The Sacrament of Holy Matrimony
And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of
his ribs and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the Lord God had taken
from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said: This is now
bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken
out of Man. Therefore, shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto
his wife: and they shall be one flesh.
Genesis 2, 21-24
The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her
husband. The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the
same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife.
1 Corinthians 7, 3-4
In the Catholic faith, Holy Matrimony is one of the two sacraments of service along with Holy Orders. Marriage is both a sacrament and a vocation. God is the author of marriage in the order of creation. “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” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1603). By vocation, the Catholic Church means a call to persons to accomplish a task that has been preordained by God in the economy of salvation. Archbishop J. Francis Stafford tells us, “The highest joy in life for a Christian is searching out, discovering, and pursuing the purpose for which God called him into existence. The idea of vocation implies and demands a larger design to life.” By its very nature, then, marriage is ordered for the good of the couple, as well as for the generation and education of children. “The fruitfulness of conjugal love extends to the fruits of the moral, spiritual, and supernatural life that parents hand on to their children by education. Parents are the principal and first educators of their children. In this sense, the fundamental task of marriage and family is to be at the service of life” (CCC, 1653).
The mutual love between spouses mirrors the “absolute and unfailing love” God has for humanity. This love that God blesses “is intended to be fruitful and to be realized in the common work of watching over creation” (CCC, 1604). Thus, marriage as a divine vocation or service ordered by the will of God requires unity and fruitfulness. Spouses are called to grow daily in their communion through constant fidelity to their marriage vow of complete mutual self-giving. Marriage is created by God, so the spouses are called to a perpetual, faithful, and fruitful union directed toward the well-being of the spouses and their offspring. The dissolution of a marriage thwarts God’s purpose for it.
Wives, subject yourselves to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife,
as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is
subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your
wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her,
having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in
all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. For
this reason, a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become
Ephesians 5, 22-27, 31
Marriage as a service of life in the order of God’s creation is subsumed in the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. A sacrament is essentially a visible sign of an invisible or transcendent reality. With respect to marriage, “the sacrament of Matrimony signifies the union of Christ and the Church. It gives spouses the grace to love each other with the love with which Christ has loved his Church” (CCC, 1661). In the Catholic tradition, the institution of marriage was elevated to the level of a sacrament because it was assigned a divine origin and made an indissoluble union typifying the union of Christ with his church as his mystical body. Matrimony is a sacrament in that it is a sign of the unbreakable bond of love between Christ and his people: the Divine Bridegroom and his bride, which is the Church (Rev 19:17-19; 21:1-2).
In a sacramental marriage, God’s love becomes present to the spouses in their total union and also flows through them to their family and community. By their permanent, faithful, and exclusive giving to each other, symbolized in their conjugal relations and being fruitful, the couple reveals something of God’s unconditional love. The Sacrament of Holy Matrimony involves their entire life as they journey together through the better and the worse of marriage and become more equipped to give to and receive from each other. Their life becomes sacramental to the extent that the spouses cooperate with God’s action in their life and perceive themselves as living “in Christ” and Christ living and acting in them in how they relate to and treat each other. Conjugal love involves a totality in which all the characteristics of the person enter. It aims to achieve a deeply personal unity, a unity that, beyond union in one flesh, extends to the formation of one heart, mind, and soul. This Christ-centered love demands indissolubility and faithfulness in definitive mutual self-giving and sacrifice, and it is open to fertility. A marriage that is no longer sacramental is a failed marriage.
Holy Matrimony is a sacrament of service. And as such a sacrament, the devotion a husband and a wife have to each other (and thereby to Christ) must mirror Christ’s love and service to the Church. Through marriage, a couple is bound to help build each other and their offspring up in faith, serve each other and the Church and be faithful to each other until death. In Catholic teaching, there are six character traits of faithfulness that should also be applied to marriage: commitment, love, longsuffering, patience, endurance, and steadfastness.
