If you remember, I started this series of post with a proposal that the Church should only celebrate its own marriages – sacramental marriages for Catholics, or for Catholics marrying baptised Christians from other churches – and should no longer provide marriage celebrants to register marriages for the State. (Yes, okay, I know the Church also witnesses non-sacramental marriages, when Catholics marry people who have not been baptised – but let’s keep things simple.)
Next, I posted a brief history of marriage, showing how recently in history we adopted the current rule about marriages being witnessed by a priest.
I followed that with a post on marriage and the natural law – the three features of marriage that make it a natural good that should be protected, preserved, and promoted for the benefit of society and of the individuals concerned.
Since then, I’ve posted a couple of articles summarising other bloggers’ articles on marriage: Marriage, sex and history, and the conjugal view of marriage. I’ve also diverted slightly to talk about the Church’s place in the public square, whether civil law and moral law should necessarily or even preferably, be the same thing, and about the State’s interest in marriage law.
In this post, I want to open a discussion about the nature of sacramental marriage, as I understand it.
I also have another couple of posts in mind. Eventually, we can come back and re-examine the proposal I started with.
What makes a sacramental marriage
In the first post, I wrote a definition of sacramental marriage, with a little help from Chris. Here it is again:
By sacramental marriage, I mean marriage between one baptised man and one baptised woman, and covenanted to be lifelong, exclusive, and open to life. All those words are important – one man and one woman, baptised, covenanted, lifelong, exclusive, open to life.
In the passage on natural law, I talked about four of these features: being male and female which is implied by the next one, openness to children, exclusiveness, and lifelong fidelity. Chris objected that I’d left out love, which he saw as the most important – even the only – reason for marriage. However, I was talking about characteristics of natural law marriage, not reasons. While love is the purpose and fruit of marriage, and marriage is uniquely suited for a particular kind of self-giving love, marriage is not a necessary condition for love or nor is love a unique identifier of what we mean by marriage. (Mind you, that also depends on what you mean by the word ‘love’. And on who is doing the loving. There’s another whole post on that.)
Baptism is the ‘gateway’ to the graces that can be obtained through the other sacraments – so baptism is a necessary precondition for a marriage to be sacramental.
And then we come to the term ‘covenanted’.
Commitment, contract, and covenant
Sacramental marriage involves commitment, contract, and covenant. De facto (or common law) marriage involves commitment; marriage according the Marriage Act or its equivalent in your nation involves commitment and contract; only sacramental marriage involves all three. (If you have none of the three, what you’ve got is either casual sex or predation – possibly both.)
A covenant is an ancient form of agreement that creates family bonds where there are no prior blood ties. God made a covenant with Abraham, and later with Moses. Jesus made a covenant with us. In each case, the covenant created family ties between us and God.
A covenant forms a blood relationship, and usually involves the spilling of blood as a sign and seal of that new relationship: the blood of circumcision, the blood given by Jesus on the Cross – and marriage, when it involves a woman with an intact hymen.
When I covenanted with my beloved, I gave myself to be part of him, he gave himself to be part of me, and we both offered ourselves in the sacrament of matrimony to be joined to God in His endless love affair with His creation. We like the concept of marriage being a triangle, with God at the apex and the two of us in the other corners. As we draw closer to God, we draw closer to one another.
In our vows, witnessed by two priests, one Anglican vicar, and our assembled families and friends, we took one another as family – husband and wife – to have and to hold, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, from this day forward, cleaving only unto one another, until death parts us. We promised exclusivity and permanence. We rejoiced in the idea that our love would be fruitful, producing children. We became family – one flesh, as Genesis has it. (This view of married love pops up in dozens of diverse cultures; that husband and wife are two halves of one whole.)
A reflection of divine love
Marriage has always been a symbol of the relationship between the divine and the created. Repeatedly in the Bible, married love is used as a metaphor for the relationship between God and His people. In the New Testament, we’re told the Church is the bride of Christ, and that a husband should love his wife as Christ loves the Church. In many pagan mythologies, creation was the result of a fertile union – frequently between the sky and the earth, but sometimes between other divine manifestations of natural features. Marriage – or, in many cases simply copulation – continued to represent the place where the divine and the natural touched. The kings of our Indo-European ancestors would marry the land in a symbolic act of copulation, and would be sacrificed to restore fertility in a hard year. Temple prostitution was an act of worship in many cultures.
In a sacramental marriage, each time we share the marriage bed (she said delicately), we renew and reinforce our covenant with one another and with God. We also open ourselves to share in the creative action of God. The Church teaches that the conception of a child is a three-way creative act – with the biological material contributed half each by the mother and the father, and the soul contributed by God. And the destiny of each child conceived is to be a god or goddess – or a horror and a corruption. As parents, we share in creating an immortal being.
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ‘ordinary’ people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whome we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously — no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner — no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. [C. S. Lewis, From The Weight of Glory]
This is part of the awesome responsibility of marriage – that we participate with God in creating and raising saints. But there is more. As husband and wife, we can help raise – or tear down – our spouse. Each of us is called to help those around us be the best we can be. How much more so with our intimate other. Who else is as qualified, and as motivated, to tell you the things you need (but don’t want) to know than the person with whom you share your bed? Who is in a better position to remind you of the better person you can be? And who else can do so with love, humility, and a full consciousness that you are aware of their failings – and love them anyway?
Marriage isn’t easy – and those who think that being in a sacramental marriage is going to save them from the hard yards are doomed to disappointment. But it is possible. People do it all the time, even in these dark days. Good marriages aren’t made in heaven. They’re made right here on earth by people who cling together through despair, defeat, and even dislike, holding on by their fingernails to the love that will bring them back together and make them whole.
One day, each of us will stand at the foot of the Throne. At that time, my husband and I hope to say: ‘Here we are, Lord. We’ve come together, and we’ve brought our children.’
But what if it all goes wrong
As discussed on an earlier thread, sometimes sacramental marriages fall apart. Perhaps one partner is abusive. Perhaps there are addictions. Perhaps one partner or the other finds someone else.
Perhaps the marriage is so toxic that separation is the only way to save the individuals (spouses and children) involved.
The sad thing is that the marriage remains. Damaged, perhaps irrepairably, but still there. This isn’t the Church being unreasonable; this is the Church recognising a fact. A child can recognise that their relationship with their parents, or with another sibling, is toxic. They can cut themselves off from the person who is otherwise going to damage them. But they remain that person’s child, or that person’s sibling. The relationship may be over; but it also remains.
And that’s the issue for those who wish to enter into a new marriage, but also to remain in communion with the Church.