Marriage: Since the Beginning of Mankind
One man, one woman, for life
What is Marriage?
“The Sacrament of Marriage does not involve two persons, but three.” But like Dr. Fagerberg of Notre Dame quips: “by Trinitarian arithmetic, that means there are five persons involved in each marriage.” Marriage is a mystery and a sacrament, just as the Holy Eucharist is a mystery and a sacrament.
As Pope Leo XIII puts it in his encyclical on marriage:
“Christ our Lord raised marriage to the dignity of a sacrament; that to husband and wife, guarded and strengthened by the heavenly grace which His merits gained for them, He gave power to attain holiness in the married state; and that, in a wondrous way, making marriage an example of the mystical union between Himself and His Church, He not only perfected that love which is according to nature, but also made the naturally indivisible union of one man with one woman far more perfect through the bond of heavenly love (Arcanum).”
The Sacrament of Matrimony is one of the sacraments at the service of communion. Matrimony is a vocation to a state of life that joins a baptized man and baptized woman in a lifelong covenant of love for the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of children.
Marriage in God’s Plan
The Bible begins with a Marriage and ends with the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, and it contains wedding imagery all throughout. At the beginning, God created man and woman in His image and likeness. He saw that it was ‘not good that man should be alone.’ Just as God is a communion of three divine Persons , the Blessed Trinity, marriage is a communion of life and love between husband and wife with their children.
For a long time in human history, Marriage had fallen from its created nature and original practice because of sin. Moses allowed divorce because of the hardness of the people’s hearts. But Jesus Christ restored and elevated Marriage to the level of a Sacrament. Jesus’ first public miracle is performed during a wedding feast. Really when a man and woman are married, they are entering into a deep communion with one another and with God. Marriage is an efficacious sign of Christ’s presence. As He said,
“From the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together let not man put asunder (Mk 10:6-9).”
Matrimony is thus a Sacrament for two baptized Christians. Dr. Scott Hahn gives us a helpful reminder: “Marriage does not make it easy. Marriage makes it possible!” In order to overcome human failings, the married couple must cooperate with the grace of God and follow the teachings of Christ and his Church. Marriage is oriented to the salvation of both spouses, and the more they recognize Heaven as their mutual goal, the more fruitful their marriage will be. Marriage is far more than a civil contract. The Sacrament is an indissoluble covenant, which serves as a conduit of God’s grace and means of sanctification and salvation for both husband and wife.
Celebrating Matrimony and Matrimonial Consent
Proper preparation for marriage is vital. Those who can receive the Sacrament of Matrimony are a baptized man and woman, free to contract marriage, who freely express their consent. To be free means to not be under constraint and not impeded by any natural or Church laws. If the conditions are not met, then the marriage is invalid (i.e. - it does not exist).
The two must consent totally, freely, faithfully, and fruitfully. In other words, they consent to marry for life, free of any coercion, to be faithful to one another, and to be open to the procreation of children. The couple declare this consent in the presence of two witnesses and before a properly authorized minister of the Church: bishop, priest, or deacon. The matter, the stuff, of the Sacrament is the couple themselves. The form, in the Latin Rite, is the vows they make: “I, N. take you, N., for my lawful wife (husband), to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.” This consent freely given, without impediment, makes the marriage.
After the minister ratifies and blesses the marriage covenant. The sealing or consummation of marriage occurs later in the conjugal act. This consummation makes a marriage indissoluble. In the Latin Rite of the Church, the minister of this Sacrament is the couple themselves. The priest or deacon officiates but he acts only as an official witness of the Church. In the Eastern liturgies the minister of this sacrament (called “Crowning”) is the priest or bishop who, after receiving the consent of the spouses, crowns the bride and groom as a sign of the marriage covenant.
At any rate, consent makes the marriage. And consummation makes the marriage indissoluble.
