The Sacramentality of Marriage. Grace for Marriage and Family Life
It is not uncommon to come across statements such as “and marriage is also a sacrament”. This indicates a mistaken tendency to “add” the sacrament to the institution of marriage. But the marriage of two baptised Christians is inherently a sacrament of the New Law. In this great sacrament God supports and enriches the ethics of marriage and family life.
The sacramentality of marriage is presented here in a series of eleven theses. These are in no way exhaustive, nor do I intend to enter canonical questions or cover issues such as the goods and ends of marriage or the degree of faith required for the validity of the sacrament. Rather, my focus is the sacrament itself: what we should understand by “sacramentality” and how the sacrament of marriage is the God-given source of a virtuous family life.
Marriage is a reality created by God
Any study of the sacramentality of marriage begins by affirming the divine origin of marriage as a human institution. Marriage is not a secular reality or the product of social consensus. Those descriptions beg questions by reading a modern concept of “civil marriage” back into the past. Secularity is a Western concept, but in simpler, so called “primitive” societies, the gods or spirits are present in all major human transactions, because there is no separation between holy and profane, sacred and secular. Marriage is a family matter, always involving the wider tribal “family” of gods, spirits, ancestors. It is a rite of passage for individual and tribe, linking families within the tribe. Marriage has always been ritualised because it signifies more than a heterosexual relationship for child bearing.
In form Marriage may differ from culture to culture, but the essentials are always there. The male-female bonding is based in biology and a the nurture of young humans. Whatever theories may be proposed as to its origins, marriage is a natural institution always found at the basis of human society in all cultures.
Christian marriage is implicit in the culture and Scriptures of Israel.
Christian marriage is largely derived from the specific culture of Israel. This raises the obvious difficulty of polygamy in early Israel, which seems to have been justified on the ground of the barren spouse, a principle in the Code of Hammurabi (1700 BC). Marriage to an infertile woman could be combined with concubinage, as with Hagar the fertile bondswoman. Men may have ruled, but matriarchal patterns were also evident in the great women: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah. An underlying “monogamy” may be detected; the major or “real” wife enjoyed a distinct status above the concubines.
In the ages of Judges and Kings, in a Canaanite ambience, there were obvious instances of polygamy, such as Gideon, David and Solomon. But monogamy was the norm for most people living in towns and cities, as seems evident in the Books of Samuel and Kings. By the time of Christ, monogamy had become the norm, but some isolated communities may have maintained polygamous practices.
Marriage also followed legal procedures. In Deuteronomy 24:1-3 and Jeremiah 3: 8 we find reference to divorce writs, which implies that written marriage contracts may have been ancient. In post exilic Israel marriage is a “civil contract”, from our modern point of view, but in fact it was much more. A written contract is implied in Tobias 7:13, a very late document. However, divorce was possible and made easier for males. The provision for divorce was attributed to Moses, Deuteronomy 24: 1-4. But the ground was to be serious. The Shammai school allowed it only for adultery as infidelity, but the Hillel school was more liberal (cf. Sirach 25:26). Later prophetic literature affirmed that God hates divorce (cf. Malachi 2:14-16).
Fidelity is the characteristic virtue in marriage in Israel. Adultery was ruled out by the sixth Covenant word of Jahweh in the Decalogue (Deuteronomy 5:18, Exodus 20:14) which is the key to the esteem in which marriage was held in Israel. In historical literature, adultery was presented as sinful and shameful, for example Potiphar’s wife and Joseph or David and Bathsheba. The prophetic literature compares the fidelity of God to Israel, to a bridegroom and his bride, as we shall see in examining the covenant model of marriage taken up by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council. The later Wisdom literature is characterized by admonitions against adultery, as in Proverbs 1-9.
Married love is praised in Jacob and Rachel and in the story of Ruth. But spousal love in the Old Testament is a strong faithful love. God’s faithful love is his hesed. The fidelity of God to his people is mirrored in the way they are faithful to one another, especially in married life.
