by John A. Hardon, S.J.
The Christian concept of marriage, although built on the natural law, differs
sharply from the earlier practices among the Jews and pagans, and also from
the modern secular usage to the point that no area of public relationship
more clearly distinguishes Christianity from other institutions of human society.
It cuts across every aspect of the moral law and has implications in every phase
of man's attitude towards God, so that marriage can truly be called the most
revealing trait of the Christian religion and almost the test of its validity.
Unfortunately not all believers understand how unique were the teachings of
Christ about matrimony and how zealously the Church has sought to preserve these
ideals in a world that writes and talks endlessly about marriage but seldom
stops to think about it. Yet the attitude of a person toward marriage is not
an academic question. Wrong notions and misguided opinions lead to the wrecking
of happiness, mainly because those who lack the faith have succeeded in creating
an atmosphere which challenges Christians at every turn: from the sexual conduct
that is sanctioned before marriage to promiscuity after marriage, which the
State conveniently approves by creating laws to suit the changing times.
Spokesmen for the "new approach" are neither few nor uninfluential.
For Bertrand Russell, "the whole system of Christian ethics (bearing on
marriage), both in the Catholic and in the Protestant form, requires to be re-examined,
as far as possible without the preconceptions to which a Christian education
predisposes most of us. Emphatic and reiterated assertion, especially during
childhood, produces in most people a belief so firm as to have a hold even over
the unconscious, and many of us who imagine that our attitude toward orthodoxy
is quite emancipated are still, in fact, subconsciously controlled by its teachings."
(1) Russell would remove the "taboo" against fornication, allow relations
with other persons than husband and wife, and favor a remodeled society in which
the government takes care of the children while father and mother are gainfully
employed for the upbuilding of the State.
Nature of Marriage
It is remarkable what a variety of definitions have been given for an institution
as common as marriage, principally because in every definition appears the author's
philosophy of life. Anthropologists describe marriage as the established method
of starting a family, or as that type of sex relation which is approved in a
given society. Sociologists say that marriage in any particular society is an
accumulation of customs and, in literate societies, laws with regard to the
sexual association of adults for the purpose of reproduction. They point out
that it differs from other relationships which may involve sexual intercourse
through being prescribed by a community and regulated as the proper status for
those who wish to reproduce themselves and thus to help reproduce society.
Thematic in all these definitions is the idea that the society in which people
live, its customs and mores, determine the character of the sexual relationships
of marriage. It is assumed that the form of these relations depends on the ideologies,
especially the religio-magical notions, the traditions, the economic and military
organization and, possibly on other circumstances, prevailing in the society
In the Christian view of life, marriage is more than a social convenience whose
structure is shaped by the people getting married and the accidents of time
and place where they plan to live. Its foundations go back to the origins of
the human race and postulate that marriage was not instituted by man, but by
God. When God created man and woman, He implanted in human nature the urge for
reproduction: "God created man in His image. In the image of God, He created
him. Male and female He created them." (2) The Hebrew word for man (Adam)
is a collective noun, referring not only to the first man but through him also
to the race as a whole.
The Lord blessed the first human pair and, by a special revelation, gave them
the divine mandate of reproducing their kind. "Be fruitful and multiply,"
He told them. This immediately raises the status of marriage, even before the
time of Christ, to a level above the merely human and invests it with duties
and a sublimity that could only derive from God.
Over the centuries, the divine origin of matrimony was disputed by those who
either denied the existence (or relevance) of God, or found something in marriage
which they decided was incompatible with God's nature. The Gnostic Manicheans
decried marriage as unholy on the premise of their dualistic doctrine that matter
is the seat of evil, so that anything which professedly encourages the reproduction
of bodies is a source of evil. In the twelve and thirteen hundreds, the Albigenses
followed Manichean dualism in its attempt to solve the problem of evil. They
asserted the co-existence of two ultimate principles, a good deity (the God
of the New Testament) who created Spirit and Light, and a bad deity (the God
of the Old Testament) who created Matter and Darkness. Accordingly they also
condemned marriage and the procreation of children as demoniac. Yet concubinage
was tolerated because less permanent than matrimony; and desertion of husband
or wife they called praiseworthy. It is significant that the much-criticized
Inquisition was born of the effort in France to stem the tide of Albigensianism
as an anti-social heresy.
In the Catholic Church, therefore, it is held as an immutable and inviolable
fundamental doctrine that matrimony was not originated or restored by man but
by God. "Not by man were the laws made to strengthen and confirm and elevate
it but by God, the Author of nature, and by Christ our Lord by whom nature was
redeemed. Consequently the laws of marriage cannot be subject to any human decrees
or to any contrary pact even of the spouses themselves. This is the doctrine
of Holy Scripture; this is the constant teaching of the Universal Church; this
the solemn definition of the Council of Trent, which declares and establishes
from the words of Holy Writ itself that God is the Author of the perpetual stability
of the marriage bond, its unity and its firmness." (3) Every position which
challenges the Catholic teaching on matrimonial impediments, divorce and birth
control ultimately comes back to this stance of questioning the divine authorship
of the marriage contract.
Although marriage is, therefore, of divine origin, the human will also enters
matrimony in a way so intimate that without it the marriage would be null and
void. In every marriage only two people join together in a conjugal union, so
that unless they give their mutual consent they are not really married. This
free act of the will, by which each party hands over and accepts those rights
proper to the state of marriage, is so essential that it cannot be supplied
by any human power. Few aspects of marriage in the Western world are more illustrative
of the influence of Christianity than the assumed liberty of a young man and
woman to choose their own life partner. In the East, in India and China, and
in Moslem countries, such freedom is exercised only where and to the extent
to which Christian principles have gained a footing.
"In the West," the saying goes, "you fall in love, then marry.
In the East we marry, then fall in love." This is how the Asian describes
the difference. A telling commentary on this practice is found in a story told
in The Fortunate Union. Ping Hsin and Tieh Chang-yu were afraid they
had been disqualified for marriage because they had unfortunately met and fallen
in love beforehand. Only after their parents had overruled them, and insisted
that there was no reason why the marriage should not succeed in spite of the
fact that they were already in love, were they reassured.
A typical Indian girl, for example, never experiences uncertainty about the
man she is to marry because she does not have to choose. She has only to give
her love (if she can) unhesitatingly and completely, to the one chosen for her.
She is brought up to believe that she will develop love for any man who is kind
to her, and that the way to make him kind is to give him unstinted devotion
However, while the Christian enjoys perfect freedom about entering marriage
or marrying this particular person, once he enters the marital state the duties
he assumes are entirely independent of his free will, so that after marriage
the husband and wife are subject to the divinely made laws that govern matrimony.
Nevertheless, the union is entered willingly and this fact joins the contracting
parties and knits them together more directly and more intimately than are their
bodies; what unites them is not a passing affection of passion or feeling but
a deliberate and firm act of the will. From this union of wills there arises,
by God's decree, a sacred and inviolable bond. Hence the nature of the marriage
contract, which is unique in human relations, makes it entirely different both
from the sexual union of animals which they enter by blind instinct without
free choice, and from the promiscuous unions among human beings, which enjoy
none of the rights or privileges of family life.
A word of observation to anticipate those critics who claim the Catholic Church
frowns on marriage while extolling celibacy. No less authority than Leo XIII
declared the perfect freedom each one has to choose one or the other. "In
choosing a state of life," he said, "there is no doubt that each one
has the power and discretion to prefer one or the other: either to embrace the
counsel of virginity given by Jesus Christ, or to bind himself in the bonds
of matrimony. To take away from man the natural and primeval right of marriage,
to circumscribe in any way the principal ends of marriage laid down in the beginning
by God Himself in the words 'Increase and multiply,' is beyond the power of
any human law." (4) Modern history, including certain American laws and
practices, shows how far political agencies have gone in restricting these human
It takes three to enter marriage according to Christian standards: husband
and wife each contribute their free consent, and God contributes His share.
From Him comes the very institution of marriage, the purpose for which it was
made, the laws which govern it, the blessings which only He can give. From man
and woman comes a generous surrender of their persons to one another for the
whole span of life, thus becoming with God's help the authors of each particular
marriage and cooperators with Him in the advancement of mankind.
Purpose of Marriage
Few aspects of matrimony are more widely misunderstood than its purpose, mainly
because of the widespread custom of contraception and divorce, both of which
contradict essential elements of marriage as understood by Christians since
the time of Christ. Briefly stated, the primary purpose of marriage is the generation
and upbringing of children, and the secondary is to offer mutual help in fostering
love between husband and wife and aiding each other in the control of sex and
their emotional life.
There are two places in Scripture, both in Genesis, where these two ends or
functions are touched upon. In the narrative of creation, the making of the
first couple is the crowning work of God's creative power, which may be seen
from the careful parallelism in the various stages of production. The trees
and plants are said to have borne their seed according to their species, and
that they bore fruit having within it seed. Also the animals are commanded to
increase their number. Finally the solemn injunction to Adam and Eve, also to
multiply and fill the earth. Throughout the creation epic is the idea of life
being transmitted through the obligation to perpetuate and develop the human
In the second chapter of Genesis, the situation is different. God created Adam
before he formed Eve; on which the divine observation is made that "it
is not good for man to be alone." Eve comes into existence in order to
be a companion of Adam and "a helper like himself." Adam recognizes
in her what he had been looking for before, one who was bone of his bone, flesh
of his flesh, for whom his posterity were to leave father and mother. On authority
from God, they were to be "two in one flesh." So that mutual assistance,
through love and a shared life, is a correlative function of marriage. (6)
Procreation. Under pressure from their critics, Catholic theologians
have sometimes been tempted to question the primacy of procreation of children
in married life. But as often as the issue comes up, the traditional position
is upheld and reiterated, that the first reason why God instituted marriage
was to have children born into the world and reared in His knowledge and love.
Thus in 1944, the Holy Office (over which the Pope himself is chairman), in
answer to an inquiry, repeated the familiar teaching. Some years later, Pius
XII further clarified the doctrine.
As a natural institution and in virtue of the will of the Creator, marriage
has for its first and intimate purpose not the personal perfection of husband
and wife but the procreation and formation of new life (through education).
The other ends of marriage are certainly willed by nature, but they have not
the same excellence as the first and much less are they superior to it. In fact
they are essentially subordinate. (7)
Some people are scandalized at the intransigence of this doctrine, partly because
they do not understand its meaning. To say that begetting children and providing
for their nurture and care is primary does not mean that this function is (or
need be) uppermost in people's minds when they marry. It need hardly be explicitly
formulated at all, because nature has provided that, unless the partners interfere
with the generative organs, children will normally be conceived and eventually
born. The "first" purpose here is the same as the direct purpose,
the end that is built-into our human powers, the physical terminus
to which sexual intercourse leads if both parties are fertile and no hindrance
is placed in the way.
We might compare this with the appetite for food. It is common knowledge that
nourishment of the body and giving it sustenance are the primary end of eating.
This is the physical and immediate function that taking food is supposed to
provide. It does not mean that every time I eat I overtly (and before all else)
decide "I am going to eat in order to sustain my body and give myself the
nourishment I need." What it means is that the immediate purpose of eating,
insured by the laws of nature, is to support bodily strength and physical life.
