Chapter 9 – The Sacrament of Matrimony

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“The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a Sacrament” ( CIC, can. 1055 § 1; cf. GS 48 § 1). (CCC #1601)

Marriage is intended to be the most stable institution in every society.  For some, it is the most glorious and fulfilling relationship in their lives.  Sadly, for others, marriage can leave deep wounds and hurt.  This chapter will examine marriage from the design and perspective of God.  Though Christian Marriage presents couples with a high ideal, like any gift from God, this ideal requires understanding, love and perseverance.  Let’s begin with the original intent and design of God.

God’s Design and Intention for Marriage

The first and most fascinating fact about marriage is that God instituted it from the very beginning of the creation of man and woman.  It’s part of nature.  This means that, unlike the other Sacraments, it predates the Sacraments.  It has its roots in the “order of nature.”

From the very beginning, God meant for male and female to enter into a communion with each other:

God created mankind in his image;
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them and God said to them: Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that crawl on the earth.  (Gn 1:27–28)
The man gave names to all the tame animals, all the birds of the air, and all the wild animals; but none proved to be a helper suited to the man.
So the LORD God cast a deep sleep on the man, and while he was asleep, he took out one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. The LORD God then built the rib that he had taken from the man into a woman. When he brought her to the man, the man said:
“This one, at last, is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
This one shall be called ‘woman,’
for out of man this one has been taken.”
That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body.
The man and his wife were both naked, yet they felt no shame.  (Gn 2:20–25)

These passages from Scripture reveal that man and woman are made for each other, to become united as one in marriage.  It’s essential that we begin with the “order of nature” to properly understand marriage as part of God’s original design.

Being made in the image and likeness of God reveals, among many other things, that people are capable of love and unity.  They are capable of giving themselves to another, receiving another, coming to know another, loving another, and, in that mutual love, becoming “fruitful.”  Of course bearing children and raising a family is one central way that a husband and wife become fruitful.  Even those who are not able to bear children are called to bear fruit from their marriage in a life-giving way.  “Life-giving” love can manifest itself in a variety of ways, but it will always be the fruit of shared mutual love.

The Book of Genesis reveals that husband and wife are called to “become one body.”  This oneness is a source of strength and stability for the couple, for any children born of them, and, in fact, for all of society.  The unity of marriage is one of the fundamental building blocks of all society.

The Effect of the Fall

Since marriage was part of the original design of God, and since our first parents sinned and turned from God, marriage itself was deeply affected as was all of creation.  Suddenly, disorder of every type was introduced into married life as a result of sin.  Humanity saw “discord, a spirit of domination, infidelity, jealousy, and conflicts” enter into marriage (CCC #1606).  

The difficulties of marriage as a result of the fall are clear.  The ideals of married life are hard to enter into and require continually deepening love and commitment.  Sin, hurt, memories of the past, passion and disorder all challenge the natural marriage bond and make it difficult for married couples to live out the glorious vocation of love, unity and fruitfulness to which they have been called.

But God did not abandon us nor did He abandon marriage.  He has an answer and offers this answer so that this natural institution can reach its fulfillment.

God’s Answer

God saw the effects of the fall of man and, as a result, introduced a glorious plan that affects all aspects of human life and given to restore humanity to a new level of communion with Him by the grace of the Sacrifice of His Son.  This plan understands marriage as a natural good which was part of God’s original intention for humanity.  

God’s plan was to establish a new covenant with humanity.  A covenant could be seen as a form of a contract—but a contract that is elevated to a whole new level.  It’s not just an exchange of promises but an exchange of persons. God invites the human race to enter into a new union with Him, a new relationship in which God states, as He did in the Old Testament, “I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God” (Ex 6:7).  God’s love for His people in the Old Testament culminated in God giving the Israelites the Ten Commandments through Moses.  The Israelites keeping of these Commandments, in turn, expressed their fidelity to God.  

However, it became clear that the people of Israel could not always be faithful to this new covenant.  Their relationship with God experienced the effects of their sins.  But God did not abandon them.  He promised to take this covenant to a whole new level.  In the Prophets, this covenant moved beyond the law and focused upon a new interior relationship between God and man.  For example, Ezekial 11:19–20 states: 

And I will give them another heart and a new spirit I will put within them. From their bodies I will remove the hearts of stone, and give them hearts of flesh, so that they walk according to my statutes, taking care to keep my ordinances. Thus they will be my people, and I will be their God.

This New Covenant was to be established through the Incarnation of the Son of God and the Sacrifice of His life on the Cross.  First, by taking on our human nature, God the Son restores and elevates human nature to a whole new level.  Humanity is now “divinized” so to speak.  There is a new bond established between God and humanity that is greater than the original bond established at creation.  

