Pope condemns covenant marriage movement

March 6, 2013 § 19 Comments

Let no one, then, be deceived by the distinction which some civil jurists have so strongly insisted upon – the distinction, namely, by virtue of which they sever the matrimonial contract from the sacrament, with intent to hand over the contract to the power and will of the rulers of the State, while reserving questions concerning the sacrament to the Church. A distinction, or rather severance, of this kind cannot be approved; for certain it is that in Christian marriage the contract is inseparable from the sacrament, and that, for this reason, the contract cannot be true and legitimate without being a sacrament as well. For Christ our Lord added to marriage the dignity of a sacrament; but marriage is the contract itself, whenever that contract is lawfully concluded. – Pope Leo XIII, Arcanum divinae sapentiae


I had it in my head that the covenant marriage movement was all about separating the legal and sacramental parts of marriage, leaving the former to the state and the latter to the Church.  Upon reading the wikipedia page though I’ve concluded that I probably had a wrong impression, which makes my post title rather nonsensical and probably unfair.  I’ll leave it there for the record though.

§ 19 Responses to Pope condemns covenant marriage movement

  • Sis says:

    I agree with his statement but I don’t like his wording. The word covenant adds to the sacrament by making marriage a contract until death. The consequences of breaking a covenant is death, whereas the consequences of breaking a contract is whatever the terms of the contract are.

  • Zippy says:

    The contract is the terms to which the parties consent. Indissolubility is one of those terms.

  • Sis says:

    I’m just saying you can’t assume a covenant and a contract are the same thing, Covenant is a much stronger word regardless of what the terms of a contract are. He should have said contract.
    Covenant indicates becoming one, it indicates that’s what’s yours is mine, it indicates I am you and you are me. A covenant is much stronger and more powerful than a contract. I am pro covenant marriages, not so much contract marriages.

  • Zippy says:

    You might be interested to know that the Church has called marriage a contract from the very beginning. Robert Vasoli documents in his book how the progressives made enormous hay of one word in Gaudium et Spes being translated in an early hurry-up translation as “covenant” rather than “contract”. The magisterium quotes a later translation which uses the word “contract” when it cites the document. Anyway, the “covenant” types in the English speaking world are the very ones who pushed for more laxity in the annulment process.

    So when people say they wish the Church would treat marriage as a covenant not a contract, they should be careful what they wish for. Some might argue that they have already gotten it.

  • Steve Nicoloso says:

    It is obviously to be preferred that the state bow to the Church’s understanding of marriage. (It is in fact obviously to be preferred that the Church have veto power over any and all secular governors of any sort.) But if the state is hostile to the Church’s understanding of marriage, and today whimsically releases people from their obligations thereunto for almost any reason, and moreover it is impossible to coerce the state into enforcing marriages rightly; then might it not possibly be better for the state to not recognize marriages at all?

    In other words, would it not be better if marriages and more importantly the disposition of property and the care of children when they are (improperly and illicitly) dissolved left to the state of nature (chaos and crickets chirping) than the state take any active role in such matters that is actively hostile to traditional marriage.

  • Zippy says:

    But if the state is hostile to the Church’s understanding of marriage, …

    I’ll just point out that the context of Leo’s writing is quite precisely one of State hostility toward the Church’s understanding of marriage.

  • Sis says:

    I probably shouldn’t try to take on a Pope in a debate about wording, I appreciate you posting this Zippy.

  • Morticia says:


    That is the problem I keep having with the whole New Feminism thing. Its like…argue with a Pope? Me?

  • Our Heroine says:

    I don’t really understand it — but I do submit to it!

  • Steve Nicoloso says:

    I’ll just point out that the context of Leo’s writing is quite precisely one of State hostility toward the Church’s understanding of marriage.

    Well, yeah… And… Now that that hostility has metastasized into a positive legal framework in which, the state paying no heed at all to the pope’s divisions, traditional marriage is actually unenforceable except by unfailing consent of consenting adults, is there a fallback position which would be agreeable to the state AND do less damage to society?

  • Zippy says:

    It may be worth pointing out that the post title is my words, and they could bias a reading of Leo XIII’s.

  • Sis says:

    Oh! well then game on, just kidding. I think this is just another of our Catholic/Protestant differences…the main reason I don’t comment here much and probably shouldn’t be now. The word covenant is very special to us, entire books and bible studies are devoted to this word that explains the “covenants” of Abraham and God, David and Jonathan, and how Christ is the fulfillment of God’s covenant promise with us. Covenant is important to Protestants, not to be confused with contracts. I could go on and on about covenants, but will spare you. Blessings!

  • Zippy says:

    Hah! Well, covenants are important to us too. But marriage is definitely a contract, because it is an agreement between two people.

  • GKChesteron says:

    For the blissfully ignorant, what is this movement? I’m awaiting the opportunity to gnash my teeth.

  • GKChesteron says:

    And three entities I think might be safer.

  • Hurting says:


    While I do believe there is a difference between contract and covenant, I would proffer that the two words offer, as most people would understand them, a distinction without that great of a difference. Even if you call a marriage a contract, it is a contract like no other insofar as it is indissoluble, at least in practice. When two become one, there is no way that the union can be equitably dissolved, unlike almost any other contract. There is no way whatsoever to properly compensate the party suffering because of the breach (or desire to breach) of the other party. In the case of divorce (breach), it is well nigh on impossible for the injured party to be remotely compensated for his material losses (two can live as cheaply as one); it is the pinnacle of impossibility to compensate the injured party for the loss of the true goods of mariage.
    Is not the debate about contract vs. covenant linked to the whole personalist argument (and related consent discussion)?

  • Zippy says:

    I know that many people think of contracts as reversible by mutual consent, and some are; but most of them actually aren’t. Once the meal is eaten, it is eaten.

  • Chris says:

    Hah! Well, covenants are important to us too. But marriage is definitely a contract, because it is an agreement between two people.

    Calvin would agree with you.
    What Leo seems to be saying is that without the sacrament of marriage — before God, the marriage is not legitimate in the eyes of the church. If I can attempt to unpack another loaded word, to this protestant if it is a sacrament God is an essential part of it. God is needed for the covenant of baptism. God is needed in the covenant of the breaking of the bread (I’m not going to deviate into what that means right now).

    Protestants say marriage is a natural covenant (or contract) that leads to a high and holy state — and that this covenant exists regardless of how it is made. The registry office wedding is as legitimate as a nuptial mass at St Peters officiated by the Bishop of Rome. We do not call it a sacrament because it (used to be) a universal and assumed part of heterosexual life.

    Leo states instead that the sacrament makes the marraige — going back in a tradition (quoting Zippy) to St John Crystathenon (Spelling?) who said it was not intercourse, but the choice, that made the marriage.

    But the problem that both sides of the tiber have is that the state sees this contract as fungible. Dissolvable. At the will of one party. Of lesser import than a mortgage (try dissolving that because you are unhappy).

    This leaves us in the position that Steve hints at: the contracts of the church — around anything, but particularly marriage — cannot be enforced. It relies on all parties agreeing to live by them.

    And if we assemble a consistory to deal with this, the state will call us abusive, denying the rights of women, and ban us.

    As far as the state is concerned it is Divorce uber alles.

  • Mike T says:


    Marriage has generally not been treated as high or holy by non-Christian civilizations. Even the Old Testament society in Israel permitted relatively easy divorce and polygyny. I am not a Catholic (though I am often accused of being one by other Protestants who talk to me) but I think the Pope was right for drawing a distinction. Non-Christian marriage is a very natural, essentially pagan twist on God’s intention. It is more practical regarding reproduction and pair-bonding than what scripture lays out.

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