This function is primary because any other purpose, like enjoyment from taking
food, presupposes it. In other words, the objective reason why people eat (whether
they advert to this or not) is to maintain life and health of body; it is not
to get pleasure out of eating, which is only a means that nature uses to guarantee
that people might be attracted to eating at all. If we lacked the appetite for
food and drink, we would soon starve from under-nourishment or weaken our bodies
to the point that any disease would carry us off in death.
The first end of marriage, therefore, has been made clear by nature in the
complimentary differences between the two sexes and confirmed the mandate of
the Author of nature to increase and multiply.
Not poets and homilists alone, but everyone who seriously reflects on the mystery
of life has extolled the grandeur of this task of procreation. The word itself
suggests that it means collaborating with the creativity of God Himself. In
other productions of human power and genius, we leave the impress of ourselves
on whatever we do, but in parenthood we enter into the heart of creation and
become co-authors with God of the person we produce. God must indeed create
each soul individually, yet even His almighty power will not be exercised unless
and until two human beings furnish the bodily conditions which enable God, so
to speak, to infuse a human spirit into the body we prepare.
We speak of a recent or impending birth as a "happy event," as though
to emphasize that nature itself is pleased at obeying the law of God. When Christ
spoke of the woman who forgets all her pain once her child is born, He was saying
that birth is joyful precisely because it means the attainment of a goal, since
every goal achieved is a natural source of joy. When a child is born, something
eternal has been made, something sacred has been reached. Even if a child should
die on the day of his birth, faith tells the parents he is born in eternity.
A birth is always a success, an accomplishment. The joy it brings comes from
God; not even death can rob it from those who completed a divine and imperishable
work by bringing an immortal personality out of nothing into the world.
Procreation, however, is more than producing a child. It seals the marriage
union and brings it to fruition; it seals the marriage because the child is
made to the image of his father and mother, as well as of God. The child is
not just a child but, to each of the parents, he is the gift the other has given,
the fruit of their love. He is a living expression of their mutual generosity.
Through the child, the "two-ness" of marriage is changed. and develops
into a "three-ness;" as in God. Sexuality, it has been said, is duality.
Love is always a trinity.
Care and Education. Too often people separate the two parts of
the primary end of marriage, as though begetting offspring were the only goal.
The primary function of matrimony is twofold, both generation and education,
and not the first alone. Really two kinds of begetting are involved, the one
physical by delivering a human being, and the other spiritual by training the
child to know and love the truth and thereby save his soul.
Suppose God had not given parents the power and right to educate their children,
but only the power to beget them. He would then have failed to make sufficient
provision for children who are born, and so for the whole human race. Children,
as we have seen, are incapable of providing wholly for themselves, even in things
pertaining to the natural life, and much less in the myriad needs of the supernatural
life of grace. For many years they have to be helped, instructed, and educated
The law of conscience, written in the heart of man, teaches that this right
and duty to educate their offspring belongs in the first place to those who
began the work of nature by giving them birth, and they are in fact forbidden
to leave this task unfinished and so expose it to certain ruin. In the state
of matrimony the best possible provision has been made for this training of
children because, since the parents are bound together by an indissoluble bond,
the care and mutual help of each is always at hand.
Both parents are necessary for a full, well-rounded development of the child.
Much has been written, perhaps too much, on how mothers are to take care of
children. But one thing at least should be stressed, that the childhood years,
even the first months, of an infant's life are important. This is the period
when the groundwork for his physical, mental and emotional fitness for life
is being laid, and the basic pattern for the development of his personality
Not a few mothers sometimes, get overinvolved in complex theories and methods,
or confused by the conflicting advice they read in magazines and hear over the
radio. Child psychologists remind them that nature meant them to have children,
and that they are endowed with a mother instinct that will develop along with
their child. He is a human being, and wants warmth and acceptance, attention
and love. These are always the "right things " for him.
Certainly there is no one simple formula for rearing children, because people
are individuals, whether babies or adults. While experience may help, lack of
it should not be a handicap, otherwise the first-born would regularly be worst
trained! For the consolation of mothers, infants are emotionally a hardy lot,
and not easily harmed by occasional mistakes.
A child develops physically and emotionally. Nowadays it is agreed that both
kinds of development begin almost at birth and are closely related.
The physical aspect covers not only growth of body but also co-ordination of
muscles and nerves, development of the brain and thought processes, learning
to recognize people and things around him. Emotional development includes the
whole complex of desires and appetites, and concerns the child's reactions about
things, people and situations. It means the development of affection, dependence
on others, independence and freedom, fears and anxieties, likes and dislikes,
confidence in himself and in the world about him. The two kinds of growth work
together and affect each other.
A mother should know that her baby learns a great deal about the world in the
first few weeks of life, before he can focus his eyes, recognize anything or
anyone, or do a thing for himself. He learns to feel that it is a friendly,
comfortable place where he will be welcome and happy, and that it can sometimes
be strange, frightening and cold. He feels, at a remarkably early age, how much
he "belongs," and it is the mother's privilege to foster this feeling
from birth on through infancy and into childhood. For the first weeks and months,
the mother is her baby's world; she does not cease to be the most important
part of that world in the years that follow. No matter how awkwardly she may
fulfill her role, the feeling of love comes to her child from the kindly, attentive
way she cares for him. The development of her natural maternal feelings, as
she fills his needs, will make him sense that he is loved, and he will feel
safe and secure.
Children cannot be brought up with the best possible physical care and fail
to grow and develop well because they do not feel loved. On the other hand,
many children we might consider "underprivileged" simply thrive. The
difference consists mainly in that subtle art called "mothering."
Mothers cannot overestimate their importance to their children, not just or
mostly for physical care, but for the feelings and sentiments they transfer
to him or create in him. So the logical starting point for good mothering is
to consider oneself and one's feelings and ideals. These should be deep and
high, and the principles that govern them sound; they will be communicated to
a child years before it ostensibly reaches the age of reason, not by formal
instruction or training so much as by example and that mysterious, almost mystical,
medium of exchange called a mother's love.
Less familiar is the role of the father in the education of his children, perhaps
because the mother is normally closer to home and traditionally considered the
teacher in the family. Yet the father is in many ways indispensable; his function
is not only to supplement the mother's care but to contribute what no one else
except he can give. There are certain facets of personality that grow and develop
in a home only where the father is playing his various roles effectively.
His first contribution is to father the children through their mother. His
strength and power have the faculty of passing through the mother to the children.
He helps to keep her in the mood for her maternal task by consistently providing
material comfort and security for her through his labor. She is thus assured
freedom from anxiety about food, clothing and shelter. By showing interest in
her activity, creativeness and work, he furnishes what she needs for physical
and emotional stability.
In addition to this vicarious "fathering" of the child, the husband
has a more distinctive role to play. Comparable to the affection he shows his
wife, the loving attention he gives the infant early in life will awaken a corresponding
interest in the infant toward him. At first it may be only a dim awareness,
but it is an important one. Boys and girls are alike in this respect. They develop
their earliest and most decisive ideas about masculinity from their fathers.
He evokes a process in the child which psychologists call "animating the
mind" toward the male sex. Delay in enthusiasm on his part makes it harder
than ever to create the depth of relationship that a child needs to grow into
an emotionally healthy person.
One mistake often made is the tacit assumption that the father should avoid
all sovereignty over the girl members of the family, as though the latter belonged
by right only to the mother. The result can be a one-sided feminine personality
that has never felt real nearness and understanding in their relations with
men because this dimension of a father's care had been neglected (or avoided)
In the next stage of development, the grade school child tends to be unsure
of himself, especially when, to a large extent, he is under the direction of
women. Boys and girls are not unlike in this matter. They can easily grow to
resent the imposed learning process where they are surrounded by women almost
to the exclusion of men. With mother at home and the woman teacher at school,
both urging the child to learn and progress, he is liable to feel smothered
by women. Boys in the lower grades especially are afraid of being effeminate,
and whatever lack of docility they have is aggravated by a fear or even refusal
to accept the female orientation of mother and teacher as to what constitutes
acceptable behavior or moral conduct. Here the father can help to explain and
teach, by word and example, the validity of practices which the boy may suspect
are only feminine idiosyncrasies.
Specialists in the field suggest there are at least seven variants to the father's
characteristic part in the education of his growing family. He is above all
a companion and inspiration for the mother; if she lacks this, the children
may suffer radically from that essential ingredient which is loosely called
security but which covers every facet of psychological development. The father
is moreover an awakener of the emotional potentialities of his children; his
role of active element in procreation carries on into education by evoking latent
powers and stimulating mental and moral energies that might otherwise never
come to light. He is meant to be a faithful friend and teacher to his sons and
daughters, in a way that a mother can only with difficulty ever be; the native
rationality of a mature-minded man is supposed to balance the more affectionate
and emotional contribution of the mother.
A father is meant by nature to become the "ego-ideal" for masculine
love, ethics and morality. What he is and does will be reflected in his children,
and their attitudes towards men will be strongly conditioned by the image of
fatherhood which boys and girls see in their own fathers. Rising a step higher,
even their concept of God will be colored by what they know of such qualities
as justice, strength of character, kindliness, prudent foresight and solicitude
in the parent whom they call father. Correspondingly the father is meant to
be a model for his children's social and vocational behavior. "Like father,
like son," is not only a proverb. It intimates how deeply human conduct
is shaped by immediate patterns of morality, and how instinctively a child imitates
the one whom he has come to recognize as head of the family.
The stabilizing influence of a father comes not only from his dominant position,
but from the numerous elements which nature has implanted in him and which experience
develops to the well-being of the children. Where this is missing, the consequences
in stunted personality and moral deviation among boys and girls are common knowledge.
Nothing can quite supply for the multiple role of a father as protector and
mentor, counselor and loyal friend to his children.
Mother and father are differently made by nature for different, albeit complementary,
functions in the upbringing of their sons and daughters. Personality development
is a complicated affair into which elements from both sexes must enter in order
to produce the right measure of strength and tenderness, wisdom and intuition,
reason and emotion, control and generosity. The modern world especially is demanding
more and more of people. Since it is socially and biologically dependent upon
the two sexes, both must cooperate in forming the child to meet the exigencies
of modern life.
The ideal of married love was delineated by St. Paul when he told the Ephesians,
"Husbands, love your wives as Christ also loved the Church," that
Church which He embraced with a boundless charity not for His own self-advantage
but seeking only the good of His spouse. (8) Consequently the love that marriage
is intended to foster between husband and wife is not the passing lust of the
moment nor romantic sentimentality but that deep internal attachment of heart
which is expressed in action and proved in generous deeds.
At the center of this marital love is the prior commitment that husband and
wife made to accept each other, "for better, for worse, in sickness and
in health, until death do us part." They are not simply two people who
agreed to live together for a common purpose; they are changed internally by
their mutual dedication to form a new entity, not unlike the newness that exists
since the Incarnation, when God took upon Himself our nature and became wedded
to humanity in a union so close that we call it the Mystical Body of Christ.
