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The Sacramental Nature of Matrimony

by Very Rev. Msgr. Lawrence J. Riley, S.T.D.


This article was selected from the 1956 Proceedings of the National Catholic Conference on Family Life. Msgr. Lawrence J. Riley provides a clear, concise account of some of the truths of dogmatic theology that concern Matrimony.

Larger Work

Sanctity and Success in Marriage



Publisher & Date

National Catholic Conference on Family Life, 1956

Vision Book Cover Prints

An abundance of literature treating marriage from well-nigh every possible aspect has been published under Catholic auspices in the past quarter of a century. Numerous dissertations, monographs, books, pamphlets and articles considering marriage from the viewpoints of ethics, morals, psychology, sociology, canon and civil law have appeared. Oftentimes, however, one is led to wonder whether the dogmatic foundation of the Church's teaching on marriage is not somewhat overshadowed. It is safe to say that the truths of dogmatic theology constitute the basis of Christian practice and Christian living. For although, in the case of many persons, the practical may have more attraction than the speculative, nevertheless it must not be forgotten that in the final analysis belief is the basis of conduct. Ultimately truth, and especially revealed truth, is the strongest motive to propose to intelligent beings for good conduct.

This paper aims neither at being novel nor at being exhaustive. Its purpose is simply to review, in as clear and as direct a manner as possible, some of the truths of dogmatic theology that concern Matrimony.

A Sacrament

Fundamental to the Church's teaching on marriage is the fact that the marriage of two baptized persons is a Sacrament. It is an article of faith, explicitly defined by the Council of Trent, that Matrimony is one of the seven Sacraments instituted by Jesus Christ.1 The same teaching appears previously in many Councils of the Church — for example, in the Council of Verona, the Second Council of Lyons and the Council of Florence. Indeed it has been accepted as part of the common teaching of the Church from the beginning. It is true that in the early centuries of the Church little was written explicitly about the sacramental nature of marriage, for the Christian authors of those days generally discussed practical rather than speculative points, such as the morality of conjugal relations, the lawfulness of second marriages. But from the fact that the writers explained Christian marriage as something sacred, endowed by Christ with the power to produce grace, it can be deduced that they held marriage to possess the essentials of a Sacrament.

In the early Church and also in the medieval Church there were certain heretical sects whose doctrines were in opposition to the truth that Matrimony is a Sacrament; they were led to this implicit denial, primarily because of their erroneous belief that marriage as such is something immoral.2 The Protestant Reformers denied the sacramental character of marriage;3 and it was on the occasion of this denial that the Council of Trent officially defined as a dogma of faith the revealed truth that Matrimony is one of the seven Sacraments instituted by Jesus Christ.

The Church, of course, has never maintained that our Blessed Lord founded marriage during His life on earth. Marriage is as old as the human race. It was instituted by God in the very beginning. Adam and Eve were husband and wife. But when Jesus Christ became man, sometime before His Ascension into Heaven He took the natural contract of marriage and made of it a Sacrament; and in thus raising it to sacramental dignity, He conferred on it the power to produce grace. He did not institute a new sign. Rather, he took the sign which is necessarily present in any marriage contract. And thus, this external expression of consent, when it is given and accepted by baptized persons, becomes the outward sign of the inward infusion of grace.

Holy Scripture does not by itself provide apodictical proof that Matrimony is a Sacrament. The Council of Trent states that St. Paul "intimates" ("innuit") the sacramental nature of Matrimony in the fifth chapter of his Epistle to the Ephesians.4 It must not be forgotten, however, that Holy Scripture is not the sole source of revelation. In any event, the fact that Christian marriage is a Sacrament is at least implied in this passage, wherein St. Paul indicates that the marriage of Christians is similar to and symbolic of the union which exists between Christ and His Church.5 If one considers carefully the entire passage, one must conclude that as St. Paul describes Matrimony it possesses all the essential elements of a Sacrament. It is an outward sign, for the exchange of matrimonial consent must be externally manifested. It has the power of conferring grace, for it is especially in this respect that it is comparable to the union between Christ and the Church which is productive of supernatural grace for the faithful. It must be admitted that St. Paul does not explicitly state that Christ instituted marriage as a Sacrament. But we know that it is only Christ Who is God, Who could endow purely natural signs with the power of producing supernatural grace.

