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Aquinas view of Marriage

There is always a tendency to ask in modern circles what St. Thomas Aquinas would say in regards to a certain topic; for example, the A and B theory of time.[1]  The answer to that question would be nothing because in Aquinas' time there was no such thing as an A and B theory of time. Similarly, Aquinas did not write extensively on the topic of marriage. Nevertheless, I want to sketch out an overview of Aquinas' view of marriage with what he did write. Although it would be logical to limit the discussion to marriage as a sacrament, it would be beneficial to see what Aquinas' views were and understand them in light of some of the medieval concepts of marriage.

A Very Brief History of Marriage

Although it would be beneficial to cover the whole history of marriage, the scope of this paper will be limited to understanding what marriage is and the highlights of its development up until the time of Aquinas.

According to one source, marriage is "…as a relation of one or more men to one or more women, which is recognized by custom or law and it involves certain rights and duties both in the case of the parties entering the union and in the case of the children born of it."[2]  Although it is not one of the most conservative examples of marriage, it is nevertheless a working definition. With that said, there has been ample evidence of marriage contracts both from secular[3] and religious sources.  On the religious side, evidence of this is found in the Old Testament pages of Genesis where the story of Adam and Eve begins.[4] After creating Adam after his image and likeness it is interesting to note that God needed to address a very important issue in regards to Adam. Scripture tells us that "Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him'"[5] For God it was essential that Adam have a companion. The fact in this narrative of creating Adam in his own image and finding him a companion is very telling of the importance God had in mind for the union between two people.

Fast forward several hundred years and the practice of marriage and its significance had grown to a more sophisticated yet meaningful experience, especially with the people of God. Although there have always been the struggle to keep marriage as instituted by God - between one man and one woman, the outside pagan influences affected the chosen people of God; namely, the nation of Israel. Nevertheless, the core value of marriage was preserved through Mosaic Law.[6]   

It was during the Roman reign where there was a conflation between cultures and customs from all of the tongues and tribes they had under their empire. Joseph Martos, a church historian, notes some of the peculiarities that developed within Rome from the traditional to the modern. He states,

What changed the social status of woman and children as well as the institution of marriage was war. When the Romans began to extend their republic throughout Italy and build their empire in the Mediterranean, men were often away for long periods of time, and sometimes they did not return home. Woman learned to manage their family's affairs and children began to make decisions that used to be made for them….Many of the traditional wedding customs were kept, like handing over the bride and eating the cake, but they no longer had the religious meaning they had in the past.[7]

At this point the marriage was primarily a family affair with little or no interaction from a Roman priest.[8] Although there are some remnant considerations found in the text of the early church fathers, there was little involvement from the church clergy.[9] It could be said that the separation of marriage and the church, as strange as this sounds, might be due to the understanding of what happened during marriage. Origen for example, noted that the Holy Spirit was temporarily lost during intercourse.[10] This and many other examples give marriage a very negative and somewhat sacrilegious connotation and thus was an issue that was proactively addressed but with little understanding in the early church. However, this changed in subsequent centuries with different approaches taken by the church fathers in addition to the socio-economical scenery that was rapidly changing in the west.

Later Developments Up Until the Time of St. Thomas Aquinas

After the fifth century, the Church in Rome was more vocal in her marital pronouncements, especially since the ever enduring issue the dissolubility of marriage had plagued the church and the whole western civilization for that matter. This was a matter that the early church fathers, bishops and popes had to address since it affected many of the parishioners that were off to war but never returned. These issues not only had to be answered but also confronted if the church was to provide an answer for this growing epidemic. Dr. Herbert Luckock shows us that even as early as 458 A.D. "Leo the Great has left a letter written to Nicetas, Bishop of Aquileia, in which he decided that liberty in divorce in the Civil Code was no law to Christians; that for instance, a woman whose husband had been carried into captivity was not released from the marriage tie, but remained, in the eye of the church, the wife of the captive as long as he lived…."[11]  

These were the situations that the church was facing for centuries up to the time of St. Thomas Aquinas.  Everything from incest, family inheritance, rogue marriages, etc., were so out of control that the early church writers began addressing these issues through their writings and through the courts.[12] It seems that pragmatically this was the best course of action. If the church was to remain relevant amidst what seemed to be a chaotic atmosphere in the realm of this particular social contract called marriage, it had to make ecclesiastical decisions from above in addition to legal decisions on a case by case scenario. This is important in understanding what St. Thomas had to say about this as we encounter the plethora of questions that prompts the reader in asking whether these were issues were relevant in his day. In addition, many of the questions he answered through his writing bordered on nuisance, leaving one to wonder why he even bothered in answering them. 