To the natural man all this seems unreal, to compare married love with the
divine charity that exists between Jesus Christ and His Church. Yet precisely
here is the hidden meaning of Christian marriage which those who lack the faith
do not understand. There are two qualities to this charity that distinguish
it from every other virtue, and when fostered between husband and wife, make
their union the nearest thing on earth to the joys of heaven. True marital love
is absolutely selfless and profoundly respectful; it seeks not its own but the
welfare of the partner, and it respects the dignity of the other person according
to his sex, position in the family and nobility in the sight of God. The marks
of selfless love are more easily experienced than defined, yet certain qualities
are commonly recognized. Love is a deep, ardent, and devoted affection for another
person which delights in and seeks to be in that person's presence. It constantly
tries to advance the other's good. The happiness of the one I love is a source
of my own great joy. True love is not passion, and it rises above the initial
urge that comes of physical attraction.
Total self-giving is the ideal towards which every Christian marriage should
tend. Unfortunately the current obsession of the stage and of much of our literature
with sex and the fetish made of romantic feelings have obscured the real meaning
of love. Movies and television, best-sellers and a flood of tabloids have created
a false image that haunts many young people as they enter marriage. They have
come so to identify sentimentality and sex with marital love, that once the
feeling of "being in love" passes away, the marriage itself is suspect
and disintegration sets in. Instead of seeing love for what it really is, an
unselfish union of wills, they equate it with a subtle egoism that wants only
self-gratification. When this cannot be further satisfied, then separation
divorce another try, and the cycle starts over again.
Marriage counselors and psychologists are finally alerting people to the tragic
inversion of values, which are fast approaching the opposite extreme of what
the Church means by mutual love as one of the ends of marriage. Sexual gratification
is a familiar substitute. What many persons do is to draw a moral conclusion
from a rule of popular psychology. "It is gratifying and therefore healthy
and natural to indulge the sex appetite when you feel like doing so; and frustrating,
and therefore unhealthy and unnatural, not to." Correspondingly when the
appetite wanes, love wanes, so that the barometer of love in marriage is the
degree of pleasure husband or wife derive from their sexual relations.
As a psychological rule, this is surely wrong; it can be as healthy to frustrate
as it is to gratify one's desires. Sometimes gratification is very unhealthy,
sometimes frustration is. Nor can psychological health be accepted as morally
decisive. It may be quite "healthy" to run away with your neighbor's
wife, but not, therefore, right. And there is nothing unhealthy about wishing
to kill someone who has injured you but this does not morally justify your doing
so. To say "we must follow nature" is always specious. Nature is not
identified only with the non-intellectual, sensual, or emotional.
Religious ceremonies state the meaning of marriage clearly. The couple are
asked to promise "to have and to hold ...until death do us part."
The vow does not say, "As long as you both shall want to," because
marriage is a promise to continue even when you no longer wish to. If marriage
were to end when (romantic) love does, it would be redundant: why solemnly ask
two persons to promise to be with each other for as long as they wish to be
with each other? (9)
Until recent years, marriage was to unite the family by tying people together
"until death do us part," in spite of the fickleness of their emotions.
The authority of Church and State was to guarantee that they kept a promise
voluntarily made, but binding, and that could not be unmade. It was left to
present-day theorists to invert this order. Where Christianity looks upon marriage
as a means of furthering selfless giving, secularism says it is a way of selfish
getting. Once a man (or woman) stops getting what they want, they part company
and try again elsewhere.
By Christian standards, the principal effect of love is to unite the wills
of those who love, so as to make of them but one and the same will. They sublimate
their own preferences in favor of those whom they love, and sacrifice their
own pleasures in order to give pleasure to the one loved. When a person truly
"falls in love" his whole center changes. Up to that point he may
probably have referred everything to himself, considered things from his own
advantage. When he falls in love the whole thing is shifted; he becomes a part
of the circumference, so to speak, while someone else becomes the center. For
example, things he hears and sees are referred in future instantly to this other
person; he ceases to be acquisitive. His entire life is pulled sideways, if
it is truly love; he does not desire to receive but to share.
It is this instinctive "otherness," born of true charity, which marriage
is meant to develop with the passage of time, and the very differences in character
between the married partners are to serve as stimuli for greater self-giving
and occasions for growth in mutual love.
One facet of love in marriage that scandalizes even some Christians is the
duty it imposes on both parties to respect their spouse's dignity, which is
easy enough to describe in theory but more difficult to carry out in practice.
Transmitting other aspects of a large issue, the husband is by nature and grace
intended to be the head of the family. His wife expects this of him, and society
needs more than ever husbands who understand their position without abusing
Those who criticize the Christian concept of marriage regularly point to the
degrading role that wives are said to assume if they build their marriage on
the Church's principles. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Church
recognizes that no society can long exist without final authority to govern
those who belong to it. There cannot be two supreme authorities in the family;
it must be either father or mother. And all that we know of human nature and
history shows that this authority belongs by right to the father. A wife instinctively
wants to give such authority to her husband. She desires someone on whom she
can rely, notably in times of crisis. She feels the need of such decisiveness
and ability to bear responsibilities as a man is expected to have. She is justly
proud of her husband when she finds him in many ways her superior, and she prefers
to look up to the man she loves and follow his leadership, while deferring to
his judgment and care.
A sharp defender of St. Paul's precept about wives obeying their husbands felt
that many marriages fail because of failure to follow this law. "Most of
the failures in marriage," according to Coventry Patmore, "come of
the man's not having manhood enough to assert the prerogatives which it is the
woman's more or less secret desire to acknowledge. She knows her place, but
does not know how to keep it unless he knows it also; and many an otherwise
amiable woman grows restless and irritable under the unsupportable doubt as
to whether she has got her master." Of course, this "subjection"
of wife to husband does not deny or take away her liberty, which belongs to
her as a human being, as wife, mother and companion. It does not bid her obey
every request of her husband, if not in harmony with morality or with the respect
due to her as wife. She enjoys full liberty of conscience and every right to
honor. At the same time her position cannot ignore the good of the family, which
is a body and therefore must have a heart and a head. If the heart is separated
from the head, only disaster can follow. For if the husband is the head, the
wife is the heart of the family; and as he occupies the chief place in ruling,
she may claim for herself the chief place in love.
Regulated Satisfaction of the Sex Urge
More than one writer in the Christian tradition has pointed out the irrational
instinct to keep our sex life segregated from God, stressing the fact that if
sex life sidetracks from God, it may ruin the happiness of any marriage. God
must not be left out of any part of married life, which applies with emphasis
to the purpose of marriage in regulating the sexual passions.
Superficially the Church may seem to be niggardly in the matter of sex, allowing
no intercourse outside of marriage, no contraception and no remarriage after
divorce. Actually the Christian faith glorifies sex in these very prohibitions,
by placing it on the high level where it belongs and seeking to insure that
those who have a right to marital intercourse may enjoy it to the full.
At the outset it should be stated that everything in the Christian religion
teaches that marital intercourse is morally good and even virtuous. God so created
the two sexes, to make intercourse possible; He has attached to it great pleasure,
not only physical but also psychological; He commanded Adam and Eve (and through
them all married people) to increase and multiply through sexual relations.
In a famous passage of St. Paul, the apostle formally approves coitus. "Let
each man," he says, have his own wife, and let each woman have her own
husband. Let the husband render to the wife her due, and likewise the wife to
the husband ...Do not deprive each other, except perhaps by consent, for a time,
that you may give yourselves to prayer; and return together again lest Satan
tempt you because you lack self-control." (10)
Finally, on this one act depends the survival of the human race, hence what
is so important must also be very noble.
But if intercourse is licit, should full enjoyment of sex pleasure in marriage
be sought, and is it not wrong to completely indulge the satisfaction that comes
from intercourse? Catholic morality teaches that coital pleasure for the married
is not only licit but virtuous, and any other estimate of matrimony is untrue.
The relations which husband and wife enjoy tend to appease their sex desires
and leads to prudent moderation; if rightly used, it engenders serenity of feelings
and cheerfulness in the whole personality; it is a recognized tonic for the
nervous system and a healthy release for the faculties.
Moralists explain that marital intercourse is lawful for the procreation of
children or for other honorable reasons. Such reasons would be the promotion
of mutual love and affection, restoration or maintaining of peace, avoidance
of unchastity either in oneself or one's partner. In a word, any reasonable
motive that husband and wife may have is enough for having intercourse, and
not only the unique purpose of conceiving a child. Therefore marital relations
are permitted, with no limitations, to people who are certainly incapable of
begetting children, like the aged or sterile - whether the sterility is permanent
or merely temporary.
Not only are sex relations permissible for the married, they are part of the
obligation which the couple assumed when they gave to each other exclusive right
over their respective bodies. Each partner is obliged in conscience to respect
these rights in the other, and their matrimonial contract gives them equal claims
in this regard. In fact there is a grave obligation to share in the conjugal
act when one is seriously and lawfully asked to do so. A serious request means
that one partner is in earnest and not merely trifling; that he is expressing
more than a simple desire or making a suggestion, but calling for something
that is his due. A lawful request implies that the person is asking fully within
his rights, in addition to the request being serious.
Are there circumstances in which a request might be serious, indeed, but yet
excuse from grave (or any) obligation if the request is turned down? Typical
exonerating circumstances would be where the partner is insane, or under the
influence of liquor or drugs; where the other intends to have intercourse in
the wrong way, as through contraception; where the marital act would cause the
unwilling partner grave harm, as in the case of a contagious disease; and where
one spouse has been certainly guilty of adultery, in which case the innocent
party is never again obliged to render the marital debt. Intercourse during
the last months of pregnancy and the first month or so after delivery is morally
licit, but abstinence during this time is generally recommended. Medical counsel
is advised in order to make sure there is no danger either to the wife or child.
The husband usually asks for the debt expressly while the wife does so implicitly,
e.g., by showing signs of special affection. The common advice to husbands is
to use moderation, and to wives to be generous and self-sacrificing. Yet mistakes
in this crucial area are so common and disastrous that, according to one medical
authority, "If marital intercourse were as it should be, the divorce courts
would go out of business." Without going into clinical details, explanation
of the moral aspects of the matter deserves to be given.
Few personal problems are of deeper concern to men and women today than the
sexual adjustment in marriage. Maladjustments often follow in deep nervous disorders,
shattered marriages and pitiful spiritual degradation. A prominent gynecologist
wrote that in seventy per cent of the women who have uterine trouble (uterine
congestion), their condition is due to incomplete orgasm.
No easy solution for sexual adjustment in marriage can be given. But from the
moral viewpoint, the principle both parties must keep in mind is that, instead
of seeking personal sexual satisfaction, each should try first to consider the
other in order that perfect mutuality be achieved. Fundamentally this means
that the whole marital experience, from the first love play to the sexual climax,
becomes essentially the same for both husband and wife, and brings the same
enduring satisfaction to both.
The only alternative, proved from sad experience, is that one spouse satisfies
his or her desires at the expense of the other. Women are the usual victims.
Inspired by a deep love in the first months of their marriage, they later become
bewildered and later still may be disgusted with the exercise of a passion in
which they are called upon to serve without sharing.