The implication that Christian marriage is a Sacrament, found in Holy Scripture, is confirmed by Tradition. Indeed, the main argument for the sacramentality of Christian marriage is derived by the Council of Trent from the teaching of the early writers of the Church, from the early Councils, and from the universal belief and practice of the Church. And Tradition, we know, contains many doctrines revealed by Christ and taught by the Apostles which were not committed in writing to the pages of the New Testament. From the earliest centuries, Christian marriage was regarded as something especially holy, which was capable of producing grace for those who entered it, and which was in a special way subject to the authority of the Church. In other words, Christian marriage was considered to possess those elements which are characteristic of a Sacrament.7

It is impossible to state precisely when our Blessed Lord made marriage a Sacrament. Some think that He did so on the occasion of the marriage feast at Cana. Others are of the opinion that marriage was raised to sacramental dignity when Christ promulgated the indissolubility of marriage. Another view is that marriage was made a Sacrament by our Divine Lord during the period of the forty days between His Resurrection and Ascension when — as the Acts of the Apostles tell us — He frequently spoke to His disciples "of the kingdom of God."

It is generally held among theologians that the Sacrament of Matrimony is to be found in the rite by which two baptized persons validly exchange marital consent and thus become husband and wife.8 There are some, however, who maintain that the Sacrament is permanent, somewhat as is the Holy Eucharist. Just as the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist does not consist in the consecration alone, but continues as a Sacrament as long as the species of bread and wine remain, so too, according to this view, Matrimony as a Sacrament does not consist in the wedding rite alone, but continues as a Sacrament as long as the marital bond remains. This latter opinion has received considerable support from a very interesting passage in the Encyclical Casti connubii of Pope Pius XI.

Let them constantly keep in mind, that they have been sanctified and strengthened for the duties and for the dignity of their state by a special Sacrament, the efficacious power of which, although it does not impress a character, is undying. To this purpose we may ponder over the words, full of real comfort, of holy Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, who with other well known theologians with devout conviction thus expresses himself: 'The Sacrament of Matrimony can be regarded in two ways: first, in the making, and then in its permanent state. For it is a Sacrament like to that of the Eucharist, which not only when it is being conferred, but also whilst it remains, is a Sacrament; for as long as the married parties are alive, so long is their union a Sacrament of Christ and the Church.'9

The Contract

It is of the utmost importance to note that the Sacrament of Matrimony is not some accessory element added to the marriage contract. Rather, it is identical with the contract. In the case of baptized persons, the Sacrament is the contract. In instituting the Sacrament of Matrimony our Divine Lord endowed the act of mutual consent with the power of conferring grace. As a consequence, when two baptized persons exchange valid matrimonial consent, their marriage is a Sacrament. Hence, it is not possible for baptized persons to make a valid matrimonial contract without at the same time receiving the Sacrament of Matrimony.10 In the Syllabus Errorum Pope Pius IX condemned the false teaching that the Sacrament of Matrimony is merely an accessory to the marriage contract and is separable from it. Pope Leo XIII in his Encyclical on Christian Marriage clearly stated:

. . . certain it is that in Christian marriage the contract is inseparable from the sacrament, and that for this reason the contract cannot be true and legitimate without being a sacrament as well . . . Hence it is clear that among Christians every true marriage is, in itself and by itself, a sacrament; and that nothing can be further from the truth than to say that the sacrament is a certain added ornament, or outward endowment, which can be separated and torn away from the contract at the caprice of man.11


