Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

The MOST Theological Collection: A Basic Catholic Catechism

"Part XV: Marriage"


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Marriage was instituted in paradise by God Himself, for Adam and Eve. But Jesus raised it to the dignity of a sacrament, as the Council of Trent taught us. It is not clear when He did that: perhaps at the wedding at Cana, perhaps when, in Matthew 19:9, He made it indissoluble, perhaps just before His ascension, when as Acts 1:3 tells us, He spoke to them about the kingdom of God. However, for it to be sacramental, it is necessary that both parties be baptized. Even if they are not Catholic, if baptized, it will be a sacrament. However, only a sacramental and consummated marriage is indissoluble.

The ministers of the Sacrament are not the priest or deacon, but the two contracting parties. It is given when they pledge their consent, and contract to remain together until death. However, unless the Bishop dispenses, Catholics must marry before a priest or deacon, under pain of invalidity.

Since marriage is a Sacrament, it gives an increase in sanctifying grace, and also the special sacramental grace that is needed to carry out its obligations. Really, the sacramental grace is a title, on which one can call as many times as needed during the rest of life, to obtain these helps.

Marriage is in the form of a contract, as St. Paul makes clear in First Corinthians 7: 1:3-4: "Let the husband pay the debt to his wife, and similarly, the wife to the husband. The wife does not have power over her own body, but the husband does. Similarly the husband does not have the power over his own body but the wife does." They are, then both fully equal in rights to the lawful use of marriage. Vatican II adds (Constitution on the Church in the Modern World §49: "The actions by which the spouses are intimately and chastely united with each other are honorable and worthy." In fact, under the suitable conditions, easily had, this use of marriage can be meritorious, for it is part of our Father's plan, if only the spouses look upon it as such. (It is meritorious if they are in the state of grace, and act under actual grace, which is always present if they intend thereby to carry out our Father's plan). In fact, everything about married life is part of His plan and therefore holy, if only the partners see that fact and intend it: cf. First Timothy 2:15.

The indissolubility of marriage is needed in the nature of things for the sake of the children, who need the stable shelter and support of the Father and Mother.

Since marriage by its nature must be a permanent commitment, it is obviously necessary that both partners be capable of such a permanent commitment. Sadly, some grow up today doing only what feels good, only as long as it feels good, and so are not at all ready for, perhaps not even capable of, the permanent commitment that marriage must be. Even with an ideal pair, male and female psychology are so different that each one can honestly say: "I need to give in more than half of the time to make this work." We can see here the need of Christian mortification to give the needed training and development.

It used to be usual to say that the primary end or purpose of marriage was the procreation and rearing of the offspring, and the secondary end was mutual love and support. Vatican II did not use the same language, but it did clearly teach the same (Constitution on the Church in the Modern World § 48, repeated in §50): "By its very nature, the institution of marriage and conjugal love are ordered to the procreation and education of the offspring." Now if one thing is "ordered to" another, it is subordinated to it.

Ephesians 5:32 says that marriage is an image of the union of Christ with the Church. First Corinthians also says (7:7) that marriage is a charism or a grace.

Both parties have pledged mutual love, even in worse times, until death. The husband must provide for his family, and love his wife as Christ loves the Church. Colossians 3:18 says: "Wives subject yourselves to your husbands, as is right in the Lord." (Ephesians 5:22-23 has the same thought). They are both equal in their rights to the use of marriage (1 Cor 7 2-4) and in seeking eternal salvation (Gal 3:28). We must avoid extremes here. Pius XI, in his Encyclical on marriage, Casti connubii balances things well: "This subjection does not deny or take away the freedom which fully belongs to the wife both in view of her dignity as a human person, and in view of her most noble position as wife and mother and companion. Nor does it tell her to obey every request of her husband, if not in accord with right reason, or with the dignity due a wife. Nor does it imply she should be on the level of those who are legally minors.... If the husband is the head, the wife is the heart." Experience, and studies show that in the care of young children (especially under 3) the role of the Mother is indispensable, cannot be supplied by anyone else. Ephesians 5:28 says: "For a man to love his wife is to love himself." Yet, common sense tells us that a committee of two with both entirely equal is hardly workable. But a striving for loving consensus is splendid.

Pope Paul VI, in an address to the Congress of the Italian Feminine Center, on Feb. 12, 1966 said that, "Marriage is a long road to sanctification." It is indeed that, beautifully so, if only the partners understand everything in it as part of our Father's plan.