After the husband and wife have been joined through the exchanging of consent at Mass, then receive the Holy Eucharist. Because, of course, all of the sacraments are directed towards the Sacrament of sacraments, the Eucharist. I love the way the Catechism of the Catholic Church phrases this, so please permit me the longer quotation:
“In the Eucharist the memorial of the New Covenant is realized, the New Covenant in which Christ has united himself forever to the Church, his beloved bride for whom he gave himself up. It is therefore fitting that the spouses should seal their consent to give themselves to each other through the offering of their own lives by uniting it to the offering of Christ for his Church made present in the Eucharistic sacrifice, and by receiving the Eucharist so that, communicating in the same Body and the same Blood of Christ, they may form but "one body" in Christ (CCC 1621).”
Effects of Matrimony and the Goods and Requirements of Conjugal Love
Christian marriage is bound up with the union of Christ to the Church and therefore is ordered to the communion of the spouses and children with God. The effects of the Sacrament profoundly reflect the essential properties of Matrimony: unity and indissolubility, as well as the two fundamental purposes of the marital act: union and procreation. Matrimony joins the spouses in a perpetual and exclusive bond. Matrimony gives couples the grace to strengthen their indissoluble unity.
As the Second Vatican Council puts it: “The intimate partnership of married life and love has been established by the Creator and qualified by His laws, and is rooted in the conjugal covenant of irrevocable personal consent (GS, 48)."
Marriage is all about a total gift of self from one spouse to the other. Matrimony and conjugal love gives a ‘new significance’ to human sexuality. More than simply a biological process or reflection of love, this good and noble act strengthens the marriage bond and demands permanence, fidelity, and openness to procreation.
St. Thomas Aquinas (cf. Supplement to the Summa, q. 49, a. 2) and the Council of Trent after him speaks of three blessings of Marriage, in particular: children, fidelity, and the Sacrament.
Of course, not every woman is able to bear children, for whatever biological reasons. But for those who do, St. Paul says that “The woman shall be saved by bearing children.” This does not mean just having children, but as St. Paul says to Timothy, they must also continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control. So, it is clear that the procreation and education of offspring has been held as a primary end of marriage, since the time of the Apostles.
The blessing is not only to the wife. Psalm 127:3-4 says, “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them!”
The blessing of faith in Marriage is the virtue of justice to remain faithful to one’s spouse. As the Council of Trent puts it: “the fidelity which binds wife to husband and husband to wife in such a way that they mutually deliver to each other power over their bodies, promising at the same time never to violate the holy bond of Matrimony.” As St. Paul says, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ also loved the Church.” We have to remember that Christ’s love for His Church is immense. This love brought no advantage to Him, but only advantage to His spouse, the Church.
The third blessing is the Sacrament itself: the indissoluble bond of marriage. Marriage ends only in death. Just as Christ never separates Himself from His Church, so the wife cannot be separated from her husband in so far as regards the marriage itself.
The Second Vatican Council
How does the Second Vatican Council build upon these duties and summarize what has been said? In the Constitution on the Modern World, we hear:
“Authentic married love is caught up into divine love and is governed and enriched by Christ's redeeming power and the saving activity of the Church, so that this love may lead the spouses to God with powerful effect and may aid and strengthen them in sublime office of being a father or a mother. For this reason Christian spouses have a special sacrament by which they are fortified and receive a kind of consecration in the duties and dignity of their state. By virtue of this sacrament, as spouses fulfill their conjugal and family obligation, they are penetrated with the spirit of Christ, which suffuses their whole lives with faith, hope and charity. Thus they increasingly advance the perfection of their own personalities, as well as their mutual sanctification, and hence contribute jointly to the glory of God (GS, 48).”
Marriage is a path to holiness and the practice of marriage means undergoing sanctification. As the Second Vatican Council in the Constitution on the Church puts it:
“Christian spouses, in virtue of the sacrament of Matrimony, whereby they signify and partake of the mystery of that unity and fruitful love which exists between Christ and His Church, help each other to attain to holiness in their married life and in the rearing and education of their children. By reason of their state and rank in life they have their own special gift among the people of God (LG, 11).”
