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With the consent
of the spouses

 Con il consenso dei coniugi  DCM-004
02 April 2022

The turning point of the Council of Trent: when spouses became free from family pressures

With regard to the image and structure of the family, Christianity has assimilated the cultures it has passed through throughout its history. These include the Jewish matrix -from which it took its form- to the Greek-style family codes found in the Pauline letters (Eph 5), the Roman legislation to the customs of the so-called barbarian populations that have influenced its uses and habits. Christianity, however, has added an element that we could define as mystical, when we take up the biblical metaphor of God’s love for his people in the union of the couple and seeing in the human family a reflection of that of Nazareth. However, these images in some way have given dignity to a choice of life considered secondary to the religious experience for centuries.

It was only with the Council of Trent that marriage was given a sacred character with the reform sanctioned by the Tametsi decree of 1563. This document condemned clandestine marriages, and required the public celebration of the rite in front of a parish priest with witnesses and, most importantly, considered sufficient, for its legitimacy, the consent of the two spouses making them independent from the pressures of their families. This was the real revolution for it focused the meaning of the wedding on the spouses and allowed them to make their choice autonomously, along with social recognition of the sacramental reality.

From the end of the seventeenth century and throughout the nineteenth century, devotion to the Holy Family was also affirmed, testifying to a spiritual orientation that was attentive to discovering the divine in the human and, above all, to valuing tenderness in family and community relationships. The problem with this is that, even if it is mitigated by a benevolent spirituality that is attentive to the well-being of the family community, female identity was for centuries linked to marriage and to a family framework marked in the Catholic vision by hierarchical relationships and a patriarchal structure.

In addition,  the ecclesiastical hierarchy, when faced with the demands for change, which arose above all after the industrial revolution and the birth of feminist movements, was unable to offer adequate responses, because it feared for the stability of society in the face of the disintegration of the patriarchal family. The Second Vatican Council, on the other hand, was able to grasp the profound transformations that were taking place in the world and set the theme of a reflection on the institution of marriage. To achieve this he invited as experts various members of associations such as the Equipe Notre-Dame and the Movement of the Christian Family to participate, which at the time grouped 14,000 families together. The presidents of the latter movement, Luz Maria Longoria and José Alvarez Icaza Manero from Mexico, the only two married couples present at the Council, were invited as auditors. As parents of 12 children, they had consolidated experience and therefore collaborated in the discussion of Schema 13, on the commission on the family. They emphasized the importance of directing pastoral care towards the family, which should be valued as an apostolic entity of great strength. This is a place of experience and evangelical proclamation, of spiritual formation and openness to others, and they pushed for the formation of priests and laity on the value of married life as an opportunity par excellence for the human and Christian education of children. Their presence at the Council was also decisive because it contributed to a fundamental change in the consideration of the purposes of marriage by placing the emphasis on conjugal love. A nice anecdote explains the strength of their presence well. It is said that Luz Maria laughed as she listened to the preparatory document that used concepts taken from scholastic philosophy, centered on the remedium concupiscentiae as one of the ends of marriage and that was out of touch with human and conjugal reality. As she herself declared in an interview, she is said this to have said to a council father: “This expression of Thomas, according to which the primary end of marriage is the procreation of the species, the secondary end is conjugal complementarity, and finally, the third end is the remedy of concupiscence, is disturbing. I personally have had many children without any concupiscence: they are all the fruit of love”. And for the first time in pontifical documents there was the explicit proclamation of human love as one of the primary purposes of marriage (Gaudium et Spes 48 and 49).

Finally, let us remember that in Italy, it was not until 1975 that the new family law came into force, which overcame the patriarchal and hierarchical system to consider it. In doing so, the family could be considered a place of affective bonds between people. Moreover, and without a doubt, the liturgical commission should update the use of the readings and eliminate from the ordinary and matrimonial rites the Pauline texts that refer to the submission of the wife to her husband, presented as if it were the “Word of God”.

by Adriana Valerio
Historian and theologian, professor of History of Christianity and the Churches at the Federico II University in Naples.