It is a fundamental principle of sacramental theology that the adult recipient of a Sacrament must have the intention to receive it. In the light of the fact that the Sacrament and the contract are identical when two baptized persons are parties to a marriage, the question arises: In the case of two baptized non-Catholics who have no belief in the sacramental nature of marriage, how can they receive the Sacrament of Matrimony if they form no intention to receive a Sacrament, or even if they positively exclude the intention to receive a Sacrament? Father Billot answers the question by pointing out that it is completely impossible for two baptized people ever to have the intention of entering a valid marriage, without at the same time having the intention of receiving what is identical with it (the Sacrament of Matrimony). Consequently, even if the contracting parties are unaware that Matrimony is a Sacrament or even if they reject this truth, nevertheless a sufficient intention is present, provided that their predominant intention is to enter a valid marital union. Of course, "if their predominant intention was to exclude the sacrament from the contract, not only would there be no sacrament, but 'there would be no contract either, since they intended this last, only under an impossible condition,' viz. the separation from the sacrament."12

Non-Catholic Marriages

From the doctrine of the sacramental nature of every valid marriage contracted by baptized persons, it follows that two baptized non-Catholics may not only enter a true marriage, but even receive the Sacrament of Matrimony. It is Catholic teaching, therefore, that for two baptized non-Catholics, marriage can be no less a channel of divine grace than for two Catholics who marry in the presence of a duly authorized priest.

It must not be thought that the Catholic Church considers invalid the marriages of unbaptized persons. Two unbaptized people who are free to marry are capable of contracting a true and valid marriage. Of course, such a marriage will not be sacramental, for no one is ever capable of receiving any other Sacrament unless first the character of Baptism has been imprinted on his soul. This does not mean, however, that the marriage of the unbaptized is something degrading or unholy. Every marriage, even though it be not a Sacrament, is a sacred contract. For marriage, was established by God, and its primary purpose is the cooperation of husband and wife with God in the sublime functions of the procreation and upbringing of children, in order that they may honor God here and enjoy eternal life with Him hereafter. Pope Leo XIII has written very forcefully of the sacred character of even natural marriage (as distinct from the Sacrament of Matrimony).

Marriage has God for its Author, and was from the very beginning a kind of fore-shadowing of the Incarnation of His Son; and therefore there abides in it a something holy and religious; not extraneous, but innate; not derived from men, but implanted by nature . . . We call to witness the monuments of antiquity, as also the manners and customs of those people who, being the most civilized, had the greatest knowledge of law and equity. In the minds of all of them it was a fixed and foregone conclusion that, when marriage was thought of, it was thought of as conjoined with religion and holiness. Hence, among these, marriages were commonly celebrated with religious ceremonies . . . 13

Ministers of the Sacrament

Since two baptized persons receive the Sacrament of Matrimony when they enter a valid marriage, who administers the Sacrament? In every case — whether two Catholics exchange consent in the presence of a duly authorized priest, or two baptized non-Catholics exchange consent in the presence of some religious or civil official or even privately — one party administers the Sacrament to the other. The priest, for example, does not administer the Sacrament of Matrimony. The contracting parties do. The reason lies in the fact that the Sacrament of Matrimony is identical with the marriage contract. And hence, those who make the contract, make (or administer) the Sacrament. That is, the parties themselves — since in the exchange of marital consent they make the marriage contract — become also the ministers of the Sacrament, for the contract and the Sacrament are identical when the contractants are baptized.14

What then is the function of the priest when two Catholic people receive the Sacrament of Matrimony? Actually the priest is only an official witness. Of course, ecclesiastical law requires for the validity of marriage that he be present when at least one of the parties is a Catholic. And so, a Catholic attempting marriage without the presence of a duly authorized priest, would not really be married. But the presence of the priest is simply that of an official witness — not the minister of a Sacrament.

Elements of the Sacrament

There are two constituent elements in every Sacrament — things and words. In theological terminology these are called the matter and the form of the Sacrament. A further distinction is made between the remote matter (the thing used — for example, water in Baptism) and the proximate matter (the use of the remote matter for example, the pouring of water over the head of the person being baptized). The form consists in the words of the minister uttered as he confers the Sacrament. In reference to the Sacrament of Matrimony, as will be seen presently, the form need not be externalized by words; it may be manifested by signs.