Our Father has designed a marvelous process, if only we use it according to His designs. For we all begin life completely enclosed in a shell of self, as babies. How can we get from there to the point of being able to be sincerely concerned with the well-being and happiness of another for the other's sake - for that is the definition of love? As we said, baby begins in a state of complete selfishness. But soon baby begins to play with other babies, and discovers the other baby claims to have rights, so they quarrel over a toy. Many such incidents help to teach. Around age 9 little boys and girls dislike each other. This is providential: they avoid each other and so develop their own characteristics to prepare for the next stage, which comes when chemistry/hormones develop. Then a boy will suddenly think a certain girl is "wonderful" - a magic rosy light coming from the chemistry shines about her. Similarly for the girl toward a boy. Love develops when we see something good in another and so hope they are well off. But if the other seems "wonderful" this is a real starter for love. But it only tends to produce love. Further at same time, the feelings/chemistry that come naturally are a normal counterpart (psychologists call it somatic resonance) to love, which they tend to bring in the spiritual will: willing good to the other for the other's sake. We said "tends" because this great plan of God can be wrecked in two ways: (1) If a person uses sex for private pleasure, masturbation - this puts one back into the shell of self, gives a poor forecast for success in marriage. (2) If a two people use each other for sensory gratification - it will feel like love, closeness, and warmth, but real love can hardly develop. For real love means willing good to the other for the other's sake. This premarital sex instead puts each into a state such that if they died in it, they would be miserable forever. They are only using each other, not being really concerned for the well-being of the other. Sadly, they can in this way think they have real love, when all they have is chemistry. When emotions subside in a year or two after marriage, they may find they have no love, and so, a wrecked marriage.

But if they play the game the way our Father designed it, love will develop, and they are far out of the shell of self, are mature, can really enjoy life. Then if babies come this generosity spills over onto them, concern for their well-being even when it means many sacrifices. If baby fusses in the small hours of the morning, a parent may have to make a different kind of holy hour. The monk in his monastery knows he can go back to bed in 60 minutes: the parents know not when. One insurance commercial said: "When you have children, their goals become your goals." This is splendid generosity, real spiritual growth.

There will be sacrifices in properly rearing and educating a child. The parents have both the obligation, and the primary right to do this, more so than any outside authority. This too is sanctifying.

Male and female psychology, as we said, are extremely different. So each one, even in an ideal pair, can honestly say: "I need to give in most of the time to make this work". To adjust to this means real solid growth in spirituality, giving up one's own will for the good of the other, as part of our Father's plans.

Our Father so loves this generosity and maturity that He as it were sugar coats it, by the use of feelings. But it is none the less objectively splendid.

Even in the best marriages, disagreements are apt to occur. St. Paul offers a bit of advice worth more than its weight in gold: "Love does not keep a record of injuries" (1 Corinthians 13:5 - other translations are possible). When two people quarrel, at first they will use the arguments bearing directly on the current issue. But when one or both find they are not winning, there will be a temptation to enlarge the war, as it were, either by generalizing: "You are a nasty person in general", or by reciting a list of past offenses. To do that makes us wonder if the injured party had really forgiven. If not, it is dangerous to recite the Our Father - and the hurt is so deep that it is hard to heal. Nothing short of an outright apology is apt to help.

2. Impediments to marriage

Some things - besides the inability to make a permanent commitment which we mentioned - can make a marriage invalid from the start. The chief ones are: lack of age (under 16 for the man, under 14 for the girl); or lack of freedom (while in captivity by abduction or detention with a view to marriage the girl cannot marry the captor); the bond still present from a previous marriage; natural relationship within certain degrees; spiritual relationships which sponsors contract with the person baptized; affinity or relationship that husband and wife each contract with brothers, sisters, uncles, and aunts of the other; differences of religion such that one party is not baptized (unless the Bishop dispenses); lack of the proper witness (Bishop, Priest, or Deacon) for the marriage. A husband who kills his own wife, or the husband of another woman, to clear the way for marriage, cannot validly marry that party. The same applies to a wife.

A marriage in which both parties are baptized, but one is not Catholic, requires special permission, given only under careful circumstances. Really, the danger to the faith of the Catholic party and to the children is very great.

Even if a civil court grants a divorce, the marriage still stands, unless of course some impediment, mentioned above, makes it invalid. The Church can and does at times permit couples to separate, sometimes even permanently, for serious reasons, especially great danger to soul or body, or certainty that one of the parties has committed adultery. Such separation does not give a right to remarry.

It is required that the banns be published before a marriage, that is, that an announcement be made to that if someone knows of a reason that would make the marriage wrong, it should be reported.

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