church, a sign of a saving reality, it does not confer grace. He did not favour a second position, that there was only a kind of remedial grace in marriage, the remedium concupiscentiae, the remedy for concupiscence.

He favoured as more probable the view that grace is imparted in the sacrament. If God gives a gift he also gives us the ability to make the most of it, to carry it out. The three goods set out by St Augustine call for the grace to fulfil them in married life.  In this area, as with many other wider areas, he obviously influenced St Thomas, just as St Ambrose influenced St Augustine, but more precisely and directly.

St Thomas Aquinas

Born into a noble family who lived to the south of Rome, Thomas was educated by the monks at Monte Cassino, where he was a child oblate. His powerful family put him there because they looked forward to making him the abbot. He was sent to Naples to complete his studies as a Benedictine but here he discovered Aristotle and the new Arabic versions of Aristotle from Averroes. He had no wish to become a monastic prelate for he was drawn to the poverty and simplicity of a new form of religious life, the Dominican friars.

In spite of family opposition, Thomas entered the Order of Preachers in April 1244 in Naples, and was swiftly sent off to Rome.  While he was on the way to Bologna on foot, for Dominicans did not ride horses, his elder brother Rinaldo, instigated by his angry mother Teodora, kidnapped him and dragged him back to a family castle. But by the summer of 1245, the family relented and he was able to return to his community in Naples. A legend arose about the time he spent at home, that he was imprisoned and that a prostitute was sent to corrupt him. The Aquino family were soon on the run, having fallen foul of the ruthless Emperor Frederick II of Sicily, enemy of the papacy and recently deposed by the First Council of  Lyons. Thomas’ unfortunate elder brother was executed.

He then went on to complete higher studies at Paris and Cologne. St Albert became his beloved mentor at this time.  There followed a brilliant academic career in Paris (1256-1259) and then in Italy (1259-1268). After another stint in Paris he returned to Italy in 1272. On December 6 1273 he had a mystical experience during Mass, and thereafter wrote nothing at all, regarding all he had written as “straw”.  He was summoned to assist at the Second Council of Lyons and began the long journey to France, but his health was failing, and at his request he was taken to the Cistercian Abbey of Fossanuova, where he died, not yet 50 years old.

Thomas was a prodigious teacher and writer, although his handwriting is described rightly as “littera ininteligibilis”. He was a man of deep, indeed mystical, prayer. He was corpulent for some unknown reason, perhaps glandular, and the butt of jokes, the Ox, the hole in the refectory table, etc. but he was an ascetical friar in his way of life. This hard-working teacher and author combined learning with sanctity, and much common sense. In Thomas we see Albert’s scientific attitude, to examine things as they are and to find out how they work, and this empiricism comes through in his work on marriage.

Sources in St Thomas on Marriage

His most extensive writing on marriage, at 30 years of age, is found in his Scriptum, or Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, much of which was later edited and published after his death as the Supplementum, or appendix to his greatest but incomplete work the Summa Theologiae. This was a useful project because the Commentary on the Sentences dealt with matters he had not yet reached in the Summa, including marriage as a sacrament.

However, because it was written when he was relatively young and before he completed his magnum opus, the Commentary on the Sentences and Supplementum do not necessarily represent what he might have written had he lived another ten years, and he was a profound and honest thinker, prepared to review his opinions.  Nevertheless, other references to marriage are found in his Summa Contra Gentiles which was largely written to refute Islam, and here he assumes marriage is a sacrament that imparts grace. We also find references to marriage in his commentaries on Scripture, obviously in his Commentary on Ephesians when he deals with the way the Great Mystery of Christ espoused to the Church shapes married life.

General Perspectives on Marriage

To understand St Thomas we always need to appreciate his philosophical basis. His fresh approach to marriage rests on his anthropology which went beyond Augustinian pessimism. We are all made for grace. Grace can and does transform us. Grace builds on nature and perfects nature. Grace and nature are not in opposition.

