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Sacrament of Matrimony - Introduction

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

I repeat; this is your mini-textbook on the doctrine. We will concentrate on these nine classes on the doctrine, but I do want you to have copies of the Code dealing with matrimony.

First then, the Concept of the Sacrament of Matrimony; in other words, what is it? We say, and I will periodically read, and then go on to expand, Christian marriage is that sacrament in which two marriageable people of different sexes associate in an undivided life communion by mutual agreement for the generation and education of offspring and in which they receive grace for the fulfillment of the special duties of their state. Every word in that paragraph sentence is important. Notice, Christian marriage is a sacrament. How this needs to be emphasized. For us believing Catholics marriage is certainly a state of life. Marriage is certainly a contract. Marriage is certainly the foundation of civilized society. But marriage is first and primarily a sacrament. And, because it is a sacrament, Christian marriage, hear it and don’t forget; Christian marriage is independent of the authority of the civil government. Christian marriage belongs by divine right to the authority of the Church founded by Christ. And what happened, first in the thirteenth century among the Orthodox, as they call themselves, and the sixteenth century among Protestants? There is only one competitor that, for two thousand years, the Catholic Church has had in her, the Church’s, exercise of authority over marriage and that is the State. And in the thirteenth century the bishops of the Eastern Church caved in. They surrendered. And, though they still have a nominal authority over the sacrament because they believe in the Sacrament of Matrimony, why they gave such power to the State is the single main reason why now, for over seven hundred years, there has been no reunion between the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Church. What’s the main reason? It is what you believe marriage is. The State has always believed, every State since the dawn of human history, has always believed that marriage can be dissolved. Christ taught the opposite, and those who still believe in Him and are faithful to Him, the only authentic Catholics in the world, hear it, are those that believe that sacramental, valid, consummated marriage no authority on earth can dissolve, not even the Bishop of Rome. In the sixteenth century it was a complete surrender, but they’ll still call themselves Christians, complete surrender of authority over marriage to the State. And that’s where, in the Anglo-Saxon world, marriage has been. And the result has been chaos. We don’t begin to begin to re-Christianize western society until we restore marriage to that authority which alone under God has a right, namely the Church founded by Christ and not the State.

So it is a sacrament in which two marriageable people. Now as we go on, especially in the Code of Canon Law, much of what we’d like to cover we won’t be able to cover in class. I will ask you, however, to read carefully whatever I give you to read between classes. We all need it. Marriageable people – as we know not everybody is marriageable. Who is not marriageable? Are people who cannot conceive? Is sterility an invalidating, as we say, impediment, to marriage? Can sterile people be validly married? Yes. Just because they cannot have children does not make them, well, unmarriageable. On that level, as we know, it is — who knows, what alone makes a couple if even one of the two is, not sterile, but impotent? Now there are other conditions, but one condition for being marriageable is the ability to have, well, marital relations, marital intercourse. In the absence of that there cannot be a valid marriage. People of different sexes – oh, how this needs to be said today! And even as we use the word, “sodomy” a lot of people don’t even know where “sodomy” comes from. Like the word “lesbianism”, many people don’t know where “lesbian” comes from. Do you know? Do you know? Well, it’s just as well. But, Lesbos is an island off the coast of Greece when, in pre-Christian times, the women who were homosexual – this is in pagan, pre-Christian Greece – they became so numerous and so influential in Greek society that the Greek government decided this cannot go on. So these dear, homosexual women were rounded up and exiled to the island of Lesbos to protect society. No society has ever survived which has legalized homosexuality. I’m no Isaiah; the days of America are numbered.

And notice, to associate in an undivided life communion – we’ll say much about that adjective, “undivided”, life communion – they don’t just happen to live under the same roof. And the Church uses the term “communion” as the closest intimacy between two persons. Christ Himself when we receive him, as we say, we receive Him in communion. And behind the word “communion” is not merely, say physical either nearness or intimacy. The essence of communion is a union of spirit. Oh, how this needs to be said! During my five years of teaching at Western Michigan having over two thousand students in my five years; they would come in. Most of my students were not Catholic; my alias was, of course, Dr. Hardon not Father Hardon. And more than once and both cases either girls would bring their fiancée or men would bring the girl they thought they would like to marry. They didn’t tell the girl. They told me. A man would bring a girl in. “Now Father this is the girl I am planning to marry so I would like you to meet Mabel (or Bernice, or Cathy).” And then, “I hope you meet again.” So we talked a little bit then, later on, he made a private appointment and we’d talk. Then I was to report to him back, well, to the husband to be. “Well, Father,” he’d come in, “What do you think?” Well I would tell him, depending on who the girl was, “She’s very attractive, physically, but I do have some reservations about the beauty of her soul.” Then I would list a few, well, signs of spiritual beauty. Oh, how the body can deceive other people and this is of the essence of Christian marriage. It is first and primarily a union of two spirits, of two souls by mutual agreement. Notice it has to be mutual, both must agree. And not only, as we may say, when, say, if he is asked first, “You accept, say, X here as your lawful wife.” He says, “I do.” It is not only that she accepts, then, him because he accepted her. No! It is a mutual, mutual agreement. In other words, I want to marry this person for what he or she is and not just because, say, the other partner is willing to accept me. Because, as marriage goes on; oh, I haven’t witnessed all that many weddings, but enough to be able to say this, when they marry the deep, simple, childlike faith in the other person. Then six weeks, six months, six years when the other partner may seem not able to accept all of the one whom he or she married. In other words, Christian marriage is not a bargain. It is accepting the person as a person. And we human beings, we change. Do we ever change, and how kind of God who not revealing to the marrying couple what the husband or wife will be in the future. Thanks, Lord! Thanks!

