05 November 2015

Understanding the Nature of Marriage (3) – Sacramental Marriage

Today I continue my exposition of the Roman Catechism's chapter on the Sacrament of Matrimony.  The previous installment is here.  As before, the text of the Catechism is given in red and each paragraph is summarized in black.  

Those who find the wording of the Catechism difficult are invited to read only the summaries, or to skip to the end, where the essential points of the text are restated in short form.


It will now be necessary to explain that Matrimony is far superior in its sacramental aspect and aims at an incomparably higher end. For as marriage, as a natural union, was instituted from the beginning to propagate the human race; so was the sacramental dignity subsequently conferred upon it in order that a people might be begotten and brought up for the service and worship of the true God and of Christ our Saviour.
Note the contrast between natural and sacramental marriage:
  • Natural marriage was instituted for the propagation of the human race.
  • Sacramental marriage was instituted for the begetting and rearing of a people in service and worship of God.
Thus when Christ our Lord wished to give a sign of the intimate union that exists between Him and His Church and of His immense love for us, He chose especially the sacred union of man and wife. That this sign was a most appropriate one will readily appear from the fact that of all human relations there is none that binds so closely as the marriage­tie, and from the fact that husband and wife are bound to one another by the bonds of the greatest affection and love. Hence it is that Holy Writ so frequently represents to us the divine union of Christ and the Church under the figure of marriage.
When Christ chose a metaphor with which to express his union with the Church, he chose marriage, because marriage is the closest of human bonds.
That Matrimony is a Sacrament the Church, following the authority of the Apostle, has always held to be certain and incontestable. In his Epistle to the Ephesians he writes: Men should 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; for we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall adhere to his wife, and they shall be two in one flesh. This is a great sacrament; but I speak in Christ and in the church. Now his expression, this is a great sacrament, undoubtedly refers to Matrimony, and must be taken to mean that the union of man and wife, which has God for its Author, is a Sacrament, that is, a sacred sign of that most holy union that binds Christ our Lord to His Church.
In Ephesians 5:32, "this is a great sacrament" refers to matrimony, and tells us that the bond is a sacred sign of Christ's union with the Church.
That this is the true and proper meaning of the Apostle's words is shown by the ancient holy Fathers who have interpreted them, and by the explanation furnished by the Council of Trent. It is indubitable, therefore, that the Apostle compares the husband to Christ, and the wife to the Church; that the husband is head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church; and that for this very reason the husband should love his wife and the wife love and respect her husband. For Christ loved his church, and gave himself for her; while as the same Apostle teaches, the church is subject to Christ.
In defense of this reading of Scripture, the text cites the Decree on Matrimony from the Council of Trent, which says the same.  Then the analogy between Marriage and Christ is extended: just as Christ is head of the Church, the husband is head of the wife.  This implies furthermore that the husband must give himself up fully to his wife in love, and that the wife ought to love and obey the husband.
That grace is also signified and conferred by this Sacrament, which are two properties that constitute the principal characteristics of each Sacrament, is declared by the Council as follows: By his passion Christ, the Author and Perfecter of the venerable Sacraments, merited for us the grace that perfects the natural love (of husband and wife), confirms their indissoluble union, and sanctifies them. It should, therefore, be shown that by the grace of this Sacrament husband and wife are joined in the bonds of mutual love, cherish affection one towards the other, avoid illicit attachments and passions, and so keep their marriage honourable in all things, . . . and their bed undefiled.
It is shown that marriage qualifies as a sacrament.  The definition of a sacrament is a sacred sign, instituted by Christ to give grace. The three marks of a sacrament, then, are:
  • institution by Christ
  • signification of grace
  • actual, efficatious conferral of grace.
The text again cites the Decree on Matrimony from Trent, which tells us that the grace of Christ is given in matrimony to perfect the love of the spouses, to render their union indissoluble, and to make them holy.  Obviously the grace of sanctification and the personal, inward fruits of the sacrament are received variably, depending of the disposition of the individual in question.
How much the Sacrament of Matrimony is superior to the marriages made both previous to and under the (Mosaic) Law may be judged from the fact that though the Gentiles themselves were convinced there was something divine in marriage, and for that reason regarded promiscuous intercourse as contrary to the law of nature, while they also considered fornication, adultery and other kinds of impurity to be punishable offences; yet their marriages never had any sacramental value.
Among the Jews the laws of marriage were observed far more religiously, and it cannot be doubted that their unions were endowed with more holiness. As they had received from God the promise that in the seed of Abraham all nations should be blessed," it was justly considered by them to be a very pious duty to bring forth children, and thus contribute to the propagation of the chosen people from whom Christ the Lord and Saviour was to derive His birth in His human nature. Still their unions also fell short of the real nature of a Sacrament.
