Catholic Marriage: A Union Sealed by the Sacrament of Matrimony
To understand Catholic marriage in the sacrament of Matrimony, it’s best to begin…
…in the beginning.
God didn’t have to make the human race male and female as he did. God didn’t have to share his creative power with his own creatures and make the beginning of a new human life depend upon the free cooperation of a man and a woman with himself. There is a limitless number of other ways in which God could have arranged for the multiplication of human beings, had he chosen to do so.
But God didn’t do it any other way.
He chose to make man male and female, and to give him the power, in partnership with himself, to produce new human life. By the act of intimate union which we call sexual intercourse, man and woman would fashion a physical image of themselves; and into this new body so wondrously begun God would infuse a spiritual and immortal soul.
It is God, then, who bestowed upon humans the power of procreation—as the sexual faculty is called. It is God who planned and who gave to men and women their genital organs. It is God who (to guarantee the perpetuation of the human race) attached to the use of those organs a high degree of physical pleasure.
Since God is the author of sex and since all that God does is good, it follows then that sex in itself is something good.
The sanctity of sex
Indeed, because of its close relationship with God who is a partner to the reproductive act, sex is not merely something good—it is something sacred and holy.
This is a point that needs emphasizing, this basic sanctity of sex.
When the sense of the sacredness of sex is lost, the sanctity of marriage also is forgotten. Sex becomes a plaything, an exciting tool for pleasure rather than an instrument of God. Easy divorce and casual remarriages; prostitution and marital infidelity: these are some of the evils which follow when sex is twisted from its context in the divine scheme of things.
The union of marriage
To ensure the right use of the procreative power God founded the institution of marriage: the lifelong and irrevocable union of one man and one woman.
The necessity of such a union is apparent, since it is essential not only that children be born but that they be lovingly reared and cared for by the father and mother who bring them into the world. Our juvenile courts and mental hospitals bear daily witness to the evils that follow when the unity and permanence of marriage are forgotten.
But it was not merely for the purpose of peopling the earth that God instituted marriage. “It is not good that the man is alone,” said God as Adam slept in Eden. “I will make him a helper like himself.” It is God’s design that man and woman should complete each other, draw strength from each other, contribute to one another’s spiritual growth.
It is in the lifelong espousal of one man and one woman, wherein minds and hearts as well as bodies are fused into a new and richer unity, that this purpose of God is achieved.
Jesus explicitly affirmed the permanence of marriage: “What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder” (Matthew 19:7).
A new sacrament
Up to the time of Christ, marriage, although a sacred union, was still only a civil contract between a man and a woman.
Jesus, however, took this contract, this exchange of marital consent between man and woman, and made the contract a conveyor of grace. He made marriage a sacrament, the sacrament of Matrimony among Christians.
Matrimony is defined as “the sacrament by which a baptized man and a baptized woman bind themselves for life in a lawful marriage and receive the grace to discharge their duties.”
It is not hard to understand why Jesus made marriage a sacrament—the sacrament of Matrimony.
Grace supports a natural union
From man’s beginning, marriage was a sacred union.
It was God’s instrument for the begetting, the rearing, the education, and the moral training of successive generations of human beings. Marriage was a “natural,” we might say, for elevation to the holy rank of a sacrament. Besides the priesthood, there is no state in life that pleads for grace as demandingly as does marriage.
No matter how well matched they may be, it is not easy for any two people to live together day in and day out, year after year, with their inescapable faults and personality defects grating upon each other. It’s not easy to help one another grow in goodness and nobility in spite of those faults—little by little adjusting to one another so that the faults of one “fit in” to the perfections of the other and unity arises from the very differences of the two persons. This is a beautiful evolution, like the emergence of the butterfly from its chrysalis; but it is not easy.
No matter how selfless a couple may be, it is not easy for them to face the prospect of responsible parenthood, with all the sacrifices that entails. Especially it is not easy to face the prospect of an ultimate judgment, in which they will have to answer to God for the souls of the children who have been entrusted to them.
If ever there was a state of life which called for grace, marriage is it.
