Wednesday, May 22, 2013

What did the Church teach about marriage, men and women in 1880?

Gioacchino Vincenzo Raffaele Luigi Pecci became Pope Leo XIII and served from 1878-1903. His encyclical, Arcanum, was delivered to the Church on February 10, 1880. The content of the encyclical reveals certain difficulties confronting the Church at that time with regard to the institution of marriage. Many of his comments remain remarkably pertinent in 2013 as the institution of marriage faces consistent opposition from the secular culture. Following is an examination of several paragraphs in the encyclical. (bold subheads are mine, bold emphasis is mine; paragraph numbers follow each)
We record what is to all known, and cannot be doubted by any, that God, on the sixth day of creation, having made man from the slime of the earth, and having breathed into his face the breath of life, gave him a companion... [Christ] bore witness to the Jews and to His Apostles that marriage, from its institution, should exist between two only, that is, between one man and one woman; that of two they are made, so to say, one flesh; and that the marriage bond is by the will of God so closely and strongly made fast that no man may dissolve it or render it asunder. ... This form of marriage, however, so excellent and so pre-eminent, began to be corrupted by degrees, and to disappear among the heathen; and became even among the Jewish race clouded in a measure and obscured. For in their midst a common custom was gradually introduced, by which it was accounted as lawful for a man to have more than one wife; and eventually when "by reason of the hardness of their heart," Moses indulgently permitted them to put away their wives, the way was open to divorce. (#5-6)
Early in the encyclical, the Pope points out how the original pedigree of marriage occurred between "one man and one woman." The phrase echoes unto today. Anyone who would claim that the Church  attempted to impose this definition only in light of current challenges to marriage would be mistaken.

Where history attempted to justify multiple wives, for example, the Church was there to point out the proper order for the institution of marriage as between one man and one woman.

It seems the natural law, to which biology itself speaks, is signal to the proper quality of a single male-single female relationship. All persons are the fruit of one man and one woman, which points to the natural order of a child raised by his or her parents, a family unit, a natural foundation for humanity. Properly functioning biology admits to no exceptions to this reality. In fact, once the female egg is fertilized by a sperm, a "cortical reaction" occurs which ensures only one sperm fertilizes the egg. Biology itself is a signpost to the order of one man and one woman, to its potency, that it is only this arrangement which "bears fruit." Nothing other than one man and woman in a marital act is capable of such potency.

This is not to exclude the religious aspect to the Church's teaching on marriage. The natural order merely fortifies that which the Church teaches, and serves as a signpost that this sort of union is unique. The evidence we can observe empirically supports the Church's teaching. The Catechism reflects continuity with Pope Leo in the following:
"The intimate community of life and love which constitutes the married state has been established by the Creator and endowed by him with its own proper laws. . . . God himself is the author of marriage."The vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator. Marriage is not a purely human institution despite the many variations it may have undergone through the centuries in different cultures, social structures, and spiritual attitudes. These differences should not cause us to forget its common and permanent characteristics. Although the dignity of this institution is not transparent everywhere with the same clarity, some sense of the greatness of the matrimonial union exists in all cultures. "The well-being of the individual person and of both human and Christian society is closely bound up with the healthy state of conjugal and family life." (CCC#1603)
Elsewhere in the encyclical Arcanum, Pope Leo speaks of the divine pedigree of marriage itself. He writes: "marriage was not instituted by the will of man, but, from the very beginning, by the authority and command of God." (#39) As throughout the centuries, unto today, the divine origins of marriage are denied, and the religious background of marriage, particularly in western culture, is rejected. Thus marriage is considered a malleable institution, changeable at the whim of man, a law to be rewritten if so voted, no more or less special, not more or less permanent than any other vote of a senate. One could expound a lengthy treatise on the religious foundation of marriage, and its strength in the Church. Suffice it to say for the purposes of this analysis, and as we will see further below, the Church's teaching on marriage remains the empirically superior foundation for society.

One of the arguments set forth by proponents of same-gendered unions to be called "marriages" goes something like this: marriage is already in such shambles, with over 50% divorce rate, etc.,  thus, why not give same-gendered couples a chance. The argument, of course, fails to confront what a marriage actually is. The reason the Church cannot call any non-one man-one woman union a marriage is because it cannot. The example above from Pope Leo regarding concubines exemplifies that. The matter, despite the many derogatory names thrown at the Church, is not one related to any sort bigotry, but one of reality. Defending reality, defending the truth, done with due respect and humility, is an act of love toward another, especially when emotions run high.

