Since a Christian understanding of marriage has been the norm for many centuries, sometimes we may not recognize what is so striking- even radical- about it. Comparing the Catholic understanding of marriage in the early Church to the marriage practices of the surrounding Roman Empire reveals the distinctly Christian contributions to the institution of marriage. The distinctly Christian understanding of marriage comes out in three aspects: permanence, equality, and fidelity.
In the early days of Christianity, Catholics found themselves surrounded by this culture that did not share a gospel view of marriage. Catholics in those days lived differently than their neighbors.
In ancient Rome, marriage was not considered to be a permanent relationship and was a relatively private affair. Divorce was so commonplace that the event was not recorded in official Roman records until the 5th century A.D., and along with frequent divorce came frequent remarriage. Marital fidelity was not generally expected, particularly of the husband; Roman men could have relationships with multiple women without repercussions. This disparity was reflected in the laws of the Roman Empire, where men and women were not considered equals and women faced harsh penalties for adultery.
Early Christian writings show they believed that marriage was a permanent commitment, that the spouses were equal partners in the marriage, and that fidelity to one’s spouse was of great importance, seen in the writings of the early Church, such as The Shepherd of Hermas from the early 2nd century, The First Apology by St. Justin Martyr, written around 150 A.D., and other 2nd century writings by theologians like Athenagoras of Athens, St. Theophilus of Antioch, and St. Irenaeus. These writers defend the permanence of marriage, since they forbid remarriage. They uphold the equality of the spouses, reminding us that each has equal rights in marriage. And these early Christians teach us that fidelity is expected and that infidelity is seen as a tragedy.
Faced with a culture that did not understand marriage in the way Christ taught us, the early Church had to be clear about her understanding of marriage. The Church of old made radical claims about marriage, and the life-giving teachings of ancient Christians are still taught in the Catholic Church to this day. Faced again with a culture that does not recognize Christ’s teachings about marriage, the Catholic Church continues to teach the ancient faith of the first Christians.