A higher calling in the New Covenant
And, in Christ’s new plan for mankind, there was a further need for grace in marriage.
It would be upon parents that Jesus must depend for the continual replenishment of his Mystical Body: that union-in-grace whereby all baptized Catholics are one in Christ. From now on, for Christian parents it would not be enough to beget, rear, educate, and train offspring.
From now on Jesus would expect parents to form and nurture the souls of their children in the pattern of sainthood.
Without guiding grace and strengthening grace, this would be a hopeless task.
Unbroken tradition testifies to this sacrament
It is no wonder, then, that Christ made marriage a sacrament.
Just when he did so, during his public life, we do not know. Some think that it may have been at the marriage feast at Cana. Others think it may have been at the time he instructed the Pharisees: “Have you not read that the Creator, from the beginning, made them male and female, and said, ‘For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? Therefore now they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder” (Matthew 19:4-7).
However, such speculations as to the exact time at which Jesus made marriage a sacrament are rather fruitless. It is enough for us to know, by the constant and unbroken tradition of the Church, that Jesus did so transform the marriage bond.
Who administers this sacrament?
A sacrament, as we know, is an outward sign that confers an inner grace.
In the sacrament of Matrimony, the outward sign is the exchange of marital consent on the part of a baptized man and a baptized woman. In other words the couple who are getting married administer the sacrament of Matrimony to each other.
It is not correct to say (although we often do) that “John and Mary were married by the priest.” More correctly we should say, “John and Mary married each other in the presence of the priest.”
The priest cannot administer the sacrament of Matrimony; only the contracting couple can do that. The priest (or deacon) is simply the official witness, representing Christ and Christ’s Church. The priest’s presence is normally essential; without him there is no sacrament and no marriage. But he does not confer the sacrament.
Catholic marriage requires
Aside from exceptional cases, a Catholic cannot validly contract marriage except in the presence of a priest.
A Catholic who attempts to enter into marriage before a minister or a civil magistrate (such as a judge or a justice of the peace) is not really married at all. He commits a grave sin by going through such a ceremony; and the couple will be living in habitual mortal sin as long as they continue to cohabit.
Two non-Catholics who are married by a minister or a civil magistrate are genuinely married. If the two are unbaptized, theirs is a “natural” marriage, such as was marriage before Jesus instituted the sacrament of Matrimony. If both non-Catholics are baptized, however, their marriage is a sacrament.
But for a Catholic, there just isn’t any other way to marry validly except to receive the sacrament of Matrimony. When Jesus institutes a sacrament, he requires that his followers use it.
The promise of grace
If a husband (or a wife) is having a bad day, perhaps discouraged under the pressure of an acute domestic problem, tempted to self-pity, with the awful feeling that it was a mistake ever to get married—that is one good time to remember that Matrimony is a sacrament.
It is a good time to remember that each spouse has an absolute right to whatever grace may be needed in this emergency; whatever grace may be needed to strengthen human weakness and to guide to a solution of the problem.
To Christian spouses who do their human best to make theirs a truly Christian marriage, God has pledged his grace, when needed and as needed.
God will not default on his pledge.
Two kinds of grace
Since Matrimony is a sacrament, we know that it gives grace.
Like every sacrament, it gives two kinds of grace. First of all there is the increase in sanctifying grace, imparted at the very moment that the sacrament is received.
As the just-wed couple turn away from the altar, their souls are spiritually stronger, spiritually more beautiful than when they came to the altar a few moments earlier.
It is essential, of course, that they present themselves to receive this sacrament with souls which already are in the state of sanctifying grace. For a person to receive this sacrament with a mortal sin upon his soul would be a sacrilege, a grave sin. The marriage still would be a true and valid marriage; but it would be a most unhappy beginning for what is designed to be a partnership with God.
Matrimony’s sacramental grace
Besides this increase in sanctifying grace—which all “the sacraments of the living” confer—Matrimony gives its own special grace, its sacramental grace.
This consists in a claim upon God for whatever actual graces the couple may need, through the years, to make a happy and successful marriage.