Next the text emphasizes the difference between marriage in the Mosaic Covenant, and marriage under the New Testament.  Interestingly, the text seems to treat marriage under the Mosaic Law as comparable in essentials to pagan marriage.  The pagans recognized the essential evil of adultery and fornication, but were more or less lax in observing these laws of nature.  The Jews, by contrast, observed the natural law with greater zeal, and more holiness, inasmuch as they understood the begetting of children as a fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant and therefore and act of service to God.  But still, these marriages were not in essence sacramental.  Next we are told why not.
It should be added that if we consider the law of nature after the fall and the Law of Moses we shall easily see that­ marriage had fallen from its original honour and purity. Thus under the law of nature we read of many of the ancient Patriarchs that they had several wives at the same time; while under the Law of Moses it was permissible, should cause exist, to repudiate one's wife by giving her a bill of divorce. Both these (concessions) have been suppressed by the law of the Gospel, and marriage has been restored to its original state.
The Old Testament allowed for both polygamy and divorce, both violations of the primordial character of marriage as unitary and indissoluble.  This imperfection of marriage after the fall was remedied by Christ.
Though some of the ancient Patriarchs are not to be blamed for having married several wives, since they did not act thus without divine dispensation, yet Christ our Lord has clearly shown that polygamy is not in keeping with the nature of Matrimony. These are His words: For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be two in one flesh; and He adds: wherefore they are no more two but one flesh. In these words He makes it clear that God instituted marriage to be the union of two, and only two persons. The same truth He has taught very distinctly in another passage, wherein He says: Whosoever shall put away his wife and marry another, committeth adultery against her; and if the wife shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery. For if it were lawful for a man to have several wives, there is no reason why he who takes to himself a second wife, along with the wife he already has, should be regarded as more guilty of adultery than if he had dismissed his first wife and taken a second.
Hence it is that when an infidel who, following the customs of his country has married several wives, happens to be converted to the true religion, the Church orders him to dismiss all but the first, and regard her alone as his true and lawful wife.
We are told that the patriarchs practiced polygamy through divine dispensation.  One wonders whether this dispensation was general or individual, whether it applied only to figures such as Jacob and David, or also to minor figures like Elkanah, father of Samuel, who was a bigamist.  In any case, Christ makes clear that natural marriage is unitive by his gloss on the text of Genesis—the two shall become one flesh—and his teaching on divorce, since if polygamy were acceptable, divorce would be unnecessary.  Finally, we are told that those without faith who practice polygamy and later convert to Christianity, must dismiss all but their first wife.  Thus the reception of Christ by the pagan drives away polygamy, just as Christ by his teaching restored marriage to its original, unitive state.
The self­same testimony of Christ our Lord easily proves that the marriage­tie cannot be broken by any sort of divorce. For if by a bill of divorce a woman were freed from the law that binds her to her husband, she might marry another husband without being in the least guilty of adultery. Yet our Lord says clearly: Whosoever shall put away his wife and shall marry another committeth adultery. Hence it is plain that the bond of marriage can be dissolved by death alone, as is confirmed by the Apostle when he says: A woman is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband die she is at liberty; let her marry whom she will, only in the Lord; and again: To them that are married, not I but the Lord commandeth, that the wife depart not from her husband; and if she depart that she remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. To the wife, then, who for a just cause has left her husband, the Apostle offers this alternative: Let her either remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. Nor does holy Church permit husband and wife to separate without weighty reasons.
Furthermore, marriage under Christ cannot in any way be dissolved, except by the death of a spouse.  In support of this, we are given the following reasoning: if the dissolution of the bond were possible through divorce, then it would not be adultery to marry a divorced woman.  Furthermore, the indissolubility is confirmed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:10, where he requires celibacy of separated spouses until they reconcile.
Lest, however, the law of Matrimony should seem too severe on account of its absolute indissolubility, the advantages of this indissolubility should be pointed out.
The first (beneficial consequence) is that men are given to understand that in entering Matrimony virtue and congeniality of disposition are to be preferred to wealth or beauty ­­ a circumstance that cannot but prove of the very highest advantage to the interests of society at large.
In the second place, if marriage could be dissolved by divorce, married persons would hardly ever be without causes of disunion, which would be daily supplied by the old enemy of peace and purity; while, on the contrary, now that the faithful must remember that even though separated as to bed and board, they remain none the less bound by the bond of marriage with no hope of marrying another, they are by this very fact rendered less prone to strife and discord. And even if it sometimes happens that husband and wife become separated, and are unable to bear the want of their partnership any longer, they are easily reconciled by friends and return to their common life.
Now we are informed of the chief benefits of indissolubility:

