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published: 5/22/13

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Christian Marriage

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What is Marriage?

The institution of marriage has become a controversial issue in recent years, especially in the Western word. But what is the defintion of marriage? Is it between one man and one woman? Is a relationship between two men or women even "marriage?" Christianity has been teaching about marriage for 2,000 years and believes it to be an institution created by God and be according to God's design.

Marriage as a Sacrament

That Christian marriage (i.e. marriage between baptized persons) is really a sacrament of the New Law in the strict sense of the word is for all Catholics an indubitable truth. According to the Council of Trent this dogma has always been taught by the Church, and is thus defined in canon i, Sess. XXIV: "If any one shall say that matrimony is not truly and properly one of the Seven Sacraments of the Evangelical Law, instituted by Christ our Lord, but was invented in the Church by men, and does not confer grace, let him be anathema."

The occasion of this solemn declaration was the denial by the so-called Reformers of the sacramental character of marriage. Calvin in his "Institutions", IV, xix, 34, says: "Lastly, there is matrimony, which all admit was instituted by God, though no one before the time of Gregory regarded it as a sacrament. What man in his sober senses could so regard it? God's ordinance is good and holy; so also are agriculture, architecture, shoemaking, hair-cutting legitimate ordinances of God, but they are not sacraments".

And Luther speaks in terms equally vigorous. In his German work, published at Wittenberg in 1530 under the title "Von den Ehesachen", he writes (p. 1): "No one indeed can deny that marriage is an external worldly thing, like clothes and food, house and home, subject to worldly authority, as shown by so many imperial laws governing it." In an earlier work (the original edition of "De captivitate Babylonica") he writes: "Not only is the sacramental character of matrimony without foundation in Scripture; but the very traditions, which claim such sacredness for it, are a mere jest"; and two pages further on: "Marriage may therefore be a figure of Christ and the Church; it is, however, no Divinely instituted sacrament, but the invention of men in the Church, arising from ignorance of the subject." The Fathers of the Council of Trent evidently had the latter passage in mind.

But the decision of Trent was not the first given by the Church. The Council of Florence, in the Decree for the Armenians, had already declared: "The seventh sacrament is matrimony, which is a figure of the union of Christ, and the Church, according to the words of the Apostle: This is a great sacrament, but I speak in Christ and in the Church.'" And Innocent IV, in the profession of faith prescribed for the Waldensians (18 December, 1208), includes matrimony among the sacraments (Denziger-Bannwart, "Enchiridion", n. 424).

The acceptance of the sacraments administered in the Church had been prescribed in general in the following words: "And we by no means reject the sacraments which are administered in it (the Roman Catholic Church), with the co-operation of the inestimable and invisible power of the Holy Ghost, even though they be administered by a sinful priest, provided the Church recognizes him", the formula then takes up each sacrament in particular, touching especially on those points which the Waldensians had denied: "Therefore we approve of baptism of children . . . confirmation administered by the bishop . . . the sacrifice of the Eucharist. . . . We believe that pardon is granted by God to penitent sinners . . . we hold in honour the anointing of the sick with consecrated oil . . . we do not deny that carnal marriages are to be contracted, according to the words of the Apostle."

It is, therefore, historically certain that from the beginning of the thirteenth century the sacramental character of marriage was universally known and recognized as a dogma. Even the few theologians who minimized, or who seemed to minimize, the sacramental character of marriage, set down in the foremost place the proposition that marriage is a sacrament of the New Law in the strict sense of the word, and then sought to conform their further theses on the effect and nature of marriage to this fundamental truth, as will be evident from the quotations given below.

The reason why marriage was not expressly and formally included among the sacraments earlier and the denial of it branded as heresy, is to be found in the historical development of the doctrine regarding the sacraments; but the fact itself may be traced to Apostolic times. With regard to the several religious rites designated as "Sacraments of the New Law", there was always in the Church a profound conviction that they conferred interior Divine grace.

But the grouping of them into one and the same category was left for a later period, when the dogmas of faith in general began to be scientifically examined and systematically arranged. Furthermore, that the seven sacraments should be grouped in one category was by no means self-evident. For, though it was accepted that each of these rites conferred interior grace, yet, in contrast to their common invisible effect, the difference in external ceremony and even in the immediate purpose of the production of grace was so great that, for a long time, it hindered a uniform classification.