The "divorce" argument set forth also highlights the prophetic accuracy of the Church, such as Pope Leo XIII when he spoke out against divorce. Yes, marriage in society is poisoned, but it is because various powers have fought to deviate its characteristics from that which the Church and natural law and reason have taught. In other words, marriage did not become a sick institution because modern society listened to the Church. Marriage became a sick institution because society didn't listen to the Church. Even unto today, modern society seeks to deviate from that which the Church exhorts. One wonders how many times the Church has to be right before the masses listen to her.

Let us examine another paragraph from Pope Leo's Arcanum:
Truly, it is hardly possible to describe how great are the evils that flow from divorce. Matrimonial contracts are by it made variable; mutual kindness is weakened; deplorable inducements to unfaithfulness are supplied; harm is done to the education and training of children; occasion is afforded for the breaking up of homes; the seeds of dissension are sown among families. (#29)
Here the Pope reflects on some of the harms of divorce, including the seemingly often forgotten victims of divorce: the children. Again, the empirical consequences of divorce demonstrate its inferiority, and thus support the Gospels' teaching that divorce severs something holy. And I would exhort pause to any reader hurt by divorce either directly or indirectly, as if hope is beyond their reach, or as if the Church does not grieve for such suffering in this fallen, temporal world. The general purpose of this blog post relates to moral doctrines. Assistance for those hurt by divorce or other harms relating to imperfect marriage or sinful relationships is a pastoral matter. There are many resources online and at local parishes for such souls (here are several resources from

On a related note, the Pope also criticized cohabitation as immoral (44). Not only is this considered immoral because it invariably interjects the marital act outside the commitment in which it is belongs, but the the empirical evidence against cohabitation indicates it may be even more harmful to families, children, and society than divorce. There is also science lending evidence to support the idea that sexual activity belongs to a committed relationship. For instance, a University of California-San Francisco study concluded that during such activity, the body releases chemicals like oxytocin, vasopressin, and endorphines that tend toward fortifying monogamous relationships. A non-committed, sexual relationship may be prone to a variety of problems, perhaps due in part from the confusion of a committed activity in a non-committed environment.

Continuing the preceding paragraph on divorce, the Pope next wrote that with divorce
the dignity of womanhood is lessened and brought low, and women run the risk of being deserted after having ministered to the pleasures of men. (29)
The Pope seeks to protect the "dignity of womanhood." He also implies the problem of men uniting with women for purposes of physical pleasure, and departing from them once gratified. Whether such an act occurs in the context of divorce or in an extra-marital action, either is a violation of her dignity, to sin against her and the divine. In 1880, a culture that frowned upon extra-marital relations far more than 2013's culture, if a man sought to use a woman for sexual gratification, he may have been more prone to delude himself into marriage and then rid himself of her once the fleeting auspices under which he entered the sacrament disintegrated. Since today's culture condones and even promotes extra-marital sexual activity, the Pope's warning about the objectification of women runs all the greater risk.

What makes such a statement in the encyclical the more profound is how much it contradicts modern stereotypes of misogyny in the Church today and yesterday. Vocal, modern feminists have been known even in recent days to belittlingly brand the Church as "octogenarian men" or use the media buzz-phrase that the Church wages "war on women." The tragedy of the matter is that the Church seeks to protect and provide that which is best for all genders, and yet a number of souls, including women, do not recognize the protection fought for them by the Church. Nor do they acknowledge those occasions when the Church was a leading voice for the cause of women.

Against a modern culture which does not hesitate to make the claim that the Church's views on women are "outdated," the 19th century Pope, a little shy of 70 years at the time of Arcanum, here was the Pope of the Catholic Church, condemning not only divorce, but affronts to women, including mistreatment by men, and objectification by men. How can this "'old man,' this 'Church' man, be concerned with women? How does he not condone whatever men want to the detriment of women?" the modern skeptic might cry. Yet the cry belies the reality.

The Church's voice today remains one of a few striving for women's best interests. The current U.S. government openly admits to requiring health care plans, including those of religious entities, provide for chemical drugs that increase the risk of several cancers in women. Although the Church's ultimate caution against such drugs relates to spiritual health, it has been the Church, and members of the Church that have been the most vocal about informing the public of the physical risks involved with these chemicals. Proponents of such drugs have been consistently silent on the drugs' harmful side effects. Additionally, it is sometimes pointed out that approximately half of aborted children are female. And yet it is the Church striving to protect these females as well. Other examples could be given. Fortunately, there are a number of current female researchers and authors striving to communicate the message that the Church's teaching is for the best interests of women and men alike. (see links at bottom)