  1. The duration of the bond teaches us to prefer the enduring qualities of virtue and congeniality over ephemeral beauty or wealth, and this is advantageous to society at large, inasmuch as (ideally) it leads to the promotion of the cultivation of virtue among people generally.
  2. The indissolubility of the bond provides a great incentive for spouses to be peaceable and to avoid strife and discord, since they know that they cannot leave and lawfully marry another person.

The pastor should not here omit the salutary admonition of St. Augustine who, to convince the faithful that they should not consider it a hardship to receive back the wife they have put away for adultery, provided she repents of her crime, observes: Why should not the Christian husband receive back his wife when the Church receives her? And why should not the wife pardon her adulterous but penitent husband when Christ has already pardoned him? True it is that Scripture calls him foolish who keepeth an adulteress ; but the meaning refers to her who refuses to repent of her crime and quit the disgraceful course she has entered on.  From all this it will be clear that Christian marriage is far superior in dignity and perfection to that of Gentiles and Jews.
Finally, the text quotes St. Augustine, who urges spouses to take back and forgive truly repentant spouses who are guilty of adultery, just as the Church receives back and forgives them.

Key Points in Today's Catechism:

  1. Natural marriage was instituted for the propagation of the human race.
  2. Sacramental marriage aims beyond this, to the generation and rearing of children dedicated to the worship and service of God.
  3. Marriage is the closest of human bonds.
  4. Marriage is a true sacrament.
  5. Marriage signifies the bond between Christ and the Church.
  6. Just as Christ is head of the Church, so the husband is head of the wife.
  7. Just as Christ gave his life for the Church, the husband must give himself up for his wife.
  8. Just as the Church ought to respect and be subject to Christ, so the wife ought to respect and be subject to her husband.
  9. The sacrament of matrimony gives a three-fold grace:
    —the perfection of love between the spouses
    —the indissolubility of the bond
    —the personal sanctification of those wedded.
  10. Marriage under the Mosaic Law was practiced with greater holiness than pagan marriage, but had neither a sacramental character, nor the original integrity of the bond.
  11. The imperfection of marriage under the old covenant was evident in the admission of polygamy and divorce, both of which fall short of the natural perfection of marriage.
  12. Marriage was resotred to its original integrity by Christ.
  13. The restoration of marriage (in its sacramental form) makes it unitive, and excludes all polygamy.
  14. Sacramental marriage is also completely indissoluble, except by the death of the spouses.
  15. The union of one sacramentally married spouse with a person other than their spouse is adultery.
  16. Continence is required of separated spouses until they reconcile.
  17. Indissolubility has two noteworthy advantages:
    —it promotes the cultivation of virtue, as more important than wealth or beauty in a spouse
    —it promotes peacability between spouses, who know once they are married they cannot be wed to another.
  18. Spouses ought to forgive, even if what is repented of is adultery.