Now the Purpose. The language has not changed even though as we know, as we’ll see, the Second Vatican Council has sharpened and clarified what we call the two-fold purpose of marriage. In the pages you’ve got clearly the generation and education of offspring is placed first. We ask, in what sense, in what sense is the conception and generation of children and then their education primary? It is primary in the sense that it may never be subordinated to the other purpose. Am I clear? The other purpose of marriage is for the mutual benefit of the marrying partners. And this, at root, is why contraception is a grave sin. It is a subordination of that which under God is primary to what, according to the Divine Will, is secondary. Certainly, certainly, God wants the married couple to be channels of grace to each other, wants them to grow in mutual affection, wants them to grow in, well, in their own individuality. And what God said to Adam, first about Adam and then to Adam, “It is not good for man,” and it better be masculine gender, “to be alone.” There is a profound sense in which men need women. And I am sure that, pardon me, that women need men. But, that is secondary and, therefore, we may never subordinate no matter how elevated or inspiring the purpose of fostering mutual affection between the spouses. That may never be primary and subordinate the conception or, now with abortion, the generation of children to any other end than the one which is primary in the mind of God. You notice we are told, “For the generation and education of offspring”, and the education is not only formal, scholastic, academic education which in our English-speaking world we almost come to identify with going to class and doing your homework. No, the education includes everything which mother and father, both together and individually, are meant to share with the children they conceive and give birth to, and not only in body. In other words, the primary focus in the Church’s mind for education is to educate the spirit, the soul, the mind and will. And within that, the mind and will mainly in these two faculties: relationship, not to the world in which we live as important as that education is, but rather educate children so that they then might reach the home for which they were made. In other words, the primary purpose of the education of children is not for this life. God forbid! We quoted Sigmund Freud defining what a psychotic is. I’ve got my psychotic definition: A psychotic is one that believes this is the only world for which we exist. That, in my vocabulary, is pure psychosis. And the only problem is that so many psychotics are running our country. So the education, therefore, is education for eternity. And, and this then, is both the second and we may, as we’ve said, call it the secondary purpose in which they receive grace for the fulfillment of the special duties of their state. Note the language. By the way, I could have xeroxed all kinds of books. Needless to say, I chose my book. In other words, a couple marry in order that they might be channels of grace to one another. A marries B that B might be a channel of grace to A and he or she be a channel of grace to B and vice-a-versa. In my forty-six years in the priesthood I cannot count, it must be several thousand times that I’ve told either audiences or individuals: the primary source of grace for you as a husband or wife is your married spouse assuming, of course, the sacraments which are channels of grace. But the primary, human source of grace that we have on earth is the one who God puts into our lives in order that we might be a grace for that person and he or she a source of grace to us. For married people, their spouse is the principal source of grace, and some frightening consequences follow. Over the years, in dealing with marital problems, there are certain people I remember by name every day in my prayers; married couples whose marriage is either as we say already on the rock or is in danger of collapsing. How many people I’ve told, “You tell me about your husband, and I believe everything you say but has it occurred to you that to practice the patience and the kindness, the charity, if he has been unfaithful the chastity, that you as a wife have a right to expect from your husband; has it occurred to you that you are the principal source of grace for your husband?” “But how can I love,” then whatever vocabulary the woman wants to use in my presence, “that bum!” We need grace! God gives the grace but He uses other human beings. The main source of grace we constantly have on earth is other human beings. If they lack the grace they will behave, well, like graceless people. But then I’ve got to examine my conscience. Am I doing my part to be the channel of grace for this, let’s call him, difficult person for the fulfillment of the special duties of their state. And, as we know, maybe yourselves, when people marry, and its just as well; oh they may have read some books on marriage, they may have gone through pre-marriage counseling, maybe read a book (is it pre-Cana); it’s all meant to help. Be sure, however, the books you read and the counseling you get is sound and solid. But, the duties of the married state are so demanding that they require special graces only God can give, and for that married people should know where to get the grace they need. So much by way of the introduction on the concept, theology and the sacramental nature of matrimony. That’s the concept of matrimony.

