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Matrimony, The Sacrament of Fidelity and Procreation

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

Of all the seven sacraments, Matrimony has been the most widely challenged in the history of the Catholic Church. It has also been the main cause of disunity in Christianity.

We know this from the classic narrative described by St. Matthew when some Pharisees came to test Jesus by asking, “‘Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for any cause?’ But He answered and said to them, ‘Have you not read that the Creator, from the beginning, made them male and female, and said, “For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? Therefore now they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.’ They said to Him, ‘Why then did Moses command to give a written notice of dismissal, and to put her away?’ He said to them, ‘Because Moses, by reason of the hardness of your heart, permitted you to put away your wives; but it was not so from the beginning. And I say to you, 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’” (Mt 19:3-9).

In the Gospel of St. Mark, Christ declares that the same law applies to women. Says Jesus, “if the wife puts away her husband, and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mk 10:12).

Over the centuries, this has been the single principal cause of whole nations breaking with the Catholic Church. In the thirteenth century, the Orthodox Churches broke with Rome over this issue. In the sixteenth century, it was the main reason for the rise of Protestantism.

That is why the Council of Trent condemned the following proposition as heresy.

If anyone says that the Church is in error for having taught and for still teaching that in accordance with the evangelical and apostolic doctrine, the marriage bond cannot be dissolved because of adultery on the part of one of the spouses, and that neither of the two, not even the innocent one who has given no cause for infidelity, can contract another marriage during the lifetime of the other; and that the husband who dismisses an adulterous wife an marries again and the wife who dismisses and adulterous husband and marries again are both guilty of adultery, let him be anathema.

Obviously if even open adultery cannot justify divorce and remarriage, then no other grounds for dissolving a Christian marriage are recognized by the Catholic Church.

Christ Elevates Marriage

Until God became man in the Person of Jesus Christ, no religion forbade divorce and remarriage. For that matter, every religion, even Judaism, not only allowed married people to leave their spouse, but even practiced polygamy. That is why, after Christ told the Pharisees that remarriage was forbidden, the disciples told Him, “‘If the case of a man with his wife is so, it is not expedient to marry’” (Mt 19:10).

What did Jesus Christ do when He told His followers they not only may not, they cannot, divorce and remarry? He was restoring marriage to its original state before the fall of our first parents.

We must say that Christ had no choice. Having restored the state of marriage to its condition before the fall of the human race, when husband and wife are to be two, and only two, in one flesh, Jesus had to provide the supernatural means necessary to live out this humanly impossible command. He did so by instituting the Sacrament of Matrimony.

The Catholic Church believes that when marriage is between two baptized persons, it is always a sacrament. Christ Himself instituted this sacrament during His visible stay on earth. Consequently, it was not merely introduced into the Church by human authority. The preferred name for the Sacrament of Marriage is Matrimony.

However, Matrimony is not only a contract between husband and wife. In other contracts, two or more persons can agree on a course of action, and there the matter may end. Not so with Christian marriage. The marrying partners not only agree to take each other as husband and wife, but also to continue taking each other until death, to begin to live with one another in the most intimate union possible between two people and to share their respective lives with one another. Nor is that all. They also agree to accept whatever children God may send them by forming a family.

If all institutions worthy of the name are established societies—especially those of a public character, which affect the welfare of the community—marriage is not only an institution. It is the basic institution of human society on which all other societies finally depend.

Marital Ritual

The marriage rite fulfills the provision that the sacramental grace and duties of the marrying partners be clearly understood. There are no less than five petitions to the heavenly Father, asking Him for the graces which the husband and wife will need all the days of their life here on earth.

For the graces of Matrimony: “Father, by your power you have made everything out of nothing. In the beginning you created the universe and mankind in your own likeness. You gave man the constant help of woman so that man and woman should no longer be two, but one flesh, and you teach us that what you have united may never be divided.”

Sign of Christ’s union with the Church: “Father, you have made the union of man and woman so holy a mystery that it symbolizes the marriage of Christ and His Church.”

Holiness of marriage: “Father, by your plan man and woman are united, and marriage has been established as the one blessing that was not forfeited by original sin or washed away in the flood.”

Love for the wife: “Look with love upon this woman, your daughter, now joined to her husband in marriage. She asks your blessing. Give her the grace of love and peace. May she always follow the example of the holy woman whose praises are sung in Scriptures.”

Love for the husband: “May the husband put his trust in her and recognize that she is his equal and the heir with him in the life of grace. May he always honor her and love her as Christ loves His bride, the Church.”

Mutual fidelity and children: “Father, keep them always true to Your Commandments. Keep them faithful in marriage and let them be living examples of Christian life. Give them the strength which comes from the Gospel so that they may be witnesses of Christ to others. Bless them with children and help them to be good parents. May they live to see their children’s children. And, after a happy old age, grant them fullness of life with the saints in the kingdom of heaven.”

The Purpose of Marriage

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of selfless love in marriage. This love is first of all to be unitive love. Unitive love is so basic that without it there would be no valid marriage.

