Since the Church is on a journey between two Synods on the family, I would here like to take a closer look at what the Catechism of the Catholic Church and its Code of Canon Law say on the subject.1 In particular, I would like to get a clearer picture of what it is that the Church considers to be natural marriage, as it pre-existed Christianity or other religions and as it applies to everyone. Then, I would also like to get a clearer sense of what the Church sees as being specific to Christian (or, more specifically, Catholic) marriage. In other words: what does the sacrament of marriage consists in?
You may wonder why I am embarking on what may seem like a hair-splitting excursion into legalese. In fact, understanding the difference between natural and sacramental marriage is, in my opinion, highly relevant to the journey that the Church is on right now - a journey of discerning how her doors may be flung wide open to all, while remaining faithful to Jesus’ teaching and the inspiration that she has received from the Holy Spirit throughout her history. Being clear about what she believes to be inscribed in the hearts of all versus what is given access to through the sacraments of Christian initiation is a key part of understanding key milestones along a process of gradually increasing perfection.
With the above in mind, let’s first look at what Canon Law has to say about natural marriage:
“The matrimonial covenant, [is that] by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring [...].” (Can. 1055.1)Note, that none of the above is thought to be specific to Christianity and when the Church sees any married couple, it considers it to have entered into a perpetual covenant as set out above. The Catechism goes further still in extolling the value and beauty of natural marriage by attributing its authorship to God:
“The essential properties of marriage are unity and indissolubility [...].” (Can. 1056)
Matrimonial consent is an act of the will by which a man and a woman mutually give and accept each other through an irrevocable covenant in order to establish marriage. (Can. 1057.2) From a valid marriage there arises between the spouses a bond which by its nature is perpetual and exclusive. [...] (Can. 1134)
““The intimate community of life and love which constitutes the married state has been established by the Creator and endowed by him with its own proper laws.... God himself is the author of marriage.” The vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator. Marriage is not a purely human institution despite the many variations it may have undergone through the centuries in different cultures, social structures, and spiritual attitudes. These differences should not cause us to forget its common and permanent characteristics. Although the dignity of this institution is not transparent everywhere with the same clarity, some sense of the greatness of the matrimonial union exists in all cultures. “The well-being of the individual person and of both human and Christian society is closely bound up with the healthy state of conjugal and family life.” (§1603)Marriage, as an institution present in all cultures, has its source in the nature inscribed in everyone by God and the Catechism goes on to rooting natural marriage in God having created all in His likeness and having called all to participate in His being love:
“God who created man out of love also calls him to love—the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being. For man is created in the image and likeness of God who is himself love. Since God created him man and woman, their mutual love becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves man. It is good, very good, in the Creator’s eyes. And this love which God blesses is intended to be fruitful and to be realized in the common work of watching over creation: “And God blessed them, and God said to them: ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.’” (§1604)The very next paragraph of the Catechism goes further still and presents a deeply beautiful view of natural marriage, which is to be a remedy for existential solitude and, being based on mutual self-giving, to underline the fundamental value of men and women and their inherent equality. Men receive women as a gift; women represent God. This is not identity, but instead a mutual rejoicing in the specific beauty of the other, equally loved by God and equally to be loved by self.
“Holy Scripture affirms that man and woman were created for one another: “It is not good that the man should be alone.” The woman, “flesh of his flesh,” his equal, his nearest in all things, is given to him by God as a “helpmate”; she thus represents God from whom comes our help. “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” The Lord himself shows that this signifies an unbreakable union of their two lives by recalling what the plan of the Creator had been “in the beginning”: “So they are no longer two, but one flesh.” (§1605)Remember that we are still talking “only” about natural marriage, although by now it ought to be clear that the Church teaches that marriage is a gift from God whenever it is entered into and not only in its sacramental form.
Natural marriage is, in a surprise move, put forward even as a means for overcoming selfishness and opening oneself up to others - as transforming hardship into a remedy for its causes:
“In his mercy God has not forsaken sinful man. The punishments consequent upon sin, “pain in childbearing” and toil “in the sweat of your brow,” also embody remedies that limit the damaging effects of sin. After the fall, marriage helps to overcome self-absorption, egoism, pursuit of one’s own pleasure, and to open oneself to the other, to mutual aid and to self-giving.” (§1609)Finally, and possibly most startlingly, marital love is also presented as witnessing to God’s love, and - again - this is not restricted to sacramental marriage.
“It can seem difficult, even impossible, to bind oneself for life to another human being. This makes it all the more important to proclaim the Good News that God loves us with a definitive and irrevocable love, that married couples share in this love, that it supports and sustains them, and that by their own faithfulness they can be witnesses to God’s faithful love.” (§1648)The Catholic Church’s teaching on natural marriage - i.e., the marriage covenant entered into by men and women of any religion or none - recognizes a wealth of goodness in it already. Marriage is a remedy for selfishness, recognizes the equality of men and women and is even witness to God’s own love. Not Christian or Catholic marriage, but all marriage.