In Israel procreation is the major end of marriage. Children are a blessing; sterility is a curse. But children belong to God. The first born had to be redeemed, a practice perhaps based on Canaanite human sacrifice but understood as covenant obedience to God, the Source of all life. Contraceptive intercourse in the form of coitus interruptus is sinful (cf. Genesis 38:8-10). Procreation thus guided the sexual ethics of Israel. There were forbidden degrees of marriage to avoid incest and inbreeding. Sexual ethics was also marked by a revulsion against pagan practices; not only ritual prostitution but unnatural behaviour; homosexuality, transvestism and incest, were strongly condemned as abominations to God.
Marriage in Israel centred around the family. Betrothal was important and was arranged by parents, Marriage was celebrated in stages. In the ceremony that brought the betrothal to fulfilment, the bride went to the bridegroom’s house. By entering his house she entered his family. The woman was subject to the man (cf. Genesis 3:16). He is her ba-al, master, and she joins his clan by marriage. Jewish marriage is thus typical of family alliances found in most cultures, especially in the other major source of Christian marriage customs and practices, the Graeco-Roman culture.
While there is no clear line of a “potential sacramentality” of marriage in the Old Testament, a development may be discerned, paving the way for three major elements in Christian marriage: monogamy, fidelity and indissolubility.
Because God is the Author of marriage, it is a primordial “sacrament”. This is implicit in the Genesis creation accounts.
The Genesis creation accounts form the major Old Testament basis for Christian marriage, because they are the paradigm (“in the beginning”) invoked by Jesus Christ when he affirmed that marriage requires monogamy, fidelity and indissolubility. However, the two creation accounts in the Genesis narrative need to be read together in order to grasp their nuptial themes.
According to the four-source theory, the first creation account (Genesis 1: 26-31) is a priestly version. Here we find the foundational principle of Christian anthropology: that the human person is created “in the image and likeness of God”. Genesis 1: 27 affirms that this “imaging” of God in man is expressed in the complementarity of human sexuality: “male and female he created them”. God gives a blessing and mandate to procreate to the first couple in Genesis 1. 28. The first couple are thus appointed as “lord and lady” of creation, a king and queen, reflected in Jewish nuptial customs and more vividly in the Eastern Christian custom of crowning the bride and groom.
The second creation account, Genesis 2: 15-25, assigned to the Jahwist according to the four source theory, is more significant for a Christian understanding of marriage because it provides a personalist and rather psychological vision of the divine origin of marriage.
The first man is created by God to be the gardener of creation (Genesis 2:15-17). But the man is alone. He is “ish” – one who chooses (Genesis 2:18). Yet he is incomplete. The animals are created for him but are not suitable as his “helper”, that is, as an opposite or fit partner. Therefore, God creates “ishah”, the woman from the man’s “rib” or side. She is “built”, a generative nuance, meaning that she is produced from the same stock as man, to be a fit helper. Adam sleeps during this process, later seen by various Fathers of the Church as the death of Christ on cross. God then takes on the role of the father of the bride and presents her to the groom. He responds with a cry of delight “This at last is flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone.”, a text cited by the Fathers at Trent when presenting the sacramentality of marriage.
In the second creation account, heterosexual complementarity is at the heart of the divine creative act, “in the beginning”. Marriage is primordial. It is a created reality written into the human body, what Pope John Paul II describes as the “nuptial meaning of the body”. Created for self-giving the man and woman become “one flesh”. Their sexual union is personal union, and they are not “ashamed” because their sexuality is innocent and natural (Genesis 2: 25). Ish is now complete. He is an Adam, a real man.