Earlier in the encyclical, Pope Leo states:
All nations seem, more or less, to have forgotten the true notion and origin of marriage; and thus everywhere laws were enacted with reference to marriage, prompted to all appearance by State reasons, but not such as nature required. Solemn rites, invented at will of the law-givers, brought about that women should, as might be, bear either the honorable name of wife or the disgraceful name of concubine; and things came to such a pitch that permission to marry, or the refusal of the permission, depended on the will of the heads of the State, whose laws were greatly against equity or even to the highest degree unjust. Moreover, plurality of wives and husbands, as well as divorce, caused the nuptial bond to be relaxed exceedingly. Hence, too, sprang up the greatest confusion as to the mutual rights and duties of husbands and wives, inasmuch as a man assumed right of dominion over his wife, ordering her to go about her business, often without any just cause; while he was himself at liberty "to run headlong with impunity into lust, unbridled and unrestrained, in houses of ill-fame and amongst his female slaves, as if the dignity of the persons sinned with, and not the will of the sinner, made the guilt." When the licentiousness of a husband thus showed itself, nothing could be more piteous than the wife, sunk so low as to be all but reckoned as a means for the gratification of passion, or for the production of offspring. (7)
For someone who is familiar with various blogs or media voices claiming the Church is against women or just wants women to manufacture babies (it is not hard to find exactly that claim), the above quote, from the 19th century, should steer them into shock. Here is the Pope from 1880, warning against women being used for gratification or merely "for the production of offspring."

The Pope here also warns against husbands who abuse what are "mutual rights and duties of husbands and wives." The Church is sometimes negatively deemed "patriarchal" because the ordained clergy, who by necessity as participants in a sacrament representing the male Christ, are exclusively male. The critique is to suggest males will not treat women fairly (e.g. see "war on women" link above). Often, those who hear the Scripture on wives called to be submissive to their husbands (Eph. 5:22, 1 Pet. 3:1) have difficulty with the passage because they understand the passages to suggest men are to give orders to be carried out by women who are merely servants. One can find lengthy discussions of the topic among friends or even on forums such those at However, here the Pope criticizes men who "order her to go about her business"  in violation of their "mutual rights." The Pope develops more on this concept a few paragraphs later:
[T]he mutual duties of husband and wife have been defined, and their several rights accurately established. They are bound, namely, to have such feelings for one another as to cherish always very great mutual love, to be ever faithful to their marriage vow, and to give one another an unfailing and unselfish help. The husband is the chief of the family and the head of the wife. The woman, because she is flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bone, must be subject to her husband and obey him; not, indeed, as a servant, but as a companion, so that her obedience shall be wanting in neither honor nor dignity. (11)
You see here the Pope addressing the concept of a wife being "subject to her husband." And he explicitly rejects the idea that this arrangement means a wife is a "servant." Rather, she is subject in the order of "companion." Modern ears may have trouble with this, for it may be automatic to presume the Pope's use of "obedience" just means taking orders. Yet the comparison is to Christ and the Church. The Church is subject to Christ, yet Christ's leadership entails the sign of dying for his bride and even suggests serving her as Christ served his Church. There is a mutual exchange of, as the Pope says, "unfailing and unselfish help."

The man's part of loving his wife as Christ loved the Church is vital to the functionality of the equation. Pope Leo explicitly affirms this call of husbands when he says
[M]arriage [is the] example of the mystical union between Himself and His Church, He not only perfected that love which is according to nature, but also made the naturally indivisible union of one man with one woman far more perfect through the bond of heavenly love. Paul says to the Ephesians: "Husbands, love your wives, as Christ also loved the Church, and delivered Himself up for it, that He might sanctify it. (9)
The entire dimension of wives being "subject to" their husbands as a "companion" must be understood in concert with the idea that the husband must, as head, grant her "unselfish help," and love her as Christ loved the Church. When one meditates on the bloodiness of the crucifixion, which was the ultimate expression of Christ's love as head of his bride, the context of the role of husband becomes profound. Although both spouses are called to an unselfish giving to the other, it is Christ the bridegroom who leads the way, who initiates the pattern. The husband can do this in a variety of ways, whether it be protecting the household from various evils, or even sacrificing some leisure activity when his wife needs him to take out the trash, or watch the children, or listen to her, or whatever may entail his "dying to self" for the sanctification of his bride.

Undoubtedly, husbands who have not represented Christ in this regard have repelled many women from the very thought of subjecting themselves to such headship of a man. But if a man loved his wife like Christ loved the Church, what reasonable woman would not clamor for such love. If she should give herself as a companion to such a husband, to submit to such love as the Church is called to receive Christ's love, what strength such a marriage would possess.