Unlike Augustine who was influenced by Platonism, St Thomas was guided by Aristotelian philosophy. He held to a moderate realism, meaning we can perceive, know and understand the realities around us in this world.  Therefore he had an earthy, or “down to earth”, respect for human realities which are good in themselves, not just because they reflect some eternal form in heaven.

Moreover, in Aristotle’s perspective human beings are a unity of soul and body, hylomorphism, hence there can be no place for the dualism that lingered in Platonism and Neo-Platonism, where the soul was seen as inhabiting the body, even imprisoned in it. This has obvious bearing on sexuality, marriage and procreation and was taken to a dualist extreme by the Cathars or Albigensians. They rejected marriage and procreation as “unspiritual”, tying us to the evil material world of sex, bodies and babies.

As a true son of St Dominic, struggling against the Cathars, St Thomas regarded sex and procreation as good in themselves. Therefore he began with a positive approach to the natural institution of marriage. Marriage is “natural” because it is a good granted by God in the creation of man and woman. Marriage is a “natural undertaking”, a civil and social undertaking, an officium naturae for family and society – and this is what Christ took up and raised to become a spiritual communion of persons, based on a concrete act, a public contract between persons, a sacrament of the New Law.  We note here his interest in men and women as social beings, living in relationship with others, in marriage, in the family, in society as a whole.

Marriage is a natural good for embodied souls, a union created by God as evident in Genesis. He saw both sexes as in a sense incomplete, hence needing each other in marriage to fill out weaknesses.  In line with theologians of the time, he follows St Augustine in teaching the three goods of marriage, but he goes beyond Augustine when it comes to the resolving problem of concupiscence and the sacrament.

St Thomas described concupiscence as “an unruled turning to goods that pass away” the material form of original sin. Like Augustine, Thomas understood concupiscence as any disordered desire or uncontrolled passion, not only sexual desire. As he put it, concupiscence is “a primal passion containing in a sense all the other passions of the soul”. Yet he saw original sin not as a corruption of the will but as a privation of original justice, a loss but rather than a wound. Concupiscence is real but not all pervasive.

Married intercourse is not a sin “excused” by a divine blessing, rather it is “excused” only because concupiscence gives it a “semblance of an inordinate act”. Concupiscence through the libido does not corrupt marriage or negate its grace-giving “sacramentality”.

In his Summa Contra Gentiles he firmly rejects the Albigensian error that all sexual intercourse is sinful, but with a cautious allowance for venial sin in physical love. In the Scriptum, when analyzing St Augustine’s three goods of marriage, he gives priority to proles, offspring. But the sacramentum is more excellent because “it is more excellent to be in grace, even if natural life is essential before we receive grace”. Moreover offspring and fidelity bestow virtue on sexual union in marriage, making it not only good but holy, “non solum bonus sed etiam sanctus”. He has taken us beyond the Augustinian impasse.

In his Commentary on the Letter to the Corinthians he goes so far as to teach that sexual union in marriage is “an act of religion”, again with the procreation and education of children in view. Divine caritas or agape makes every act of virtue meritorious, including sexual union, hence in his Commentary he says, “Every virtuous act is meritorious if it is performed with love.” Perhaps we may anticipate in these words what he would have written had he completed the Summa.


We are reflecting on a colourful era, the 13th century, when the troubadours sang of romantic or courtly love and the age of chivalry was in its prime. In Thomas we find the insights of a keen observer of people, well aware of the emotions of members of his own turbulent family. In the Summa, in the context of writing about the emotions, he provided an analysis of love, obviously Aristotelian yet applicable to married life.

Aristotle, saw love as wishing someone good, still an Italian expression of life – ti voglio bene – I wish you well – indeed I wish all good things for you.  Friendship is that kind of love, because we wish all good things for our friends, the love of good will.