However, it just takes a literal case in point to drive the above question to a probable answer. Henry de Bracton in his famous work De Legibus et Consuetudinibus Angliae (On the Laws and Customs of England), talks about a particular scenario that involved the difficulty in approaching these subjects. He states, "if a woman in good faith marries a man who is already married, believing him to be unmarried, and has children by him, such children shall be adjudged legitimate and capable of inheriting."[13] These sticky issues were some of the less controversial ones facing the early jurists. Therefore, this is but a brief glimpse as to the scope of the problems involving marriage.

By the time of St. Thomas there were already several works that addressed marriage as a whole by several notables such as Peter Abelard, Francis Gratian, Peter Lombard and even Pope Alexander III. [14] Although, as it was noted above, not only were there  practical reasons the canonist lawyers addressed these issues but spiritual ones as well. These medieval writers touched upon the spiritual condition of marriage by stressing the sacramental aspect of marriage. Hence, marriage was once again being sanctified at the hands of the church.[15]  As a result, marriage and its implied idea of intercourse were finally ridding themselves of the heavy neo-platonic notion (according to Origen) that only the spiritual union between two people was superior to the sinful act of intercourse. As Martos states, "Nevertheless, under the influence of reasoning like Alexander's and the desire to fit all the sacraments into a single conceptual scheme, theologians from Thomas Aquinas onward admitted that the sacrament gave a positive assistance toward holiness in the married state of life."[16]

St Thomas and Marriage

It could be very well said that by the time St. Thomas (1224?-1274) enters the medieval stage there was a concerted effort to deal with marriage and clear it from its negative connotations. However, not only was the church seeing marriage for what it was, in addition, they had to also deal with  the so called "revival of purity" stemming from dualist groups such as the Cathars and Albigensians. In an effort to return to the purity of the church, these groups targeted issues such as marriage and denied the goodness thereof. Also, these groups exerted their influence in France, Rhineland and in Lombardy.[17]

How this influences St. Thomas in the theological development of marriage is noted by Fergus Kerr when he says,

For one thing, he was in no position, , even in the 1270's let alone when he started teaching in the 1250s, to think that Catharism h ad been eradicated. For another, as a young friar he must been well aware of the role of the Dominicans in the struggle against Catharism. He may have met friars who were, or had been, employed as inquisitors (even though only a handful of them were, at the time). It makes better sense to regard his theology as seriously engaging with Catharism. For example, his repeated emphasis on the goodness of created nature, pervading his work, is best understood in this light.[18]

This sets the stage for some of the main principles St Thomas teaches, corrects, and at times rebukes with what has to be said about marriage.

The references to marriage in St. Thomas' work are not consolidated and at times are found in material (the supplement to the summa for example) that some scholars do not attribute it to him. However, we will be citing from different primary sources, including the Summa Theologiae in order to see what exactly St. Thomas did address. One of the first places we could start is at the Summa or his summary of theological commentary where he addressed a wide variety of questions and answers for the students of his day. For example, he considers one of the first ingredients for marriage in question forty-five of the Summa when he deals with "The Marriage Consent Considered in Itself."[19]  Here he considers the past historical elements in marriage whereby women were given away as property and usually negotiated by the father[20] To this he answers that matrimony as a sacrament is a kind of "spiritual joining together" and it is also a "material joining together" insofar as it relates to the natural goods and desires they both have.[21] It follows from this that since this is a sacrament in its fullest sense then it also follows that consent is its efficient cause because, according to Aquinas, this (as a sacrament) is empowered from above.

Yet, one of his first references to marriage can be found as early as the second part of the second part of the Summa where he deals with whether virginity is more excellent than marriage. In answering his objectors he declares that virginity is more excellent because Christ himself chose a virgin as his mother. However, he does clarify that "though virginity is better than conjugal continence, a married person may be better than a virgin for two reasons. First, on the part of chastity itself; if to wit, the married person is more prepared in mind to observe virginity, if it should be expedient, than the one who is actually a virgin."[22]  Here he quotes Augustine in mentioning that reason and the "Holy Writ" say that marriage is not sinful because it is not that of being a virgin or widowed.