In the third chapter of Genesis, the fall is also presented in the perspective of marriage – a squabble between man and woman! The original sin has disastrous effects on marriage and human sexuality. Fear and shame result from the fall (Genesis 3: 10). Sexuality has become shameful and vulnerable, in sharp contrast to innocence in (Genesis 2:25). In anger Adam blames Eve – and implicitly God for giving him such a partner, (Genesis 3: 12). Eve blames the serpent. A divine curse is incurred (Genesis 3:14), reversing the blessing of Genesis 1:28. Now there is “emnity” between male and female (Genesis 3:15). In a state of mutual alienation woman is subjected to man (Genesis 3:16). She is alienated from procreation; child-bearing becomes pain. The divine blessing of children becomes a curse and burden. Adam is is alienated from work, the impact of original sin on domestic life. Now he must struggle to survive for he is no longer the gardener of creation. The passage culminates with a new name for Ishah. She is Eve, mother of all the living, named by Adam. Together they bring forth the ambiguity of the fallen race, Abel and Cain, good and evil.
The Genesis narratives present marriage as “given” within creation, but wounded by the fall. As the heterosexual bonding that forms the basis of the family, marriage is thus in need of redemption. This is achieved when God Incarnate raises marriage to the level of a sacrament.
1. The Incarnation: The basis of the Great Mystery is when God “marries us” by assuming our human nature. We find this nuptial interpretation in the Fathers and ancient writers. This incarnational “espousal” led St. Thomas Aquinas to propose the Hypostatic Union of God and Man in Christ as the ground of sacramental indissolubility in marriage.
The Incarnation is the historical fulfilment of the Marriage of Jahweh and Israel, which becomes the espousal of the Messiah and his New Israel. The Incarnation is the cause or beginning of his Great Mystery. Pope John Paul II takes this up in Familiaris Consortio 13: “the gift of love which the Word of God makes to humanity by assuming human nature”. If the Incarnation is the ground of the Great Mystery, the seven sacraments are extensions of the Incarnation. But their “cause” is the death on the cross of the God-Man, offering up his perfect humanity, as Saint Thomas Aquinas taught.
2. The Cross: The heart of the Great Mystery is the self-giving death of Christ, for his beloved bride. This theme runs through patristic sources and is echoed by the Second Vatican Council in Sacrosanctum Concilium 5. Cana prepared the way: new wine for the new kingdom. The true bridegroom at Cana is the Lord. Adam and Eve become Jesus and Mary. Their roles fulfilled at the cross where Mary is once again the “woman”, as she was at Cana.
Jesus freely consents to the nuptial union of self-giving on the cross. He goes up to Jerusalem to die for his chosen spouse, the new “daughter of Sion”. At the Last Supper his body is “given up” for her, his blood is shed for her, his beloved. His consent to die “for you” is a specific choice, to achieve complete union with her. On Calvary, the new Adam sleeps in death, and from his side is born (washed, made pure by nuptial bathing) the bride and wife, holy Church. She is flesh of his flesh, blood of his blood. Thus, as “members of his body” we are the bride of a bridegroom who has redeemed us through his self-giving for union and communion. The signification of marriage in the death of the messianic bridegroom, calls married couples to this same faithful and selfless love, the agape of Jesus.
3. The Resurrection: The nuptials of the Great Mystery are made permanent and eternal in the risen body of Jesus and in the risen bodies of the members of the Church. In Revelation 19 and 21, the Marriage Supper of the Lamb is a nuptial banquet. Here, the eschatological fulfilment of the Church is represented by the “bride” descending from heaven. The signification of each sacramental marriage includes this hope of eternal life.
In the Great Mystery, God is revealed as the Author of Marriage, communicating his trinitarian life in every sacramental marriage. But if the Great Mystery transformed marriage in the practice and belief of the early Church, it would take centuries for the Church to discern that “marriage in the Lord” not only signifies the saving work of God, but also communicates grace to married couples.
This is majestic and rich theology. But how can pastors convey something of this admittedly complex sacramental signification to couples preparing for marriage? One simple approach could be: “Your married love is meant to be like the love of Jesus who died for us. Would you give up your life for your beloved?” If this question were to arouse merely some sense that marriage is “sacred”, that would be a pastoral gain today.