Physicians and others tell of the number of men, for instance, who do not even
know whether or not their wives ever experienced, in sexual intercourse, the
climactic release of tension technically known as orgasm. For years perhaps
these men have never thought of their marital relations as intended to be mutually
One attitude here is completely alien to Christian theology, namely that conjugal
relations are meant to be a painful duty for the wife and a simple alleviation
of passion for the husband. In the Churchs mind, immorality in sex is the profanation
of something sacred, the desecration of a holy instinct which arises from the
depths of human nature and is the bearer of life and death. Sacred things are
meant to be enjoyed, not trifled with or despised. But unless the husband recognizes
that his share in marital pleasure is mainly physical and the wife's mainly
emotional and psychological, he is liable to abuse his privilege and fail to
give his wife what she needs and deserves, selfishly ignoring his duty to provide
for her satisfaction as much as (and even more than) for his.
There are numerous details to the issue, small obstacles that gradually mount
until they become a grave hindrance to marital happiness. Wide differences in
time of sexual response between men and women, instability of their emotional
mood at certain times, odd little items of time or place or conversation or
preliminaries that are small enough in themselves. But unless both partners,
especially the husband, are aware of the need for adjustment to the other, what
nature intends as a symbol and expression of oneness will become a source of
tension, then of misunderstanding, and finally of opposition. Sexuality as it
appears in acts whose purpose is merely to satisfy one's own demands tends to
be cruel and heartless; and no amount of learned theorizing can change what
experience proves, that selfishness in carnal intercourse is the most notorious
enemy of marital stability.
Nowhere else, perhaps does the need for internal affection appear more urgent
than in the exercise of the marriage rights. God's first demand of the act of
coitus is that it be based on real love. The "crime of non-love" is
ultimately back of all broken marriages. Indeed, sexual pleasure does not depend
so much on intensity as it does on internal depth. Some theologians do not hesitate
to say that, in God's first plan for the human race, before original sin, this
pleasure would have been even greater because it was more selfless and more
filled with love.
A physical act of love that does not begin in the soul of husband and wife
is a lie, an act of treason, like Judas' kiss. It degrades the married persons
and, so far from uniting them, brings on a separation between their souls. Looking
for sexual stimulation for its own sake, apart from love, means that a person
never gets out of himself and invests him with a dignity which he does not really
deserve. The physical act of love is ennobling, but only on condition that it
has a spiritual dynamism, born of mutual affection. When thus animated, intercourse
unites two people in a bond that Scripture compares to Christ's union with mankind,
and that experience proves will sublimate the irrational drive of concupiscence
with a control that only those who live by these principles can understand.
Unity and Indissolubility
One of the crucial differences between the Catholic and Protestant idea of
marriage is the unity and life-long stability on which the Catholic Church has
always insisted, even at the price of heavy loss in membership, as happens in
many countries like England and the United States.
As early as 1520, or three years after his breach with Rome, Martin Luther
argued against the indissolubility of the marriage bond. Though he regarded
divorce as injurious to Christian policy and the State, he said that adultery
is an immediate ground for divorce, with liberty to remarry. Later on he proposed
willful desertion as a second ground for divorce. Other grounds which he recognized
were persistent irascibility and pronounced incompatibility of temperament.
If either party cannot restrain himself, he said, "Let him (or her) woo
another in the name of God."
Bible and Tradition. Here was a reversal of fifteen centuries
of tradition. The Council of Trent met this challenge by a series of declarations
that represent Catholic teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. The first
was a positive statement, tracing the doctrine to the Old and New Testaments.
The first parent of the human race, under the inspiration of the Divine Spirit,
proclaimed the perpetual and indissoluble bond of matrimony, when he said, "This
now is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh...Wherefore a man shall leave
father and mother, and cleave to his wife; and they shall be two in one flesh."
(Genesis 2:23sqq., Ephesians 5:31)
Christ Our Lord taught more clearly that only two persons are joined and united
by this marriage bond. He referred to the final words of the quotation above
as words spoken by God and said, "Therefore now they are no longer two,
but one flesh;" and immediately after this, with the words, "what
therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder, "He confirmed
the stability of that same bond which had been declared by Adam so long before
(Matthew 19:6, Mark 10:9). (11)
Following this statement of fact, the Council went on to condemn the contrary
teaching in two solemn definitions. He began with a crisp one-sentence statement,
"If anyone says that the marriage bond can be dissolved by reason of heresy,
domestic incompatibility, or willful desertion of one of the parties, let him
be anathema." (12) Then followed a longer anathema which answered the claim
that one cannot appeal to the Scriptures for support on the unity and stability
If anyone says that the Church is in error when it has taught and does teach
according to the doctrine of the Gospels and apostles that the marriage bond
cannot be dissolved because of adultery on the part of either the husband or
the wife; and that neither party, not even the innocent one who gave no cause
for adultery, can contract another marriage while the other party is still living;
and that adultery is committed both by the husband who dismisses his adulterous
wife and marries again and by the wife who dismisses her adulterous husband
and marries again, let him be anathema. (13)
Clearly the Catholic doctrine on monogamy is uncompromising. When Henry VIII
in 1527 first proposed a divorce from his wife, Catherine of Aragon, Rome knew
the temper of the English king and the consequences that would follow if his
divorce were not granted. Yet there was no question of backing down on the ancient
tradition, which derives from the first pages of the Bible.
God instituted marriage in Paradise as a monogamous institution, but mankind
soon lapsed from the original ideal of monogamy. Polygamy was widely practiced
among the Egyptians and Akkadians, the Sumerians and Ugurits - all in the near
East. The patriarchs, Saul and David all had more than one wife, and the custom
was recognized in Jewish Law, which implied a divine dispensation. (14).
Christ then restored marriage to its original purity, invoking Genesis that
husband and wife are not two but one flesh, which no human power may divide.
He declared that putting away one's wife and entering a new marriage is adultery.
(15) And according to St. Paul, marriage has a strong monogamous character.
"The married woman," he wrote, "is bound by the Law while her
husband is alive; but if her husband die, she is set free from the law of the
husband. Therefore while her husband is alive, she will be called an adulteress
if she be with another man; but if her husband dies, she is set free from the
law of the husband, so that she is not an adulteress if she has been with another
In their description of the moral life of the early Christians, the apologists
of the second and third centuries were eloquent in comparing the laxity of the
pagans with the monogamy of the followers of Christ. According to a second century
document, "among them wise self-control is found, monogamy is observed,
and chastity is preserved." (17) All the extant evidence from the early
Church says the same thing.
Reflecting on the teachings of faith, theologians like St. Thomas explain the
correctness of monogamy on two grounds: that only such a union guarantees the
fulfillment of all the purposes of marriage - procreation and education of children,
fostering of mutual love, and control of the sex appetite; and it alone is a
faithful image of Christ's union with the Church, where a single head is joined
together with a single spouse.
An apparent exception to the law of monogamy occurs in St. Matthew, and, in
view of its controversial nature, should be treated at some length. It is the
favorite text of Protestant writers who defend remarriage after divorce. In
context, the Pharisees came to put Jesus to the test by asking Him which of
two schools of Jewish morality should be followed, the more strict position
of Shammai who allowed divorce only on the grounds of adultery, or the more
lenient school of Hillel which granted divorce for less grave and even trivial
The Pharisees' question was equivalent to: "Is Hillel right? Can divorce
for any reason whatsoever be tolerated?" or "Is a man allowed to send
away his wife however the case stands?" To the Pharisees' embarrassment,
Christ pronounced for neither school but, as in a previous context, went straight
to the acts and words of God. Since God had created them two in one body, they
are to remain so, and no man, neither Shammai nor Hillel, dare interfere with
the declared will of God. Christ's answer was disconcerting because it struck
at the institution of divorce itself. Thus whether the questioners were of the
Hillel or Shammai school, they were forced to defend themselves on common ground.
So they appealed to the Scriptures, testifying to the fact that Moses had allowed
divorce with remarriage, i.e., polygamy. This implied that Christ's conclusion
from Genesis was plain contradiction with the law of Moses. Christ removed the
contradiction by correcting the Pharisees' terms. Divorce was not a Mosaic commandment;
it was at most a toleration of existing custom, which was due to Israel's "hardness
of heart," as the Old Testament had already recognized. If the Jews of
old were morally immature, this only showed how obtuse they were to the divine
will expressed in Genesis. No doubt Moses permitted the granting of a bill of
divorce. But in doing so he simply made the best of an existing situation by
requiring a formality that restrained hasty action and which therefore protected
the divorced wife from recall at her divorcing husband's whim.
At this point Christ introduced His own teaching. "I say to you,"
He declared, "that whoever puts away his wife, except for immorality, and
marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries a woman who has been put
away commits adultery." (18) In a word, He restored the stability of the
primal institution on His own authority.
Since the sixteenth century, those who favor remarriage after divorce appeal
to this immorality clause" to justify their position. Catholic interpreters
have always defended the opposite. They argue first of all from the common sense
judgment that the evangelist could not have been so stupid as to contradict
his own context, namely permit divorce with remarriage in the same passage where
Christ declares he is restoring marriage to its pristine monogamy. It was equally
unlikely that Jesus was reversing His own attitude with a casual parenthesis.
Moreover, how explain the scandal which Christ's words immediately evoked among
the disciples. The moment He finished, they said to Him, "If the case of
a man with his wife is so, it is not expedient to marry." To which Christ
replied, not by qualifying His intransigent position, but confirming it by saying
that not only is monogamy possible with the grace of God but even celibacy and
virginity. (19) It follows then, that the "immorality clause" does
not permit remarriage on the grounds of adultery.
How should the clause be taken? The classic explanation is that "immorality"
in the passage means "adultery,"-since it refers to married persons.
Thus an adulterous wife could be set aside (parektos), i.e., separated
from bed and board (a mensa et toro), but without the liberty for either
him or her to remarry. St. Paul makes this perfectly clear: "To those who
are married, not I, but the Lord commands that a wife is not to depart from
her husband, and if she departs, that she is to remain unmarried or be reconciled
to her husband. And let not a husband put away his wife." (20) Christ,
therefore, made a reservation about not putting away ones spouse to avoid the
impression that He was imposing the obligation of living with a faithless partner.
Matrimonial Contract. For a marriage to be valid, there must
be genuine consent between the contracting parties. They mutually must agree
to give and accept the perpetual and exclusive right to the body, namely to
those acts which are necessary for the procreation of the race. Since the contract
they enter has to be accepted by both sides, each must give an external manifestation
that they give themselves and receive the other in marriage. Words need not
be pronounced, but some visible or externally perceptible sign of agreement
is necessary. Where both parties are baptized, their contract is at the same
time, and ipso facto, a sacrament. Thus not only two Catholics, but two
Protestants, or a Catholic and Protestant, or any two Christians, when they
contract a valid marriage, they also receive the sacrament of matrimony.
In virtue of Canon Law, whenever a Catholic wishes to marry (even in a mixed
marriage), he must do so before the parish priest, or the bishop, or a priest
delegated by either of them, and before two witnesses. Unless these conditions
are fulfilled, the marriage is not valid in the eyes of the Church. The two
witnesses must be able to see what was said and done at the wedding, and thus
testify to the contracting of the marriage. Together with the assisting priest,
they have to be physically present when the matrimonial context is expressed.