That is one reason why so-called mixed marriages are hazardous to marital unity. If there is one thing that husband and wife should share in common, it is their mutual Catholic faith.

Most Catholics look casually upon mixed marriages, and it is increasingly rare to find more than a few pieces of literature on the subject. Yet, no other phenomenon is more common in Europe and the Americas, and none has more lasting implications for the welfare, not only of the Church, but of Western society. All the learned books on Christianity, and within Christianity on Catholicism, are so much vapid theory unless those who write these books take stock of what is happening in real life, which means especially in the institution and practice of marriage.

At the heart of Protestantism is the denial that Christ instituted the Sacrament of Matrimony. Moreover, no Protestant denomination in the world believes that marriage cannot be dissolved with a right to “remarry,” not once, but as often as a nominally married husband and wife want to. Judaism has not changed since the Pharisees challenged Christ on the right of the man to divorce and remarry. Islam not only believes in divorce and remarriage, but universally believes in polygamy.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of husband and wife sharing the same Catholic faith and practicing this faith throughout their married lives.

Unitive love between the spouses is possible only through the grace of God. This grace is assured by the Sacrament of Matrimony. But it must be sustained through the practice of fervent, daily prayer and the reception of the sacraments of the Eucharist and Penance.

However, the purpose of marriage is also to foster procreative love. This means that marriage is divinely intended to animate the selfless love of husband and wife to want to have children. Unlike unitive love, which provides for their mutual affection for each other; procreative love makes them desire to cooperate with each other in bringing offspring into the world and caring for and educating their children in what the Church calls spiritual procreation.

Once married people believe this, they are called upon to practice nothing less than heroic charity to reproduce themselves. This reproduction is not only to procreate children in body for this world but reproduce themselves in spirit for reunion with their families in a heavenly eternity.

I asked the Lord for light as to whether I should include something about contraception in this conference on Matrimony. What I have to say will not be lengthy, but most important.


This year is the thirtieth anniversary of the publication by Pope Paul VI of the encyclical Humanae Vitae which forbids contraception as a grave sin. No single document in modern papal history has provoked more controversy and opposition than Humanae Vitae. In one country after another, Catholic bishops’ conferences met in solemn session to pass judgment on this papal teaching. Thank God, many of these conferences fully approved what the Vicar of Christ declared. But not a few episcopal associations rejected this infallible doctrine of Christian morality. Among these, was the national conference of bishops in the United States.

Let me quote the two essential paragraphs of Humanae Vitae.

In conformity with these landmarks in the human and Christian view of marriage, we must again declare that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, directly willed and procured abortion, even if for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as licit means of regulating birth.
Equally to be excluded, as the teaching authority of the Church has frequently declared, is direct sterilization, whether permanent or temporary, whether of the man or of the woman. Similarly excluded is every action which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible.

Every form of contraception is simply forbidden. Given the mind-set of so many members of the hierarchy, it is no wonder that millions of Catholics are deeply confused. “Whom are we to obey,” they ask themselves, “the bishops or the pope?” Pope Paul VI anticipated this dilemma of conscience. Shortly after Humanae Vitae, he said, “How many times we have trembled before the alternatives of an easy condescension to current opinions.” No wonder Paul VI never published another encyclical for the next ten years until his death in 1978. In God’s providence, one of the strongest bishop defenders of Humanae Vitae, Cardinal Wojtyla, was elected (after the short reign of John Paul I) as the successor pope, John Paul II.

Christian Marriage, the Foundation of the Family

Most people do not realize that until the dawn of Christianity, the family did not exist in the pagan world. In the Roman Empire, into which Christ was born, contraception was universal. There were no laws prohibiting abortion. Infanticide was commonplace. Marriage was essentially cohabitation.

No single word in the Western world took on a more changed meaning than the Latin term familia, which in English is the family. Among the Romans, familia was a household of servants, headed by a man with his wives and concubines.

What the family now means among believing Christians who are loyal to Jesus Christ is a group of persons who are related by marriage and who typically include a father, mother, and children. In the mind of the Church, “The family is the foundation of society.”

It is no exaggeration to say that the family is the seed-bed of hope. It is the seed-bed of hope in eternal life, for which families here on earth are the pre-condition and necessary preparation. Parents can see their children now in time to teach them there is a heavenly eternity to hope for, and train them to pay the price of reaching heaven in the world to come.

Families Are Made For Heaven

We are so accustomed to speaking of families in terrestrial terms that we may have to do some violence to our thinking to say that families are really made for heaven. This is the clear teaching of divine revelation and should be the towering goal of our earthly desires.

We are destined to be re-united as families in that heavenly Jerusalem which the voice of God told St. John, “You see this city? Here God lives among men. He will make His home with them; they shall be His people, and He will be their God” (Rev 21:3).

Home on earth is where families begin and grow. But home in heaven is where families are meant finally to arrive, where God will wipe away all tears from our eyes; where there will be no more death or family bereavement, and no more mourning or sadness. The world of the past will have gone, and what we now call the future will be an everlasting present in the company of those whom we have loved on earth, never again to be separated from them for all eternity.