This new bond is also made possible because God the Son, after taking on human nature, destroyed sin and death by His own death.  He destroyed it by entering into the effects of sin (i.e., death) and then by rising to new life.  Thus, He restores and elevates human nature to a new resurrected state.  As a result of this new life, humanity can now have the heart of Christ live within them.  We can now live in Christ and He in us.  We are wedded to Him in a new and transforming way.

This bond ultimately becomes a new marital covenant, a marriage of intimate union between God and His people.  Jesus becomes the Bridegroom, and His people, the Church, become the bride.  This New Covenant, the new Divine Marriage, invites consent from each person to enter into an interior union with God.  The heart of Christ now consumes and transforms each human heart.  We live in Christ, and He lives in us.

This reality of the New Covenant is not only the basis of the entire Christian life, it is also now the basis of marriage in Christ.  Marriage could not be saved as a purely natural institution.  Thus, God elevates all of fallen human nature to a new level.  This includes the elevation of the natural order of marriage to the supernatural level of a sacrament.  Marriage is now endowed with the spiritual power of the death and resurrection of Christ.  This natural bond is elevated by grace to a share in the New Covenant in Christ.  What a glorious and awe-inspiring plan our loving God has unfolded for humanity!

Christian Marriage in the New Covenant 

When two baptized people enter into the Covenant of Marriage, this marriage is automatically elevated to the level of a sacrament.  As a sacrament, Christian Marriage produces an abundance of good fruit and has new and profound effects upon the couple.  Christian Marriage also calls a couple to a new level of self-giving and responsibility.  Let’s look at some of these effects and good fruits in Christian Marriage.

Unity: It’s important to acknowledge the inner desire we all have for unity.  As humans, we are made for unity, to be in a deep personal communion with one another.  And there is no way to erase the longing within our heart for this unity.  Husband and wife are called by God to share in a very profound and unique unity, “That the two may become one.”  For that reason, marriage has the potential to bring about the greatest human fulfillment when that unity is well lived.  Of course, discord within marriage produces great hurt, since the natural longings of our hearts then go unsatisfied.

As a result of the fall in Genesis, men and women were not, and are not, able to live out this natural call to unity within marriage.  Therefore, by bringing marriage into the New Covenant of grace, God bestows a new power on this natural institution infusing it with supernatural grace.  Couples are now strengthened, in Christ, to live the unity that Jesus shares with the Father and the love He has for the entire Church.  Marriage is now sacramental, shares in this new grace, and enjoys unity among its greatest benefits.  

Of course, as with all aspects of the Christian life, couples are not forced to accept this new grace but can freely reject it.  And it takes both husband and wife to fully embrace the New Covenant in their marriage for the unity Christ intends to be lived.

Indissolubility: Sacramental Marriage creates permanent and lasting unity.  Once God makes a promise, He does not go back on it.  This permanence provides the necessary foundation for couples to have the stability they need in life and also the necessary context to raise a family if God so blesses a couple with children.  

Indissolubility means just that.  There is no way around it.  A valid Christian marriage cannot be undone.  It is “until death do you part.”  This means that even if a validly married couple were to get civilly divorced, the Church would still consider them married, and they would, in fact, still be married.  Again, this bond cannot be broken.

Now, you may be wondering about annulments and the fact that there are some who go through a marriage in a Catholic Church, eventually get divorced, receive an annulment from the Church, and then get married again within the Catholic Church.  This can be confusing if not properly understood.  The section later in this chapter on “Matrimonial Consent” will address this question.  But for now, just know that when a couple enters a valid Christian marriage, the bond cannot be broken.  

Fidelity:  Fidelity means that married couples commit themselves to each other exclusively in regard to conjugal love.  Fidelity is inherent to the nature of the sexual relationship itself.  Sexual love exists for the purpose of unity and childbearing.  Childbearing should take place within the context of the committed and permanent relationship of marriage.  This is the loving context that God intended children to be born into and nurtured.  

But the sexual act also produces profound unity between the couple.  In fact, it is this act, along with the vows of marriage, that seals and makes permanent the marriage covenant.  In this act, the two become one flesh.  Therefore, conjugal love is also spiritual in nature and produces a powerful spiritual bond that must be exercised and experienced only in the context of this life-long permanent covenant of marriage.

The fidelity of married couples also shares in the very fidelity that God has for His people.  Christian Marriage stands as a witness to the world of the unwavering fidelity of Christ to the Church.  Jesus’ New Covenant with humanity is the source of the fidelity of married couples.  For that reason, marriage becomes a sign to the world of God’s love and commitment.

Openness to New Life:  An essential commitment married couples make is that of openness to new life.  This especially means an openness to children.  Of course, not every couple is able to have children due to age or other factors.  But the key is the openness.  And it’s key to understand that this is an “essential” commitment they make.  By being essential, if a couple intentionally excludes the possibility of children, they are actually not entering into marriage.  More will be said on this in the section on matrimonial consent.  