But what is marriage according to St. Thomas? One can only extrapolate the answers from the different questions he entertained. One of these questions succinctly gives Aquinas the pathway to define marriage in its proper context. When answering whether Joseph and Mary were married he sets up his answer by providing what marriage is. He says that,

Marriage or wedlock is said to be true by reason of its attaining its perfection. Now perfection of anything is twofold; first, and second. The first perfection of a thing consists in its very form, from which it receives its species; while the second perfection of a thing consists in its operation, by which in some way a thing attains its end. Now the form of matrimony consists in a certain inseparable union of souls, by which husband and wife are pledged by a bond of mutual affection that cannot be sundered. And the end of matrimony is the begetting and upbringing of children: the first of which is attained by conjugal intercourse; the second by the other duties of husband and wife, by which they help one another in rearing their offspring.[23]

This is the heart of many of his arguments. As a scholastic he divides his species, which in this case is marriage, into form and operation. Then, in classical Aristotelian form, states that the very operation of what marriage is functions as its end. He expounds this further by saying that "matrimony consists in a certain inseparable union of souls."  This in turn contributes to the mutual enjoyment and obligation a husband and wife have towards each other. Certainly, his view of marriage is a lot stronger and closer to the biblical account than any of his predecessors.

            As mentioned before, the rest of the material is found in the supplemental to the third part of the Summa. Although some dispute this material to belong to one of his disciples, others contend that this is the material gathered by his friend and companion Fr. Rainaldo da Piperno from a collection of commentaries St. Thomas did on the fourth book of the Sentences of Peter Lombard.[24]  Consequently, if this is the case, then this material is earlier then when the Summa was actually written. Nevertheless, an overview of this section gives us some of the same answers as well as some new insights. Again, it behooves us to consider the aspect under which many of these articles were written. In reading Aquinas we must understand that many of the objections centered on the sinfulness of marriage because of its logical connection to intercourse. Many of the writers past would denigrate marriage because it would be no different than animals that propagate themselves with no reason or end.[25] 

            Nevertheless, let us take a look at what the supplemental text says in regards to this subject.  St. Thomas starts out by addressing these animalistic allegations in question forty-one of the supplement. The rationale he provides is in answer to the question of whether matrimony is of natural law. In quoting "The Philosopher" (Aristotle) he firmly states that "man is naturally a political and gregarious animal….Therefore he is naturally inclined to connubial union, and thus the conjugal union or matrimony is natural."[26] It is our design to be political (thus reasonable) and gregarious (thus social), and that is what makes us different from the animals that do not have a will or an intellect but rather rely on instinct for their interaction.  Nevertheless, the angelic doctor is careful in making mention that this is evident in nations that are more developed and "for that which reason naturally inclines to," and not vice versa.

            Next, St. Thomas deals with matrimony as a sacrament. This is the crux of his argument and this will elevate marriage to within its proper setting before the church and before God. Since the priestly involvement in the marriage celebration was not a standard event, St. Thomas' answer to the first question not only establishes the priestly role but also answers the first objection that questions the validity of marriage as a sacrament. First, the objection states, "It would seem that matrimony is not a sacrament. For every sacrament of the New Law has a form that is essential to the sacrament. But the blessing given by the priest at a wedding is not essential to matrimony. Therefore it is not a sacrament.[27] The objector assumes that the priest at the wedding is not essential to it. St. Thomas here differentiates the sacrament from that which is sacramental. In his answer to this objection he states that although the priest's blessing is sacramental it is the consent between the two parties that make the act a sacrament.[28]

            To summarize his main points in the supplemental, Aquinas' view on marriage and sexuality is that it has two main purposes: (1) Reproduction, and (2) the production of a family unit that together form a strong bond (through principle 1) and a unit in society. What is also very essential to marriage is the exchange of mutual consent. Without consent, this is violence or forced love and forced love is no love at all. As a matter of fact, real union is a result of love and there is no real marriage if the couple does not have this principle in mind. The question could be asked "what happens if there is more than one person involved?" St. Thomas also has an answer for this when he says in his work Summa contra Gentiles,

The reason why a wife is not allowed more than one husband at a time is because otherwise paternity would be uncertain. If then while the wife has one husband only, the husband has more than one wife; there will not be a friendship of equality on both sides, friendship consisting in a certain equality. There will not be the friendship of a free man with a free woman, but a sort of friendship of a slave with her master. The husband might well be allowed a plurality of wives, if the understanding were allowable, that the friendship of each with him was not to be that of a free woman with a free man but of a slave with her master. [29]

Aquinas argues that once you introduce a plurality of spouses in the marriage, then there will be a significant reduction in the very things that make it right. As a side note, It is real easy to make use of these arguments with people who do not accept neither the authority of the church nor the inspiration of the Bible because the way Aquinas sets them up is so that he could lead the person through an argument and by way of reason and then reinforce it with what the word of God says. In regards to his answer to polygamy, it is not the best pragmatic option to have the multiplicity of wives or husbands because in that moment the opposite party becomes a slave to the other. Finally, he mentions that establishing paternity would be difficult when a wife is allowed more than one husband at a time.

