Lent and the Sacraments: Matrimony

“Man,” says the Catechism, “must not separate what God has united” (Mt 19:6; CCC 1614). Christ did not, however, impose a burden without also providing His assistance, which consists of both His grace and His own example of selfless love.

(Photo: Josh Applegate | Unsplash.com)

Quoting the Code of Canon Law, the Catechism begins its reflections on the Sacrament of Matrimony in this manner:

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. [1601]

That says it all, to be sure, but it also calls for a good deal of dissection and analysis.

The Catechism considers this sacrament in four stages as it has been experienced in history: in the order of creation, under the reign of sin, under the tutelage of the Law, and in the Lord.

From the beginning of creation, we are reminded, “the vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman, as they came from the hand of the Creator.” Indeed, this is bound up with creation itself, for “God who created man out of love also calls him to love the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being.” Beyond that, “man and woman were created for one another” and are “equals.” As Genesis 2 puts it, this is the reason why a man leaves his parents and clings to his wife to become one flesh; this is the primordial understanding of marriage in the mind and plan of the Creator [1603-1605].

But that is not reality as we experience, is it? Faith calls us to realize, however, that what we experience is not “normal”; in fact, it is a deformation of the original plan, occurring as a result of the entrance of sin into the world, which sin not only ruptured the relationship between God and man, but likewise did violence to all human relations, including that of marriage. Thus, Genesis teaches, the natural attraction of man and woman becomes a source of tension and even an occasion for self-assertion and domination [1606-1608].

The good God did not abandon man to his own devices and so gave the Law which developed the “moral conscience concerning the unity and indissolubility of marriage.” This led to the slow but sure repudiation of the polygamy practiced by patriarchs and kings. Further, it is important to recall that the Mosaic Law also had the effect of “protecting the wife from arbitrary domination by her husband.” The prophets contributed mightily to a growth in appreciation for the married state “in seeing God’s covenant with Israel in the image of exclusive and faithful married love.” That continued in works like the Books of Ruth, Tobit, and the Song of Songs.

Matrimony took a quantum leap forward with the coming of Christ. “The Church attaches great importance to Jesus’ presence at the wedding feast at Cana. She sees in it the confirmation of the goodness of marriage and the proclamation that henceforth marriage will be an efficacious sign of Christ’s presence.” The goal of the Lord was to return the Chosen People to “the original meaning of the union of man and woman, as the Creator willed it from the beginning,” thus declaring marriage to be indissoluble in his powerful words: “Man must not separate what God has united” (Mt 19:6) [1614]. Christ did not, however, impose a burden without also providing His assistance, which consists of both His grace and His own example of selfless love.

St. Paul brought this a step further in His pronouncement that married life is a great “mystery” which refers to the union of Christ and His Church [see Eph 5:31-32]. In a most insightful passage, the Catechism speaks of all Christian life being at root “a nuptial mystery” which we can see when we behold Baptism, the “nuptial bath which precedes the wedding feast, the Eucharist” [1612-1617].

Nor does the text shy away from discussing the relationship between marriage and “virginity for the Kingdom,” making the point that both “come from the Lord himself. It is he who gives them meaning and grants them the grace indispensable for living them out in conformity with his will.” Citing St. John Chrysostom, it says: “Whoever denigrates marriage also diminishes the glory of virginity. Whoever praises it makes virginity more admirable and resplendent. What appears good only in comparison with evil would not be truly good. The most excellent good is something even better than what is admitted to be good.” [1618-1620].

It is worth emphasizing that the Catechism spends only four paragraphs on the wedding ceremony, not because it is unimportant but because none of that makes any sense unless everything else is in place; this is in sharp contrast to the way in which most American Catholics view marriage – with all the preparation for “the big day” and so little thought given to the rest of one’s life together. The Catechism speaks of the value of having the wedding take place in the context of the Eucharistic Sacrifice and of having prepared for the event by a worthy reception of the Sacrament of Penance. It also takes cognizance of the divergent but complementary views of East and West on the ministers of the sacrament (the spouses themselves in the former, the priest in the latter) [1621-1624].

Much is rightly made of the matter of matrimonial consent which demands that the spouses be “free to contract marriage, who freely express their consent.” In what does this “freedom” consist? “Not being under any constraint; not impeded by any natural or ecclesiastical law.” This is so key because “The Church holds the exchange of consent between the spouses to be the indispensable element that ‘makes the marriage’” [emphasis added]. By this consent, they “mutually give themselves to each other.” “The priest (or deacon) who assists at the celebration of a marriage receives the consent of the spouses in the name of the Church and gives the blessing of the Church. The presence of the Church’s minister (and also of witnesses) visibly expresses the fact that marriage is an ecclesial reality.”