A Help in Holiness:  Marriage was designed by God because “it is not good for the man to be alone.”  God, therefore, decided to make a “suitable helpmate” for him.  In the ideal of Christian Marriage, spouses are true helpmates for each other on the road to salvation.  They image the love of God in that they are to always be there, in good times and bad.  They are stable, reliable, concerned, merciful and loving in every way.

Spouses are “helpmates” in countless practical and human ways.  They assist each other with daily duties of the home, through shared finances, offer emotional support, they share in each other’s joys and sorrows, and are present to all the ordinary parts of human life.  However, among the many ways that spouses are helpmates to each other, none is more important than being a helpmate toward holiness.  Spouses must regularly assist each other in their relationship with God.  They do this by offering the love of God to each other, challenging each other, keeping each other accountable, and experiencing the joys of the Kingdom together.  Ideally they pray together and witness their faith to each other.  In some cases, one spouse lives his or her faith to a much fuller extent.  In that situation, the faithful spouse may be the ticket for the other to Heaven.  But, ideally, both act as instruments of the grace of God to each other.

Mutual Subjection:  One tendency within fallen human nature is to dominate others.  Both men and women struggle with this tendency in different ways.  We want to be in charge and make the decisions in life, and we often want to control others. This tendency, to dominate, is a result of the fall and is sinful.  This is especially the case when domination enters into marriage.  Throughout history, in many cultures, the primary tendency has been for men to dominate their wives.  Many cultures have even treated women as second-class citizens.  However, wives fall into this same trap of trying to dominate their husbands in their own ways.  Often times, this tendency is expressed primarily through the extreme use of emotions.  

But regardless of how this tendency to dominate the other is lived out, the solution is the same.  The solution is a mutual subjection of husband and wife to each other respecting each other’s dignity and unique feminine and masculine roles they each bring to their marriage.  Men and women are clearly different in numerous ways, and that is a good thing because that’s the way God designed us.  Therefore, the unique gifts of masculinity and femininity must be lived and respected in marriage.  True masculinity will not be domineering nor will true femininity.  Rather, mutual subjection means that each spouse submits to the other in accord with their nature and treats the other with the utmost respect and dignity.  Practically speaking, when this mutual submission takes place, neither spouse will be afraid to let the other fulfill their masculine or feminine role within the marriage.  The man may make the final decision in a marriage but only after listening to his wife’s heart and letting that be their mutual guide.  The wife, in this case, will not be afraid to let her husband be the head of the home, since she experiences complete respect from him, and her gift of a feminine heart becomes the guiding light for her husband.  

Spouses must strive, every day, to discover the way God wants them to live out their love and mutual submission in keeping with their natural gifts and roles.  This is hard to do, but must be at the heart of any good and holy marriage.  The Sacrament of Matrimony will provide the grace needed to live out this complementarity of male and female acting together as one.

Matrimonial Consent 

With this explanation of Christian Marriage in the New Covenant, we can now look at matrimonial consent.  This consent is what brings about the actual Sacrament of Marriage and produces the wonderful fruits and effects of marriage.  Consent is something that must be total and must be free.  Force, fear, manipulation pressure and the like undermine the effect of consent and, therefore, undermine marriage itself.  On the other hand, consent that is free and total produces the wonderful fruits of marriage outlined in the previous section of this book.  Let’s look at consent more clearly so as to understand what is needed for consent to bring about a permanent and lasting marriage.

Free Consent:  The consent that couples offer in marriage must be free.  Free consent means that there is nothing present that adds excessive pressure to either person in making the decision to enter into marriage.  They should be of sound mind, fully understand the seriousness of their commitment, and make that commitment out of a completely free-will decision.  Factors that undermine freedom would be pressure, manipulation, fear, immaturity, drugs or alcohol addiction, and the like.  

For example, the idea of a “shotgun wedding” illustrates a real danger to free consent.  Say a couple ends up getting pregnant out of wedlock.  Suddenly, one or both of the persons feels great pressure to get married.  Certainly it is entirely possible to make the free choice to get married in this situation for the right reasons.  However, if one or both persons decide to get married because they “have to,” this is a problem.  Choosing to get married out of feelings of pressure undermines marriage itself and could actually lead to the marriage being invalid, meaning the bond never actually takes place.  

Another example that illustrates a lack of freedom in choosing marriage is that of immaturity.  Say, for example, a couple chooses to get married quickly as a result of initial and extreme romantic feelings.  They are quite young and immature and do not really understand the depth of commitment they are making.  It is possible that their immaturity and emotions cloud their ability to make an authentic and free choice for marriage.  The same would be the case of one who attempts to enter into marriage while addicted to drugs and alcohol.  Those addictions could so hinder a person’s clear thinking that they are incapable of making a free choice on the level necessary for the marriage bond to form.