Consequently the witnesses must have the use of reason, although they need
not strictly speaking be adults. Moreover the law does not prescribe anything
definite regarding their sex, religion or character, while obvious care should
be taken to avoid giving scandal by having some notorious person witnessing
at a Catholic wedding. The contract would be valid even if they do not actually
hear the parties pronounce their vows, but only gather as much by some equivalent
sign that marriage is being celebrated. They do not even have to be explicitly
aware of the fact that they are official witnesses; it would be enough if they
just happened to be there accidentally. It is well, however, to tell the people
beforehand that they are going to witness the marriage.
Who are obliged by this requirement of a priest and two witnesses? All Catholics,
whether baptized in infancy or later on, whether born into the faith or adult
converts, and even though they had given the practice of the faith up by falling
into heresy or schism. The injunction holds whether the party they marry is
another Catholic, a Christian, or one who is not baptized.
There are no exceptions.
A new regulation came into effect on January 1, 1949, when Pius XII modified
a provision of Canon Law. Since that date, persons who have been baptized as
Catholics in infancy, even though they were never brought up as Catholics (because
parents died or fell away from the Church) are equally bound by the general
law for a valid marriage, i.e., before a priest and two witnesses. They are
therefore required to observe this condition even though the person they marry
is not himself (or herself) Catholic.
As regards all other persons, the Catholic Church considers their marriages
valid, provided they were free to marry and made their contract in some form
which the contracting recognized as legitimate, such as before a minister or
rabbi, a justice of the peace or civil official. Such marriages are not only
valid but indissoluble, and, where the man and woman are both baptized, also
a sacrament which gives special grace to the contracting partners.
In a country like the United States, the incidence of mixed marriages between
Catholics and others is high, and certain conditions have been laid down which
the Church requires to be fulfilled before dispensation is given to enter such
marriages. The basic condition is that there are grave and just reasons which
urge the dispensation, of which, the priest and eventually the bishop are judges.
In addition, the non-Catholic party is required to sign certain promises, called
guarantees, about whose fulfillment there must also be prudent assurance
before the dispensation is granted. A typical ante-nuptial agreement is taken
either under oath or on one's word of honor.
I, the undersigned, not a member of the Catholic Church, wishing to contract
, a member of the Catholic Church, propose to do so with the
understanding that the marriage bond thus contracted is indissoluble, except
by death. I promise on my word and honor that I will not in any way hinder or
obstruct the said
, in the exercise of religion, and that all the children
of either sex born of our marriage shall be baptized and educated in the Catholic
faith and according to the teaching of the Catholic Church, even though the
be taken away by death.
I further promise that I will marry
only according to the marriage rite
of the Catholic Church; that I will not either before or after the Catholic
ceremony present myself with
for marriage before a civil magistrate or minister
of the Gospel.
Such restricting conditions have been criticized by non-Catholics. They affirm
that they have something quite as precious to them as the teaching of the Catholic
Church is to its members. "Why should they not stand for the preciousness
of their faith," they ask. "In a mixed marriage the Protestant or
other non-Roman Christian is just as much involved as the Roman Catholic, and
where his happiness and freedom are concerned, he must take a stand." (21)
On the other hand, many Protestants recognize the unique position of Catholicism
and, without subscribing to its theology, admit that no other stand could be
taken logically by a Church that considers itself in possession of the fullness
Every contract to be valid must be made with adequate knowledge and full consent
to the agreement, and marriage is no exception to the rule. Later when we examine
cases of marriage annulments, we shall see the implications of this fact.
On the score of knowledge, erroneous ideas may concern the nature of marriage,
its properties, the possibility of marrying, or the other partner. There is
not much of a problem about ignorance on the nature of marriage. It is enough
that both parties know that marriage is a permanent union of husband and wife
for generating children. This minimal knowledge is assumed in everyone who has
reached adolescence, and the absence of such knowledge would have to be proved.
A more subtle question is error about the quality of marriage as an exclusive
and permanent union. If it is a purely theoretical error, when the mistake is
only in the mind and does not affect the will, then the contract stands. And
error in this matter is always presumed to be merely mental until the contrary
has been established. On the other hand, if besides the mistaken notion there
is also a positive act of the will, the marriage contract is invalid. Suppose
a man expressly stated that he intended to contract a dissoluble union, or that
he would rather not be married than receive a sacrament, although he is a Christian.
He would not be married in the judgment of the Church.
Another area of possible error concerns the other party. If the mistake is
about the identity of the person, then the contract is invalid even by the natural
law. Thus if a man thinks he is marrying a certain girl, but her twin sister
is substituted, the contract is null and void. The historic case of this kind
was the pseudo-marriage of Jacob to the veiled Lia, whom he mistook for Rachel.
But if the mistake concerns only the quality of the person, then the contract
is nullified only when the error amounts to an error about the person. A situation
of this kind is extremely rare. The more common problem is where a man or woman
marry under the mistaken notion that their fiance(e) is rich, or specially gifted,
or virtuous, or with a certain social or economic status - none of which would
invalidate the marriage even though the most clever deception were practiced.
Matrimonial consent may be vitiated by violence or fear. Thus if a woman were
physically coerced to go through a ceremony with a man she absolutely did not
want to marry, the contract would be void. More common is the element of fear,
which may also invalidate a marriage, but only under specified conditions. It
must be a grave fear, unjustly caused by someone outside the person fearing,
and so irresistible that the only way to escape the thing feared is to go through
the marriage ritual.
A grave fear would be one induced by threats of physical violence, strong and
importunate demands, constant and emotional entreaties, prediction of permanent
displeasure of parents, and similar pressures. The evil feared may refer to
the person who marries or to a third party, a relative, friend, or fiance(e).
In the nature of things, the usual victim of such fears is the woman.
Again to nullify the contract, the fear would have to come from outside the
one fearing, and not be caused by his own imagination, qualms of conscience
or fixed ideas of any sort. The latter may, of course, have come about from
this external agency, but unless there is solid, objective reason for the grave
fear, it would not affect the marital contract. A girl might be deathly afraid
of her father and marry the man she knows he prefers, but if the dread of her
parent is mainly self-induced, the marriage is indisputably valid.
Somewhat more delicate is the element of injustice in the fear, since a woman
may be frightened by such extraneous factors as being left out of a prejudiced
aunt's will, where the relative may justly disinherit her niece. But if the
same relative (or someone else) threatened to take the girl's life or cause
her grave harm, the consequent fear would have been unjustly caused and might
have rendered the contract void. One case that comes up before the matrimonial
courts is that of a breach of promise, where the girl at first promised to marry
a man, and may even have been engaged to him. She changes her mind and tells
him so, but under duress from the man she marries him. This would invalidate
Since 1918, when Canon Law on violence and fear was first promulgated, a long
history of cases has accumulated. Decisions of ecclesiastical courts support
the broad interpretation that a contract is invalid not only when the party
is under actual and objective duress from someone, trying to force a marriage,
but even when the fear is unfounded in fact, but yet subjectively a woman, for
example, thinks she is under pressure and goes through with the ceremony to
escape some dire evil.
A practical question arises of how to correct a previously defective contract.
As a rule, lack of true consent in marriage (whether induced by fear or otherwise)
must be supplied in the same way in which it had been previously lacking. Thus
if consent had not been given internally at the time of the wedding, it would
be enough to supply the deficiency also internally; but if the want of consent
was also recognizable externally, through words, gestures, or general show of
reluctance, the renewal would also have to be made externally, and is normally
done in the form prescribed for contracting marriage.
Indicative of the Church's authority in marriage cases is the power to validate
previously invalid contracts, called sanatio in radice or "healing
at the roots." After an impediment has ceased or been dispensed from, the
Church can validate the marriage and dispense the parties from renewing consent
externally and publicly; and by a fiction of law, the marriage is considered
to have been valid from the beginning.
Moralists call this "radical healing" because it now heals (by making
valid) the marital consent (or root of matrimony) which was previously missing,
so that the contract becomes valid and the benefits consequent on marriage may
follow. Normally only the Holy See has authority to give a sanatio, but
the bishops also share in this power by delegation from Rome. Several conditions
must be fulfilled, however, for such a "healing" to take place. There
must be a grave reason, as happens in the rare case where one or both parties
cannot be asked (or induced) to express consent in the way required by the Church,
or, in the still rarer case where neither partner can be told of the invalidity
of their previous marriage without great harm to themselves or others. The invalidity
of the contract must have come from a diriment (nullifying) impediment of ecclesiastical
(not divine) law or lack of form, i.e., failure to marry before an authorized
priest and two witnesses or lack of free consent. We shall see the Church impediments
shortly, while pointing out that this privilege does not apply to people whose
impediment to a valid marriage was an existing marital bond, i.e., a previous
marriage. And finally there must be a continuation of matrimonial consent, for
the obvious reason that if either or both parties never agreed to live as man
and wife (or withdrew this intention), the Church cannot now step in and tell
them they are married. Their deliberate agreement to be married cannot be supplied
by anyone, not even by the Church.
Impediments to Marriage
By divine law, marriage is a sacrament which confers on the two people who
marry all the graces they need for a lifetime to fulfill the duties of their
state. They receive an increase of sanctifying grace, which includes the virtues
of faith, hope and charity; they receive a title to a series of actual graces,
of light for the mind and of strength for the will, to remain constant to each
other, grow in mutual love, and rear their children in the love and fear of
But just because marriage is sacramental, the Catholic Church has always vindicated
its right to set down the conditions under which the sacrament may be received,
who are entitled and who debarred from this privilege, and under what circumstances
the marital contract is valid or invalid, licit or illicit, "healable"
or beyond repair.
By way of prelude, two items should be briefly touched upon: Church and State
rights in marriage, and inter-racial marriages. It is Catholic belief that marriage
between baptized persons is subject to the jurisdiction of the Church, for the
simple reason that such marriages are always sacramental and therefore come
under the Church's authority. The Church therefore claims the right to set down
impediments or dispense with them, and this affects also those who are not Catholic.
Thus ecclesiastical law exempts baptized non-Catholics from the duty of marriage
before a priest and two witnesses, and from such impediments as disparity of
cult, i.e., their marriage is considered valid no matter before whom they make
the contract, and even though one of the parties is not baptized. As far as
State rights are concerned, civil authorities have every right to prescribe
certain conditions affecting marriage on its physical, social and economic side.
But beyond this, as when the State presumes to nullify inter-racial marriage,
the Church believes such authority belongs by divine right to the ecclesiastical
domain where baptized persons are involved. It is far otherwise with people
who are not baptized, over whom the State has the power to establish impediments
and decide under what conditions their contract is valid or not.
Civil Laws. Five types of laws are known to the States, which
require compliance with their provisions in order to contract valid marriage.
They provide 1) requirements concerning physical examination before marriage,
2) minimum waiting periods which differ in different States, 3) time for performing
the ceremony after getting the license, 4) what persons may lawfully perform
the marriage ceremony, and 5) what words, if any, are necessary to solemnize
a valid marriage.