This “ecclesial reality” comes out through the celebration of a liturgical act, through the introduction of the couple into an “ecclesial order” [like the order of the priesthood], and by being perceived as “a state of life in the Church.” Finally, “the public character of the consent protects the ‘I do’ once given and helps the spouses remain faithful to it.” The Catechism zeroes in on the angle of fidelity by underscoring the significance of marriage preparation, which begins in the Christian home and is given impetus and direction by the Church’s pastors [1625-1632].

A very realistic presentation is made of “mixed” marriages, with a distinction offered between one which involves a Catholic and another Christian and one between a Catholic and an unbaptized person. While observing that this difference in faith “does not constitute an insurmountable obstacle,” it cautions that the dissimilarity “should not be underestimated.” The text gives special attention to the union with an unbaptized person: “Differences about faith and the very notion of marriage, but also different religious mentalities, can become sources of tension in marriage, especially as regards the education of children. The temptation to religious indifference can then arise.”

The Catechism states that the express permission or dispensation of the Church for mixed marriages is required since it “presupposes that both parties know and do not exclude the essential ends and properties of marriage and the obligations assumed by the Catholic party concerning the baptism and education of the children in the Catholic Church.” The text notes with pleasure that in certain countries it is now commonplace to provide ecumenical pastoral care for mixed marriages. It also challenges Catholics married to non-Christians to take as their “particular task” the sanctification of the other, in the hope that this will “lead to the free conversion of the other spouse to the Christian faith” [1633-1637].

What are the effects of the Sacrament of Matrimony? “A bond which by its very nature is perpetual and exclusive,” which makes it then most like God’s love. The permanence of marriage is seen as divine law, so that “the Church does not have the power to contravene this disposition of divine wisdom.” To live this vocation, grace is needed: “This grace proper to the sacrament of Matrimony is intended to perfect the couple’s love and to strengthen their indissoluble unity. By this grace they ‘help one another to attain holiness in their married life and in welcoming and educating their children.’” Lest anyone be ignorant, we read that “Christ is the source of this grace,” which is why the demands of marriage are not too much to bear, enabling the spouses “to love one another with supernatural, tender, and fruitful love” [1638-1642].

A very detailed section on “the goods and requirements of conjugal love” follows, restating traditional teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, the necessity of absolute fidelity, and the need for openness to human life. The treatment of divorce and remarriage is compassionate, all the while reiterating the impossibility of receiving the sacraments while in an invalid second union [1650].1 Given the contraceptive mood in society-at-large and even in certain quarters of the Church, a more convincing case could have been made for the Church’s teaching, in my opinion; oddly, Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae is not cited here.2

Looking over the centuries, the Catechism asserts that believing families “were islands of Christian life in an unbelieving world,” and so were rightly dubbed by Vatican II as “domestic churches,” for “the home is thus the first school of Christian life and a school for human enrichment.” The text also mentions those who do not marry for a variety of reasons and asks all to remember that they too have a right to have a family, especially in the person of the Church. [1655-1657]

And so, the Church concludes her teaching on that sacrament which makes possible all human society but also the divine society of the Church. In this connection, it is not inappropriate to recall an anecdote from the life of Pope St. Pius X who, with great pride, showed off his episcopal ring to his mother after his consecration. Evincing a very basic approach to life, she remarked that were it not for her wedding ring he would never have his bishop’s ring!

While all the foregoing is a veritable tour de force of the Catholic view of marriage and family, how can this sacramental-liturgical-dogmatic treatise become pastoral theology?

I would suggest we have (or had) a superb resource in the exhortation read by the priest to the soon-to-be marrieds in the Rite of Matrimony in the usus antiquior; it is certainly head and shoulders above any homily I have ever heard for the occasion – and I have used it faithfully in every nuptial ceremony over which I have presided over the years. It summarizes beautifully, poetically and succinctly what would-be Catholic spouses need to hear; as such, I believe it should be part of marriage courses in Catholic high schools, in all marriage preparation programs, and an insert in the marriage ritual of every priest and deacon. Let’s allow the Church (“expert in humanity,” as Pope Paul VI was wont to say) and her wisdom conclude these reflections on the Sacrament of Matrimony:

