Is Marriage only between one Man and one Woman?

The sacrament of marriage can only occur between one man and one woman. And natural marriage, from the beginning, was intended by God, in its fullness of perfection, to occur only between one man and one woman (Mt 19).

But, in the Old Testament, the Patriarchs sometimes had more than one wife. And the Old Testament law speaks of a man having more than one wife, without condemnation. So the question arises, was it ever morally licit under natural law, for unbaptized persons and merely natural marriage, for a man to have more than one wife?

In the Summa Theologica, Saint Thomas Aquinas answers that it was morally licit.

Now the Old Law mentions plurality of wives without any prohibition thereof, as appears from Deuteronomy 21:15, “If a man have two wives,” etc. Therefore they were not transgressors through having two wives; and so it was lawful.

Further, this is confirmed by the example of the holy patriarchs, who are stated to have had several wives, and yet were most pleasing to God, for instance Jacob, David, and several others. Therefore at one time it was lawful.

He explains two reasons for this licitness. First, the primary end of marriage, under natural law, is the generation and education of offspring. If a man has multiple wives, they can more easily and more quickly be fruitful and multiply, “in order to ensure the multiplication of the offspring to be brought up in the worship of God” (Summa). The secondary end of marriage, he says, is the “community of works”, whereby husband and wife have a loving lifelong union in which they cooperate together. However, a plurality of wives is only in some ways contrary to that purpose of marriage, and in other ways compatible with it.

If a plurality of wives were contrary to the primary end of marriage, Thomas says, then it would be always immoral (i.e. intrinsically evil). But since it is only contrary to the secondary end, and then only to some extent, it is permissible in some circumstances (not intrinsically evil).

The second reason that Thomas gives for the licitness of polygamy, specifically in the case of the Old Testament, is a dispensation from God so that the children of Abraham could be like the sand of the sea. A man with multiple wives, as was the case with Jacob, could produce holy offspring to increase the number of the chosen people more quickly.

This second reason justifies the polygamy (actually, polygyny) of cases in the Old Testament. However, the first reason justifies a plurality of wives (but not of husbands) in any natural law cases, that is, when the married persons are not baptized.

However, as is clear from Jesus’ explanation of Genesis, the plan of God from the beginning was for marriage to be one man and one woman. Thus, even the Old Testament cases of polygamy, while not intrinsically evil, are contrary to the fullness of marriage as intended by God.

And that is why the Sacrament of Marriage never permits polygamy. Natural marriage is raised to the fullness of its perfection by becoming a Sacrament, and so the Sacrament of holy Matrimony is also a natural marriage.

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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17 Responses to Is Marriage only between one Man and one Woman?

  1. Tom Mazanec says:

    A man with multiple wives, as was the case with Jacob, could produce holy offspring to increase the number of the chosen people more quickly.

    That would be true if females were the vast majority of births. But males and females are almost equal. So if Jacob had four wives and impregnated them all, there would be the same number of children as if he had one wife, and Tom, Dick and Harry each had one of his other wives. In fact, the polygamous situation would be less fertile, since Jacob, after loving Alice, would then love Betty, Sally and Francine in turn, becoming less fertile each time.

  2. Marco says:

    It seems absurd that polygamy was licit and now if someone is betrayed by his/her wife/husband he/she is condemned to a life of involuntary celibacy.

    It seems like modern men are held to a much higher standard than the Old Testament.

    If polygamy can be licit why not remarriage? If it’s true that

    “a plurality of wives is only in some ways contrary to that purpose of marriage, and in other ways compatible with it”

    Then one should be allowed to remarry. But no, what was licit back then in this day and age is not only forbidden but it falls under the penalty of ETERNAL death.

    So the exact same act that was licit back then in the year 2017 condemns people to eternal suffering. How this is not double standard is beyond me.

    • Ron Conte says:

      The Sacrament of marriage calls humanity to a higher standard, just as Christianity calls us to a higher standard. But the Faith also provides us with many helps, that were not available in ancient times.

    • Marco says:

      ” But the Faith also provides us with many helps, that were not available in ancient times.”

      What do you think about Jesus’ promises regarding the Chaplet of Divine Mercy and the fifteen prayers of Saint Bridget?

      You would mention the Sacraments, probably, but for a Sacrament to be valid certain conditions are needed, so for example if someone can’t have a firm purpouse of amendment he/she can’t be validly absolved.

      With these devotions sinner can obtain by God’s mercy greater graces (efficacious graces) which include sincere repentance.

      If we hadn’t these helps i think that the path of salvation for Catholics would much harder than it is for the other christians.