4. Jesus Christ raised marriage to become a sacrament of the New Law through his words and his deeds.
Christian marriage is the transformation by Christ of an existing created reality that has already been blessed by the Creator. It is at the same time the redemption of marriage, flawed by the fall. Marriage is healed by being elevated to the order of grace, by being taken into the sacramental economy.
Based on what was solemnly taught by the Council of Trent, and echoed in Gaudium et Spes 48, this teaching is familiar to anyone who has studied how Christ instituted sacramental marriage. However, today it needs to be developed carefully in the perspective of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council on Divine Revelation. Because Divine Revelation involves both the words and deeds of Jesus Christ (cf. Dei Verbum, 4), so his institution of the sacrament of marriage should be discerned in terms both of his his teachings and his acts.
In terms of Jesus Christ’s words, we need to place his teachings in their Jewish context: why he went beyond Old Testament standards and taught absolutely against divorce and remarriage. In terms of his deeds, we need to see why he called himself the “bridegroom”, likening himself to the God of Israel in prophetic literature, and how his self-giving love on the cross transforms human marriage within his new Israel.
In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus Christ goes beyond Old Testament teaching on divorce and remarriage. In Mark 10: 2-12 (Luke 16:18), when teaching in Judea, Jesus favours the Shammai not the Hillel school. But he takes an even firmer position in favour of indissolubility (see Matthew 19:1-9, citing Gen. 2:24, and Matthew 5: 31-32. Jesus is a new Moses, teaching that marriage requires monogamy, fidelity and indissolubility, based on Genesis traditions.
In the Synoptic Gospels, by self-revelation in deeds, Jesus identified himself as the messianic “bridegroom” (Mark 2: 18-20; Matthew 9:14-15; 22:1-14; 25:1-13). He also describes his disciples as members of his family (Mark 3:34-35; Matthew 12: 49-50; Luke 8:21). But we are not told who is the bride of the messianic bridegroom.
In John’s Gospel, we fine one implicit instance of Christ’s teaching on monogamy, fidelity and indissolubility, when he interrogates the woman at the well (John. 4:16-18). But when we turn to his self-revelation as the messianic bridegroom patristic interpretation shows that the material is richer than the Synoptics. Christ is the hidden messianic bridegroom at Cana (John 2:1-11). He is more clearly the bridegroom when pointing to John the Baptist as his paranymphus, “best man” or “friend of bridegroom” (John 1:27). The apostles will become friends and witnesses to the supernatural nuptials of the cross and resurrection. They join the messianic bridegroom in his procession to these nuptials. John’s Gospel thus opens the way to what Saint Paul describes as the “Great Mystery”.
5. Sacramental marriage signifies the Great Mystery of Christ the Bridegroom of the Church.
Taken by itself, the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels might only indicate a higher doctrine of marriage that was followed in the early Church. But in Ephesians 5: 20-33, Saint Paul linked the messianic bridegroom to Christian marriage. In turn, through the process of the development of doctrine, the teaching Church recognised the “Great Mystery” of Ephesians 5: 32 as the signification of the sacrament of marriage.
Paul resolves the question posed, but not answered, in the Gospels: Jesus Christ is the bridegroom, but who is his bride? In Ephesians 5:25-32, Paul reveals that the Church is the bride of Christ: “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her…we are members of his body….This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the Church”. This metaphorical archetype was later taken up in Revelation 21, where the bride of the Lamb is revealed as the Church, the New Jerusalem, “mother of us all”. As Jahweh was the faithful bridegroom of Israel, so Jesus is the bridegroom of the New Israel.
A new vision of marriage is at work in Ephesians, what the first Christians had already drawn from the teaching and deeds of Jesus. Just as each baptized person is a new creature, a new creation, “in Christ”, so marriage between two baptized people is entered and lived “in the Lord”. The couple enters a mystery derived not only from the teaching but from the self giving act of Jesus, the faithful bridegroom who gives himself for his Church.
