Holy Matrimony: What Makes a Marriage a Marriage?

I don’t know if you like junk food, but I would dare say that I do enjoy it. Among one of my favorite gastronomic pleasures are Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. These amazing little taste-treats are always in season for me. The essential ingredients involved the Peanut Butter Cups are: peanut butter and chocolate. Now, I have to say that I like peanut butter on its own, and I enjoy the taste of chocolate, but the combination of the two is incredible! Thus the Reese’s company takes chocolate, joins it together with peanut butter, and in doing so confects something that is better than the sum of its parts. It has taken two distinct creations and made them one, and while the distinction is still there (you can taste both peanut butter and chocolate) they are nonetheless united.


That Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup description can be understood as a good analogy to the Sacrament of Marriage. In marriage, two wonderful creations of God – man and woman – are joined together as one. Their distinctions remain, and yet in their marriage we find that there is something there that is greater than the sum of the persons involved.


Terms of Endearment

On this topic of the Sacrament of Marriage, let’s begin with the definition of marriage. In a simple sense, marriage is the union of a man and a woman in a covenantal bond for life. Perhaps in a more reflective sense, one might say, that the two halves of human creation, man and woman, when united by the call of God in freely given consent beget marriage. But as always, the Church provides the fullest definition of marriage: "The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1601).

Thus while marriage pre-existed Jesus Christ’s time on earth in the form of what is called “natural marriage” (i.e., men and women are naturally ordered to heed God’s call to unite in marriage), Christ himself took that natural institution and made something more of it, something super-natural. Just as Christ took bread and wine and in the Eucharist changed them into something more, his Body and Blood, so, too, in marriage he takes the fundamental elements (man and woman) and makes something more of them in their unity. What more does he make of this institution of marriage? He makes the man and the woman in the marriage a living sign of God’s love for us – in a Sacramental marriage, the love and self-sacrifice of the man and the woman are reflections of Christ’s love and sacrifice for us on the Cross. With Christ, oft expressed in scripture as the “bridegroom” (male) and Church understood as “his bride” (female), the Sacramental marriage expresses that the man is united with the woman as Christ is united to his Church. When one looks at a crucifix, they can see how much the bridegroom loves his bride: enough to die for her, and the bride in mutual affection is willing to sacrifice for him.


The Person Matters!

The Sacrament of Marriage is somewhat distinct in the sacramental system; its form and matter are unique and, in many ways, are treated uniquely. The matter of the Sacrament is simple: a man and a woman who are free to marry in the Church expressing their consent to the marital covenant.  That consent is the essential element of marriage; it is must be given freely and without duress. How do the man and woman express this consent? They express their consent by the exchange of vows or by responding “I do” to the questions regarding consent posed by the Sacred Minister (Priest or Deacon). Now, that sounds simple, but there are impediments to marriage that could prevent a man and a woman from marrying – in the next issue, I will deal with those at length.


We Need an Eyewitness

The form of the Sacrament of Marriage might be more understandably not just a how question, but also a where question. The form of the Sacrament of Marriage is the consent expressed by the man and woman (exchanging vows), thus conferring the sacrament upon each other. Additionally, that exchange must be witnessed by the Church, specifically by a Sacred Minister (Priest or Deacon) and two witnesses (e.g., “the best man” and “the maid of honor”).  Those folks have to hear the “I do” and be able to attest to it; unlike Marvin Gaye, they cannot say “I heard it through the grapevine.” No! They have to be able to attest that they heard it said with their own ears. The Priest, specifically, receives consent on behalf of the Church (and in the USA, on behalf of the State, too). Now, unlike other Sacraments, for limited circumstances, the Bishop can dispense from “Canonical form.” That is to say: In the case of a marriage of mixed-Christian religions (a Catholic marrying a Methodist, or a Lutheran, etc.) the Bishop may dispense the couple from normative canonical form; this dispensation is most commonly used to allow a marriage to be witnessed outside a Catholic Church, in another place of Christian worship. Similar dispensations may, on a case by case basis, be given for a Catholic marriage to a non-Christian.


In the Mix

The Church teaches that, ideally, a Catholic man marries a Catholic woman; it does however, allows for what it calls a “mixed marriage” (a marriage between a Catholic and a member of another Christian confession) and “disparity of cult” (marriage between a Catholic and member of a non-Christian faith). In order for a Catholic party to validly enter the marital covenant with a member of another Christian confession, he needs to attain permission from the Bishop. To marry a person of a non-Christian faith, the Catholic party needs to seek a “dispensation” from the Bishop; attaining this dispenses the person from the requirement that for a marriage to be valid it is to be contracted between baptized Christians. (Canon 1086). The Priest or Deacon preparing the man and woman for marriage secures permissions and dispensations for the couple.


Love Will Keep us Together?

In 1975, the Captain and Tennille sang to the world, seemingly about marriage: “I’ll be there to share forever / love will keep us together / I said it before and I’ll say it again / while others pretend / I need you now and I’ll need you then.” A lovely sentiment, sappy, and ooo-ey goo-ey, but lovely. This sentiment, however expressed, is not an essential piece of the marriage covenant. I can remember in seminary our Canon Law professor asking our class “What is it that makes a marriage, a marriage?” One young man said, “Love.” And the professor responded, “Oh, you fool.” Harsh as that may seem, the professor was absolutely correct in his derision. As Tina Turner might say, “What’s love got to do with it?” Love, in the sense of romantic love, is not what makes a marriage a marriage. Consent is. Without free consent, there is neither a marriage contracted nor a covenant made.

What do I mean by this seemingly anti-romantic blasphemy? Well, if the unmarried King of France, married the unmarried Queen of Spain, as a way of securing cordial relations between their nations, and entered into that marriage freely, granting mutual consent and believing that this marriage would be to the mutual benefit of each other and be a lifelong, faithful commitment, that marriage would be valid and legitimate.  Why? Because consent was freely given, that’s why! Hence a marriage’s legitimacy isn’t rendered by some romantic Richter scale. It is measured by consent and commitment to the marriage. Now, all that being said, love (in the sense of charity and caring for the spouse, not in the sense of romance) is an element of the marriage that is constitutive to the underlying consent. Thus “real love” as the Doobie Brothers sang in their hit of that same name in 1980, is important. Real love is not romantic love, but rather it speaks to the love that Christ showed for us on the Cross.


More than Silly Love Songs

One of the problems with marriage in our society today is that it is often rendered from the culmination of a series of romantic escapades. In 1976, Paul McCartney sang, “Some people wanna fill the world with silly love songs / and what wrong with that?” Certainly there is nothing wrong with filling the world with such things, however, if a marriage is filled with nothing but silly love songs (i.e., romance), that is not a marriage. It is nothing more than an episode of The Bachelorette with a nice Church ceremony (which is followed, likely, by an episode of Divorce Court). Yes, in some sense Marriage is very much about love; not romantic love, but real love. I am speaking of love freely given; not just love when the man and the woman exchange kisses, flowers, gifts and sweet nothings, but love in the tough times, the rough times and the “I think I’ve had enough” times. This is expressed very clearly in the Catholic marriage vows, when (in one form of the vows) the bride and groom promise that they take the other, “for my lawful wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.” Marriage is for life, not merely for love.


Next issue: Marriage as a vocation, impediments to marriage, and other matters regarding this Sacrament instituted by Christ.