Pope Leo goes on to quote the 4th/5th century's St. Jerome:
[A] law of marriage just to all, and the same for all, was enacted by the abolition of the old distinction between slaves and free-born men and women; 'and thus the rights of husbands and wives were made equal: for, as St. Jerome says, "with us that which is unlawful for women is unlawful for men also, and the same restraint is imposed on equal conditions." The self-same rights also were firmly established for reciprocal affection and for the interchange of duties. (14)
This is, of course, not to belittle the parts of Scripture exhorting the husband to a theological headship of the family. Pope Leo does speak of the husband as "chief of the family and the head of the wife."  The pendulum should not swing too far and reach a point of some modern feminists who believe gender equality means some dilution of gifts between men and women. As Catholic blogger and author Melinda Selmys wrote in a 3-part essay: "Perhaps the greatest mistake of mainstream feminism is the assumption that difference equals inequality. ... while God has created us as equals, we reflect his image in different ways."

The purview of Pope Leo's encyclical, as we have seen, emphasizes the contributions of husband and wife as analogous to Christ and the Church. Such theology has been since developed, keeping with Pope Leo all the way back to St. Paul. For example, Pope Pius XI spoke of the husband as "head" and wife as "heart," and if the husband should fail in his leadership duties, the wife must assume responsibility of "directing the family" (Pope Pius XI, Casti Connubii, 27-28, December 31, 1930). In Bl. Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body, he emphasized a certain responsibility of husbands relative to Christ and the Church: "The love of Christ for the Church has essentially her sanctification as its scope." (Theology of the Body, St Paul's Analogy of Union of Head and Body Does Not Destroy Individuality of the Person, 6, August 25, 1982) The following week, he spoke of the husband's emphasis to love. When he speaks of the bride's "submission," he refers to the bride submitting to this love, to "experience" this love. (Theology of the Body, Sacredness of Human Body and Marriage, 6, September 1, 1982).

What I think Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Arcanum demonstrates is at least two-fold. First, the evidence proves that modern society's stereotype of a misogynistic Church is off the mark. Second, 143 years removed from this encyclical, we can see the consequences of not heeding the warnings of the Church with regard to marriage and its inherent qualities. Such evidence speaks of the divine assistance promised to the Church. If modernists continue dismissing the Church's wisdom, the disordered consequences in society will persist.

Additional resources:
How Abortion Hurts Women, CNA
Physicians for Life stats on harms of abortion on women
Women Speak for Themselves.
EWTN's The Catholic View for Women
Catholic Womanhood section at
Important background information about the CDF-LCWR situation
Life Site News
Radio show A Closer Look with Sheila Liaugminas
Radio show Catholic Connection with Teresa Tomeo
Bloggers Jill Stanek, Jennifer Fulwiler, Kathryn Jean LopezMelinda Selmyz
Dr. Jennifer Robak Morse
Dr. Alice von Hildebrand
There are so many other great resources out there on Catholic women's issues and issues on marriage. If you have a favorite not mentioned here, please share in the comment section.


  1. Thank you for posting this material. I have never felt discriminated against being a female Catholic but have not been able to defend the Church against charges of being "anti women". Your article and references will help me with apologetics in this area.

  2. Thanks, Sharon. So glad to hear this helped. God bless :)

  3. As time has gone on, I have become convinced that those leveling charges against the Church as being misogynistic are not arguing in good faith, and, showing themselves not really concerned for the well-being of women (or for men, by the way, but the well-being of men is inconsequential to everyone these days), should not be answered as though they are; that is, they don't really care how conclusively you can demonstrate that the Church is for women because it was never really a concern of theirs in the first place. They are only concerned with how a talking point, in this case the Church's "historically-embedded misogyny", serves their purpose of undermining the authority of the Church in her mission to save souls.

  4. Excellent! Thanks.

  5. Thanks for visiting Bucky and agellius. :)

  6. Nice job.
    Only one little correction. The name of Leo XIII reported in the article is missing his last name, which was Pecci. So his complete name should read:
    Gioacchino Vincenzo Raffaele Luigi Pecci

  7. The majority of divorces are instigated by women so they obviously don't need the churches protection in that respect.
    Most western women nowadays are educated and perfectly capable of deciding for themselves what it is they want to do with their lives.They are also perfectly capable of making decisions for themselves on how many children they want and what method they choose to use to space said children.
    It is really rather patronising to suggest that women require the church to decide what is in their best interests let me assure you we can do that for ourselves.
    On the subject of husband headship it really doesn't matter to me how any individual tries to explain it I don't accept it.I am married now over 24 year and my relationship with my husband has always been a partnership of equals this is also true of any marriages that I see around me.Maybe this is just an issue peculiar to parts of the USA but mention it to most europeans and they would just laugh at you.