            One of the last articles in this annotated translation of the Summa Contra Gentiles called Of God and His Creatures,[30] St. Thomas deals with indissolubility of marriage. By far one of the strongest arguments for marriage, these articles express the final cause for marriage. According to Aquinas, marriage (and consequently sex) is based on right reason and rationality. To do something that makes us irrational requires that we have a good reason for it. Hence it is inescapable. However, there is at least one good reason for marriage and intercourse; and that is reproduction. Therefore, irrationality that results from sex (since he argues that sex makes one irrational- for a moment) can be excused morally. Reproduction on the other hand is rational because it is needed for the preservation of the species.

            Thus he summarizes in one paragraph all the reasons for the indissolubility of marriage. He states,

Thus understood, good manners involve the indissolubility of the union of male and female: for they will love one another with greater fidelity, when they know that they are indissolubly united: each partner will take greater care of the things of the house, reflecting that they are to remain permanently in possession of the samse things: occasions of quarrels are removed, that might otherwise arise between the husband and the wife's relations, if the husband were to divorce his wife; and thus affinity becomes a firmer bond of amity: also occasions of adultery are cut off, occasions which would readily offer themselves, if husband could divorce his wife, or wife her husband.

For Aquinas, when there is love, there is fidelity; then, they will take care of their possessions and reduce the amount of conflict between them. They will also not consider divorce because of the mutual love for each other. However if there is divorce then the possibility of adultery is removed because of the strong love that existed between them.

            It is no mistake to say that  although  (compared to his other works) there are no more than several sections in all of his works in regards to marriage, he nevertheless deals with the subject matter in a clear, yet precise manner. For one who was never married (except for his marriage with Christ), his works paved the way for a deeper and spiritual understanding of marriage as a sacrament. It is easy to dismiss these clear and rational responses as purely a speculative exercise in logical gymnastics, thus committing the genetic fallacy. However, we must understand that for St. Thomas these topics were just as important and he wasted no time to include them in some of his works. In regards to marriage as a sacrament we agree with Martos that "Aquinas also realized as did other scholastics that marriage existed long before the coming of Christ, but for him this was no different from the fact that washing existed before the institution of baptism or that anointing existed before the sacraments that used oil."[31] We hope to retain the rich traditions left to us by St. Thomas and eliminate what seems to be popular in the present that "marriage remains a secular and outward thing."[32]    


Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae. Supplemental.

Craig, William Lane. The only wise God : the compatibility of divine foreknowledge and human freedom. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1987.

De Bracton, Henry. De Legibus et Consuetudinibus Angliae (On the Laws and Customs of England). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1569, 302-4. Quoted in Sir Fredrick Pollock L.L.D and Fredrick William Maitland L.L.D, The History of English Law Before the Time of Edward the I, vol. II, Boston, Massachusetts: Cambridge: At the University Press, 1895.

Doors to the Sacred: A Historical Introduction to Sacraments in the Catholic Church. Ligouri, Missouri: Ligouri/Triumph, 1981.

Fergus Kerr. After Aquinas: Versions of Thomism. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 2002.

Joseph Rickaby, trans. Of God and His Creatures, by Aquinas, St. Thomas. Westminster, Maryland: The Carroll Press, 1950.

Luckock, Herbert Mortimer, D.D. The History of Marriage: Jewish and Christian in relation to divorce and certain forbidden degrees. London, England: Longmans, Green and Company, 1894.

Michael Thomas, David. Christian Marriage: A Journey Together. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1992.

Porter, Jean. Natural and Divine Law: Reclaiming the tradition for Christian Ethics. St. Paul University Series in Ethics, vol. 1, no. 1. Ottawa, Ontario Canada: Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1999.

Weinandy Thomas Gerard, Daniel Keating, John Yocum. Aquinas on Doctrine: A Critical Introduction. New York: T & T Clark International, 2004.

William Nelson. Documents Relating to the Colonial, Revolutionary and Post-revolutionary of the State of New Jersey. Paterson, NJ: The Press Printing and Publishing Company, 1900.

Witte, John. From Sacrament to Contract: Marriage, Religion, and Law in the Western Tradition. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997.


[1] Craig discusses how McTaggert uses the argument from silence with medieval theologians to prove his point when in fact this was never an issue for them. William Lane Craig, The only wise God: the compatibility of divine foreknowledge and human freedom (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1987), 12.