The matter and the form of the Sacrament of Matrimony cannot be found elsewhere than in the mutual consent of the contracting parties. For, inasmuch as the contract and the Sacrament are identical, the essential constituent elements of the contract must form likewise the essence of the Sacrament. And what makes both the contract and the Sacrament is the lawfully manifested consent of the parties who are capable of entering marriage.

Although several different opinions were proposed in past centuries, it is universally held by theologians today that the consent of the parties is the matter of the Sacrament, insofar as for each person it expresses the mutual surrender of bodily rights and the offer "to become the life partner of the other and to undertake the duties and obligations therein involved."15 The consent is the form of the Sacrament, insofar as for each person it expresses the acceptance of the offer made by the other.

The Church requires that the parties express matrimonial consent by words. It is not licit for them to use equivalent signs, if they are able to speak. For validity, however, it suffices that the consent be expressed by any external sign; for ex natura rei a contract may be validly made by mutual consent manifested in any exterior manner, even by gestures — and the contract and the Sacrament of Matrimony are identical. Hence, although in regard to the other Sacraments the form consists in words, the sacramental form of Matrimony is any external manifestation of the acceptance of consent.

A close study of the fact that in the externally manifested mutual consent of the parties are to be found the matter and the form of the Sacrament of Matrimony will reveal that the parties are ministers of the Sacrament, precisely insofar as each accepts the offer of the other. That is, each party is the minister of the Sacrament, insofar as he applies the form (the acceptance of consent) to the matter (the positing of consent).

Union of Baptized and Unbaptized

Is the valid marriage of a baptized person and an unbaptized person a Sacrament? In regard to this matter, there was considerable controversy in the past. But to all intents and purposes, the question seems now to be settled. Let us state immediately that no theologian ever held that the unbaptized party received the Sacrament of Matrimony. It is a fundamental principle of sacramental theology that Baptism is the "gateway of the Sacraments," and hence, only a baptized person can validly receive any other Sacrament. In entering marriage with a baptized person, the unbaptized party does not receive a Sacrament, even if the baptized party is a Catholic, and the marriage is performed in the presence of a priest after the obtaining of a dispensation.

But what of the baptized person? Does he receive a Sacrament when he validly marries an unbaptized party, even though the unbaptized party does not? In the history of theology, this question has evoked considerable discussion. It is almost universally held today, however, that the valid marriage of a baptized person and an unbaptized person is not a Sacrament for either. Although the Church has not defined the matter, nevertheless this truth is implicit in certain decisions concerning marriage cases that have been issued by the Holy See in recent years. The Church has always held that no power on earth can dissolve a sacramental marriage that has been consummated. Yet, in exceptional cases and for very cogent reasons, the Pope — acting on the basis of divinely conferred powers — has dissolved marriages in which a baptized person had married an unbaptized person and the marriage had been consummated. It follows that the Church does not consider such marriages to be sacramental; for if they were sacramental, they could not be dissolved for any reason whatsoever, after they had been consummated.

Authority Over Marriage

From the fact that Matrimony is a Sacrament, it follows that the Catholic Church alone possesses authority over Christian marriage. For Jesus Christ bestowed upon the Church which He founded exclusive jurisdiction over the Sacraments. Therefore, the state has no authority to legislate or to pass judgment in regard to matters which impinge upon the Sacrament as such, although it can make regulations which have reference to the purely civil effects of marriage.

On the other hand, when both parties are unbaptized, the Church claims no authority over the marriage. Yet the fact is that since marriage is primarily directed to a social purpose — the propagation of the human race — the marital contract must be subordinate to the jurisdiction of some public authority which is empowered to lay down conditions even for the validity of the contract. It is for this reason that the state can legislate in regard to the marriages of the unbaptized. It is obvious, of course, that the civil authorities cannot enact legislation that is opposed to the law of God — such legislation would be binding on no one, baptized or unbaptized.