Marriage is an exclusive lifetime partnership, so marriage must possess these characteristics to be sacramental and successful. A sacramental marriage is vocational and the spouses in this bond are called to discipleship. Thus, “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,’ [Eph 5:21] 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” (CCC, 1642). The love of the spouses, which should mirror the love which Christ has for his Church and the love we all should have for each other in our discipleship, “ requires of its very nature, the unity, and indissolubility of the spouses’ community of persons, which embraces their entire life: “so they are no longer two, but one flesh.” They “are called to grow continually in their communion through day-to-day fidelity to their marriage promise of total mutual self-giving. This human communion is confirmed, purified, and completed by communion in Jesus Christ, given through the sacrament of Matrimony” (CCC, 1644).
“By its very nature conjugal love requires the inviolable fidelity of the spouses. This is the consequence of the gift of themselves that they make to each other. Love seeks to be definitive; it cannot be an arrangement “until further notice.” The “intimate union of marriage, as a mutual giving of two persons, and the good of the children, demand total fidelity from the spouses and require an unbreakable union between them” (CCC, 1646). “The deepest reason is found in the fidelity of God to his covenant, in that of Christ to his Church. Through the sacrament of Matrimony, the spouses are enabled to represent this fidelity and give witness to it. Through the sacrament, the indissolubility of marriage receives a new and deeper meaning” (CCC 1647).
The Old Testament addresses the fidelity and perpetuity of marriage and likens Yahweh’s covenant with Israel to that between husband and wife. God created man and woman out of love and commanded them to imitate His love in their relations with each other. Man and woman were created for each other: “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a suitable partner for him. … The two of them become one body.” (Gen 2:18, 24). Catholic teaching holds that all the sacraments bestow grace on those who receive them with the proper disposition. Grace is a way of describing how God shares His divine life with us and gives us the help we need to live as followers of Christ. In marriage, the grace of this sacrament brings to the spouses the particular help they need to be faithful to each other and to be good parents. It also helps a couple to serve others beyond their immediate family and to show the community that a loving and lasting marriage is both desirable and possible if centered in Christ.
The Sacrament of Holy Matrimony is thus a covenant of love. Being married isn’t just about having a “soul mate” or being with somebody for the sake of practical convenience. Marriage isn’t a business arrangement or even a legal contract. A marriage cannot be healthy or indissoluble in practice unless it is a covenant of unconditional love, despite one’s partner’s imperfections, state of health, or financial contributions. Marriage does not lie within the criteria of a contract but rather that of a covenant. A fundamental difference between a contract and a covenant is that a contract is divided between two human parties and agreed upon as a matter of honor and personal security, and legal proceedings are in place to enforce such private agreements. Each party is more concerned about its own private interests. Unconditional love and fidelity, and self-sacrifice aren’t part of the criteria for the signing of a legal contract.
“The consent by which the spouses mutually give and receive one another is sealed by God himself. From their covenant arises “an institution, confirmed by the divine law, . . . even in the eyes of society.” The covenant between the spouses is integrated into God’s covenant with man: “Authentic married love is caught up into divine love” (CCC, 1639). “Thus the marriage bond has been established by God himself in such a way that a marriage concluded and consummated between baptized persons can never be dissolved. This bond, which results from the free human act of the spouses and their consummation of the marriage, is a reality, henceforth irrevocable, and gives rise to a covenant guaranteed by God’s fidelity. The Church does not have the power to contravene this disposition of divine wisdom” (CCC, 1640). “” The unity of marriage, distinctly recognized by our Lord, is made clear in the equal personal dignity which must be accorded to man and wife in mutual and unreserved affection” (CCC, 1645).
Jesus unequivocally taught the original meaning of the union of man and woman as his heavenly Father willed it from the beginning. Permission given by Moses to divorce one’s wife was a concession to the hardness of hearts. But the union of man and woman is indissoluble: God himself has determined it: “What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” (cf. Mt 19:3-10). “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” (CCC, 1615).
The exchange of consent between the spouses makes the marriage valid. If consent is lacking, because of coercion or circumstantial pressure, there is no marriage that can thereby be annulled by the Church. Consent must be canonically expressed between two persons who are capable of giving it. The couple, by their free, mutual consent, forms the marriage covenant. It is on this covenant they build a life-long bond. While the sacrament is received at one moment in real-time, sacramental grace continues to flow and be received throughout the married couple’s lives. The offering of themselves to each other is a gift of grace. Grace is added upon grace as they continue to grow in conjugal love and bear the fruits of their marriage.