For its full effectiveness this grace needs the cooperation of both partners to the marriage. The grace is intended for that single entity, that “one-from-two,” which a married couple have become. But if one partner should prove derelict to Christian duty, the other spouse still can count on exceptional graces of strength and wisdom.
To be more specific, the sacramental grace of Matrimony:
- Perfects the natural love of husband and wife;
- Elevates this love to a supernatural level which far surpasses mere mental and physical compatibility;
- Gives to marital love a sanctifying quality, making it an instrument for growth in holiness and marriage a path to sainthood;
- Imparts conscientiousness in the begetting and rearing of children;
- Gives prudence in the innumerable problems consequent upon family life;
- Enables husband and wife to adjust to one another’s shortcomings and to bear with one another’s faults.
This is only a little of what the grace of Matrimony will accomplish for those who, by their cooperation, give God a chance to show what he can do.
Grace merited by Christ’s Passion
Four hundred years ago the Council of Trent, in propounding the Catholic doctrine on the sacrament of Matrimony, said:
The grace which would perfect that natural love (of husband and wife) and confirm that indissoluble union and sanctify the married, Christ himself merited for us by his Passion; as the Apostle St. Paul indicates, saying, ‘Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church.’
It seems to me that it should be a wonderfully inspiring thought to a Christian husband and wife to realize that Jesus was thinking of them as he suffered his Passion—to realize that one of the things for which Christ died was the graces they would need in marriage.
Equally inspiring should be the knowledge that the Holy Spirit inspired St. Paul to compare marriage to the fruitful, grace-filled union and interchange between Christ and his Spouse, the Church.
The marriage bond
In addition to the conferring of grace, another effect of the sacrament of Matrimony is the forging of the marriage bond, a moral change wrought in the souls of the married couple.
Of course, it is only the three sacraments whose fundamental objective is the worship of God—Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders—which work in the soul that physical change which we call the “character” of the sacrament. These are the three sacraments by which we share, in varying ways, in the priesthood of Christ.
However, theologians have not hesitated to compare the marriage bond to these sacramental characters and even to term it a quasi-character.
It is from this “quasi-character,” this matrimonial bond, that result the two properties of marriage: unity and indissolubility (such a jaw-breaker!).
By the unity of marriage is meant that a man can have only one wife, and a woman only one husband. They are two in one flesh, not many in one flesh. The unity of marriage is opposed to polygyny (many wives) and polyandry (many husbands).
Since Christ’s time, monogamy (one spouse) must be the rule without exception.
By the indissolubility of marriage is meant that marriage is a permanent union.
Once a man and woman are completely united in a consummated Christian marriage, there is no power on earth, not even the Pope, who can dissolve the bond. “What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder” (Matthew 19:6).
The Church does have the power, under very special circumstances, to dissolve a marriage that was not a sacramental marriage (for example, the marriage of two unbaptized persons when one of the parties has later been baptized), and to dissolve a sacramental marriage that never has been consummated.
But even the marriage of two validly baptized Protestants is a sacramental union which, once consummated, the Church herself cannot break.
The state laws which permit divorce with remarriage are meaningless as far as God is concerned. The divorced person who remarries, and his or her new partner, are living in habitual adultery if the previous marriage was valid; legalized adultery, but adultery nonetheless.
The reality of hardship in some cases
There are times when the unbreakableness of the marriage bond seems to result in a great hardship.
We are thinking of such instances as that of a husband whose wife becomes mentally ill, or the wife who must flee from an abusive husband, or the husband or wife who is deserted by a spouse.
Each of these cases is certainly very difficult in human terms. But the permanence of marriage means there can be no remarriage so long as the deserter lives.
That is, there can be no remarriage for such persons so far as God is concerned. They can, of course, secure a civil divorce (with the consent of the bishop) if it is necessary to protect themselves against a vicious or a deserting spouse.
But the civil divorce cannot break the marriage bond.
Permanence is part of God’s purpose
We feel a great pity for persons caught in such a dilemma.
We are tempted to ask, “Why is God so adamant against any breaking of the marriage bond? Why doesn’t he make some provision for especially deserving cases?”