My dear friends: You are about to enter upon a union which is most sacred and most serious. It is most sacred, because established by God Himself. By it, He gave to man a share in the greatest work of creation, the work of the continuation of the human race. And in this way He sanctified human love and enabled man and woman to help each other live as children of God, by sharing a common life under His fatherly care. Because God Himself is thus its author, marriage is of its very nature a holy institution, requiring of those who enter into it a complete and unreserved giving of self. But Christ our Lord added to the holiness of marriage an even deeper meaning and a higher beauty. He referred to the love of marriage to describe His own love for his Church, that is, for the People of God whom He redeemed by His own Blood. And so. He gave to Christians a new vision of what married life ought to be, a life of self- sacrificing love like His own. It is for this reason that His Apostle, St. Paul, clearly states that marriage is now and for all time to be considered a great mystery, intimately bound up with the supernatural union of Christ and the Church, which union is also to be its pattern.

This union, then, is most serious, because it will bind you together for life in a relationship so close and so intimate, that it will profoundly influence your whole future, That future, with its hopes and disappointments, its successes and its failures, its pleasures and its pains, its joys and its sorrows, is hidden from your eyes. You know that these elements are mingled in every life, and are to be expected in your own. And so, not knowing what is before you, you take each other for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death.

Truly, then, these words are most serious. It is a beautiful tribute to your undoubted faith in each other, that recognizing their full import, you are, nevertheless, so willing and ready to pronounce them. And because these words involve such solemn obligations, it is most fitting that you rest the security of your wedded life upon the great principle of self-sacrifice. And so, you begin your married life by the voluntary and complete surrender of your individual lives in the interest of that deeper and wider life which you are to have in common. Henceforth, you will belong entirely to each other; you will be one in mind, one in heart, and one in affections. And whatever sacrifices you may hereafter be required to make to preserve this mutual life, always make them generously. Sacrifice is usually difficult and irksome. Only love can make it easy, and perfect love can make it a joy. We are willing to give in proportion as we love. And when love is perfect, the sacrifice is complete. God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, and the Son so loved us that He gave Himself for our salvation. ” Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

No greater blessing can come to your married life than pure conjugal love, loyal and true to the end. May, then, this love with which you join your hands and hearts today never fail, but grow deeper and stronger as the years go on. And if true love and the unselfish spirit of perfect sacrifice guide your every action, you can expect the greatest measure of earthly happiness that may be allotted to man in this vale of tears.

The rest is in the hands of God. Nor will God be wanting to your needs; He will pledge you the life-long support of His graces in the Holy Sacrament which you are now going to receive.

Related at CWR:
• “Lent and the Sacraments: Plumbing the effective signs of divine grace and life” (March 3, 2022) by Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas
• “Lent and the Sacraments: Baptism and Confirmation” (March 10, 2022) by Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas
• “Lent and the Sacraments: The Eucharist” (March 17, 2022) by Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas
“Lent and the Sacraments: Penance and Anointing of the Sick” (March 24, 2022) by Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas

Endnotes:

1Once more, we find an authoritative teaching document noting the immemorial position of the Church on the status of the divorced-remarried with reference to reception of the sacraments – in contradistinction to the very foggy teaching of Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia.

2In all fairness, the purpose of this section is not to teach moral theology, especially in terms of prohibitions. Artificial contraception is treated well in the section on the moral life (see 2370 and 2399).


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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 241 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas founded The Catholic Answer in 1987 and The Catholic Response in 2004, as well as the Priestly Society of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, a clerical association of the faithful, committed to Catholic education, liturgical renewal and the new evangelization. Father Stravinskas is also the President of the Catholic Education Foundation, an organization, which serves as a resource for heightening the Catholic identity of Catholic schools.

7 Comments

  1. Thank you for the achingly beautiful and highly inspiring reflection on marriage, Fr. Peter.

    I was especially touched — deeply so — by your concluding citation of “the exhortation read by the priest to the soon-to-be marrieds in the Rite of Matrimony in the usus antiquior.”

    As a man who’s been undeservedly blessed with a good, patient, faithful, holy, funny wife for 32 years — a woman who is the very embodiment of the good wife from the Book of Proverbs — I can say that the passage brought tears to my eyes.

    When I was a very young man, I realized that no other religion, philosophy or code makes sense of the deep mystery of human life like the Judeo-Christian tradition — particularly in its purest manifestation, the Catholic Christian faith.