Thus, marital consent is a free human act that isn’t based on individual self-interest in which the man and the woman offer themselves to each other as gifts of grace. The consent by which the spouses mutually give to each other and receive is sealed by God. The covenant between the spouses is integrated into God’s covenant with human beings. The four characteristics of a marriage blessed by God through the administration of the sacrament are freedom of consent, the totality of giving oneself to the other, faithfulness, and fruitfulness. All these characteristics are grounded on and reinforced by the greatest theological Christian virtue, which is unconditional love from which flow kindness, gentleness, humility, patience, forbearance, honesty, compassion, mercy, and understanding.
Sacred Scripture confirms Catholic tradition and the sacramental nature of matrimony. We see that, from the beginning, man and woman are joined together by God and become one body as husband and wife (Gen 2:20-24). A human body cannot be divided or dismembered and still be animated with life. A husband and wife share a single soul in one body in the order of God’s creation. God speaks through His prophet and declares, ““For I hate divorce,” says the LORD, the God of Israel, “and him who covers his garment with violence,” says the LORD of armies. “So be careful about your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously” (Mal 2:16).
Indeed, Jesus makes it clear that it is God who joins the husband and wife together, according to His will. What God joins together must not be dissolved (Mt 19:6). Our Lord actually says that whoever divorces and remarries another commits adultery (Mt 19:9; Mk 10:11-12; Lk 16:18). This is an offense against the natural law that has been established by God. Paul reiterates Jesus’ teaching that sacramental marriage followed by a divorce and remarriage is adultery. The apostle writes: ‘Thus a married woman is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives; but if her husband dies, she is discharged from the law concerning the husband. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man, she is not an adulteress’ (Rom 7:2-3; cf. 1 Cor 7:10-11).
The Lord permits divorce only for porneia (πορνεία ). This Greek noun often refers to unlawful sexual intercourse and non-sacramental unions such as between siblings and other close family members (incest). The Lord does not permit divorce for adultery (moicheia / μοιχεία) such as in the case of an extra-marital affair. We should note that in unlawful cases, a marriage (between a father and his daughter, for instance) never existed in the first place, so the Lord is not actually permitting divorce but declaring a dissolution of an unlawful union by annulling it as a non-existent marriage.
But to the married, I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife is not to leave her
husband (but if she does leave, she must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her
husband, and that the husband is not to divorce his wife.
1 Corinthians 7, 10-11
Finally, Paul says that the sacramental union of husband and wife is the image of Christ and the Church. A husband and wife are inseparable as much as Christ the Bridegroom and His Bride the Church are (Eph 5:22-32). A civil divorce cannot dissolve a sacramental marriage between two baptized Christians. However, we have what the Catholic Church calls the “Pauline privilege.” If two unbaptized people marry, and afterward one of the spouses is baptized, the Christian is free to remarry if the unbaptized spouse decides to end the marriage. This is because the marriage between two unbaptized people is non-sacramental (1 Cor 7:12-15).
The marital union of man and woman reflects Christ’s union with the Church at the heavenly marriage supper (Rev 19:9). Those who get married in the Church must first be baptized and understand this divine mystery. Just as Christ and the Church have become one flesh through the sacrament of Holy Eucharist and the union brings forth spiritual life for God’s children, a man and a woman become one flesh and their union brings forth physical life for the Church. This marital union is sacramental and thus indissoluble.
Hence, Holy Matrimony is one of the two sacraments of service. It is sacramental in that the mutual love between spouses mirrors the absolute and unfailing love God has for humanity, and Christ has for his bride the Church. The devotion a husband and a wife have to each other must mirror Christ’s love and service to the Church. In a sacramental marriage, God’s love becomes present to the spouses in their total union and also flows through them to their family and community.