Because the state has the right to make laws regarding the contracting of marriage by unbaptized persons, it does not follow that it can make laws in regard to the dissolution of a valid matrimonial bond. The state cannot sever a valid bond by divorce; for by divine law, marriage is indissoluble. Two persons are free to make the marriage contract or not, as they see fit. But once they enter marriage, they are bound by those qualities or characteristics which pertain to the essence of marriage. And one of these properties is permanence or indissolubility. Hence, neither the parties themselves, nor the state, can break the bond by divorce. The words of Pope Pius XI are very clear on this point.

. . . although matrimony is of its very nature of divine institution, the human will, too, enters into it and performs a most noble part . . . This freedom, however, regards only the question whether the contracting parties really wish to enter upon matrimony or to marry this particular person; but the nature of matrimony is entirely independent of the free-will of man, so that if one has once contracted matrimony he is thereby subject to its divinely made laws and its essential properties.

In regard to views that favor divorce, Pope Pius XI has written:

Opposed to all these reckless opinions, Venerable Brethren, stands the unalterable law of God, fully confirmed by Christ, a law that can never be deprived of its force by the decrees of men, the ideas of a people or the will of any legislator: 'What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.' And if any man, acting contrary to this law, shall have put asunder, his action is null and void, and the consequence remains, as Christ Himself has explicitly confirmed: 'Everyone that putteth away his wife and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and he that marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery.' Moreover, these words refer to every kind of marriage, even that which is natural and legitimate only; for, as has already been observed, that indissolubility by which the loosening of the bond is once and for all removed from the whim of the parties and from every secular power is a property of every true marriage.16


Since Matrimony is a Sacrament, it bestows upon those who receive it worthily a two-fold grace. In the first place, it increases Sanctifying Grace; and secondly, it imparts a special sacramental grace.

As a Sacrament of the living, Matrimony may be worthily received only by those in the state of grace. Hence, a person who receives this Sacrament while conscious of mortal sin on his soul commits a grave sacrilege. But what of the validity of the contract, in the case where one or both parties are in mortal sin? The persons make a valid contract, and they receive a Sacrament. They receive it unworthily and sacrilegiously — if they are in mortal sin — but they receive it nonetheless. It is similar to the case in which a person in mortal sin receives the Sacrament of Confirmation, for example. Such a person is confirmed; but he has received the Sacrament unworthily and sacrilegiously, and hence its grace is not bestowed upon him.

Many other practical consequences of extreme importance flow from the dogmatic aspects of Matrimony. Sufficient space is not available to discuss the matter further here. Yet, I cannot bring this paper to a close without quoting, in this connection, two very striking passages from the pens of an illustrious American theologian and an illustrious Belgian theologian.

Father Connell, Dean of the School of Sacred Theology at the Catholic University of America, has written:

The truth that Christian marriage is a sacrament should be deeply impressed on the minds of all Catholics intending to get married or already joined in marriage. The former should be impressed with the thought that they are about to receive one of the seven efficacious means of grace established by our divine Redeemer to bestow abundant supernatural helps on the children of men for the needs of life's journey. The latter should realize that they are bound to each other in a union that bears a close resemblance to the union between Christ and His Church. The chief characteristics of this latter union are generosity and love. Christ generously gave His very life for the Church because of His unbounded love for every human soul; and the Church is constantly laboring devotedly for the glory of Christ and expressing its love for Him, dwelling in her midst in the sacrament of the altar. Surely, then, Catholic married couples should deeply appreciate the honor their marriage enjoys in representing the union between the heavenly Bridegroom, Jesus Christ, and His earthly spouse, the Church, and should endeavor to live up to this honor by ever manifesting toward each other an unselfish devotion and an ardent love.17

In his book Marriage a Great Sacrament Canon Leclercq, Professor at the University of Louvain, discussing the divinization of man by sanctifying grace, has writen:

