Up Front and Personal

Who Invented Civil Marriage?

by Msgr. Jonas C. Achacoso, JCD

This question can be challenging for a trivia quiz. I suppose it would make people think, especially those who are interested in the Catholic doctrine on the sacrament of marriage. I want to see smart guys raise their hands to answer the question.

In the beginning, there was no civil nor religious marriage. Like in the case of Adam and Eve, they were not married in the church nor civilly. They were in a natural union and had a marital relationship that led them to be the parents of Cain, Abel, and Seth. The marriage of our first parents and those of others who followed them is what we call natural marriage.

Natural marriage is the covenant that binds a man and a woman for life by an exclusive union in love and cooperation for the procreation and education of their offspring. Natural marriage, of course, does not require formalities, garments or banquets. The consent of the man and the woman to bond is enough. We can see that divorce and infidelity are against this institution because it tries to break the strength of the bond.

In the Catholic Church, we believe that our marriage is the same natural marriage elevated by our Lord Jesus Christ to the level of the sacrament. He did not change anything in the basic framework of natural marriage, He only added the Christian character to such an institution. That is why, in the Catholic Church, marriage is always between a man and a woman willing to commit to an exclusive alliance of a lifetime.

Since the Council of Trent, all baptized Catholics are henceforth bound to observe the ecclesiastical ritual for marriage, otherwise their marriage would be null and void. We call this rite the canonical form. Hence, natural marriage and canonical marriage were the only known marriages.

Civil marriage surfaced during the French Revolution in 1792. It was then that everything had to be under the rule of law, including marriage. Ecclesiastical marriage was relegated to the background and stripped of civil validity.

To be valid, the civil ceremony must take place before the church weddings. What started in France spread throughout Europe, especially during the time of Napoleon Bonaparte. From Europe, the practice began to be implemented on the other side of the Atlantic. It has become mandatory in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina. In these countries, couples must have their civil ceremony before marrying sacramentally. As a curious note, civil marriage is not a common practice in Islamic countries.

In the case of marriages in the US, church marriages have both civil and canonical effects. The couple does not have to get married twice. Church marriage is enough. This is the reason behind the requirement of a marriage license and wedding officiants must also register civilly.

To wrap up, the answer to our question is not a person. There is no actual inventor as we know that there is for the telephone, light bulbs, airplanes, etc.

Simply, civil marriage surfaced at a certain epoch when, at that time, everything had to be subjected to the rule of law.


Msgr. Achacoso, JCD, is Adjutant Judicial Vicar at The Tribunal of the Diocese of Brooklyn, liaison to the Ecclesial Movements, and Administrator of the Corpus Christi Church, Woodside.

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