St Thomas’ grasp of a psychology of friendship can be applied to marriage. In this union the couple wish one another to have and enjoy the three goods of marriage in St Augustine: prolesfides and sacramentum and all other good things in married life, sexual pleasure, family life etc. Marriage is thus the most perfect friendship, above all when we consider how great those three goods are. However, if a partner merely uses the other in marriage for lust or some other base motive, then concupiscence impedes grace and harms the marriage deeply. He also explored how union and mutual indwelling are effects of love. We may speculate how he would have developed this further in marriage had he completed the Summa.

St Thomas removed the main obstacle in the development of the doctrine of the sacramentality of marriage – the issue of grace and sexuality. Marriage does impart grace and human sexuality in conjugal relations can be “an act of religion”. That major advance would later assist in the Church’s struggle with the pessimistic anthropology of Luther and Calvin and to a lesser extent, that of the Jansenists. It also paved the way for what became the Theology of the Body of St John Paul II.

Sacramental Signification in St Thomas

St Thomas understood marriage as a holy sign that causes grace, a sacrament in itself. He we enter his teaching on signification, what the sign of the sacrament means and what it effects.

Unlike the other sacraments, the matter and form of marriage are not easily defined. St Thomas said that the mutual consent is the form, and the “sensible acts” of marriage are the matter, which would include conjugal relations, consummation. Mutual consent signifies the will of Christ to wed his Church. Developing St Albert, he taught that consummation signifies Christ’s union with his bride the Church, that is, the Hypostatic Union of God and Man in the Incarnation, making a marriage absolutely indissoluble. Consent and consummation make up the holy sign of the sacrament.

Nevertheless he taught that the seven sacraments are derived from the Cross and Passion of Jesus Christ. Marriage is conformed to the love of the cross, Christ dying for and cherishing his bride the Church in the Great Mystery of Ephesians 5. Here St Thomas makes allowance for the Augustinian remedial tradition, because all sacraments are redemptive. Through grace they heal original and actual sin; they can raise up our fallen nature. As noted, Thomas saw the Fall more as a loss, a deprivation of grace, than a corruption of the will.

Because of its holy signification, Marriage even has a special dignity among the seven sacraments. In his Commentary on Ephesians Thomas modified the implication of a convention that he accepted, of listing marriage last among the seven. He singled out four “great sacraments” among the seven: Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist and Marriage.  He has different reasons for counting these four sacraments as “great”: Baptism for what it does to us, the Eucharist for containing what it signifies, what we would call the Paschal Mystery, hence the supreme sacrament. His argument seems weak for Confirmation, which is great because a bishop is the minister! The Mystery of Christ espoused to the Church is signified in marriage and this makes it great. However, unlike the Eucharist, marriage does not contain the Great Mystery of our redemption in Christ. It signifies and is shaped by this Nuptial Mystery.

When discussing how the Eucharist is the greatest sacrament, he linked marriage to the Eucharist because it also signifies the union between Christ and the Church. Yet earlier he argued that of all the sacraments marriage is the least spiritual, pertaining more to physical life in this world, so it is still to be listed last among the seven.

To sum up. The Great Mystery is signified as this encircles the whole process of Christian marriage. The great Mystery is signified but it is not contained – unlike the Eucharist and the bond is analogous to the permanent character imparted in Baptism, Confirmation and Orders, yet it brings grace. Sexual union, consummation, signifies the Incarnation, the permanent union of God and Man in Christ, a view derived from St Albert and other sources. Therefore a consummated marriage is permanent and indissoluble.

The Three Dimensions of Sacramental Marriage

To see how he approached Marriage systematically we need to understand the three dimensions of every sacrament. These are derived from an Aristotelian view of reality.

The sacramentum tantum is the outward sign of a sacrament in itself and by itself. In Marriage the outward and visible sign is the mutual consent of the couple, who minister the sacrament. St Thomas does not make the priest the minister or co-minister of the sacrament. On that issue, a later Dominican, Melchior Cano, would take a different view, similar to that of the Eastern Churches, making the priest the minister of the sacrament and that caused no little trouble at the Council of Trent.

