January 2023 Print

A Window into Theology’s Golden Age

A Sample Scholastic Question on Marriage

By Dr. Louis Shwartz

Medieval Christendom, especially during the thirteenth century, boasted a vibrant, complex, beautiful culture—and a tour of Europe’s greatest city, Paris, makes this claim abundantly clear. The French royal capital boasted a population of nearly 200,000 Catholics among an impressive array of walls, gates, towers, churches, palaces, monasteries, hospices, lodgings, markets, shops, quays, and storehouses. At the heart of the city Notre-Dame Cathedral, newly refurbished in the Gothic style, soared up from an island in the midst of the Seine. Merchants and craftsmen bustled about the river’s Right Bank, while a cluster of lecture halls and libraries on the Left formed the core of Europe’s premiere university. Even the streets were paved—a rarity in those days. However, the most splendid addition to the cityscape was the Sainte-Chapelle, built by King St. Louis IX to house the recently acquired relic of the Crown of Thorns.

Supported by such an impressive urban environment, the university system at Paris became truly international; from across Latin Christendom hundreds upon hundreds of students flocked to its renowned schools. Among Parisian scholars who rose to great academic heights were two Italian mendicants: Thomas of Aquino, a Dominican, and Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, a Franciscan. They were friars, begging brothers, members of new religious orders focused on reinvigorating European Christians by living the evangelical perfections out in the world (instead of hidden within the walls of a monastic cloister). As priests, they also preached, said Mass, and heard confessions. These responsibilities necessitated some training in theology, and the most promising friars were sent by their superiors to Paris. Both the Dominicans and Franciscans had acquired, through pious benefactors, houses of prayer and study in the university quarter; more importantly, they had also obtained chairs in the faculty of theology when prominent professors embraced religious life and took vows as mendicants. Only the most promising friars were sent to study among such distinguished scholars, and at the end of many years’ hard work, they too could earn elite certification as a Parisian “Master of Theology,” a distinction which both Thomas and Bonaventure obtained during the 1250s.

To achieve this highest degree, experienced students would lecture and comment on Peter Lombard’s Four Books of Sentences, the standard text of theology alongside the Bible. They surveyed topics ranging from the Trinity to the Incarnation, from the creation of the angels to the fall of man, from the institution of the sacraments to the general judgment at the end of time. While lecturing on these topics, candidates for the degree of Master in Theology were expected to trace out new lines of theological inquiry and even debate questions never before pondered. These were exciting times for Catholic theology, arguably its golden age.

Reading a sample scholastic question provides a glimpse, as if through a stained glass window, of this golden age. Like fragments of complementarily colored glass molded into a coherent whole, thirteenth-century theologians pieced together a variety of rational arguments, authoritative citations, contemporary customs, and analogous examples in order to develop convincing responses to challenging inquiries—providing fresh insights into traditional topics. The reader will find, at the end of this article, an English translation of just such a question.

This exemplary little question, posed by St. Bonaventure during his lectures at Paris, gives some sense of the exciting complexities involved in scholastic theological discourse. While studying the sacrament of marriage, Bonaventure asks whether a father can legitimately command his child to get married, even to marry some particular person. Bonaventure then specifies that by “command” he means “impose a binding moral obligation.” Any notion of physical force or coercion that would invalidate the sacrament is thus excluded.

To open the debate, Bonaventure first cites a pertinent passage from the Old Testament which recalls the patriarch Isaac commanding his son Jacob to travel abroad and marry one of Laban’s daughters. Bonaventure then quotes the New Testament, specifically St. Paul’s command (Col. 3:20): “Children, obey your parents in all things.” These Scriptural passages seem to indicate that a father can command his son to get married, and can even specify the spouse.

Next, Bonaventure notes that the Pope, as a spiritual father, can command one of his clerics, a spiritual son, to become a bishop and thus contract a spiritual marriage with the church of a particular diocese. This is why the bishop wears a ring, to symbolize his union with that church. By analogy, therefore, it would seem that an earthly father possesses the same powers over his natural children as a spiritual father over his spiritual children.

Medieval parents, especially members of the nobility, would often arrange marriages between their offspring so as to link advantageously families and fortunes. This seems a further indication that parents can make binding promises on their children’s behalf. Furthermore, the children in question, once they come of age, would often strengthen this commitment through a solemn betrothal or ceremonial espousal. Should one of the parties later try to back out of this proposal, canon law permits a bishop to censure the backslider and compel him, even with threat of canonical penalty, to contract the promised marriage as honor demands. Finally, Bonaventure suggests that if a bishop has such powers of correction, so too does the father of the perjured child.