The answer is that God, once he decided to create the human race male and female and to have men and women cooperate with him in peopling the earth and heaven too, was compelled to make marriage a permanent union in order to fulfill his purposes. (When we say “decided” and “compelled,” we are speaking of God in purely human terms.)
If children were to reach adulthood in the full nobility which God willed them to have—children of God and images of him—it was essential that they should have the emotional, mental, and spiritual stability which could be achieved only by growing up with their own parents. (The writer, whose principal work is with children from broken homes, can bear witness to the harmful effects of step-parentage.)
Moreover, even where there are no children to consider, the secondary purpose of marriage still demands a permanent union. The secondary purpose is the mutual completion which a man and a woman are destined to find in one another—the enrichment and growth which results from their fusion into a new unity, one from two. This is a purpose that never could be fulfilled if the marriage bond were temporary or terminable.
That is why we say that the indissolubility of the marriage bond flows from the natural law, even aside from any positive decree on the part of God. It is based on the very nature of man as he is.
God’s care for us, even in difficult times
Yes, someone may say, that is all very true. But couldn’t there be a dispensation in cases of exceptional hardship?
Unfortunately, there can be no exceptions if God’s plan is to succeed.
When a man and a woman know that “this is for life,” that they have to make a go of their marriage—then ninety-nine times out of a hundred they will. If adultery were grounds for severing the marriage bond with the right to remarry, or brutality or desertion, then how easy it would be to provide the grounds.
We have seen that very result exemplified in our own country, as our divorce-and-remarriage rate grows and swells. No, this is a case where God must hold the line firmly or God’s cause is lost.
It is a case where an individual (an innocent deserted mother, for example) is sometimes called upon to suffer for the common good. Those who say that the innocent should not have to suffer are saying in effect that virtue should be practiced only when virtue is easy. By this principle it would be quite all right for a Catholic caught in a Communist land to deny his Faith if it would keep him out of prison. By this principle martyrs would be fools, and goodness would simply depend upon how low the pressure was.
The deepest reason is found in the fidelity of God to his covenant, in that of Christ to his Church. Through the sacrament of Matrimony the spouses are enabled to represent this fidelity and witness to it. Through the sacrament, the indissolubility of marriage receives a new and deeper meaning.
As for the deserted wife or lonely husband, God knows their problems better than anyone else. He can be depended upon to give the needed courage and strength and help if given the chance. The abandoned children need a father, yes; but they do not need a stepfather more than they need God. God will be doubly a Father to them.
Surely he can be given credit for caring at least as much as we.
A special blessing for a successful marriage
Of course, marriage is so much more than just a permanent commitment. It is the place where a man and a woman seek—and find—deep union with each other. It is where spouses cooperate with God in the creation of new life. It is a channel of divine grace, and a place of life-long support and love—love which is a beacon of God’s own love for us, a testament of faith to the world.
The bride and groom who are seeking all the grace they can obtain for the fulfillment of their vocation will want to exchange the vows of Matrimony within a Nuptial Mass. The Nuptial Mass is a special Mass with a very special blessing which the Church provides in her liturgy for those who are embarking upon the holy vocation of marriage.
There is a special Mass of Ordination in the liturgy for the young man who is offering himself to God in the priesthood. There is a special Mass of Consecration for the offering of a new church edifice to God. It is not surprising, then, that there is a Nuptial Mass for the couple who are dedicating themselves to God as cooperators in his work of creation and redemption, as a little “church-within-a-church” in the Mystical Body of Christ.
It is a measure of the importance which the Church attaches to the sacrament of Matrimony.
A Catholic couple, both esteeming marriage as a vocation under God, receiving the sacrament of Matrimony after a chaste courtship in which prayer and the sacraments have kept God close, kneeling together to receive Holy Communion at their Nuptial Mass—there is a marriage upon which they, and all who love them, can pin their hopes.
This article contains material adapted and abridged from Father Leo Trese's classic book, The Faith Explained. That work is Nihil Obstat: Louis J. Putz, C.S.C., University of Notre Dame. Imprimatur: Leo A. Pursley, D.D., Bishop of Fort Wayne, Indiana.