The res et sacramentum is what is “contained” – the inner sacred reality signified by the sign-act. In Marriage this is the indissoluble bond, vinculum, yet more than that. In St Thomas it is also the specific grace given by God that abides in the sacrament. As noted, St Thomas sees the marriage bond as analogous to the indelible characters imparted in Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Orders. These are eternal but the marriage bond abides only for this life.

The res tantum is best understood as the ongoing grace conferred by the sign-act. The res tantum of marriage is the grace to live together as husband and wife. This requires a response of faith to grace that disposes the couple to live faithfully in indissoluble unity, so we need to consider how sacramental marriage functions.

How Sacramental Marriage Works

In every sacrament there is an automatic effect, ex opere operato – from the work carried out. This avoids too much reliance on the human agent, his moral worthiness or intention. In the Catholic view, the essential component works if the minimal conditions are there: for marriage, mutual free consent and consummation.

However there is also a more subjective level, ex opere operantis – from the work of the one involved. This needs to be kept alongside the automatic process, given the interpersonal nature of marriage. Isolated on its own ex opere operantis represents a Protestant view, faith as the cause of grace, assisted by a symbolic sacramental sign. In Catholic sacramental theology ex opere operantis is more a measure of response to the gift, fruitfulness, dispositions, the deepening of faith and a life of grace. A sacrament can be fruitful or fruitless, fructuose or ficte. A couple may marry validly but if they do not respond to grace, or if they set up obstacles, the marriage may be valid but will not be fruitful spiritually, morally or personally.

The Grace of Marriage in St Thomas

If they place no obstacle, obex, in the way, the couple receive grace; grace to have and raise children, grace for mutual fidelity, shared lives a union of souls. Because it ends at the death of the human body, the marriage bond itself brings grace for physical deeds in this world. On the other hand, the sacramental characters in Baptism, Confirmation and Orders bring grace for spiritual deeds in Church – because they are eternal, inhering in the soul.

For St Thomas, sacramental grace is distinct from Sanctifying Grace, while flowing from it. Here we can only speculate how he would have developed the distinct grace of sacramental marriage in the Summa.

However, he does not claim that grace in marriage is automatic. The sacred bond works dispositively, that is, it disposes or opens a couple to receive the graces of married life, instituted by Christ for the infusion of grace. In the Summa Contra Gentiles he insists that by indissolubility the couple “must determine not to be disunited from Christ and the Church”. St Thomas’ ecclesial implications for marriage would later be taken up in the Nineteenth Century by Matthias Scheeben.

In his later work, the Commentary on the Letter to the Ephesians, St Thomas sees the great Mystery of Christ leaving his Father to come to us as the supreme example for a husband’s love of his wife, because the husband leaves his father to cleave to his wife. The husband’s love for his bride is modelled on Christ’s love for the Church. He does not see this as making Christian marriage perfect. He is too realistic for that, but this sign points to the perfection of the Christ-Church union in heaven. The mystical meaning however also points to practical dimensions of married life and love in this world.  Thus he maintained the dispositive power of the grace of the sacrament, the power for men and women to live together in loving fidelity and to raise a family.

St Thomas’ arguments for marriage as a sacrament were vindicated when, in 1563, the Council of Trent solemnly taught that marriage is a sacrament of the New Law that imparts grace.

This is the edited text of a speech given by Bishop Peter Elliot at the Aquinas Symposium at the University of Notre Dame on 20 February. Bishop Elliot is the author of What God Has Joined, the Sacramentality of Marriage, Alba House, New York, 1990 etc., Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite, Ignatius Press 1995 etc. (Guia pratica de liturgia, Ediciones Universidad de Navarra 1996) and Ceremonies of the Liturgical Year, Ignatius Press 2002. He is editor of Prayers of the Faithful, Catholic Book Publishing Corp, NJ, 2009.

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