Practically all the States forbid marriage by one infected with venereal disease,
while they also prescribe that applicants for a license first present affidavits
or medical certificates showing them to be free from venereal infection at the
time they applied for permission to marry. Notable exceptions are Maryland,
Minnesota and Nevada. Some States further specify a time limit between the date
of physical examination (blood test) and two other dates, i.e., issuance of
marriage license and the marriage ceremony.
As a rule, the license must be delivered to the person who is to assist at
the wedding. The two waiting periods required by the States have different purposes.
The maximum period from blood test to license is to insure that an infectious
disease is not contracted in the meantime; and the minimum waiting from license
to marriage is to guarantee that boy and girl give themselves time to think
before they actually get married. Variants of this law provide for a waiting
period between applying for a license and its issuance, or between serological
test and the ceremony. In New York, for instance, before a man can marry a girl,
he must obtain a certificate signed by a doctor to the effect that both he and
the girl have been clinically found free from infection. This certificate has
to be presented within 30 days after the date of examination along with the
application for a license to marry. After getting the license, it has to be
delivered within 60 days to the person authorized to assist at the wedding.
However, the ceremony cannot lawfully take place within 24 hours after the license
was issued or within 3 days from the date of the physical examination.
Three States (Delaware, Maryland and West Virginia) require a religious ceremony,
but all the States empower any duly ordained clergyman to perform the marriage
rite. Most of the States also give the same authority to numerous civil officials,
such as judges, mayors, justices of the peace, recorders and city magistrates.
As a rule the statutes do not specify the ceremony, but they do require that
man and woman indicate their declaration to marry and express their declaration
in the presence of qualified witnesses.
It comes as a surprise to many people that the Church does not have any legal
prohibition against inter-racial marriages. Baptized persons may therefore marry
validly provided there are no other impediments. The question of prudence or
expediency is another matter, and people contemplating marriage with a person
of another race are counseled to reflect on the consequences of their action
in a country like the United States, where racial prejudice may place heavy
hardships on the children born of such union.
Here especially we see the difference in outlook of Church and State. The civil
law of many States forbids marriage between whites and Negroes. (22) A typical
provision defines a Negro as anyone who has at least one Negro forefather within
three generations. Civil impediments of this kind are not binding in conscience,
not only for Christians but for anyone. Since all men have a natural right to
marry, any statute which forbids them to exercise this right is unjust unless,
in a particular case, it could be proved that such restriction is for the common
good. This cannot be proved for interracial marriages which, in the United States,
affect contracts between white persons and those who are Negro, Oriental or
Mongolian. Common sense dictates that the civil law not be ignored, where operative,
but that persons who wish to marry inter-racially (after due reflection) go
to another State where such discrimination is not practiced.
Divine and Ecclesiastical Law. Any factor or circumstance which
prevents the celebration of marriage is an impediment, from the Latin impedire
(to stand in the way), and may be of two kinds, either merely forbidding the
marriage or also invalidating the marital contract. The first type are prohibitive,
the second diriment (dirimere = to tear apart). Moreover the circumstance
which either forbids or nullifies a marriage may be public or private, known
or even unknown to the partners themselves.
What is the source of these impediments? The natural law, founded in the objective
moral order and therefore binding on all persons, whether Christian or not;
and positive or ecclesiastical law, determined by the Church as obligating all
Christians who are not lawfully dispensed. Very few impediments come under the
natural divine law and all of them are diriment, namely impotence that is certain
and antecedent to marriage, the bond of a previous valid marriage, immature
age before a person has the use of reason, close relationship by blood (certainly
between parent and child and probably between brother and sister). Other impediments,
whether prohibitive or nullifying, are the result of positive Church legislation.
Not all diriment impediments are equally important or practical, yet all have
direct bearing on the nature of marriage and explain the Church's solicitude
to safeguard a contract on whose validity depends one of the sacraments and
the consequent grace that husband and wife need to live out their married life
Immaturity of age is the first nullifying impediment, which Canon Law has fixed
at sixteen for the boy and fourteen for the girl. Significantly several States
allow marriage with parents' consent below the canonical age, e.g., Idaho (15-15),
Kansas (14-12), Massachusetts (14-12), New Hampshire (14-13), and Washington
(14-12). Some people think that puberty is enough to contract a valid marriage,
but that is not correct. Baptized persons do not enter a valid marriage before
the specified age even though both parties have reached puberty, which is not
only possible but common. On the other hand, two people contract validly if
they are of age (16-14) even though neither has yet attained puberty. Unbaptized
people are not affected by this legislation. A subtle aspect of the age requirement
specifies that a marriage does not become valid automatically once the couple
attain maturity. Unless marital consent is duly renewed the contract remains
Why the age limit, if the boy and girl are physically capable of becoming parents?
The immediate reason is their psychological immaturity. Young people in their
early teens are scarcely equipped mentally and culturally to cope with the manifold
problems of married life; the boy is unable to earn enough money to make a living,
the girl unequipped to face the responsibilities of motherhood. Medical and
genetic factors also play a part. Puberty is not a sudden physiological change
but a gradual process, with intercourse and child-bearing to be discouraged
before the reproductive system is sufficiently formed. Children born to parents
below the age of sixteen (in temperate climates) are liable to be physically
weak, defective and otherwise underdeveloped. If the canonical age seems too
low for a country like the United States, it should be remembered that the Church
is legislating for Christians everywhere, including countries like India and
Spain, where puberty may be reached three or four years earlier than in North
Impotence is the inability to have intercourse, i.e., to perform that physical
act whereby the genital organs of the man and woman are so united as naturally
to lead to conception. It is therefore carefully to be distinguished from sterility,
which neither invalidates marriage nor makes it unlawful; so that merely because
husband or wife are incapable of having children does not in any way affect
their marital contract.
Inability to perform the sexual act may be absolute, when the impotency prevents
intercourse with any person, or relative when impossible with some one person,
or permanent if it cannot be corrected naturally or by lawful surgical means.
Nowadays, with the progress of medical science, what used to be permanent impotency
can become temporary, and new advances in this field are being reported annually.
Only one kind of impotency invalidates marriage, if it is perpetual and if it
precedes the wedding ceremony. Otherwise the marriage is valid. Consequently
if marital intercourse becomes physically impossible after marriage, the contract
remains unchanged and valid. The essential element is the capacity for a man
to deposit seminal at least at the mouth of the vagina. If either he or she
is physically incapable of this necessary function, there is impotency, but
the marriage stands unless the condition were known to exist before the wedding.
A previously existing marriage bond makes it impossible for a man and woman
to remarry, as long as the first union has not been dissolved (as may happened
under the Pauline privilege) and even though the first contract had not been
consummated, i.e., there had been no conjugal act. Of course the previous marriage
must have been valid, and not a few cases which scandalize people are those
in which the former contract had been void for any one of many reasons. But
if the preceding marriage was valid, whether the parties are Catholic or not,
Christian or unbaptized, a subsequent union remains invalid unless or until
a nullity or dissolution of the prior matrimony has been legally and certainly
established. Where both parties are baptized, death alone can dissolve their
An Enoch Arden situation also falls under this provision, so that a second
marriage is invalid when contracted with the sincere notion that the first spouse
was dead. Authorization by the Church and even a dispensation mistakenly granted
on the presumption of a husband's (or wife's) death does not change the case.
The second partnership cannot stand if the previous spouse is still alive.
Disparity of cult is a technical term for the impediment which nullifies (except
with a dispensation) a marital contract between an unbaptized person and one
who is baptized in or later received into the Catholic Church. Non-Catholics
who marry among themselves are not affected by this legislation, although apostates
or fallen aways from Catholicism remain bound by the impediment. The reason
for this impediment is mainly to insure the continued perseverance of the Catholic
party in his or her faith, and provide for the Catholic education of the children
who may be born of the marriage.
Major orders and solemn vows also invalidate marriage. A cleric who has been
ordained subdeacon, deacon or priest; and persons (whether men or women) who
pronounced solemn vows in a religious order (not a congregation) are not only
forbidden to marry, but if they attempt to do so the contract is null and void.
The law of celibacy does not affect all the clergy of the Catholic Church. Thus
all priests of the Latin rite must be celibate, whereas those in the Byzantine
rite may marry before ordination and remain with their wives afterwards, but
they may not marry after ordination nor remarry (as priests) after their wife
dies. In Catholic practice, dispensation from celibacy is very rarely given
to the clergy: never for bishops, almost never for priests, occasionally for
deacons and subdeacons, who are at the point of death and for conscience' sake
want to have their unions ratified.
In order to preserve the liberty of choice in marriage, abduction of a woman
in order to marry her invalidates the subsequent contract. Also the crime of
adultery nullifies a future marriage if combined with at least one other circumstance:
if the two promised to marry each other on the death of either one's spouse,
if they actually attempted marriage, say before a civil official or be deceiving
ecclesiastical authorities, or if one of the two murdered either his own spouse
or that of his lover. In the same category is the impediment of decency, which
means that public and notorious concubinage annuls marriage between one party
and the blood relatives of the other in the first and second degrees of the
direct line. Therefore parents, grandparents, children and grandchildren of
the other party may not be married.
In a class by themselves are those diriment impediments which refer to various
relationships within which a person may not enter marriage. Consanguinity (cum
+ sanguine = with blood) is a natural relationship between two persons,
one of whom is descended from the other or at least both of whom have the same
common ancestor. Another name is blood relationship, even where the two people
have only one forebear in common. The general law for Catholics declares that
any marriage is invalid if two persons are related to each other in the direct
line in any degree, and in the collateral line within the third degree. Two
people are related in the direct line if they are directly descended one from
the other. Thus John (father) - Mary (daughter) - Michael (grandson) - Louise
If there is little problem determining who are related in the direct line,
the collateral line is often hard to ascertain. It means that people are descended
from the same ancestor through a side-by-side relationship. One relative does
not directly beget the other (as before) but both have the same father, mother,
and so on, down the line. Without going into a mass of detail, a simple rule
on the degree of forbidden relationship can be worked out by means of a diagram,
where "P" stands for the ancestor and "S" and "D"
for the descendants. Subscript numbers indicate the generations removed from
a given ancestor.
(S1 ----- D2 ----- S3 ----- D4
(D1 ----- S2 ----- D3 ----- S4
To illustrate: S1 cannot marry D1, S2, or D3, but can marry S4. Or again, D2
cannot validly marry D1, S2, or D3, but can marry S4: or a step further, S3
cannot marry D1 or S2 or D3, but can marry S4. All subsequent relationships
can be worked out in the same way.
Affinity is less close than consanguinity and yet invalidates marriage in two
ways: in all degrees of the direct line and to the second degree in the collateral
line. Thus if a woman's husband dies, Canon Law forbids her to marry either
her husband's father or grandfather; either his son by a previous marriage or
his grandson; and (collaterally) her husband's brother, or his first cousin,
or his uncle, or his nephew. People who are not baptized are not touched by
this impediment. And also in mixed marriages, where one party is not baptized,
no impediment of affinity exists.