Can Divorced Catholics Receive the Eucharist?
Just a note on something very controversial in the Church today. Can divorced Catholics receive the Eucharist? First, it should be noted that divorce is always a tragedy. Being divorced, however, is not in itself an obstacle to receiving the Eucharist. This is a very misunderstood reality.
Divorce is a purely civil affair and legal separation for the safety of the children or one of the spouses may even be appropriate in cases of domestic abuse. However, marriage, even natural marriage between non-Catholics, is viewed as ending only in death. This fact is preserved by the Church with love and tenacity. Therefore, the remarriage of a validly married person transgresses the nature of marriage itself and is therefore a serious offense against the plan and law of God as taught by Christ. Though the civilly remarried cannot currently receive Communion does not mean they are excluded from the Church! It is the job of the Church to continue lovingly care for their spiritual lives and work to normalize any irregular situations.
What is an Annulment?
Chiefly this normalization is investigated through the annulment process. Some people who want to get married in the Catholic Church eventually may find themselves in marriages that do not appear to be working despite their best efforts. In these cases, the Church encourages counseling in an effort to save the marriage.
However, in cases of domestic abuse or addiction to alcohol or drugs, it might be in the best interest to separate. This, however, is not divorce or permission from the Church to remarry. Some individuals or couples seek a decree of nullity, called an annulment. This is a statement of the Church, after thorough examination of the marriage at the time of consent, that a valid marriage was never established. In other words, from the very beginning there was something seriously lacking at the time of consent which limited the marriage in a serious enough way as to make it null and void.
Once an annulment is granted, those involved in the invalid marriage are free to enter into a sacramental marriage or the religious life. In order to procure an annulment, the person must prove that some kind of impediment to marriage existed at the time of consent. This means that they were not actually free to marry for some reason. Or that the intentions of one or both of the spouses lacked in being free, total, faithful, or fruitful.
The Duties of Married People
What are the duties of married people? St. Paul and St. Peter provide quite a few duties of husbands and wives. All of these are geared to the primary goal: get my spouse to heaven!
Duties of a Husband
The husband is to treat his wife generously and honorably. Adam called Eve his companion given to him by God. Remember, Eve was not formed from the feet of Adam but his side! Nor was she formed from the head of her husband; so, it is not her duty to command her husband but rather to be a helpmate to him.
The husband is also traditionally expected to, using the language of the Council of Trent, “be constantly occupied in some honest pursuit with a view to provide necessaries for the support of his family and to avoid idleness, the root of almost every vice.” This is not to say that the wife cannot work as well, but the husband is the one who, nonetheless, has the normative duty to provide and to avoid idleness.
Finally, the husband is to keep his family in order, to correct their morals and behavior, and to see that each family member does what is expected of them and that they heed their responsibilities.
Duties of a Wife
“Likewise you wives, be submissive to your husbands,” says St. Peter, “so that some, though they do not obey the word, may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, when they see your reverent and chaste behavior (1 Peter 3:1-2).” He also exhorts women to prefer inner sanctity to external beauty. What St. Peter is saying here that wives have remarkable power of example over their husbands. They are to be obedient to their husbands, in that he has the final say as the head of the house, but the woman’s behavior and witness has a tremendous effect on the direction of the decisions.
Wives are called, in a special way, to train their children in the practice of virtue and to especially care for domestic concerns. There have been tectonic shifts in our societies and cultures and there is a lot more freedom of movement for women. The Church does not say that these developments are contrary to the Faith. But the natural gifts of women towards making a house a home and compassionately caring for the needs of domestic life are unrivaled by men.
The Council of Trent ends the section on the duties of a wife with the following: “... let wives never forget that next to God they are to love their husbands, to esteem them above all others, yielding to them in all things not inconsistent with Christian piety, a willing and ready obedience.”