[2] Herbert Mortimer Luckock, D.D, The History of Marriage: Jewish and Christian in relation to divorce and certain forbidden degrees (London, England: Longmans, Green and Company, 1894), 3.

[3] The earliest writings in relation to marriage indicate that the bride was captured from another tribe, or purchased, by either gifts to her tribe or her parents, or to herself (p. 25). William Nelson, Documents Relating to the Colonial, Revolutionary and Post-revolutionary of the State of New Jersey (Paterson, NJ: The Press Printing and Publishing Company, 1900).

[4] Gen. 1:27

[5] Gen. 2:18 New International Version

[6] Herbert Mortimer Luckock, D.D, The History of Marriage: Jewish and Christian in relation to divorce and certain forbidden degrees (London, England: Longmans, Green and Company, 1894), 12.

[7] Doors to the Sacred: A Historical Introduction to Sacraments in the Catholic Church (Ligouri, Missouri: Ligouri/Triumph, 1981), 353.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 358

[10]  David Michael Thomas, Christian Marriage: A Journey Together (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1992), 71.

[11] Herbert Mortimer Luckock, D.D, The History of Marriage: Jewish and Christian in relation to divorce and certain forbidden degrees (London, England: Longmans, Green and Company, 1894), 160.

[12] Sir Fredrick LL.D. Pollock and Fredrick William Maitland LL. D, The History of English Law Before the Time of Edward I (Boston, Massachusetts: Cambridge at the University Press, 1895), 372.

[13] Henry de Bracton, De Legibus et Consuetudinibus Angliae (On the Laws and Customs of England) (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1569), 302-4; quoted in Sir Fredrick Pollock L.L.D and Fredrick William Maitland L.L.D, The History of English Law Before the Time of Edward the I, vol. II (Boston, Massachusetts: Cambridge: At the University Press, 1895), 374.

[14] Doors to the Sacred: A Historical Introduction to Sacraments in the Catholic Church (Ligouri, Missouri: Ligouri/Triumph, 1981), 374.

[15] ibid.,

[16] ibid., 377

[17] "According to their teachings, the body and the material creation are evil; they rejected infant baptism, the Eucharist, marriage, meat eating, the doctrines of hell, purgatory and the resurrection of the body, and much else." (p.4) Fergus Kerr, After Aquinas: Versions of Thomism (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 2002), 4, 5.

[18] ibid.

[19] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Supplement III q. 45.

[20] Doors to the Sacred: A Historical Introduction to Sacraments in the Catholic Church (Ligouri, Missouri: Ligouri/Triumph, 1981), 352. Here Martos talks about the father being the "head of the household" possessed all of his family's legal rights; his wife and his children had none."

[21] ST., q. 45. a. 1, ad 1

[22] ST. II-II, q. 15, a. 4, ad 2

[23] ST.II-II, q. 29, a. 2

[24] Daniel Keating Weinandy Thomas Gerard, John Yocum, Aquinas on Doctrine: A Critical Introduction (New York: T & T Clark International, 2004), 239.

[25] "For example, Huguccio, who holds that sexual pleasure even within marriage is a venial sin, finds it necessary to explain why this view is not heretical; according to the Cathars, sexual pleasure is always a mortal sin, he says, whereas, on his view, it is a very slight venial sin."(p.194) Jean Porter, Natural and Divine Law: Reclaiming the tradition for Christian Ethics, St. Paul University Series in Ethics, vol. 1, no. 1 (Ottawa, Ontario Canada: Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1999), 194.

[26] ST., XP II, q. 41. a. 1, ad 1

[27] ST., XP II, q. 42. a. 1, ad 2

[28] ibid. q. 42. a. 1, ad3

[29] Joseph Rickaby, trans., Of God and His Creatures, by Aquinas, St. Thomas (Westminster, Maryland: The Carroll Press, 1950), 288.

[30] Joseph Rickaby, trans., Of God and His Creatures, by Aquinas, St. Thomas (Westminster, Maryland: The Carroll Press, 1950)

[31] Martos, p.353.

[32] John Witte, From Sacrament to Contract: Marriage, Religion, and Law in the Western Tradition (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 51.

tags: Aquinas   Fergus Kerr   history   Marriage   Summa   Thomism  

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Kramer auto Pingback[…] Posted in : Thomist Tacos for the Soul    Sun, Jan 13 2008, 23:54 Aquinas view of Marriage There is always a tendency to ask in modern circles what St. Thomas Aquinas would say in regards to a certain topic; for example, the A and B theory of time.[1]  The answer to that question would be nothing because in Aq…… […]

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