By its very vocational nature, then, marriage is ordered for the good of the couple, as well as for the generation and education of children. Conjugal love involves a totality in which all the characteristics of the person enter. It aims to achieve a deeply personal unity, a unity that, beyond union in one flesh, extends to the formation of one heart, mind, and soul. Conjugal love requires the inviolable fidelity of the spouses. The Old Testament addresses the fidelity and perpetuity of marriage and likens Yahweh’s covenant with Israel to that between husband and wife. The Sacrament of Holy Matrimony is thus a covenant of love. The consent by which the spouses mutually give and receive one another makes the marriage valid and is sealed by God Himself. It is by following Christ, renouncing themselves, and taking up their crosses that spouses (disciples of Christ) will be able to receive the original meaning of marriage and live it with the help of Christ.
Early Sacred Tradition
“Flee wicked arts; but all the more discourse regarding them. Speak to my sisters,
that they love in our Lord, and that their husbands be sufficient for them in the
flesh and spirit. Then, again, charge my brethren in the name of our Lord Jesus
Christ, that they love their wives, as our Lord His Church. If any man is able in
power to continue in purity, to the honor of the flesh of our Lord, let him continue
so without boasting; if he boasts, he is undone; if he becomes known apart from the
bishop, he has destroyed himself. It is becoming, therefore, to men and women who
marry, that they marry with the counsel of the bishop, that the marriage may be in
our Lord, and not in lust. Let everything, therefore, be done for the honor of God.”
St. Ignatius of Antioch, To Polycarp, 5
“Now that the Scripture counsels marriage, and allows no release from the union, is
expressly contained in the law, ‘Thou shalt not put away thy wife, except for the
cause of fornication;’ and it regards as fornication, the marriage of those separated
while the other is alive. Not to deck and adorn herself beyond what is becoming,
renders a wife free of calumnious suspicion while she devotes herself assiduously to
prayers and supplications; avoiding frequent departures from the house, and
shutting herself up as far as possible from the view of all not related to her, and
deeming housekeeping of more consequence than impertinent trifling. ‘He that
taketh a woman that has been put away,’ it is said, ‘committeth adultery; and if one
puts away his wife, he makes her an adulteress,’ that is, compels her to commit
adultery. And not only is he who puts her away guilty of this, but he who takes her,
by giving to the woman the opportunity of sinning; for did he not take her, she
would return to her husband.”
St. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 2:24
“‘What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.’ See a teacher’s
wisdom. I mean, that being asked, Is it lawful? He did not at once say, It is not
lawful, lest they should be disturbed and put in disorder, but before the decision by
His argument He rendered this manifest, showing that it is itself too the
commandment of His Father, and that not in opposition to Moses did He enjoin
these things, but in full agreement with him. But mark Him arguing strongly not
from the creation only, but also from His command. For He said not that He made
one man and one woman only, but that He also gave this command that the one man
should be joined to the one woman. But if it had been His will that he should put
this one away, and bring in another, when He had made one man, He would have
formed many Women. But now both by the manner of the creation, and by the
manner of lawgiving, He showed that one man must dwell with one woman
continually, and never break off from her.”
St. John Chrysostom, On Matthew 62:1
“There is hardly anything more deadly than being married to one who is a stranger
to the faith, where the passions of lust and dissension and the evils of sacrilege are
inflamed. Since the marriage ceremony ought to be sanctified by the priestly
veiling and blessing, how can that be called a marriage ceremony where there is no
agreement in faith?”
St. Ambrose, To Vigilius, Letter 19:7
“Therefore the good of marriage throughout all nations and all men stands in the
occasion of begetting, and faith of chastity: but, so far as pertains unto the People of
God, also in the sanctity of the Sacrament, by reason of which it is unlawful for one
who leaves her husband, even when she has been put away, to be married to
another, so long as her husband lives, no not even for the sake of bearing children:
and, whereas this is the alone cause, wherefore marriage takes place, not even where
that very thing, wherefore it takes place, follows not, is the marriage bond loosed,
save by the death of the husband or wife.”
St. Augustine, On the Good of Marriage, 24:32
“Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and
female… Have you not read, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and
be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one’? So they are no longer two but one.
What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”
Matthew 19, 4-6