Should We Abandon the Word “Marriage”?

Note it's a MATRIMONY Certificate, not a marriage certificate.

Note it’s a MATRIMONY Certificate, not a marriage certificate.

“Marriage” has been so maligned, we may be better off no longer using the term. “What?” you say, “Let the homosexuals win?!?” A Catholic priest is suggesting we give up? No, just the opposite. I’m suggesting marriage is not the best English word for the Sacrament. Let’s create linguistic clarity to distinguish a malleable legal arrangement and a covenant.

Most young people’s eyes glaze over when we try to explain that “Marriage” is the perpetual union of one man and one woman for the purpose of procreation and education of children, and their mutual assistance. Marriage has become a medium to long-term legally recognized sexual relationship, or something similar. These 2 definitions are irreconcilable for the same word. But wouldn’t it be a whole lot easier and clearer if we used 2 different words. And we don’t have to make up funny sounding words; 2 words already exist in English that refer to the 1st definition and have not been corrupted to mean the 2nd: matrimony and wedlock. I think we’d be better off focusing on them over marriage and wedding which refer to either definition.

I’ve never heard anyone talk about infidelity in matrimony, a gay wedlock, dissolving holy matrimony by divorce. People talk about the “sacrament of marriage” yet the Catechism calls it “Holy Matrimony.” According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, marriage and matrimony both spring from Latin term for marriage (marriage came via French and matrimony directly from Latin) and enter English about 1300. They come from Mater (mother). Wedlock is from Old English; it (and wedding) originate from “to wed” which is to pledge. Matrimony and marriage emphasize the state, while wedlock and wedding refer more to a ceremony.

Matrimony before God should we abandon the term marriage

Here’s an example of a marriage that is probably also a matrimony.

Matrimony and wedlock allow us to use the richness of English to explain 2 different levels. A wedding is a legal ceremony binding a couple (or possibly soon a group) in marriage according to the laws of the state. Wedlock is personal and spiritual ceremony bounding a couple in matrimony according to the laws of God. Because the state recognizes the other type, it too is a wedding and marriage. Every matrimony is a marriage but many marriages are not matrimonies. At least to me, such a vocabulary seems easier and clearer.

It would be nice to get the word “marriage” back to its original meaning but I suspect we could better use the resources needed to do. There is nothing sacred about the word “marriage” – obviously there is something sacred about Holy Matrimony but there is no need to use “marriage” to describe it. If we leave marriage as a legal concept and define matrimony as a species of it, then we can focus on teaching people rather than confusing them by trying to use a word that means something very different for them.

Now for a few objections:

One might argue there is no verb to replace “marry” and “married” yet “wed” and “wedded” / “bound in matrimony” seem perfectly fine. Plus, English lets us say “matrimonied” too. This also gives us a more consistent use in English where words beginning with “wed” refer to the ceremony and words beginning with “matr / marr” refer to the state. Plus anyone in matrimony would also be married.

One may say that my distinction has no history. It does, however have some as these words have existed for centuries and some people have chosen one while other preferred the other. The Church has tended to prefer matrimony over marriage as its chosen term. Along the same lines, one may argue that such a distinction is artificial. It seems a little artificial but all such distinctions seem artificial at first even if they have value: when it was determined 100 years ago that “[email protected]@*r” was no longer acceptable but then “colored” or now “African-American” was the proper term, I’m sure the distinction seemed artificial; or switch from using “inflammable” to “flammable” on warnings for greater clarity.

Some may argue that such terms sound less romantic. This is hard to judge. As far as romance, call it your “whale” if you want. Since matrimony would be a species of marriage, marriage would still be a legitimate word for romance but just not as rich. What I’m referring to is catechism, preaching, references to others’ unions, not the romantic aspect that is different with each couple.

Matrimony has no end - SHould we abandon the word marriage

Matrimony can have no end, but it seems marriage can (illustration from the old Baltimore Catechism)

Finally, one may object that it creates confusion for older people. Fine! My main goal is to improve catechesis and the discussion with the next generation whose opinions and beliefs are being formed: I’m not too concerned if it isn’t accepted whole-heartedly by older generations set it their ways. Even if many older people don’t take this distinction, I think it would be very helpful to protect this sacrament going forward. I don’t need 100% acceptance, just a critical mass, for this to work.

To conclude, I want to re-iterate my main points for clarity. As far as the battle over the word “marriage” the battle is lost. We can either keep trying to fight on that battlefield or change the battle field to where we have an advantage. How I think would be best to do this is to end the false equivalency between marriage according to the state and marriage according to the Church. Let’s just use “matrimony” for marriage according to the church and let “marriage” mean simply a legal union.

Recently, Pope Francis said “The love of Christ, which has blessed and sanctified the union of husband and wife, is able to sustain their love and to renew it when, humanly speaking, it becomes lost, wounded or worn out.” That is matrimony! In marriage (as understood today), once love is lost or worn out, the marriage is over. Maybe this proposal will restore dignity to Matrimony.

Note: this can’t be done in other languages as they don’t have this rich vocabulary that lets them make such distinctions.

Fr Matthew P. Schneider, LC

Teens need to experience Christ. I am a Catholic religious priest with the Legion of Christ who tries to help them do that. Part of doing that is running this blog. Currently I'm stationed in the DC Metro area preparing material for RCSpirituality.org (Regnum Christi Spirituality Center), studying an advanced Theology degree, and helping youth ministry freelance.


Fr Matthew P. Schneider, LC


Teens need to experience Christ. I am a Catholic religious priest with the Legion of Christ who tries to help them do that. Part of doing that is running this blog. Currently I'm stationed in the DC Metro area preparing material for RCSpirituality.org (Regnum Christi Spirituality Center), studying an advanced Theology degree, and helping youth ministry freelance.



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