Spiritual relationship which nullifies marriage (without a dispensation) exists
between the person baptizing and the one he baptizes, and between baptized persons
and their sponsors. This also applies to private baptism. Legal relationship
arises from adoption, and is a Church impediment only where the civil law makes
it nullify marriage. Italy, Spain and other countries have such civil laws;
but since they do not exist in the United States, there is no diriment impediment
on this score in American Church law.
Prohibiting impediments render marriage unlawful, and therefore a person commits
sin by doing so knowingly and willfully, but the contract is valid and the marriage
stands even though (through neglect or deceit) a dispensation had not been received.
For practical purposes there is only one prohibitive impediment that has general
pertinence, namely the barrier of mixed religion, where one party is Catholic
and the other is baptized and therefore Christian but not Catholic. Two other
prohibitive impediments are scarcely relevant: simple vows, as for persons in
most religious communities of Sisters, and legal relationship, where the civil
law makes it a forbidden relationship (though valid), which does not obtain
in the United States.
Inter-faith Marriages. Mixed marriages between Catholic and non-Catholic
Christians are prohibited, though not under sanction of invalidity, for reasons
intimated in an earlier context. Behind Church legislation stands the experience
of centuries, which shows that the differences between the two religious cultures
are normally so great that only exceptional courage and generosity and an extra
abundance of grace can assure fidelity to religious principles on the part of
husband and wife, and perseverance in a happy marriage until death. Children
are often the worst sufferers because they are torn between two different outlooks
on life and two interpretations of Christianity that place a child in the awkward
position of either not knowing which to favor, or fluctuating in uncertainty
about religious faith, or favoring one to the exclusion (or opposition) of the
other. Statistics on the loss of Catholic faith among the children vary, but
sixty per cent seems to be a conservative figure for the United States in the
Protestants no less than Catholics discourage mixed marriages. They do so for
several cogent reasons. An inter-faith marriage between a Catholic and one who
is not Catholic lacks a commonly held and articulated basis of ideas, purposes
and motivations. It also notoriously lacks the resources of marital health provided
by common worship and common involvement in the most significant of all possible
interests. A mixed marriage likewise robs the parents of a common relationship
with their children on the deepest level, namely of the spiritual life. And
correspondingly one of the parents, or maybe both, are robbed of the opportunity
of bringing to their children the best spiritual heritage that he or she knows,
being barred from discharging this most important aspect of parental responsibility.
Finally many Protestants who sign the promises demanded for marrying a Catholic
feel themselves disenabled from following their preference in regard to the
planning of parenthood. Birth control is so widely practiced that where one
partner to a marriage believes it can be done legitimately and the other that
it is a grave sin, any compromise solution is impossible. The result is that
(more often) the Catholic party may capitulate with serious consequences to
moral integrity and faith.
As convincing as all these factors may look to one who is not personally involved,
they are often not strong enough to young people whose feelings have caused
them to see no other way than entering marriage, in spite of all the warnings
to the contrary. "We have plenty of common ground under our feet,"
they will say. "We have our love, we have our ideals; we know what we want
out of life, we think that we can bring fine things to our children. And all
this though we are of different religions." A Protestant churchman quotes
the reply and answers it.
Taking this doubtless sincere statement at its face value, what it really means
is this: We have a common religion, the particular religious labels we bear
are secondary to us. Though the couple might find difficulty in stating what
these "ideals" are, difficulty in defining what the purposes of life
are, if they really mean that Roman Catholicism, Presbyterianism...is not to
be the guiding norm of their lives nor the heritage given their children, then
there are several important questions for them to consider: Is the new religion
which they have invented ("our ideals," "our purposes,"
"fine things") really profound and meaningful, and will it abide not
only during the sunny periods of life but during the crises? In adopting a view
of life which is in effect a rejecting or subordination of their own religious
heritages, do they have a really better way of life than these heritages represent?
In what religious ceremony for their marriage and with what continuity of worship
during their marriage (and with their children) will they appropriately express
and deepen these convictions?
There are difficult problems for both sides to an inter-faith marriage, for
the Catholic whose faith requires that his partner agree on many promises, and
for the Protestant who may feel he is being coerced into accepting what he does
not on principle believe.
Taking the Protestant side first, there are two alternatives he faces. If he
declines to sign; the prenuptial agreement and the marriage takes place under
non-Catholic auspices, the Catholic party is debarred from the sacraments and
believes himself to be "living in sin" because the marriage is not
considered valid by the Church. But if the Protestant does sign the promises
he may have ridden over his own religious allegiance roughshod, may likewise
feel he has done morally wrong because of the decision not to exercise his primary
responsibility toward his children, and put himself in the position of finding
it very difficult to repent (or ever change) his action, except at the risk
of breaking up the marriage.
The mixed marriage ratio in the United States is high, due mainly to the pluralistic
character of America as a whole. In general percentages differ according to
the relative proportion of Protestants and Catholics in a given locality. Figures
published some years ago showed that over a ten year period fifty Catholic dioceses
had 900,000 marriages solemnized by the Church. Out of these, 275,000 or over
thirty per cent were inter-faith, in which a Catholic married a non-Catholic
(mostly Protestant). During the same ten year span, these dioceses reported
that in thirty-five per cent of the mixed marriages the non-Catholic party became
Catholic, while twenty per cent of the Catholics (along with their families)
were lost to active parish life. On the other hand, the Catholic bishops of
Germany reported to their people that, for all practical purposes, by the third
generation (great-grandchildren) all the children of inter-faith marriages cease
to be Catholic. In the same pastoral letter, the bishops pointed out that there
are more members lost to the Catholic Church by mixed marriage than are gained
by all the labors of foreign missionaries throughout the pagan world.
A recent study made by the Sociology Department of Iowa State University confirmed
the otherwise well-known fact that Catholic-to-Catholic marriages have the best
survival rate. The combined survey covered about 89,000 marriages. Three types
of marriages were analyzed: where both parties were Catholic, or both Protestant,
or one Catholic and the other Protestant. Also two standards were applied: survival
during the first year of married life, and survival after seven years. It was
found that Catholic couples' survival rate was 998 marriages out of a thousand
for the first year of marriage, dropping down to 954 at the end of seven years.
Protestants had a survival rate of 986 for the first year, which declined to
868 after seven years. But Catholics married to Protestants had a survival of
only 983 already in the first year, i.e., seventeen out of a thousand disintegrated
before twelve months, and by the end of seven years only 795 were still together,
with a mortality rate of 205 couples breaking up within seven years.
Every Pope in modern times has spoken or written on the subject of mixed marriages,
urging Catholics to avoid them. According to Leo XIII, interfaith unions "give
occasions to forbidden association and communion in religious matter; they endanger
the faith of the Catholic party; they are a hindrance to the proper education
of children; and they often lead to a mixing up of truth and falsehood, and
to the belief that all religions are equally good."
Underlying the Church's intransigence is also the knowledge that young people
of different faiths assume they are different only in their religious belief.
Actually far more is involved. Few people are wise enough to chart the whole
area of their activities and judge how heavily religious tradition and training
weigh. With rare exception, those of different faiths who have married find
themselves wholly unprepared for problems that they had not foreseen. Marriage
is a venture even under the best of circumstances; it becomes a risk, with heavy
odds against success, when the partners differ from the start on what should
be the principal unifying element in their lives.
Dispensation. As might be expected, the Church gives dispensations
from the impediments to marriage only for reasons proportionate to the gravity
of the obstacle. Thus no dispensation is ever given or can be given from the
impediment of consanguinity in the first degree of the direct line, i.e., between
parent and son or daughter; from impotency that exists prior to marriage and
is permanent; from the bond of a previous marriage between two baptized persons
after they have had sexual intercourse; and from the impediment of age if either
party has not reached the use of reason.
Almost as grave are other impediments, from which dispensation is also never
given, notably consanguinity in the first degree of the collateral line, i.e.,
between brother and sister; and from a public crime, where one of the former
spouses is murdered, unless dispensation were sought for conscience' sake by
one of the parties at the point of death. While most rare, dispensations are
sometimes given for marriage where two people have affinity in the first degree
of the direct line, i.e., parent or child of a deceased husband or wife; likewise
there are records of dispensations from the crime of abduction. The Church more
easily dispenses from other diriment impediments, including permission for the
marriage of second cousins. A classic dispensation of this type was granted
to Henry VIII of England, to marry Catherine of Aragon, the widow of his elder
brother, Arthur. The marriage took place by papal grant in 1509, but less than
twenty years later Henry asked for a divorce on the grounds that the dispensation
Dispensations from prohibitive impediments are also given, for reasons that
must be examined and weighed in each case. The most familiar is permission for
a mixed marriage, already seen in detail, where first the priest examining the
couple, then the pastor, and finally the bishop are required to have "moral
certainty," i.e., should have no prudent doubt to the contrary, that the
proposed marriage between a Catholic and someone of another (or no) faith will
be successful. Without such dispensation, a marriage is invalid if the non-Catholic
party is also unbaptized; otherwise the contract would be valid but illicit.
Prenuptial Instructions. Canon Law explicitly requires that persons
who are about to be married be properly instructed in three areas of their new
state of life: on the holiness of the sacrament of matrimony, their mutual obligations
as husband and wife, and their obligations to the children born of the marriage.
The sacramental character of marriage is at once a source of inspiration and
a challenge to generosity for Christians who understand the implications of
their faith. Not unlike the sacrament of holy orders, matrimony was instituted
by Christ to provide for the social needs of the Mystical Body. "Through
matrimony, in which the contracting parties are ministers of grace to each other,
provision is made for the external and duly regulated increase of Christian
society, and, what is of greater importance, for the proper religious training
of children, without which the Mystical Body would be in grave danger."
Viewed in this light, marriage takes on a new significance. In as much as Christians
are not only men and women but they also belong to a supernatural society, the
procreation of children for them means far more than merely conserving the human
race and providing for its orderly development; it means the obligation to preserve
and increase membership in the Mystical Body. All the laws that nature has implanted
in the two sexes to insure the welfare of mankind, are sublimated by grace in
the faithful for the common benefit of Christ's Church. Where natural instinct
makes the two sexes attractive to each other, grace provides for a similar attraction
do a higher level so that children will not only be physically brought into
the world but might also be spiritually reborn in baptism, educated in the faith
and nurtured into vital cells of the Body of Christ.
Hence the Church's concern for marriages within the faith, because experience
proves how difficult it is for parents, who are biologically able to maintain
the human species, to do the same for the mystical species of God's kingdom
if they are :incompatible on religious grounds. For married Catholics, therefore,
the command to increase and multiply is not only a precept of nature but also
a command of revelation - of nature to cooperate with God in bringing human
beings into the world, and of revelation to collaborate with the Holy Spirit
in rearing citizens for the Mystical Body on earth and for the beatific vision
after death. Consequently any interference by Catholics with the laws of procreation
is doubly reprehensible: for refusing to cooperate with God in His function
of creating souls to infuse them in human bodies, and for resisting His love
in its desire to prepare new souls for the kingdom of heaven.