Mysterion or sacramentum means God’s hidden plan in Colossians 1:25-29 and Ephesians 1:9, 3:3-9. In Paul’s vision of salvation history, this Great Mystery covers the whole salvific plan and work of God in Christ. To interpret Paul, we can draw on the Fathers. But one way to understand how the Great Mystery is signified and contained in marriage would be to examine it in three interrelated steps: as Incarnation, Cross and Resurrection.
6. The form or outward sign of the sacrament of marriage is the mutual consent of the couple. This is the sacramentum tantum of the sacrament.
By their consent the couple enter marriage. This is the process of “getting married”, or marriage in fieri. Canons 1095-1107 in the 1983 Code of Canon Law give us the canonical requirements, so that this consent will maintain monogamy, fidelity, and indissolubility. But sacramental theology focuses on the couple acting as baptized members of the Church. Their consent is marriage “in the Lord”, with a binding effect within his Mystical Body.
The couple’s sacramental word is the efficient cause of marriage. Whatever the form of the sacrament may be, “I take you…” or a simpler consent, these are words of faith and obedience. These are also words of a specific and total choice, taken into the choice and consent of Jesus Christ in his Incarnation, Death and Resurrection. His agape is the kind of love that led him to choose freely to go to the cross for us. Their consent calls them to that quality of love.
Canon 1108 on the form of marriage, echoes the decree of the Council of Trent, Tametsi, by requiring a priest to witness this consent, so that it becomes a solemn contract, witnessed in facie Ecclesiae. But this is more than an ecclesial contract. The scriptural nuptial “covenant” can be found within this mutual consent. This sacred contract is entered before God. The created reality of marriage is intrinsically sacramental; it is transformed from within by the unique mutual consent of two baptized people.
7. Sacramental marriage establishes an indissoluble bond. This the res et sacramentum of the sacrament.
The bond established by consent and consummation (ratum et consummatum) is the source of the indissolubility that characterises sacramental marriage. Indissolubility is not merely a quality or property of marriage but a God-given covenantal union. It is interpersonal, a partnership of permanent unity, yet even stronger, an image of the unbreakable Hypostatic Union of God and Man in Jesus Christ. This bond also meant to be as lasting as the eternal espousal of the risen Lord and his glorious bride. Pope John Paul thus describes marriage as binding “because it represents the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation and the mystery of his Covenant” (Familiaris Consortio, 13). What is signified in his Great Mystery is what is effected.
According to Canon 1134, consummation or spousal union firmly establishes the bond. Mutual nuptial self giving in sexual love is part of the agape of Jesus dying for his bride. The couple are unrepeatable permanent signs of the unity of Christ and his Church in the very language of their bodies. Their married union heals and redeems the wounded sexuality described in the Genesis narrative of the fall.
But this bond is also a mutual setting apart for ever, by God, a “consecration”. The objective holiness of the bond is affirmed in its sanctifying power, and potential. If partners put no obex in the way, it is the objective and immediate grace of marriage. The bond, which Saint Augustine compared to the sacramental character of Baptism, gives access to the particular graces of a Christian state of life. But the bond is not a new consecration to form the Church as a hierarchical structure, like the sacramental characters given in Baptism, Confirmation and Orders. Rather it is the intrinsic sanctification of Christians in marriage. They become distinct organs in the Mystical Body, married members of the Church.
A Jewish basis for consecration may be discerned in a rabbinic term for marriage, qiddusin, meaning “sanctification” or “sanctifies”, a cleansing idea, related to nuptial washing and baptism or loutron in Ephesians 5:26 (cf. Ephesians 1:4; Titus 3:5). The couple do not merely consecrate one another. God consecrates them through one another, in a marriage “in the Lord”, in Christ’s Great Mystery. They are purified and exclusively set apart – hence violating the marriage bed through adultery is a kind of sacrilege, as well as a sin of moral betrayal, through infidelity.
8. The sacrament of marriage is a source of grace to the couple so that they can live together faithfully and fruitfully. The continuing grace is the res tantum of the sacrament.