Before looking at how the sacrament of marriage differs from natural marriage, it is worth refreshing our minds about what a sacrament is. Here Canon Law provides a first glimpse:
“[The sacraments] are signs and means which express and strengthen the faith, render worship to God, and effect the sanctification of humanity and thus contribute in the greatest way to establish, strengthen, and manifest ecclesiastical communion.” (Can. 840)The Catechism then elaborates as follows:
“Sacraments are “powers that comes forth” from the Body of Christ, which is ever-living and life-giving. They are actions of the Holy Spirit at work in his Body, the Church.” (§ 1116)Sacraments are signs (hence consisting of a signifier and a signified, where the former here is natural while the latter supernatural) that not only point beyond themselves but that are efficacious - i.e., they confer grace that strengthens and leads to holiness.
“Celebrated worthily in faith, the sacraments confer the grace that they signify. They are efficacious because in them Christ himself is at work: it is he who baptizes, he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies.” (§1127)
“The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.” (§1131)
Armed with an idea of natural marriage and the concept of a sacrament, let’s look at sacramental marriage next:
“The entire Christian life bears the mark of the spousal love of Christ and the Church. Already Baptism, the entry into the People of God, is a nuptial mystery; it is so to speak the nuptial bath which precedes the wedding feast, the Eucharist. Christian marriage in its turn becomes an efficacious sign, the sacrament of the covenant of Christ and the Church. Since it signifies and communicates grace, marriage between baptized persons is a true sacrament of the New Covenant.” (§1617)The sacrament of marriage does not consist wholly in the union of a man and a woman effected by their mutual covenant. Instead, that union is only the signifier, while the signified is the “covenant of Christ and the Church.” When I see a person being baptized, what I see is a sign, while what it signifies is that person becoming part of the Body of Christ, which is the Church. Instead, the sacrament of marriage shows me a man and a woman who are becoming one, but whose meaning is the union of Christ and the Church. Christian marriage is a manifestation of Christ and the Church being one. This is the key to the sacrament of marriage!
Wait a minute, but what about the whole efficaciousness business?
Well spotted! There is more to sacramental marriage than husband and wife being the signifier whose signified is Christ’s union with the Church. The Catechism explains:
“This unequivocal insistence on the indissolubility of the marriage bond may have left some perplexed and could seem to be a demand impossible to realize. However, Jesus has not placed on spouses a burden impossible to bear, or too heavy—heavier than the Law of Moses. By coming to restore the original order of creation disturbed by sin, he himself gives the strength and grace to live marriage in the new dimension of the Reign of God. It is by following Christ, renouncing themselves, and taking up their crosses that spouses will be able to “receive” the original meaning of marriage and live it with the help of Christ. This grace of Christian marriage is a fruit of Christ’s cross, the source of all Christian life.” (§ 1615)The sacrament of marriage is nothing other than participation in Christ’s self-giving sacrifice on the cross. It calls for self-renunciation and a participation in Christ’s self-emptying and self-othering love. And the “efficaciousness” part of the sacrament is Jesus himself giving “strength and grace to live marriage,” for his “yoke is easy, and [his] burden light” (Matthew 11:30).
The Catechism goes on to spell out the effects of the sacrament of marriage further:
“By reason of their state in life and of their order, [Christian spouses] have their own special gifts in the People of God.” This grace proper to the sacrament of Matrimony is intended to perfect the couple’s love and to strengthen their indissoluble unity. By this grace they “help one another to attain holiness in their married life and in welcoming and educating their children.” (§1641)My overwhelming impression from all of the above is a profound sense of beauty when thinking both about natural and sacramental marriage, as understood by the Catholic Church. Natural marriage, i.e., the marriage covenant that is present in different cultures and open to all, regardless of their beliefs, is seen as giving witness to God’s love and being a remedy both to self-centeredness and inequality. Sacramental marriage then places a married couple in close communion with Christ and his Church and opens them up to having Him dwell with them.
Christ is the source of this grace. “Just as of old God encountered his people with a covenant of love and fidelity, so our Savior, the spouse of the Church, now encounters Christian spouses through the sacrament of Matrimony.” Christ dwells with them, gives them the strength to take up their crosses and so follow him, to rise again after they have fallen, to forgive one another, to bear one another’s burdens, to “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ,” and to love one another with supernatural, tender, and fruitful love. In the joys of their love and family life he gives them here on earth a foretaste of the wedding feast of the Lamb. (§1642)
1 If you are not a Catholic - welcome! :) To get more out of what follows, you might want to take a look at a caveat I wrote in the second paragraph of the following post.