Although these lines of reasoning may seem convincing at first glance, Bonaventure answers that parents do not have the authority to command their children to marry except in extraordinary circumstances. He mentions two reasons why marriage must be undertaken with perfect liberty, without compulsion or coercion. First, since the sacrament of marriage signifies the union of Christ with His Church, it must be undertaken freely, prompted by love, just as Christ freely took on a human nature, suffered, and died to redeem the faithful, who through baptism willingly accept Him as their lord and master. Marriage also involves a lifelong commitment, even the perpetual surrender of one’s body to the will of the spouse, and such great servitude cannot be imposed on a child by his parents, especially since the child is at liberty to remain single or embrace religious life.

There are, however, a few exceptional cases which do morally oblige a child to obey his parents regarding the choice of a spouse. For example, if a son proposes to marry a woman of evil life, the father must forbid and reject such a choice. On the other hand, if two families are involved in a blood feud and only an arranged marriage between the two warring parties can conclude peace, then a child who is open to marriage should and even must, for the sake of the common good, undertake such a marriage at the direction of his parents.

A few examples from the life of St. Louis IX, King of France during Bonaventure’s time at Paris, reveal the practical wisdom of his doctrine on marriage. Louis’s father had married Blanche of Castille, a member of the Spanish royalty, and when Louis inherited the throne in 1226 at the age of twelve upon his father’s unexpected death, the queen-mother preserved her son’s kingly inheritance despite rebellions among many of the powerful French barons. On his mother’s advice, Louis married thirteen-year-old Marguerite of Provence. Marguerite’s younger sister was then encouraged to marry Louis’s main rival, the King of England. These strategic marriages thus fostered peace between two kingdoms which had long been at war. In such instances noble parents strongly encouraged and perhaps even commanded their children to marry particular spouses in order to foster the common good of entire realms—a legitimate use of parental authority according to St. Bonaventure.

Finally, this brief question on marriage highlights the remarkable versatility demanded of a medieval theologian. Familiarity with the Old and New Testaments, with key glosses on these texts, with pertinent canon and civil laws, with ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and with contemporary marriage customs all find a place in this terse but wide-ranging inquiry. On the technical level, analogy and syllogism guide Bonaventure’s logical progression to sound theological conclusions. Moreover, this impressive treatment of a focused topic was simply one among hundreds, literally hundreds, which Bonaventure developed, discussed, and debated with fellow scholars at the University of Paris… and just a few blocks away in the Dominican convent of Saint-Jacques Thomas Aquinas was undertaking similar work. Certainly this was a most exciting and productive era for Catholic theology.

Here follows an English translation of the entire question.

Whether anyone can be compelled into marriage by the command of his father.

It is asked whether anyone can be compelled into marriage by the command of his father—and by compulsion, in this case, I mean that he is morally obliged to obey.

[1] It seems that he is thus obliged because Genesis 28:6 says that Isaac summoned his son Jacob and commanded him, saying: “You shall not take a wife of the daughters of Chanaan.” It is clear that Isaac only issued commands when he had the power and right to do so, therefore a father can impose this type of command upon his child.

[2] Likewise, St. Paul in his Letter to the Colossians 3:20 says, “Children, obey your parents in all things.” Therefore in all matters which do not endanger salvation a child is bound to obey his father; thus the Gloss on this passage of Scripture says, “It is pleasing to God if you obey in all things, provided you obey in the Lord.” Since marriage does not endanger salvation, it seems that children must obey their parents when they command them to marry.

[3] Likewise, a fleshly father regarding fleshly marriage exists in a condition similar to a spiritual father regarding spiritual marriage. But the lord Pope, as a spiritual father, can command someone under pain of excommunication to take on a vacant bishopric. Therefore a fleshly father can command his son to marry the woman of his choosing.

[4] Likewise, he is foolish who makes a vow and binds himself on behalf of someone who is not under his power; for example, I would be foolish if I made a vow on behalf of a complete stranger that he would go on pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Denis. If then parents make vows on behalf of their children, it seems that they can command their children to fulfill these vows.

[5] Likewise, if someone gets engaged with someone else, there is not yet a marriage; nevertheless by ecclesiastical precept he is bound to fulfill his promise and contract the marriage. If he can be compelled by a bishop to undertake this marriage, it only seems fitting that he can also be compelled to it by his own father.

On the contrary, in a matter in which all are equal, no one is bound to obey the command of another. But as regards the right of marriage, everyone is equal. Therefore it does not seem that a father can command his child to get married.

Likewise, when a father commands his child to marry, the child can still take a vow of chastity without sinning. Therefore he is not bound to obey his father.

