Tolkien vs. Lewis on Marriage

This piece is fascinating for a couple of reasons.

First, it shows Tolkien in fine fettle taking apart a real lapse in Lewis’ normally clear thinking (and, I suspect, a lapse due to the fundamental DNA coding error in Anglicanism traceable back to Henry VIII).

But second, and just as importantly, it is written by and for Evangelicals who historically have been wary of papists like Tolkien while regarding Lewis as a sort of patron saint.  It’s good to see the flagship Evangelical journal Christianity Today really struggling to internalize the full Catholic theology of marriage like that.  More please!

  • Stephen J.

    I agree about the “DNA coding” error of Anglicanism, but I think Lewis’s thinking may also have been unconsciously skewed by the example he just used, the hypothetical of English Muslims demanding Prohibition-type laws; as a result, his mind was still on the basic idea — and, I think, a correct one — that, “It is wrong for the State to use the power of the law to force its citizens to live in accord with a specific religion’s teachings *solely for that religion’s sake*, especially if some of its citizens do not subscribe to that religion.” The State forces us to live in accord with a whole bunch of precepts that ultimately come from religion, of course — no rape, no theft, no murder — but it does so not because a specific religion teaches these things but because freely permitting them is self-evidently contradictory to the purpose of the State: i.e. civil peace and safety.
    Whether Lewis got this far in his thinking I don’t know, but I suspect that at this point in working on the book his inchoate intuition was that in balancing the harm done society by divorce vs. the harm done society by compelling an effectively religious obedience upon non-believers, the latter seemed like the greater harm at the time, and thus the former was the preferable choice for the State (though still to be superseded by Christian fidelity for actual Christians). Forty years after Humana Vitae and the Sexual Revolution, I think we have rafts of evidence that Lewis simply didn’t have that this is *wrong*: that permitting cheap and easy divorce *is*, in fact, just as socially destructive as permitting murder (if on a much slower and more drawn-out basis), and the State would be fully within its rights to proscribe it regardless of religious freedom.
    Pure consequentialism such as this is no substitute for Christian truth, of course, but sometimes you have to allow for people simply not connecting cause and effect as well as they might.

  • BHG

    I agree Tolkien is right that no Christian should propose a two-tiered system. But I think it’s also quite possible that we’ve reached a point in this country where we have had one forced upon us. There is no question that “marriage” as defined not only by the state but by most Protestant denominations is nothing like matrimony in the Catholic Church. It is time I think for the Catholic Church to get out of the business of witnessing state marriage. If we do not participate in the state’s regulation of marriage at all, it will be much more difficult for the state to complain discriminate against certain segements of society in this regard. The state can define “marriage” in whatever way it wishes. It is absolutely irrelevant at this point to the Catholic sacrament of matrimony and we should make it clear that it is irrelevant. Tolkien is right that the truth of matrimony is eternal and we should never cease trying to teach the culture at large the truth about matrimony. But as of yesterday, we have reached a point in our society where Lewis’s view has become the one we are forced to live with on practical terms.

    • vox borealis

      How would the Church deal with the large number of Catholics married not only outside of the Church, but in a civil only ceremony? Would they be considered married, or would the church cease to recognize the validity of civil marriage because the state has so distorted the meaning of marriage?

      • rmichaelj

        Umm, I believe the Church already considers any marriage of a Catholic outside the Church (without a dispensation) invalid. (by this I mean that a priest is not witnessing the marriage- not that a Catholic is marrying a non-catholic)

        • Andy, Bad Person

          Other way around. The Church, officially, considers all marriages valid unless it is declared null. Annulments can be difficult, such as the case with most Catholic divorces, or easy, such as the example you cite. Since the spouses, not the priest, are the ministers of the sacrament, marriages are assumed good until proven otherwise.

          • rmichaelj

            No, according to canon law the Church considers such marriages to be putative which is different from being valid. Such putative marriages must be annulled before the person can remarry even if the church considers them invalid. Unfortunately the teaching on this has been less than stellar in the past 30 years.

  • Mark S. (not for Shea)

    I re-read Mere Christianity a few months ago and that very passage made me scratch my head. Many thanks to Jake Meador for this article and to Mr. Shea for sharing it.

    That being said … honestly, I find myself also agreeing with Tolkien in my general pessimism toward our Western society. We Christians in the West are fighting a long defeat, and we’re losing in the West simply because we are fighting the wrong battle. Our battle is not against flesh and blood (as witnessed by both Our Lord and Saint Paul), yet we Christians concentrate 99% of our efforts on flesh and blood.
    Give up on the GOP. Really. They are not our friends. The Democratic Party is now largely openly hostile. Quit trying to bribe and strong arm and protest legislation through a corrupt system. You’re fighting the wrong fight.
    We don’t need to change the laws. We need to change the culture, and the laws will follow. If we don’t change the culture by changing hearts and minds and saving souls, it doesn’t matter how many laws you pass; you’ll lose in the end.

    • Stephen J.

      Part of the problem is that for most of history the Judeo-Christian teachings on sexuality were not only self-evidently the superior way to live but also the only practical way to live for most: only wealthy and powerful men could afford the consequences of unfettered sexual indulgence, and even they paid a price in health and misery. Safe childbirth, antibiotics, social willingness to support single mothers, and the Pill (only this last in itself a bad thing) changed all that. We cannot count on a popular culture to willingly outlaw a pleasure whose costs can no longer be self-evidently demonstrated as a matter of personal medical fact — especially when that pleasure can be defended in a heartbeat as the only way out of misery and loneliness.
      As a result, it may be now a matter of preserving the Remnant amid a larger foundering culture. Sometimes you have to shake the dust of some towns from your shoes, as even Christ instructed the disciples.

      • oregon catholic

        “We cannot count on a popular culture to willingly outlaw a pleasure whose costs can no longer be self-evidently emonstrated as a matter of personal medical fact”

        Even when the personal costs are self-evident medically there is still an unwillingness to accept that the behavior that led to it is wrong. I guess that must stem from a kind of pleasure intoxication/addiction that turns off the brain cells which process logic, reason, and reality.

        • Mark S. (not for Shea)

          If we change the culture, a law won’t be needed.

          • oregon catholic

            I mostly agree with you but we also should not let our Constitutional protections be stripped or overridden without a fight.

            • Mark S. (not for Shea)

              Agreed. But the current state of our culture and the ensuing laws is a pretty good sign that we haven’t been fighting correctly. If the tactics aren’t working, it’s time to change tactics.

              • oregon catholic

                Again I agree with you to a certain point. I think the unvarnished truth is always the best approach whether it works as fast as we’d like or not at all. The outcome isn’t in our hands anyway.

  • ctd

    I don’t recall my thinking on this entirely, but I recall that when I was a Protestant I agreed with Lewis on this question.

  • Mark R

    I don’t understand how Henry VIII’s divorce is somehow supposed to influence Anglican matrimonial theology any more than popes allowing other monarchs to “divorce” and re-marry would not influence the Catholics.
    Divorce was still a bad thing until Lewis’ old age in the U.K. Not too long ago, if you were divorced you could not be presented the monarch or even knighted (usually).

  • James

    It is interesting, is it not, that here Lewis the Anglican is advocating a greater separation of church and state while Tolkien, the Catholic, suggests that the state’s rôle in marriage is to be subsumed in the church’s.


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