No Christian institution shows this impregnation of the human by the divine so well as marriage. For . . . marriage is the only sacrament which transforms a human institution into an instrument of the divine action, using a human act which up to then had been used for a natural end; it is the only human institution, the only essential act of the natural life which has been raised to that dignity. . . The sacrament of marriage is the imprint of God on the souls of the married couple, not merely in order to deify their life in general, but in order to deify their union. It is towards their conjugal life that the sacramental act is aimed . . . The sacrament of marriage is thus not merely a religious act sanctifying a human one; it is a seed sown in the soul and bearing fruit through the whole of married life, giving life to all its acts and sentiments; the sacrament of marriage exerts an influence on husband and wife to make them supernaturalize their married life; it is a predisposition to holiness placed in their souls by God on the day of their wedding. By the sacrament of marriage God becomes as it were a third party in the intimacy of married life. Man and wife are united in God: this last expression can be interpreted in a very strict sense, for the action of the sacrament being a unique divine action in the souls of each of them, and sacramental grace being a reality in their souls, one can truly state that they have something in their souls which really unites them, which constitutes a principle of unity, and that this unifying reality is a divine action. The sacrament of marriage is thus in a sense a deifying of the conjugal union, a means of translating into action the unity and the divine character which God imposes in the sacrament.18


1. H. Denzinger, C. Bannwart, J. Umberg, Enchiridion Symbolorum Definitionum et Declarationum de Rebus Fidei et Morum (ed. 21-23; Friburgi Brisgoviae, 1937), p. 971.

2. Thus, for example, the Encratites, the Manichaeans and the Albigensians, Cf. Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. V, p. 412 ("Encratites"); vol. IX, p. 593 ("Manichaeism"); vol. I, p. 268 ("Albigenses").

3. Luther wrote: ". . . no reason can be found why it [Matrimony] should be called a Sacrament of the New Law . . . " — De Captivitate Babylonica in Opera (Weimar, 1888), vol. VI, p. 550. Calvin wrote: "It does not suffice that marriage should be from God in order that it be considered a Sacrament; but it is required that there be an external ceremony designated by God for the purpose of confirming the promise. That there is nothing such in matrimony is known to every child." — Institutiones in Opera (Amsterdam, 1667), vol. IX, p. 396.

4. Denzinger, op. cit., 969.

5. Ephesians 5:25-32.

6. Cf. the amplification of this argument in George H. Joyce, Christian Marriage: An Historical and Doctrinal Study (London and New York, 1933), pp. 152 et sqq.; Billot, Ludovicus, De Ecclesiae Sacramentis (ed. 7; Romae, 1929-1931), vol. II, pp. 346 et sq.

7. For citations from many of these early and medieval writers, cf. Joyce, op. cit., pp. 157-176.

8. The marriage ceremony is called "matrimonium in fieri" to distinguish it from "matrimonium in facto" the latter referring to the marital state consequent upon the valid contracting of marriage and consisting in the matrimonial bond.

9. Pius XI, Casti connubii, CTS translation, p. 56. The passage of St. Robert Bellarmine is taken from his De controversies, tom. III, De Matrimonio, con. 2, cap. 6.

10. Cf. Codex Juris Canonici, canon 1012, No. 2.

11. Leo XIII, Arcanum divinae sapientiae, translation in Gilson, Etienne (editor), The Church Speaks to the Modern World: The Social Teachings of Leo XIII (New York, 1954), p. 99.

12. A. De Smet, trans. by W. Dobell, Betrothment and Marriage (Bruges and St. Louis, 1912), vol. I, p. 177.

13. Leo XIII, Arcanum divinae sapientae, in op. cit., pp. 96-97.

14. This is the common teaching among theologians today.

15. Joyce, op. cit., p. 184.

16. Pius XI, Casti connubii, CTS translation, pp. 3-4; 43-44.

17. Francis J. Connell, Marriage: Human or Divine? (New York, 1940), p. 17.

18. Op. cit., pp. 29-30.

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