The mutual obligation of husband and wife thus become more than elevated common
sense, to help them get along nicely and avoid marital friction. They are duties
born of a new social entity into which they have entered, the Church of Christ
which depends absolutely on a harmonious partnership of its cells in order that
grace might flow effectively from the Head to the members; and any dissension
within the cellular units is really discord in the Mystical Body - a disease
or malfunction that inhibits the growth and well-being of that organism which
God became man to establish. By divine providence, the cells of life that make
up the Church are really pairs, mainly men and women who have vowed lifelong
fealty to each other; and in the degree to which this fidelity is kept will
the Church be spiritually sound. Unless the married laity are strong in their
family lives, the superstructure of Catholicism becomes a sham.
In the same way Christian parents assume duties towards their children that
stem from something deeper than natural instinct or the exigencies of family
life. On the premise that baptism incorporates a child into the Body of Christ,
his education and nurture are actually means of sustaining and developing that
Body on its human side in a way that would not be possible without parental
cooperation. Too often people suppose that the volitional response to God's
grace, which is typical of the Catholic outlook on life, is no more than training
character or shaping human personalities. They forget that these children not
only have a soul, but that this soul is itself animated by another principle
of life, sanctifying grace. Their parents therefore have a twofold task: to
rear their children along natural lines in all the qualities that prepare them
for life in the world, and to educate them in things of the Spirit in anticipation
of the world to come.
Critics of Catholicism sometimes complain about the essential otherworldliness
of the Church's ethic, which can place on their conscience heavy burdens that
others, even other Christians, are spared. Catholic education is a case in point.
To operate church-affiliated schools for over five million children in the United
States calls for self-sacrifice to the edge of heroism, and young people getting
married are not unaware of this dimension of their faith. They realize that
matrimony is God's own way of calling on human beings to help Him redeem the
Choice of Partner. Anticipating the proximate preparation for
a happy marriage is the care that young people should exercise in choosing their
life's partner. So much depends on the kind of person chosen that it is impossible
to exaggerate its consequences or stress too much the prudence and wisdom needed
to avoid making mistakes. "We were not meant for each other," is a
favorite excuse for couples who may find out in the first month of their marriage
how little they really knew about the other, and what a risk they were taking
in following "love at first sight" or mere infatuation.
Time and again the Church warns Catholics to carefully deliberate in choosing
the person with whom they are to live in great intimacy until death. "They
should in so deliberating, keep before their minds first the thought of God
and of the true religion of Christ, then of themselves, of their partner, of
the children to come, as also of human and civil society, of which wedlock is
the fountainhead. Let them diligently pray for divine help, so that they may
make their choice in accordance with Christian prudence, not led by the blind
and unrestrained impulse of passion, nor by any desire for wealth or other base
motive, but by a true and noble love and by a sincere affection for the future
partner. Lastly they should ask the prudent advice of their parents regarding
the person they plan to marry. Let them take this advice seriously, so as to
be guided by the mature knowledge and experience of father and mother and receive
on the threshold of marriage an increase of those blessings which God has promised
to those who honor their parents." (25)
Americans have something to learn from the customs of other nations, where
parents and relatives have more than consultative voice in the choice of their
children's husbands and wives. This is not to advocate extremes of "planned
marriages," nor even to suggest that men and women should be restricted
in their liberty of choosing a marriage partner; but disastrous unions of thousands
of incompatible personalities argue to indiscretion which might have been averted
if only someone who knew both parties had been consulted beforehand. It is remarkable
how emotions can obscure judgment when two people are in love, and how much
a bit of foresight, along with prayer and sound advice, can do to clarify the
mind and not place an almost miraculous burden on divine grace to make up for
the imprudence of romantic love.
The ritual for the celebration of marriage is ancient and rich in meaning.
Its essential elements date from at least the ninth century and include an instruction
before marriage, the exchange of consent, the blessing of the wedding ring(s),
special prayers during Mass, and an exhortation after marriage. In view of its
importance and the light it sheds on Catholic ideals for marriage, the ceremony
will be quoted in full. Directives and prayers are taken from the official Rituale
Romanum, which is used by all priests of the Latin rite.
The priest puts on a surplice and white stole. But if the Nuptial Mass is to
follow, he puts on all the vestments except the maniple. He is attended by an
acolyte holding a vessel of holy water. Then standing and facing the man and
woman who are kneeling before the altar, the bridegroom at the right hand of
the bride, he addresses them as follows.
My dear friends: You are about to enter into a union which is most sacred and
most serious. It is most sacred, because established by God Himself; 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. Hence
forth 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.
Then the priest asks, in the vernacular, in the hearing of two or three witnesses,
the bride and bridegroom separately, as follows, concerning their consent. First
he asks the bridegroom, and then the bride.
Priest: N., will you take N., here present, for your lawful wife, according
to the rite of our holy mother the Church?
Groom: I will.
Priest: N., will you take N., here present, for your lawful husband,
according to the rite of our holy mother the Church?
Bride: I will.
The consent of one is not sufficient. It must be expressed in some sensible
sign by both. After obtaining their mutual consent, the priest bids the groom
and bride join their right hands. Then the bridegroom (and bride) say in a clear
I, N.N., take you, N.N. for my lawful wife (husband), to have and to hold from
this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness
and in health, until death do us part.
The priest then says, "I join you together in marriage, in the name of
the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."
He then sprinkles them with holy water. This done, the priest blesses the ring,
Our help is in the name of the Lord.
Who made heaven and earth.
O Lord, hear my prayer.
And let my cry come unto You.
The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.
Let us pray. Bless (+), O Lord, this ring, which we bless (+) in Your name,
that she (he) who wears it, remaining truly faithful to her husband (remaining
faithful to each other), may abide in Your peace and obedience to Your will,
and ever live in mutual love. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Then the priest sprinkles the ring with holy water; and the bridegroom, having
received the ring from the hand of the priest, puts it on the third finger of
the left hand of the bride, saying, "With this ring, I marry you, and pledge
to you my fidelity." The priest then says, "In the name of the Father,
and of the Son(+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen." This done, the priest
Confirm, O God, this which You have done in us.
From Your holy temple, which is in Jerusalem.
Lord, have mercy on us. Christ, have mercy on us.
Our Father...And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
Save Your servants, O my God, save those who hope in You.
Send forth Your help, O Lord, from Your sanctuary.
And from Sion protect us.
Be unto us, O Lord, a tower of strength. From the face of the enemy.
O Lord, hear my prayer
And let my cry come unto You. The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.
Let us pray. We beseech You, O Lord, to look down upon these Your servants.
Graciously protect Your institutions, by which You have provided for the propagation
of mankind, that those who are joined together by Your authority may be preserved
by Your help. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
After this, the Mass For the Bridegroom and Bride should be said in
the presence of the newly married couple, They may kneel at the altar-rail or
on priedieus within the sanctuary. During the Mass, after the Pater Noster,
the couple come up to the altar and kneel on the lower step. The priest interrupts
the Mass, turns to face the newlyweds, and while standing at the Epistle side
of the altar, recites the following special prayer for the bride.
O God, by Your almighty power You made all things out of nothing. You have
set in order the elements of the universe and made man to the image of God.
You appointed woman to be his inseparable helpmate, in such a way that the woman's
body took its beginning from the flesh of man, thereby teaching that what You
have been pleased to institute from one origin might never be lawfully put asunder.
O God, You have sanctified wedlock by a mystery so excellent that in the marriage
bond You foreshadowed the union of Christ with His Church. By You, O God, woman
is joined to man and a rightly ordered society receives that blessing which
neither original sin nor the penalty of the deluge has taken away.
Look down with mercy on this Your handmaid, who is to be joined in marital
embrace and who asks for protection and strength from You. Grant that she may
enjoy the bond of charity and peace, that her marriage may be constant and chaste,
that she may follow the example of holy women in the past. May she be another
Rachel in kindness to her husband, another Rebecca in wisdom, and as faithful
and long-lived as Sarah.
Grant that the author of deceit may never gain the mastery over any of her
actions; that she may remain unmoved in faith and obedience to Your commands;
that her fidelity may never be strained by unseemly conduct. May she strengthen
her weakness with due self-control, and thus become strong in her modesty, respected
for chastity, and wise in her knowledge of heavenly things. Bless her marriage
with fruitfulness, and her character with innocence and a good reputation. May
she have a long life and see her children and children's children, even to the
third and fourth generation, while attaining to the repose of the blessed in
the kingdom of heaven. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
Towards the end of Mass, just before giving the Last Blessing to the people,
the priest turns to the bridegroom and bride and recites the following prayer
over the couple.
May the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, be with you,
and may He fulfill His blessings in you, that you may see your children's children
even to the third and fourth generation, and thereafter may you have life everlasting,
by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit
lives and reigns God for ever and ever. Amen.
After the Nuptial Mass, the priest once more turns to the couple and exhorts
them to mutual fidelity and love.
Having been united in the holy bonds of matrimony, give thanks to the Almighty
for the favors which He has bestowed upon you. The graces which you have received
have been granted for the purpose of animating you in the discharge of the obligations
which the marriage life imposes, and which are beautifully expressed in these
words of the Apostle: "Let women be subject to their husbands, as to the
Lord; for the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the Head of the
Church .... 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 .... So also ought men
to love their wives as their own bodies."
Ever mindful of these duties which you owe to each other, and to those with
whose welfare you may be especially charged, cherish with solicitude the grace
that has this day been conferred upon you; it will direct you in every difficulty;
it will comfort you in the hour of trial; it will be a continual source of peace,
of joy, of mutual affection on earth, and a pledge of your eternal and perfect
union in heaven.
Following the exhortation and just before giving the Last Gospel, the priest
sprinkles the groom and bride with holy water three times, after which they
receive the final blessing and depart.
Christian Marriage References
- Bertrand Russell, Marriage and Morals, Bantam, New York,
1959. pp. 38-39.
- Genesis 1:27.
- Pius XI, Encyclical on Christian Marriage (Casti Connubii),
- Leo XIII, Encyclical Rerum Novarum, May 15, 1891.
- Genesis 1: 26-31.
- Genesis 2: 7-25.
- Pius XII, Address of October 29, 1951.
- Ephesians 5: 25; Colossians 3: 19.
- Ernest van den Haag, "Love and Marriage," Harper's,
- I Corinthians 7: 2-7.
- Enchiridion Symbolorum, 969.
- Ibid., 975.
- Ibid., 977.
- Deuteronomy 21: 15sqq.
- Matthew 19: 9.
- Romans 7: 3.
- Theophilus of Antioch, Ad Autolychum, 3, 15.
- Matthew 19: 9.
- Matthew 19: 10-12.
- I Corinthians 7: 10.
- Leland Foster Wood, If I marry a Roman Catholic, New York,
- Frances W.H. Kuchler, LL.B., The Law of Marriage and Divorce,
Oceana Publications, New York, 1961.
Prohibited inter-racial marriages according to States: Between white and Negro in Alabama, Arizona,
Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana,
Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska,
Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Oklahoma, South Carolina,
South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wyoming.
Between white and Oriental or Mongolian in Arizona,
California, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana,
Nebraska, Nevada, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Virginia, Wyoming.
- Leo XIII, "Christian Marriage," Great Encyclicals,
New York, p. 81.
- Pius XII, Encyclical Mystici Corporis, 20.
- Pius XI, Christian Marriage, Washington, pp. 41-42.
Copyright © 2004 by Inter Mirifica