The grace given in marriage has bearing on marriage in facto esse, that is, the sacrament of marriage as it is lived. This is the couple’s “communion of life and love”, or “partnership of their whole life”, as Canon 1055 puts it. Their “covenant” of marriage is modelled on the New and Eternal Covenant in the Great Mystery, that is, the whole relationship of God’s with his consecrated People. Covenant is always a call to fidelity, to live together in redemptive love, to reproduce in their lives the Mystery of Jesus espousing his beloved bride, the Church, his unity with the Church his Body. Grace is needed for unity and fidelity and for generosity in raising a family.
St. Robert Bellarmine developed a theology of this grace of marriage or res tantum. He presented the sacrament in facto esse as all that God gives couples to be married people. To propose marriage as a permanent sacrament, he used the beautiful analogy of the abiding Presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist. However, this “lived sacrament” raises the question: what is the grace of marriage? What does God give in the couple’s mutual free consent, in their nuptial consummation and a life shared together? What does the mutual consecration of the couple do for them?
In Casti Connubii, Pius XI brought together previous teachings on sacramental marriage. He recognised that the family based on marriage was under threat in a world where secularism was rampant. He emphasised marriage as a means of grace, a mutual consecration. Therefore, the supernatural gift of God in marriage is an increase in sanctifying grace for a specific Christian vocation and state of life. This is the work of the Holy Spirit in married Christians as members of the Church. The sacrament also gives particular graces and entitles them to actual graces (cf. Casti Connubii, 40). I would include in these graces: believing in one another; learning to suffer, in the Great Mystery of the Cross and Resurrection; facing adversity, “for better or worse, richer or poorer”. Married Christians are also “called to peace”, called to a love that forebears and tolerates, called to forgive with a reconciling love.
However a major problem today is simply “staying married”. This issue may be linked to the destructive force of the contraceptive mentality, consumerism and hedonism. Yet marriage offers sacramental grace to be faithful and fruitful, especially grace for generous procreation, which includes, the rearing and education of children for the Kingdom of God. In turn, the sacrament of marriage is itself sustained by a constant source of grace for couples. The sacrament that “contains” the Great Mystery is the Holy Eucharist, the “new covenant in my blood” (cf. Familiaris Consortio, 57). The Eucharist is always a call to covenant love, fidelity and fruitfulness.
In the past the main problem impeding the development of this doctrine of grace in marriage was a rather different view of sexuality. The Augustinian tradition could not get beyond a difficulty: how can a sacrament involving sexual intercourse be a source of grace? Some late medieval theologians therefore put marriage in an incongruous category: the only sacrament that does not impart grace. Saint Thomas Aquinas rejected this anomaly. Marriage does impart grace and human sexuality in conjugal relations is holy. Finally the Council of Trent solemnly condemned the teaching that marriage does not impart grace.
Today we promote the grace of marriage in an era when social “Pelagianism” makes the success of a marriage depend on the efforts of the couple, without taking into account the grace God offers them. The current situation is also complicated by widespread pessimism about the success of marriage and family life, a crisis of hope. This may arise in a social context where obstacles to the grace of the sacrament are tolerated. Again we must indicate that obex to grace, recourse to artificial contraception and other anti-life practices.
9. Because the sacrament is established by the mutual consent, not by the priest’s blessing, the couple themselves are the ministers of the sacrament of marriage.
The major element in the reform of the marriage rite after Vatican II was the removal of the priest’s words, “coniungo vos in matrimonium”: “I join you in marriage”. This liturgical change shifted the emphasis to the mutual consent of the spouses, to which the priest and the community are witnesses. Behind that change was a lingering theological debate carried out in the context of a long theological, political and social struggle.
Debate on the sacrament of marriage had been delayed until the last session of Trent, in July 1563, due to disputes over the teaching of the Dominican Melchior Cano – that consent is the matter of marriage and a priestly blessing is the form of marriage. The Council Fathers agreed to define neither the matter and form, nor the minister, nor whether the contract is the sacrament. They set out to prepare a series of Canons especially aimed against the more pressing problem of Protestant denials of sacramentality. Yet when they dealt with the problem of clandestine marriages (celebrated without a priest) in the decree Tametsi, and required a priest and other witnesses. The Council Fathers recognised that clandestine unions were valid before the decree, which implied that such unions could be tolerated in regions where clergy were not available or where the decree was not promulgated.
