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It’s Okay to Marry Young

Drew Belsky

On Wednesday, a West Virginia bill to ban “child marriages” went down to defeat. The vote had passed in the House of Delegates, but the Mountain State’s Senate Judiciary Committee killed it.

According to the Associated Press,

currently, children can marry as young as 16 in West Virginia with parental consent. Anyone younger than that also must get a judge’s waiver. . . .

Some of the bill’s opponents have argued that teenage marriages are a part of life in West Virginia.

Kanawha County Republican Sen. Mike Stuart, a former federal prosecutor who sided with the majority, said his vote “wasn’t a vote against women.” He said his mother was married when she was 16, and “six months later, I came along. I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”

Yes, “teenage marriages are a part of life in West Virginia” will likely make coastal people snicker. But I suspect that this law would hit rural white Protestants less hard than it would hit a certain other, more aggressive demographic. And we Catholics might as well make fun of ourselves, too. Here is the Code of Canon Law:

A man before he has completed his sixteenth year of age and a woman before she has completed her fourteenth year of age cannot enter into a valid marriage.

The conference of bishops is free to establish a higher age for the licit celebration of marriage (1083).

Set aside how a given conference of bishops may tinker with the ages. The Catholic Church’s baseline law sets the age threshold for marriage at sixteen for a man (not a “child”) and fourteen for a woman (also not a “child”).

The Church’s law seems sensible to me: it acknowledges and respects what marriage, in conjunction with our sexed bodies, is for. It connects sexual maturity with marriageability—an especially important witness in a culture that wants to sexualize children at ever-younger ages while pushing back marriage to ever-older ages.

Let’s underline that fourteen for girls is the bare minimum age allowable under canon law, and so we could expect marriage not to have been typical at that age even when §1083 was published. But what about sixteen or seventeen? Should girls in the modern West be getting married at sixteen? Perhaps not, all things considered. But a culture—our culture—where people are horrified at older teens (or even twenty-somethings fresh out of college!) getting married is an extreme fringe outlier historically. And a culture that normalizes women delaying marriage until they’re thirty is suicidal.

Maybe people in our day are too immature to marry as young as in times past. Maybe there are understandable reasons why the definition of “child” has expanded to include up to age twenty-six. But teen marriages in and of themselves aren’t morally wrong. Nor is our generation any more “perverse and adulterous” than the one Jesus was addressing in the Gospel of Mark. We’re just as capable of marrying, and marrying young, as they were.

In any case, the cure for ever-lengthening adolescence is not to codify it in law or to sic the government on young Christians’ right to marry. And we Christians should not join the line for the fainting couch at the thought of “teenage marriages” and young mothers. Rather, we should work to embody and inculcate virtue in our families, and thereby our culture, to a level where the majority of young people—yes, even the §1083ers—are responsible enough to tie the knot.

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