Total Consent: The free consent of couples to enter into marriage must also be total.  This means that they must be freely committing themselves to all that marriage entails.  Specifically, they must fully intend three things: 1) fidelity; 2) permanence; 3) openness to children.  These three “ends” of marriage are essential.  This means that as a couple professes their vows, they must make the interior choice to be completely open to these three ends of marriage.  

An obvious example of the lack of total consent would be the couple who are of childbearing age who agrees ahead of time not to have any children.  The intentional choice to exclude the possibility of children actually excludes the formation of the marriage bond.  In this case, there is an intention against marriage itself by intending to exclude one of the three essential ends of marriage.

Annulments: At times, marriages fail and end in civil divorce.  In this case, it’s important for a couple to have the Church examine their marriage bond in the light of our faith and teaching on the ends of marriage.  This process is called an annulment.  

Annulments can be very healing and helpful to couples who have experienced divorce.  They are healing because the goal of an annulment process is to analyze the marriage bond in the light of the truth.  The totality of the consent, the freedom of the consent and the three ends of marriage are, in a sense, put on trial.  Did the bond actually take place or not?  Was something essential missing from the marriage from the very beginning?  These questions must be analyzed in the light of our faith and the teachings of our Church on marriage.  In an annulment process, one or both of the persons involved in divorce invites the Church to enter in and make a judgment on the validity of the marriage bond.  Though this can be painful to go through, it is almost always healing in the end.  It’s healing because the persons know that the Church has listened and helped them sort things out.

After thoroughly analyzing the marriage bond, the Church comes back with one of two judgments.  They will declare that either the bond does exist, or it doesn’t.  In the latter case, a judgment of nullity is issued, which means that the Church found that something essential was missing from the consent from the very beginning of the marriage.  Therefore, the bond of marriage never took place.  As a result, the persons are still free to enter into marriage and can do so within the Catholic Church.

Annulments are not a form of Catholic divorce because the Church does not have the authority to separate two validly married people.  Rather, an annulment seeks only to clarify what is or is not there.

A Sacrament or Not

In order to properly understand marriage, it’s important to first offer some further clarity on the types of marriage.  The primary distinction in marriage is whether it is a Sacrament or not.  From there, we will also explore marriage between two Catholics, one Catholic and a non-Catholic Christian, and two non-Catholic Christians.

Marriage on the Natural Order:  As explained earlier in this chapter, marriage was part of the original intention of God and, therefore, is part of the natural order.  Jesus elevated marriage to the order of grace, making it a sacrament, for couples who are both baptized.  However, when one or both of the persons are not baptized, the marriage is not a Sacrament but is still a marriage on the natural order.

What’s the difference?  In a marriage of the natural order, there is still a bond established by the free consent of the couples, as outlined earlier in this chapter.  The consent must still be free and total and include all three ends of marriage.  However, being of a natural order rather than a Sacrament simply means that the sacramental grace is not present to that marriage.  It doesn’t mean God is not present, it just means that the unique grace of the Sacrament is not present.  Ideally, God must still be invited into that marriage, and the love of God must still assist the couple in their marriage.  And if, in the future, both persons become baptized, the natural marriage bond automatically is elevated to the level of a sacrament.  Baptism is the gateway to the life of the Sacraments and, therefore, enables marriage to share in this sacramental grace.

Marriage as a Sacrament:  When both persons are baptized, their marriage is automatically a sacrament.  This is the case when marriage takes place between two Catholics, a Catholic and a non-Catholic Christian, or two non-Catholic Christians.  In fact, even if two non-Catholic Christians get married by the Justice of the Peace, their marriage is still a sacrament.  Only Catholics are bound by the Church to have their marriage vows received in the Church according to the Catholic ritual.  All other marriages are recognized as the Institution of Marriage as long as the consent is free and total.

The Domestic Church

One last aspect to highlight within marriage is the understanding that marriage, as a sacrament, establishes a “Domestic Church.”  It is God’s plan that the family be a place of holiness and unity.  The family is the foundational building block of the Church and all of society.  

Within the family, children are nurtured, spouses are strengthened, extended relatives have a sense of belonging, and God is made manifest.  The family must be seen as a true gift from God and a true source of God’s presence and sustaining grace.

The Domestic Church, the family, must be open to and extend to all.  For example, those who are single, with no family of their own, must be included in human families.  Through friendships and inclusion, all persons must find that they belong not only to God’s one divine family but also to those individual manifestations of God’s family within particular domestic churches.

Next: Chapter 10 – An Introduction to Prayer

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