Thus, there is a radical difference between the external form under which baptism, confirmation, and orders, on the one hand are administered, and, on the other hand, those that characterize penance and marriage. For while marriage is in the nature of a contract, and penance in the nature of a judicial process, the three first-mentioned take the form of a religious consecration of the recipients.

The Character of Christian Marriage

In the proof of Apostolicity of the doctrine that marriage is a sacrament of the New Law, it will suffice to show that the Church has in fact always taught concerning marriage what belongs to the essence of a sacrament. The name sacrament cannot be cited as satisfactory evidence, since it did not acquire until a late period the exclusively technical meaning it has to-day; both in pre-Christian times and in the first centuries of the Christian Era it had a much broader and more indefinite signification. In this sense is to be understood the statement of Leo XIII in his Encyclical "Arcanum" (10 February, 1880): "To the teaching of the Apostles, indeed, are to be referred the doctrines which our holy fathers, the councils, and the tradition of the Universal Church have always taught, namely that Christ Our Lord raised marriage to the dignity of a sacrament."

The pope rightly emphasizes the importance of the tradition of the Universal Church. Without this it would be very difficult to get from the Scriptures and the Fathers clear and decisive proof for all, even the unlearned, that marriage is a sacrament in the strict sense of the word. The process of demonstration would be too long and would require a knowledge of theology which the ordinary faithful do not possess. In themselves, however, the direct testimonies of the Scriptures and of several of the Fathers are of sufficient weight to constitute a real proof, despite the denial of a few theologians past and present.

The classical Scriptural text is the declaration of the Apostle Paul (Eph., v, 22 sqq.), who emphatically declares that the relation between husband and wife should be as the relation between Christ and His Church:

"Let women be subject to their husbands, as to the Lord: because the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the Church. He is the saviour of his body. Therefore as the Church is subject to Christ, so also let the wives be to their husbands in all things. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ also loved the Church, and delivered Himself up for it: that He might sanctify it, cleansing it by the laver of water in the word of life; that He might present it to Himself a glorious church not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that it should be holy, and without blemish. So also ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife, loveth himself. For no man ever hated his own flesh; but nourisheth it and cherisheth it, as also Christ doth the Church: because we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones." After this exhortation the Apostle alludes to the Divine institution of marriage in the prophetical words proclaimed by God through Adam: "For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother and shall cleave to his wife, and they shall be two in one flesh." He then concludes with the significant words in which he characterizes Christian marriage: "This is a great sacrament; but I speak in Christ and in the Church."

It would be rash, of course, to infer immediately from the expression, "This is a great sacrament", that marriage is a sacrament of the New Law in the strict sense, for the meaning of the word sacrament, as already remarked, is too indefinite. But considering the expression in its relation to the preceding words, we are led to the conclusion that it is to be taken in the strict sense of a sacrament of the New Law. The love of Christian spouses for each other should be modelled on the love between Christ and the Church, because Christian marriage, as a copy and token of the union of Christ with the Church, is a great mystery or sacrament.

It would not be a solemn, mysterious symbol of the union of Christ with the Church, which takes concrete form in the individual members of the Church, unless it efficaciously represented this union, i.e. not merely by signifying the supernatural life-union of Christ with the Church, but also by causing that union to be realized in the individual members; or, in other words, by conferring the supernatural life of grace. The first marriage between Adam and Eve in Paradise was a symbol of this union; in fact, merely as a symbol, it surpassed individual Christian marriages, inasmuch as it was an antecedent type, whereas individual Christian marriages are subsequent representations. There would be no reason, therefore, why the Apostle should refer with such emphasis to Christian marriage as so great a sacrament, if the greatness of Christian marriage did not lie in the fact, that it is not a mere sign, but an efficacious sign of the life of grace.

In fact, it would be entirely out of keeping with the economy of the New Testament if we possessed a sign of grace and salvation instituted by God which was only an empty sign, and not an efficacious one. Elsewhere (Gal., iv, 9), St. Paul emphasizes in a most significant fashion the difference between the Old and the New Testament, when he calls the religious rites of the former "weak and needy elements" which could not of themselves confer true sanctity, the effect of true justice and sanctity being reserved for the New Testament and its religious rites. If, therefore, he terms Christian marriage, as a religious act, a great sacrament, he means not to reduce it to the low plane of the Old Testament rites, to the plane of a "weak and needy element", but rather to show its importance as a sign of the life of grace, and, like the other sacraments, an efficacious sign.