The Domestic Church
Why is the Church so insistent on this idea of the husband as the head of the house and the wife as the suitable helpmate? It is because this is what God created when He created mankind. This is the original state of marriage which keeps everything in good, working order. Marriage is the fundamental building block of society. If we get marriage wrong, we get the family wrong. If we get the family wrong, we get the community wrong. If we get the community wrong, we get justice wrong. If we get justice wrong, everything falls into chaos.
When our Lord Jesus Christ raised marriage back up to its original place at the level of a Sacrament, He was also instituting the Ecclesia domestica, the domestic church. Throughout the history of the Church, the local Parish has always been a family of families, a Church of gathered domestic churches. In the domestic church, the faithful exercise the priesthood of the baptized in a most excellent way. Following the example of the Holy Family of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, the family of God, in their household, moving towards Heaven as “islands of Christian life in an unbelieving world (CCC 1655),” to quote the Catechism.
It should be noted here that single people are not left out. Whatever the particular circumstances, Pope St. John Paul II reminds us, “No one is without a family in this world: the Church is a home and family for everyone, especially those who 'labor and are heavy laden (FC 85).”
Where is Everyone Going?
Until we recapture this reality of the domestic church, the whole Church will continue to hemorrhage. 79% of former Catholics leave the Church before age 23. 50% of Millennials raised Catholic no longer identify as Catholic today - only 7% of Millennials still actively practice their faith today.
Where are they going? 49% said that they are not affiliated with any religion. 25% became evangelical Protestant. 13% became mainline Protestant. And 13% became something else (Mormon, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jewish, Muslim).
So, what is happening in our domestic churches and local Parishes? Why are they leaving? A whopping 60% of those surveyed in 2016 by PEW research said that they stopped believing in the religion’s teachings, 32% said their family was never that religious growing up, 29% perceived negative religious teachings about or treatment of people with same-sex attraction, 19% mentioned the clergy sex-abuse scandal, 18% said that a traumatic event happened in their life, and 16% said they left because their church became too focused on politics.
What this says to me is that our domestic churches do not know how to be domestic churches. The grace is there. The Sacraments, including Matrimony, have power. Remember Dr. Hahn’s phrase: “Marriage does not make it easy. Marriage makes it possible.”
The Root Cause of Our Problems
Everyone you talk to, in the Church, whether conservative, liberal, traditionalist, or progressive has their own opinions and reasons why the Church is losing so many young people. They will say that it’s the liturgical changes, the rigidity, the rules, the abuse scandal, the Latin and tradition, poor catechesis, hypocrisy, something the pope said (present or past popes, for that matter), or so many other things.
I would argue that one of the largest single contributors is a misapprehension of what Marriage is. Over 50% of marriages today, in or out of the Church, end in divorce. Our society today certainly does not celebrate good, holy marriages. Our country has now even tried to redefine what marriage is. Even within Catholic marriages, how many wives seek to be subordinate and loving to their husbands? How many husbands strive to love their wives as Christ loves the Church, with all the theological significance of that particular vocation?
Our society is broken and the first remedy to shore up the flood waters and begin to rebuild a true culture is good, holy marriages. As the Second Vatican Council puts it:
“Authentic conjugal love will be more highly prized, and wholesome public opinion created about it if Christian couples give outstanding witness to faithfulness and harmony in their love, and to their concern for educating their children also, if they do their part in bringing about the needed cultural, psychological and social renewal on behalf of marriage and the family (GS, 49).”
One of the best things that we can do is give words of affirmation to those living their marriages well. I am sure we all know someone who is clearly devoted to their spouse and vice versa. No marriage is without its problems, but there are saints among us. Let us lift them up in prayer and show them to the world as the wonderful examples they are! If you are married, give thanks to God for your spouse. If you are unmarried, please pray that more young people will answer the vocation to good, holy marriages.