Likewise, if a child wants to enter religious life, he is not bound to obey his father as to the choice of religious order; on the contrary, he can enter whichsoever order he chooses without sinning because such a vow to enter religious life is voluntary. If marriage, therefore, should be undertaken freely, it is clear that he can pick whichever spouse he pleases.

Likewise, no one can force me to undertake perpetual servitude. But a husband, because of his contract with his wife, gives her power over his own body for the rest of their lives together. Therefore in the binding choice of a lifelong marriage partner it does not seem that anyone should be bound to obey another.

Detail of a miniature of Richard II, king of England, receiving his bride, the Princess Isabel, from her father, Charles VI, king of France, in Jean Froissart, Chroniques, Bruges, c. 1480–1494: Royal MS 14 D VI, f. 268v.

Likewise, if a child is bound to obey his parents regarding the choice of a spouse, then betrothals made by parents even without the consent of their children are binding. But this goes against both canon and civil law. Therefore a child is not bound to obey.

I answer that the reasons given in favor of the liberty of the child to pick a spouse are correct, and that the marriage contract must be completely free, both on account of what is signified by the sacrament, and on account of the great obligation which exists in the contract. Therefore parents cannot command their child to get married with a binding obligation, since the child can remain single or get married as he wishes.

The father, moreover, cannot command his son to marry this or that particular woman, unless charity or a reasonable cause urges the matter, or a freely made promise already binds the son. For example, a reasonable cause exists when the father is involved in a blood feud which he cannot resolve unless his son marries the daughter of his enemy. Similarly, if the son proposes to marry a wicked woman the father must forbid and prevent it. Moreover, if the son himself has freely made a promise of engagement then he is bound to fulfill his promise and can be compelled thereto by ecclesiastical censure.

[Reply to 1] Thus the response to first argument becomes clear, for Isaac reasonably commanded that which his son Jacob was already bound to undertake, since the offspring of Chanaan were wicked and would be destroyed. Therefore Isaac commanded Jacob to go to Syria and find a wife among the offspring of his uncle Laban. And this is clearly indicated in the text, and is even more clearly explained in a certain little book called the Testament of the Patriarchs.

[Reply to 2] To the objection that a son must obey his father in all things which do not endanger salvation, it should be noted that this applies only to those things which pertain to the honor of the father and to the management of the household. Regarding other matters, St. Paul’s statement, “Children, obey your parents in all things,” is simply advice and not a commandment, and this is what the Gloss implies when it says: “It is pleasing to God if you obey in all things, provided you obey in the Lord.”

[Reply to 3] To the objection that fleshly marriage should resemble spiritual marriage, and that since the Pope can command a bishop to take up government of a diocese, so too a father can command his son to marry a particular woman, some respond that the Pope cannot impose such a command since a man must freely consent to become bishop; however, once he has become bishop, the Pope can compel him to fulfill his responsibilities. But this response does not seem correct since we see the contrary happen every day, for the Pope commands many men to become bishops.

The wedding of Henry V and Catherine de Valois, from the Grandes Chroniques de France, Calais?, 1487.

Others simply say that the Pope can impose such a command, nor in this way does he resemble a fleshly father commanding his son to get married, because as spiritual father the Pope has fuller power over his spiritual sons than a fleshly father has over his natural sons. Moreover, less servitude is required in spiritual marriage, and the bond is not as permanent as in carnal marriage, and this is clear because the Pope can depose a bishop and absolve him of his duties.

Finally, others say that where there is a reasonable cause, arising from some necessity or prompted by concern for the common good, the Pope can make such a command, and then the spiritual son is morally obliged to take up the episcopacy. And since one must presume that the Pope acts from a reasonable cause unless he expressly indicates the contrary, such a command must always be obeyed. But if the man chosen to be bishop knows that he is incapable and unworthy of the episcopacy and that accepting it would endanger his salvation, then he is not bound to obey—yet this happens very rarely, especially in recent times.

Whatever power the Pope may have to command the reception of the episcopacy, the spiritual marriage of a bishop to his diocese is not the same as a sacramental marriage between a man and woman for the reasons discussed above.

[Reply to 4] To the objection that parents can make binding marriage promises on behalf of their children, it must be said that such betrothals impose no obligation but serve as a consoling ritual and impose no other burden on the parents than that they earnestly seek the fulfillment of the proposed marriage.

[Reply to 5] The response to the last objection is clear, for in this case the child has bound himself freely through his own promise and thus can be compelled to the marriage both by his bishop and by his father.

Translated and slightly adapted from Bonaventure, Opera theologica selecta, Tomus IV: Liber IV Sententiarum, dist. 29, art. 1, q. 3 (Florence, 1949) pp. 690-692.

TITLE IMAGE: Miniature of St. Bonaventure († July 15, 1274).