St. Paul, then, does not speak of marriage as a true sacrament in explicit and immediately apparent fashion, but only in such wise that the doctrine must be deduced from his words. Hence, the Council of Trent (Sess. XXIV), in the dogmatic chapter on marriage, says that the sacramental effect of grace in marriage is "intimated" by the Apostle in the Epistle to the Ephesians (quod Paulus Apostolus innuit). For further confirmation of the doctrine that marriage under the New Law confers grace and is therefore included among the true sacraments, the Council of Trent refers to the Holy Fathers, the earlier councils, and the ever manifest tradition of the universal Church. The teaching of the Fathers and the constant tradition of the Church, as already remarked, set forth the dogma of Christian marriage as a sacrament, not in the scientific, theological terminology of later time, but only in substance. Substantially, the following elements belong to a sacrament of the New Law:

  • it must be a sacred religious rite instituted by Christ;
  • this rite must be a sign of interior sanctification;
  • it must confer this interior sanctification or Divine grace;
  • this effect of Divine grace must be produced, not only in conjunction with the respective religious act, but through it.

Hence, whoever attributes these elements to Christian marriage, thereby declares it a true sacrament in the strict sense of the word. Testimony to this effect is to be found from the earliest Christian times onward. The clearest is that of St. Augustine in his works "De bono conjugii" and "De nuptiis et concupiscentia". In the former work (chap. xxiv in P.L., XL, 394), he says, "Among all people and all men the good that is secured by marriage consists in the offspring and in the chastity of married fidelity; but, in the case of God's people [the Christians], it consists moreover in the holiness of the sacrament, by reason of which it is forbidden, even after a separation has taken place, to marry another as long as the first partner lives . . . just as priests are ordained to draw together a Christian community, and even though no such community be formed, the Sacrament of Orders still abides in those ordained, or just as the Sacrament of the Lord, once it is conferred, abides even in one who is dismissed from his office on account of guilt, although in such a one it abides unto judgment."

In the other work (I, x, in P.L., XLIV, 420), the holy Doctor says: "Undoubtedly it belongs to the essence of this sacrament that, when man and wife are once united by marriage, this bond remains indissoluble throughout their lives. As long as both live, there remains a something attached to the marriage, which neither mutual separation nor union with a third can remove; in such cases, indeed, it remains for the aggravation of the guilt of their crime, not for the strengthening of the union. Just as the soul of an apostate, which was once similarly wedded unto Christ and now separates itself from Him, does not, in spite of its loss of faith, lose the Sacrament of Faith, which it has received in the waters of regeneration." In these words, St. Augustine places marriage, which he names a sacrament, on the same level with Baptism and Holy Orders. Thus, as Baptism and Holy Orders are sacraments in the strict sense and are recognized as such by the Holy Doctor, he also considers the marriage of Christians a sacrament in the full and strict sense of the word.

Scarcely less clear is the testimony of St. Ambrose. In his letter to Siricius (Ep. xlii, 3, in P.L., XVI, 1124), he states: "We also do not deny that marriage was sanctified by Christ"; and to Vigilius he writes (Ep. xix, 7, in P.L., XVI, 984): "Since the contracting of marriage must be sanctified by the veiling and the blessing of the priest, how can there be any mention of a marriage, when unity of faith is wanting?" Of what kind this sanctification is, the saint tells us clearly in his work "De Abraham" (I, vii, in P.L., XIV, 443): "We know that God is the Head and Protector, who does not permit that another's marriage-bed be defiled; and further that one guilty of such a crime sins against God, whose command he contravenes and whose bond of grace he loosens. Therefore, since he has sinned against God, he now loses his participation in the heavenly sacrament."

According to Ambrose, therefore, Christian marriage is a heavenly sacrament, which binds one with God by the bonds of grace until these bonds are sundered by subsequent sin that is, it is a sacrament in the strict and complete sense of the word. The value of this testimony might be weakened only by supposing that Ambrose, in referring to the "participation in the heavenly sacrament" which he declares forfeited by adulterers, was really thinking of Holy Communion. But of the latter there is in the present instance not the slightest question; consequently, he must here mean the loss of all share in the grace of the Sacrament of Marriage.

This production of grace through marriage, and therefore its character as a perfect sacrament, was emphasized also by Innocent I in his letter to Probus (Ep. ix, in P.L., XX, 602). He declares a second marriage during the lifetime of the first partner invalid, and adds: "Supported by the Catholic Faith, we declare that the true marriage is that which is originally founded on Divine grace."

