Chapter Nine - The Sacrament of Matrimony

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 (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1601).

Marriage is intended to be the most stable part of every society.  And, for some, one of the most glorious and fulfilling parts of 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 should be understood, loved and worked towards.  Let’s begin with the original intent and design of God.


God’s Design and Intention for Marriage

The first and most fascinating aspect of marriage to consider is that God instituted Marriage 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 Sacraments.  It starts with what we call the “order of nature.”

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

God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them, saying: "Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it (Genesis 1:27-28).

The man gave names to all the cattle, all the birds of the air, and all the wild animals; but none proved to be the suitable partner for 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 up into a woman the rib that he had taken from the man. 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 'her 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 (Genesis 2:20-25).

These passages from Scripture reveal the fact that man and woman are made for each other. They were made to become united as one in marriage. It’s essential that we begin with this natural design of humanity so as to properly understand marriage as part of God’s original design. 

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

These foundational Scriptures also reveal the unity that husband and wife are capable of. They 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 and foundational 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 (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1606). 

Their relations were distorted by mutual recriminations; their mutual attraction, the Creator's own gift, changed into a relationship of domination and lust; and the beautiful vocation of man and woman to be fruitful, multiply, and subdue the earth was burdened by the pain of childbirth and the toil of work (#1607).

The difficulties encountered by 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 they have been called to. 

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. It’s a plan that affects all aspects of human life. God’s plan was to restore humanity to a new level of communion with Him by grace, by the grace of the Sacrifice of the Son. This plan affects every part of human life including marriage as a natural good and as part of God’s original intention for humanity. 

The plan was that God established 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, it’s an exchange of persons. The covenant God offers is that the human race is invited to enter into a new union with God, a new relationship in which God states over and over throughout the Old Testament, “I will take you as my own people, and you shall have me as your God” (Exodus 6:7). This Old Testament culminated in Moses giving the Israelites the Ten Commandments. By the keeping of these commandments, God promised to be their God. 

However, it was clear that the people of Israel could not keep this new covenant. They could not remain faithful to the commandments of the Lord. Thus, their relationship with God continued to experience the effects of their sin. But God did not give up. He promised to take this covenant to a whole new level. In the Prophets, this covenant became clearer and focused upon a new interior relationship God established with humanity. For example, Ezekiel 11:19-20 states: 

I will give them a new heart and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the stony heart from their bodies, and replace it with a natural heart, so that they will live according to my statutes, and observe and carry out my ordinances; thus they shall 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 even greater than the original intention of God. This bond is a 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 marriage between God and His people is possible because God the Son 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 New Covenant, the new Divine Marriage, invites consent from each person. The consent enables 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 a supernatural level of a sacrament. Marriage is now endowed with the spiritual power of the death and resurrection of Christ. Grace is given to this natural bond elevating it 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

The consent by which the spouses mutually give and receive one another is sealed by God himself. From their covenant arises "an institution, confirmed by the divine law, . . . even in the eyes of society." The covenant between the spouses is integrated into God's covenant with man: "Authentic married love is caught up into divine love" (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1639).

When two people are baptized and 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.  We are made to be in a deep personal communion with one another.  And there is no way to shake 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 experienced and lived.  Of course, when there is discord within marriage, this produces one of the greatest hurts since it denies the natural longings of our hearts.

As a result of the fall, men and women were 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 in that it shares in this new grace.  And unity is among the greatest benefits. 

Of course, just as it is with all aspects of the Christian life, couples are not forced to be open to this new grace.  They can freely choose or reject this grace.  And it takes both to fully embrace the New Covenant in their marriage for the unity Christ intends to take place.

Indissolubility: Unity in marriage also takes on a permanent and lasting character.  Once God makes a promise, He does not go back on it.  Therefore, once God enters into a marriage and seals it with His sacramental grace, the bond is permanent.  This permanence provides the necessary foundation for couples to have the stability they need in life and also provides 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 valid Christian marriage takes place, the bond cannot be broken. 

Fidelity:  Fidelity means that married couples commit themselves to exclusivity in regards to conjugal love.  This fidelity is necessary because of the nature of the sexual relationship itself.  Sexual love is 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 context that God intended children to be raised in, nurtured by and loved.  But the sexual act also produces a profound unity of 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 of God for His people.  Christian marriage stands as a witness to the world of the unwavering fidelity of Christ to the Church.  Therefore, Jesus’ New Covenant with humanity is the source of the fidelity of married couples.  And, 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 complimentarity 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 undermines the effect of consent and, therefore, undermines 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 child bearing 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 Marriage as long as the consent is free and total. 

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.