    • Marco says:

      Even the Rosary is very important and serves the same purpouse (obtain contrition for mortal sins and a holy death)

      “If you say the Rosary faithfully until death, I do assure you that, in spite of the gravity of your sins “you shall receive a never fading crown of glory.”42 Even if you are on the brink of damnation, even if you have one foot in Hell, even if you have sold your soul to the devil as sorcerers do who practise black magic, and even if you are a heretic as obstinate as a devil, sooner or later you will be converted and will amend your life and save your soul, if—and mark well what I say—if you say the Holy Rosary devoutly every day until death for the purpose of knowing the truth and obtaining contrition and pardon for your sins.”
      ― Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort, The Saint Louis de Montfort Collection [7 Books]

  3. Marco says:

    Besides, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that 2400 ” Adultery, divorce, polygamy, and free union are grave offenses against the dignity of marriage”.

    So it’s not possible that in ancient times polygamy was not intrinsically evil. Saint Abraham and Saint Jacob are Saints because they didn’t know that polygamy was wrong, and they tought that it was blessed by God, so they weren’t guilty of actual mortal sin (and probably they weren’t guilty of actual venial sin either because they sincerely tought that polygamy was blessed), but this doesn’t mean that polygamy could be justified in and of itself.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Polygamy is a grave offense against the dignity of the sacrament of marriage. Your interpretation of the CCC is mistaken. Thomas Aquinas is correct in his evaluation, esp. since it is supported by his argument from Scripture.

    • Marco says:

      “Polygamy is a grave offense against the dignity of the sacrament of marriage”

      The CCC talks about “marriage”, it doesn’t mention the Sacrament.

    • Marco says:

      Additionally, the Church has included polygamy among the intrinsically evil acts https://catholicmoraltheology.com/voting-against-intrinsically-evil-acts-a-working-list/

      The fact that God didn’t explicitly forbid polygamy in those times doesn’t mean that polygamy was justified in and of itself. The silence of God does not connote approval, and not everything told in the Bible is told by way of approval. For example, God allowed Moses to permit divorce because of the hard heart of the people (cf Matt 19:8). But to reluctantly permit, as God did, is not to command or to be pleased.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Saint Thomas and Saint Augustine both explain that God permitted polygamy in OT times. The reason is that natural marriage does not have the same requirements and restrictions as the sacrament of marriage. Polygamy is intrinsically evil regarding the sacrament, but not regarding natural marriage, as St. Thomas explains.

    • Marco says:

      This is an oxymoron. If something is an intrinsically evil it cannot be intrinsically evil obit regarding a Sacrament.

      Besides, the Church consider a natural marriage a valid marriage only when there is a lifelong commitment, fidelity ecc.

      If a man has multiple wives (or a woman has multiple husbands) he can’t do this fully, because the body isn’t made to be given to multiple partners and it certainly doesn’t proclaim faithfulness to one other person.

      And the Catechism says, about polygamy, the following

      2387 The predicament of a man who, desiring to convert to the Gospel, is obliged to repudiate one or more wives with whom he has shared years of conjugal life, is understandable. However polygamy is not in accord with the moral law.” [Conjugal] communion is radically contradicted by polygamy; this, in fact, directly negates the plan of God which was revealed from the beginning, because it is contrary to the equal personal dignity of men and women who in matrimony give themselves with a love that is total and therefore unique and exclusive.” The Christian who has previously lived in polygamy has a grave duty in justice to honor the obligations contracted in regard to his former wives and his children.

      So it’s not possible that something which ” directly negates the plan of God which was revealed from the beginning” and “it is contrary to the equal personal dignity of men and women ” is not intrinsically evil.

    • Ron Conte says:

      You are disagreeing with St. Thomas, and I am agreeing with him.

    • Marco says:

      Ron, who can be possible that something which:

      1) “directly negates the plan of God which was revealed from the beginning”;

      2) “it is contrary to the equal personal dignity of men and women”;

      3) “it is not in accord with the moral law”.

      Can, at the same time, be moral and justified in and of itself?

      These words came straight out of the CCC, so i don’t think that the CCC supports your argument.

      I’m a thomist myself, especially regarding Grace and Free will, but Thomas was not infallible. He was wrong about the Immaculate Conception, for instance, and I think he was wrong about polygamy as well (and I hope he was wrong about his view of the of fewness of the saved).

      It’s clear that what the CCC says is not compatible with the claim that polygamy can, in certain situations and circumstances, be morally justified in and of itself.

    • Ron Conte says:

      You are free to disagree with Saint Thomas. I interpret the Catechism as referring to polygamy among Christians, regarding the sacrament of marriage.

    • Marco says:

      “This is an oxymoron. If something is an intrinsically evil it cannot be intrinsically evil *obit* regarding a Sacrament”

      *only*

    • Ron Conte says:

      “only regarding a Sacrament” — Not true, obviously. A sacrilege against a Sacrament is only a sacrilege “regarding a Sacrament”. So there can be intrinsically evil sins against marriage which apply to both natural and sacramental marriage, as well as intrinsically evil sins against marriage which apply only to sacramental marriage

    • Marco says:

      “Ron, *who* can be possible that something which”

      *how*

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