The Family, the Foundation of Our Faith

St. Paul again tells us that faith comes from hearing. Someone who already believes, professes the faith in word or action, and others receive the faith—from God, of course, but through the one who believes.

This is the ordinary course of Divine Providence. Only believers reproduce other believers.

We see, therefore, that the family is certainly the source of our natural generation and education as human beings. But it is also—and especially—the source and support of our supernatural life and well-being. For it is mainly through the family that we receive and grow in the true faith without which the supernatural life would not even be possible.

This is why the faith of each member of the family is so necessary to provide the sustenance in faith that the other members of the family so desperately need.

First in this law of dependence are the father and mother. The strength of their own Catholic faith will determine the strength of their children’s faith. In the designs of God, they are the principal channels of grace of faith to their children.

What is true in the course of nature, is even more true in the order of grace. Like reproduces like. In today’s world of widespread unbelief, this will mean nothing less than heroic faith in the parents if they hope to reproduce and preserve this faith in their offspring.

It is here that we must at least briefly explain what I have come to call the four pillars of the Catholic family. They are fidelity, indissolubility, children, and selfless charity.

Fidelity. The first pillar of the Catholic family is the obligation that the husband and wife assumed when they received the Sacrament of Matrimony. They promised God that they would remain faithful to each other in a world that has canonized infidelity and makes a mockery of the marriage vows.

Remember that parents are to be channels of grace to their children, here of the grace of faith in the unchangeable teaching of Christ on marital fidelity. This is far deeper than merely giving a good example. Father and mother are to be conduits of supernatural light for the sons and daughters they have brought into the world.

Indissolubility. If there is one truth of the Catholic faith that parents must teach their children it is the indissolubility of Christian marriage. The Catholic Church will survive only where Christ’s difficult doctrine on marital indissolubility is still believed and practiced.

Children. Not every marriage, we know, is fruitful in children. One of the heaviest sacrifices that childless couples have to make is to accept God’s will in their lives. They must learn the secret of spiritual parenthood and devote their zeal to teaching the faith to other people’s children.

But where the husband and wife can have offspring, their generosity in reproducing themselves is the single most effective way of propagating the faith to their children. All the orthodoxy of their Catholicism will be lost on deaf ears unless the children see their parents living what they profess to believe. Contraception is lethal for the preservation of the true faith, in any age, and with thunderous emphasis in our age, when infertility has been reduced to an exact science and children have become a liability in the Western world.

Loving Community. In the Catholic philosophy of life, a family of father, mother and children is not a mere group of persons who happen to be related by blood. A family is not just a society of individuals who co-habit with one another.

In the mind of Christ, a family is to be a loving community. This implies some remarkable things.

  • It implies there is someone in authority in the family, someone who with kindly patience makes the decisions for the family.

  • It implies there is mutual trust among the members of the family. They share with one another their hopes and desires, and are sure that their confidence will not be betrayed.

  • It implies that the members of a family, in a true sense, live together. They are in each other’s company, not grudgingly but willingly, and together form an unmistakable unity. Already on Pentecost Sunday, St. Luke tells us in the Acts of the Apostles, the first Christians began to form a community—beginning with the community of each Christian family. What united these first families was their common faith. They were united by their common allegiance “to the teaching of the Apostles.”

Catholic Instruction of the Family

As faithful sons and daughters of Mother Church, we know what follows when families are not taught, as the Holy Father says, that “freedom is a capacity for realizing the truth of God’s plan for marriage and the family.”

Instead of knowing that God’s plan is to lead families to heaven by doing His will, people are being taught to do their own will. The result has been pandemonium, which literally means “all demonic.” Pandemonium is the literary term for the abode of demons. In the English language, it is a center of vice, a place of lawlessness and anarchy. Is it too much to say that where self-will has replaced the divine will as the purpose of human freedom, the consequence has been pandemonium?

The conclusion from all this is obvious. Families must, the word is must, be taught that we have a free will in order to do God’s will on earth and thereby reach a heavenly eternity.

Here is the gravest responsibility we have before God. As bishops and priests, religious and laity, single and married, we must become active apostles of religious instruction to families.

Parents and children are being exposed to so much erroneous thinking, it is no wonder that family life in once flourishing Christian countries is disintegrating. Ideas have consequences. True ideas have good consequences. False ideas have bad consequences.

We who have the true faith, which is the only foundation for real hope, have the obligation to teach this faith to the myriads of families that are literally walking in darkness and sitting in the shadow of death.

There is a cosmic war going on in the world today. It is nothing less than a war between Christ, who is revealed Truth, and Satan, the father of lies.

The center of this conflict is over the family. The heart of this conflict is over the truth. The good of this conflict is eternity. The victory in this conflict is assured, on one condition, that we are ready to die for Christ who died on the Cross to save us from hell and for heaven as the hope of our destiny.

—A conference by Father Hardon in 1998.
Copyright © 2002 Inter Mirifica

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