As early as the second century we have the valuable testimony of Tertullian. While still a Catholic, he writes ("Ad Uxorem", II, vii, in P.L., I, 1299): "If therefore such a marriage is pleasing to God, wherefore should it not turn out happily, so that it will not be troubled by afflictions and needs and obstacles and contaminations, since it enjoys the protection of the Divine grace?" But if Divine grace and its protection are, as Tertullian asserts, given with marriage, we have therein the distinctive moment which constitutes a religious action (already known for other reasons as a sign of Divine grace) an efficacious sign of grace, that is, a true Sacrament of the New Dispensation. It is only on this hypothesis that we can rightly understand another passage from the same work of Tertullian (II, ix, in P.L., I, 1302): "How can we describe the happiness of those marriages which the Church ratifies, the sacrifice strengthens, the blessing seals, the angels publish, the Heavenly Father propitiously beholds?"

Weightier, if anything, than the testimony of the Fathers as to the sacramental character of Christian marriage is that of the liturgical books and sacramentaries of the different Churches, Eastern and Western, recording the liturgical prayers and rites handed down from the very earliest times. These, it is true, differ in many unimportant details, but their essential features must be traced back to Apostolic ordinances.

In all these rituals and liturgical collections, marriage, contracted before the priest during the celebration of Mass, is accompanied by ceremonies and prayers similar to those used in connection with the other sacraments; in fact several of these rituals expressly call marriage a sacrament, and, because it is a "sacrament of the living", require contrition for sin and the reception of the Sacrament of Penance before marriage is contracted (cf. Martène, "De antiquis ecclesiæ ritibus", I, ix). But the venerable age, in fact the apostolicity, of the ecclesiastical tradition concerning marriage is still more clearly revealed by the circumstance that the rituals or liturgical books of the Oriental Churches and sects, even of those that separated from the Catholic Church in the first centuries, treat the contracting of marriage as a sacrament, and surround it with significant and impressive ceremonies and prayers.

The Nestorians, Monophysites, Copts, Jacobites etc., all agree in this point (cf. J. S. Assemani, "Bibliotheca orientalis", III, i, 356; ii, 319 sqq.; Schelstrate, "Acta oriental. eccl.", I, 150 sqq.; Denzinger, "Ritus orientalium", I, 150 sqq.; II, 364 sqq.). The numerous prayers which are used throughout the ceremony refer to a special grace which is to be granted to the newly-married persons, and occasional commentaries show that this grace was regarded as sacramental. Thus, the Nestorian patriarch, Timotheus II, in his work "De septem causis sacramentorum" mentioned in Assemani (III, i, 579), deals with marriage among the other sacraments, and enumerates several religious ceremonies without which marriage is invalid. Evidently, therefore, he includes marriage among the sacraments, and considers the grace resulting from it a sacramental grace.

The doctrine that marriage is a sacrament of the New Law has never been a matter of dispute between the Roman Catholic and any of the Oriental Churches separated from it — a convincing proof that this doctrine has always been part of ecclesiastical tradition and is derived from the Apostles. The correspondence (1576-81) between the Tübingen professors, defenders of Protestantism, and the Greek patriarch, Jeremias, is well known. It terminated in the latter's indignantly scouting the suggestion that he could be won over to the doctrine of only two sacraments, and in his solemn recognition of the doctrine of seven sacraments, including marriage, as the constant teaching of the Oriental Church.

More than half a century later the Patriarch Cyril Lucar, who had adopted the Calvinistic doctrine of only two sacraments, was for that reason publicly declared a heretic by the Synods of Constantinople in 1638 and 1642 and that of Jerusalem in 1672 — so firmly has the doctrine of seven sacraments and of marriage as a sacrament been maintained by the Greek and by Oriental theologians in general.

Doubts as to the thoroughly sacramental character of marriage arose in a very few isolated cases, when the attempt was made to formulate, according to speculative science, the definition of the sacraments and to determine exactly their effects. Only one prominent theologian can be named who denied that marriage confers sanctifying grace, and consequently that it is a sacrament of the New Law in the strict sense of the word — Durandus of St. Pourçain, afterwards Bishop of Meaux. Even he admitted that marriage in some way produces grace, and therefore that it should be called a sacrament; but it was only the actual help of grace in subduing passion, which he deduced from marriage as an effect, not ex opere operato, but ex opere operantis (cf. Perrone, "De matrimonio christiano", I, i, 1, 2). As authorities he could cite only a few jurists.