Now the Origin. When did marriage as a sacrament begin? There was no marriage as a sacrament before the time of Christ. God had to become man to make the Sacrament of Matrimony possible. And why did He have to become man? Because having died on the cross Christ merited, as we say, won all the graces that a thousand worlds would need to reach heaven. However, having won those graces is not enough. That’s the treasury. All those graces must be available. They must be accessible. What, then, is the Sacrament of Matrimony? It is the store, storehouse, the treasury of that grace which then is tapped, tapped by the marrying people when they receive the Sacrament of Matrimony. It is, therefore, through the Sacrament of Matrimony that the distinctive graces that married people need, and they need a lot of graces, to live out their married life according to the will of Christ. When, then, was the Sacrament of Matrimony instituted? It was instituted after God became man and by Jesus Christ during His visible stay on earth. Do we know exactly when, exactly when, Jesus instituted the Sacrament of Matrimony? We do not. We know infallibly that He instituted the sacrament and defined as such by the Church. And this, by the way is, for a moments flashback to the other course, this is one of the grounds we have for realizing how indispensably important is Sacred Tradition. Not everything that we believe, and we better believe, we better believe that Christ instituted the Sacrament of Matrimony. “But I don’t find it in the Scriptures.” Well, we don’t lose any sleep over that. So what! It is, our faith tells us, in Sacred Tradition revealed already by Christ Himself during His visible stay on earth. The time when it was founded, the sacrament of marriage, we are not sure. And by the way, in general, in writing or even in speaking, it is customary and preferable to use “matrimony” when you are referring to the sacrament and use “marriage” when you are speaking either generically or to distinguish natural marital union from the sacramental union which then is properly called in Latin, matrimonium. There are different times which, over the centuries, theologians have indicated that Christ instituted the Sacrament of Matrimony. Two principal occasions when theologically we may believe that Christ instituted this sacrament. One is at the marriage feast of Cana when, as you remember, His mother told Him they ran out of wine. Our Lord even made a strange remark, “What have I got to do with that?” But the mother knew her Boy. She went over and told the servants, “Now fill all the jars you can see.” And they had only six, right? If they had seven there would have been seven jars. She must have told them, “Fill them to the brim.” Then, now the evangelist doesn’t tell us, but Mary certainly then went over and told her Son, “Well now, Jesus, the water jars are filled.” Oh, how well I know how demanding mothers can be. Mothers can demand miracles and provided God wants the child to do it, the miracles worked. I know one miracle that Christ worked through my mother – changing a very, very stubborn, self-willed individual – I can’t believe it – to living in a Jesuit community and loving my brothers. And, of course, it makes sense if, in other words, Christ did, indeed, institute marriage at the Cana feast. Well, He changed water into wine. He changed selfish individuals, and mind you all, all of us superbé, all naturally proud, to change we selfish human beings to live with another human being – oh no! One wife called me up the evening of her wedding day, “Father (it was a long distance telephone call)!” I assured her this is all God’s will.

The other occasion is when Christ asked, especially in Matthew and Mark, remember Our Lord was being badgered, we may say, by the Pharisees, “Can a man put away his wife for any reason?” Then Christ told them that’s what it used to be but from now on one man, one woman until death. And there again it would make sense if the Church has never officially declared when Our Lord instituted this sacrament. It would make sense to say He did so at the time He made that humanly impossible commandment. In fact, in teaching over the years the Sacrament of Matrimony I would tell my students, “Most people when they hear the word supernatural well they would memorize a definition but they’re not quite sure what supernatural means. Well, “super” means above, beyond. “Natural” means, well, nature, what belongs to nature, what nature can do. So the supernatural is that which enables people to do what naturally they cannot do. And, therefore, the Sacrament of Matrimony provides the marrying couple with a superhuman power to remain faithful to one another, one man and one woman, until death. And this is the Church’s history. The single most telling proof of the power of grace over nature is the stability and fidelity of Christian marriage. There has never been, never been, a religion, never, in the recorded history of the human race before Christ; there is not now anywhere in the world, any religion, and for thirty years I have been teaching comparative religion – Hinduism, Shinto, Jainism, you name it – there is not now and we are safe in saying there never will be, any religion that would require monogamy as a condition for the married people to reach their destiny except Christianity; and within Christianity only Catholic Christianity; and within Catholic Christianity only Roman Catholic Christianity; and within Roman Catholic Christianity only among those who still believe – those bishops, those priests, those lay people – who still believe that when two people enter the Sacrament of Matrimony no power on earth can divide them and separate them with the right to be married. And this, my friends, is THE, capital T, capital H, capital E; this is THE crisis in the Catholic Church in our country.

Behind the sacramental nature of matrimony – we’ve been talking about this but just to zero in on the word “sacramental”, every sacrament, as we know, is what Christ instituted that infallibly confers the grace which is signified by the, well, by the marital, in this case, marital right. What is signified? They take each other, exchange hands, and the marital ceremony indicates the one gives and the other, I don’t say takes, but receives. There’s quite a difference. In other words, Christ instituted a sacrament so that two people who may not have known each other like in my mother and father’s case; they met and after two weeks they married. My record so far is of a couple, city unnamed, I’ve known them over the years. After six years of courtship, “Why don’t you two marry?” Seven years, ten years, finally twelve years, so I gave them even a date. I was happy to concelebrate mass with a bishop. He celebrated the mass when I received the vows. In other words; the grace to remain in loving fidelity to a person, no matter how long the courtship has been. You just don’t know your married spouse as well as you come to know him or her once you marry.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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