Cano’s teaching caused further problems. By separating contract from sacrament, consent from priestly blessing, Cano reinforced a division between “secular” and “sacred”, civil marriage and ecclesiastical marriage. This set the course for a Church-State struggle over the control of marriage, which built up pressure as absolute monarchies, revolutionary regimes, liberalism and totalitarianism succeeded one another.
St. Robert Bellarmine met the challenge of Cano’s disciples. Bellarmine used the decree Tametsi to show that mutual consent makes a marriage, hence the contract is the sacrament in fieri. The sacrament is not something holy, a priestly blessing superimposed on contract and consummation. Marital consent was raised by Christ to become a sacrament.
Bellarmine’s teaching later became useful in the 18th century, when various Catholic monarchs favoured a separation of Church and State, while at the same time subjecting the Church to civil control. This “Regalism”, influenced by illuminism and freemasonry, was the forerunner of secularism. In Austria, under the Empress Marie Therese and her son the Emperor Joseph II (1765-1790), marriage came under State control and the Church “added” its blessing. Against Regalist attempts to control marriage by citing Cano’s theology, Pope Benedict XIV taught in 1758 that both the matter and form of the sacrament are found within the mutual consent of the couple, a position consistently maintained against secularists by later Popes, such a Pius VI and Leo XIII.
However, the French Revolution marked a further crisis for marriage. In its radical republican phase, the Terror and triumph of the Jacobins, civil marriage replaced Church marriage, divorce was made easy and even a pagan marriage “rite” was introduced. The new religion of Reason was in fact secularist. This cult did not survive for long but Napoleon maintained state control of marriage as a civil contract in his Code and he allowed for divorce, as personal a matter to him as it was to Henry VIII of England.
In the late 18th and 19th Centuries the way was already open to the “sexual revolution” of our era. The libertine illuminism of the philosophes, the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and anti-natalist ideology derived from Thomas Malthus provided the social milieu where liberalism and scepticism would secularize marriage. The “separation of Church and State” confirmed a “dualism” in the celebration of marriage, with two systems, civil and religious. In some countries, civil marriage became the norm and the Church lost control of marriage. In other countries both systems were respected. A government official might sign civil papers during the church ceremony or the clergyman could be licensed to act as a “marriage celebrant. In some societies today civil marriage is ritualised in imitation of Christian rites. But in not a few predominantly “Catholic” nations only the civil ceremony is legally binding. The church ceremony is preceded by a civil ceremony. In this social context pastors and catechists need to make clear to couples when and how the sacrament is given. This context may also explain that lingering misunderstanding of the sacrament as “something added” to marriage.
As secularisation spreads, more people turn to a civil celebration of marriage. But the real issue is no longer a “competition” between two ways of entering marriage. Marriage itself becomes irrelevant wherever it is replaced by cohabitation. This is reinforced when legislation recognises cohabitation as equal in law to contracted marriage. At the same time, there are concerted attempts to place homosexual partnerships on the same level as marriage, or at least to give these relationships a legal status that would make them equivalent to marriage in the eyes of most people. Thus the very concept of “marriage”, civil or religious, is being eroded. This trend should challenge pastors to make greater efforts to proclaim and promote the intrinsic sacramentality of Christian marriage.
10. Sacramental marriage was aptly described by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council as a “covenant”.
This teaching in Gaudium et Spes 48 is not novel. A development beyond “contract” to “covenant” was implied by Pope Pius XI in Casti Connubii, 32, 34. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council chose the biblical word “covenant” which is richer and more personalist than “contract”. It firmly sets marriage within the New Covenant and the Great Mystery. In that context, a covenant is more binding than a contract. Covenant cannot be used to water down the Catholic doctrine of indissolubility. Covenant also has pastoral value as we strive to affirm indissolubility and unity as essential properties of marriage. The concept is ecumenically useful, less juridical, more personalist and pastoral.