Theologians with the greatest unanimity rejected this doctrine as new and opposed to the teaching of the Church, so that the celebrated theologian of the Council of Trent, Dominicus Soto, said of Durandus, that it was only with difficulty he had escaped the danger of being branded as a heretic. Many of the leading scholastics spoke indeed of marriage as a remedy against sensuality — e.g. Peter Lombard (whose fourth book of sentences was commentated by Durandus), and his most distinguished commentators St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, Petrus de Palude.

But the conferring of sanctifying grace ex opere operato is not thereby excluded; on the contrary, it must be regarded as the foundation of that actual grace, and as the root from which springs the right to receive the Divine assistance as occasion requires. That this is the teaching of those great theologians is evident partly from their explicit declarations concerning the sacrament of marriage, and partly from what they defined as the essential element of the Sacraments of the New Law in general. It is sufficient here to give the references: St. Thomas, "In IV Sent.", dist. II, i, 4; II, ii, 1; XXVI, ii, 3; St. Bonaventure, "In IV Sent.", dist. II, iii; XXVI, ii.

The real reason why some jurists hesitated to call marriage a grace-giving sacrament was a religious one. It was certain that a sacrament and its grace could not be purchased. Yet such a transaction took place in marriage, as a dowry was ordinarily paid to the man. But this objection is baseless. For, although Christ has raised marriage or the marriage contract to the dignity of a sacrament (as will be shown below), yet marriage, even among Christians, has not thereby lost its natural significance. The dowry, the use of which devolves on the man, is given as a contribution towards bearing the natural burdens of marriage, i.e., the support of the family, and the education of the offspring, not as the price of the sacrament.

For a better understanding of the sacramental character of Christian as opposed to non-Christian marriage, we may briefly state the relations of the one to the other, especially as it cannot be denied that every marriage from the beginning has had, and has, the character of something holy and religious, and may therefore be designated as a sacrament in the broader sense of the word. In this connection we cannot pass over the instructive encyclical of Leo XIII mentioned above.

He says: "Marriage has God for its Author, and was from the very beginning a kind of foreshadowing of the Incarnation of the Divine Word; consequently, there abides in it a something holy and religious; not extraneous but innate; not derived from man, but implanted by nature. It was not, therefore, without good reason that our predecessors, Innocent III and Honorius III, affirmed that a certain sacrament of marriage' existed ever among the believers and unbelievers. We call to witness the monuments of antiquity, as also the manners and customs of those peoples who, being the most civilized, had a finer sense of equity and right. In the minds of all of them it was a deeply rooted conviction that marriage was to be regarded as something sacred. Hence, among these, marriages were commonly celebrated with religious ceremonies, under the authority of pontiffs, and with the ministry of priests -so great, even in the souls ignorant of heavenly doctrine, was the impression produced by the nature of marriage, by reflection on the history of mankind, and by the consciousness of the human race."

The term "sacrament", applied by the pope to all marriage, even those of infidels, is to be taken in its widest sense, and signifies nothing but a certain holiness inherent in marriage. Even among the Israelites marriage never had the importance of an Old Testament sacrament in the strict sense, since even such a sacrament produced a certain holiness (not indeed the interior holiness which is effected by the New Testament sacraments, but only an external legal purity), and even this was not connected with the marriage contract among the Jews.

The sanctity of marriage in general is of another kind. The original marriage, and consequently marriage as it was conceived in the original plan of God before sin, was to be the means not merely of the natural propagation of the human race, but also the means by which personal supernatural sanctity should be transmitted to the individual descendents of our first parents. It was, therefore, a great mystery, intended not for the personal sanctification of those united by the marriage tie, but for the sanctification of others, i.e. of their offspring. But this Divinely ordered sanctity of marriage was destroyed by original sin.

The effectual sanctification of the human race, or rather of individual men, had now to be accomplished in the way of redemption through the Promised Redeemer, the Son of God made Man. In place of its former sanctity, marriage retained only the significance of a type feebly representing the sanctity that was thenceforth to be acquired; it foreshadowed the Incarnation of the Son of God, and the close union which God was thereby to form with the human race. It was reserved for Christian marriage to symbolize this higher supernatural union with mankind, that is, with those who unite themselves to Christ in faith and love, and to be an efficacious sign of this union.



The Catholic Encyclopedia (1914 ed. in the public domain), "Marriage" with minor edits.