What is our understanding of Sacramental Marriage?

Father, all-powerful and ever-living God,

You created the human family in love to share your divine life.

We see our high destiny in the love of husband and wife,

which bears the imprint of your own divine love.

Love is our origin,

love is our constant calling,

love is our fulfilment in heaven.

The love of woman and man

is made holy in the sacrament of marriage,

and becomes the mirror of your everlasting love.     (A preface of marriage)

For couples about to marry in Church what is the definition of marriage? It is healthy that a couple reflect on the definition of marriage as they get engaged to marry.  It might seem insensitive or offensive to talk of ‘definition’ in the context of a couple’s wonderful, loving, life-giving and life-enhancing relationship but consider the following:

  • When you go to purchase a house, the solicitor sits you down and you sign a contract. You are not free to read the terms, put a line through one or two phrases, and then sign. You will be told that every line is needed. Marriage is an even bigger decision than having a house. Everything important is clearly defined. You need to know what you are consenting to, the vows you are making. Over thousands of years, over many, many generations, guided by the Holy Spirit, human wisdom has teased out many issues and given us a robust outline of sacramental marriage. It is this that you say ‘I do’ to in church on your wedding day.
  • You might say that “couples are intelligent and mature, their relationship is unique, they know what marriage means for them, it is nobody else’s business”. However is it not very important that when, as a couple, you say ‘I do’ at the altar that you both say ‘I do’ to the same thing? What happens if a couple subsequently realise that they have two different understandings of what marriage is and the difference is major? It is vital that a couple exchanging vows have the same understanding of sacramental marriage. It is important that every person getting married honour the status of the ordinary definition of sacramental marriage that, guided by the Holy Spirit, has been crafted by the wisdom of millennia.

The Sacrament of Marriage.

What is our definition of marriage? What did the Old Testament teach? What did Jesus teach? What has been the developed wisdom and understanding of the People of God in the Catholic Church through the generations? Many of the essentials of marriage are contained in the following succinct statement:

Matrimonial consent is an act of will by which a man and a woman by an irrevocable covenant mutually give and accept one another for the purpose of establishing a marriage. The marriage covenant by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of their whole life, and which of its very nature is ordered to the well-being of the spouses and to the procreation and upbringing of children, has, between the baptised, been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament.

The essential properties of marriage are unity and indissolubility.

We speak of marriage vows. A couple take vows by freely exchanging consent, taking each other as husband and wife in marriage. Consent involves both genuine freedom in consenting and genuine appreciation of what the marriage will involve.

Two essential properties of marriage are unity and indissolubility. Unity refers to a total sharing of their lives in fidelity to each other. There cannot be a third party. Indissolubility refers to marriage as all the days of our life, until death do us part. You are not on trial, you are united in a sacred bond, and you are accepted and loved unconditionally.

In getting married, couples exchange the right to have children where possible. Love is freely given. The giving involves the possibility of having children. All love is fruitful. The natural love of a couple expressed physically can bear fruit in a child born to them. The child is the natural fruit of their love.

In the Genesis account of the creation of the human race, God is seen as creating one first, and then saying it is not good to be alone, I will make a helpmate. In this understanding of woman and man, they are seen as complimentary to each other and as life-long companions. Male and female together are the source of and the carers for the next generation. The upbringing of children is seen as a life-long commitment.

My dear people, since God has loved us so much,

we too should love one another.

No one has ever seen God;

but as long as we love one another

God will live in us

and his love will be complete in us

1Jn 4:11-12

Bishop Ray Browne Sept 2015