    Thank you, esteemed Father, for reminding me of that fact once again. For there is no deeper, more mysterious, more beautiful phenomenon in the life of any human being than a marriage lived well and true, in faith.

    In this article, you’ve somehow managed to express why that is so.

    Again, thank you.

  2. The wedding can be what you want it to be, but the marriage will be what you make of it.

    The cost of living and secularism’s influence are putting tremendous pressure on this holy institution. We live in a throw away society; if we’re unhappy with it just toss if from out lives.

  3. I must second brineyman’s compliments for this excellent article and as someone, too, has been blessed by a marriage of 32 years.

  4. Having been sacramentally married 45 1/2 years, and involved in ecclesial marriage & family ministry about 30 years, I am always happy to see the other “Vocation at the Service of Communion” (CCC 1534) as a subject of CWR, in is case by Fr. Stravinskas. The Council struggled with the notion that marriage is an ecclesial reality. I have prepared dozens of couples for marriage, wrote two marriage preparation programs, and I dare say this fact is an under-developed topic for many if not most engaged couples. They come to the Church as “soul mates” seeking a wedding; but do they understand that, as Bishop Barron points out, “your marriage is not about you?” Do they want the mission of Christian marriage, with the Cross at its heart?

    I attended a Catholic wedding liturgy in north Texas two years ago where the priest, after the entrance procession, greeted the assembly with a welcome and added “you are going to witness a miracle today.” It was a mass, but he did not just mean the consecration. Afterward, I went up to him and thanked him for how reverently and joyfully he presided over the worship -and- rhetorically asked “Is something being ‘transubstantiated’ through consent and the vows?” I certainly cannot spot this notion in the doctrine of the Church, but if a union of two comes into being, while still remained two, is there not something eucharistic about this? Is not consummation, which is a private completion and sealing of the vows, the liturgy of holy matrimony
    from which a couple will draw forth nourishment as they do (hopefully) from the Sunday liturgy?

    So much of marriage preparation focuses on interpersonal communication and compatibility. And while Prepare/Enrich (Catholic version) is the best yet, its core elements and their relevance are not truly integrated into the richness of sacramental marriage unless those preparing engaged couples know how to align relationship insight with Cristocentric relationship on-the-path to health, happiness and holiness. But, is this what the couple wants? The matrimonial covenant? Do they understand and want to be “at the service of communion?”

    Meanwhile, I just discovered a podcast over at America, which includes this partial overview: “The sexual revolution and second-wave feminism were supposed to empower women in society—and in the bedroom. So why are so many millennial women miserable when it comes to their dating and sex lives? Even after the #MeToo movement enshrined “enthusiastic consent” as the baseline requirement for sexual encounters, women (and men) continue to have sex they don’t really want and don’t enjoy.”

    Unbelievable! Any feminism that believes contraception, abortion, and/or “enthusiastic consent” is supposed to liberate women is deluded. All that the sexual revolution has done is suspend males in sexually attenuated limbo while they enjoy the irresponsible license that females have embraced which only serves to reinforce roots of the predatory chauvinism which gave rise to #MeToo.

    This is just another framing of the societal sewer our young adults swim in. It takes several years to form a man for Orders. My best estimate is that engaged couples spend anywhere from 20 to 30 or 35 hours in some kind of marriage preparation program. I do not believe the Church would knowingly ordain a man with the faith and understanding levels of many engaged couples. And yet, sacramentally married couples, especially when they become parents, have an ecclesial office as “pastors” of the Domestic Church.
    The Sacrament of Baptism is often the only other chance we have to evangelize and catechize them about their mission. But if we only focus on the Rite, we miss the opportunity that is there, colluding with and perpetuating a cohort of lukewarm parents who drop their children off for a magical religion class that fulfills some vague sense of obligation. And we wonder why we have so few celibate vocations?

    My point Fr. Stravinskas: there is so much to un-do and such rich depth to explore in guiding the engaged to the “indispensable element” of valid consent that current approaches cannot achieve. It takes more than doctrinally correct teaching or lecturing – or – sponsor/mentor couple dialog. We need some kind of novitiate for marriage preparation with an engaging, discerning methodology. The social, spiritual, and economic future of parish life and mission is at stake. As St. John Paul noted, “the future of humanity passes by way of the family.”

  5. “It also takes cognizance of the divergent but complementary views of East and West on the ministers of the sacrament (the spouses themselves in the former, the priest in the latter) [1621-1624].“

    Isn’t it the other way around? The priest in the East and the spouses in the West?

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