Covenant may rightly describe the “lived sacrament”, because a covenant sets out how both parties live in fidelity to its conditions. The Old Testament roots of associating the great Covenant between God and Israel with marriage are significant, if not decisive. In the prophetic literature marriage is a symbol of God’s patient and faithful covenant relationship with his people. Hosea marries and remains faithful to the prostitute Gomer, symbol of Israel’s breach of the Covenant (cf. Hosea 1:2-3; 4:1-6; 6:3 and13:4). Ezekial presents a harsher metaphor of fidelity and infidelity (Ezekial 16:8). Jeremiah extends this metaphor (cf. Jeremiah 3:20, Lamentations 1 and 2). Salvation history becomes a drama of matrimonial fidelity.
Isaiah offers a more positive and hopeful variation of the nuptial metaphor: (cf. Isaiah 49: 18, 52:1-2). Israel is the chosen servant girl, espoused by a gracious king. The inequality of the partners reminds us that a covenant was not necessarily a contract between equals. It had the quality of grace, a gift bestowed by a greater on a lesser power. In later Old Testament literature, God is also presented as the witness to a marriage covenant (cf. Malachi 2: 14-16). This covenant is a brith, a religious pact, foreshadowing the teaching of Jesus Christ that marriage must be based on monogamy, self-giving and fidelity, implicit in Genesis 2. As we have seen, the covenant framework also inspired Saint Paul to propose the nuptial archetype of the faithful divine bridegroom in Ephesians 5: 25-29.
The nuptial covenant is also very helpful in recovering a vision of openness to life in marriage. It provides a criterion for couples: to what extent are we cooperating with the Creator’s covenantal plan that life-giving and love-giving be kept together in the self-giving intimacy of spousal love? Thus the teaching of Humanae Vitae can be translated into a sacramental form: to what extent are we living the self-giving love of the fruitful Covenant of God?
11. Because it founds the domestic church, Christian marriage may be regarded as a secondary sacramental cause of the existence of the Church as a society.
The three sacraments that “cause” the Church are Baptism, Confirmation and Orders. Marriage is an ecclesial sacrament, not simply because of the public form required by law, but because it establishes the Christian family. Since the family is the domestic church, it follows that marriage may be accounted as secondary cause of the Church. Marriage sets up the basic community of life and love that constitutes the Church as a society in a family form. This may be summarise as follows: marriage causes the family but a sacramental marriage causes the domestic Church.
This concept of the domestic church is endorsed by the teaching Church (cf. Lumen Gentium, 11 and Familiaris Consortio, 49). It is based on the Jewish heritage of domestic religious practice and, to a lesser extent, on the family cultus among pre-Christian pagans in the Graeco-Roman world. The domestic church is axiomatic to all Catholic family movements today and to a new understanding that the family is the “basic community” in the Church. That understanding rests securely on Matthias Scheeben’s vision of the marriage sacrament as making the couple an organic part of the Mystical Body. It also reflects the Church’s intrinsic motherhood (cf. Lumen Gentium 41). Marriage is truly a “sacrament of the Church”.
The wider ecclesial effects of the sacrament of marriage are endorsed by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which describes marriage, with Orders, as “a sacrament at the service of communion”. This opens a dynamic ecclesial perspective and suggests evangelistic strategies, such as calling the family to evangelise other families (cf. Familiaris Consortio, 51-54). Family prayer, sacraments, education, catechesis, celebration of special moments in life, sharing in times of sorrow and loss, illness and suffering, all this is crowned by the charity of the family serving others in the community, the family living the agape of Jesus the Bridegroom of the Church (cf. Familiaris Consortio 55-64). Amidst these possibilities, the sacrament of marriage teaches us that virtuous and strong family life depends, not only on human efforts, but on the abundant grace of God.
© Published by permission of Msgr. Peter Elliott 2001