For centuries, the Catholic Church has simplistically “canonized” marriage, stripping down its sacred and sacramental character as a covenant and likening it to a secular contract. The time has come to liberate the sacrament of marriage from its austere identification with natural marriage by recognizing its sacramental uniqueness, the newness Christ gave it, and the fact that the fullness of this mystery comes about not in an instant but through a couple’s interpersonal growth into the “one flesh” of Genesis, to which Jesus referred in his debate with the Pharisees on divorce.
Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” has put the church on the path toward a deeper recognition of the ecclesial meaning of marriage. Francis makes it clear that the magisterium, the official teaching authority of the church, need not intervene to settle every theological and pastoral discussion. There are “various ways of interpreting” the teaching and applying it to concrete situations. This article seeks to do just that: to interpret certain aspects of the church’s “teaching and practice” about the sacrament of marriage.
The indissolubility of a sacramental marriage is a central teaching of the church. Why has it generated such a highly polarized debate?
The medicine of mercy
The indissolubility of a sacramental marriage is a central teaching of the church. Why has it generated such a highly polarized debate? For some, indissolubility has become a badge of Catholicity, an eternal truth whose articulation is not subject to growth or nuance. Others search for a pastoral solution, but not in the meaning of marriage itself. Instead, they appeal to moral theology and the realm of conscience to alleviate the plight of the invalidly remarried, skirting the theological issue.
Francis emphasizes the complexity of such situations, warning pastors not to use moral teaching as a weapon against those in “irregular situations,” as if these truths “were stones to throw at people’s lives.” He draws the traditional distinction between objective evil and subjective culpability and applies it to irregular marriages in which couples can be seen as nourished by God to live a life of grace and charity. The pope adds a crucial assertion: The pastoral care of such persons “can include the help of the sacraments,” for the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.’”
Why is it so difficult to reconcile the beautiful doctrine on sacramental marriage with pastoral practice?
While the pastoral tension of such marriages is honestly presented and discussion is sincerely fostered, the doctrinal point underlying the debate remains unresolved in the synodal documents and in the apostolic exhortation. Why is it so difficult to reconcile the beautiful doctrine on sacramental marriage with pastoral practice?
The principal problem, in my opinion, is the tendency to “canonize” the propositions of church teaching on sacramentality and indissolubility, giving every single conclusion about sacramental marriage the same weight and finality. The church has rightly concretized and delimited the elements of Christ’s gift of sacramental marriage to guide pastoral practice. The problem is, however, that much of this historically conditioned construct is not treated as such; it is in need of a fuller interpretation that is more faithful to Christ himself and to his people, i.e., those who are actually living out the sacrament of marriage today.
The following five statements are an attempt to articulate this “canonical construct” of pastoral practice, all of which are found in some fashion in the Code of Canon Law.
- A man and woman bring a marriage into existence by validly exchanging consent. Consent is absolutely irreplaceable.
- The marriage of two validly baptized persons is a sacrament, whether the parties know it or not.
- Parties who marry validly do not have the power to dissolve their marriage (intrinsic indissolubility), nor does anyone else have the power to do so other than the Roman Pontiff in certain limited cases (extrinsic indissolubility). Civil divorces do not dissolve the marriage bond; they simply adjudicate civil effects, such as liability, support and child custody.
- A sacramental marriage can be dissolved by the Roman Pontiff if it is not yet physically consummated.
- A sacramental marriage, properly consummated, cannot be dissolved for any reason whatsoever by anyone, not even the pope. A person bound by such a marriage cannot validly marry another during the lifetime of his or her spouse; to do so is adulterous.
These canonical propositions flow from the church’s teaching over centuries to explicate the newness Jesus proclaimed about marriage. Such statements, however, cannot adequately comprehend all that Christ brought to marriage. As the theologian Rev. Robert Imbelli has stated, “Christian doctrine is not reducible to propositions…. Doctrines are, of their very nature, ‘mystagogic’: leading into the mystery of Christ ‘in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.’”
Unfortunately, some are tempted to reduce the “newness” that Christ brought to marriage to its bare minimum: the absolute indissolubility of the marriages of the baptized. For them, natural marriage and sacramental marriage are identical. The only difference is the “special firmness” added to marriages in which the two spouses are validly baptized.
Indissolubility is not the only hallmark of Christian marriage. The sacramentality of the marriage of the baptized is essential to the life of the spouses and their children and to the entire people of God.
But indissolubility is not the only hallmark of Christian marriage. The sacramentality of the marriage of the baptized is essential to the life of the spouses and their children and to the entire people of God. The “one flesh” that the spouses become symbolizes the incarnational union of the Son of God with humanity and, like all the sacraments, brings about what it symbolizes. Sacramental marriage is not some peripheral aspect of ecclesial life; it is intimately connected with the very presence of the God-man among us, indissolubly joined to us, the central Christ-event, inserted into the fabric of the church and the family. Without it indissolubility has no meaning.
Ratum et consummatum
In 1978, the International Theological Commission asserted that the sacramentality and indissolubility of marriage are in a “reciprocal, constitutive relationship.” Yet, recognizing the need for doctrinal and juridical development, the commission concluded that the church “can further define” sacramentality and consummation, resulting in “a deeper and more precise presentation.”
Sacramentality, which logically underlies and explains indissolubility, was asserted rather late in the church’s history. The marital symbolism of Christ and his church was there from the beginning, but the inclusion of marriage as one of the seven sacraments came later than the other six, and much later than the concept of indissolubility. Sacramentality, although the bedrock of the newness Christ revealed about marriage, has in fact received relatively little theological and canonical development.
Contrary to the spare canonical construct, everything about a sacramental marriage is supposed to be “elevated.”
Many sense, for example, that the sacramentality of marriage should be connected in some way to the personal faith of the spouses (i.e., should be more than the infused virtue of faith conferred in baptism). Yet the current canonical construct creates the quintessential horns of a dilemma: If personal faith is required for sacramentality, and no marriage of two validly baptized spouses can exist without being a sacrament, then the absence of personal faith in one or both of the spouses invalidates their exchange of consent—a sacramental Catch-22. The baptized who have no personal faith lose the natural right to marry. Either that, or their abandonment of faith means nothing in the sense that when they validly marry, they are sacramentally and indissolubly married—even though they may deny that very sacramentality!
Contrary to the spare canonical construct, everything about a sacramental marriage, the marriage of the new covenant, is supposed to be “elevated,” “greater,” “radically new”—to use John Paul II’s words in “Familiaris Consortio”: Natural conjugal love receives “a new significance” as an “expression of specifically Christian values.”
Why, then, does that “new significance” introduced by Jesus not call for a “new” standard of judgment about all essential aspects of the matrimonial covenant? One obvious reason is that to assert such “newness” one must reinterpret the age-old canonical construct. Fortunately, one of the constitutive elements of sacramentality and indissolubility is clearly a historically conditioned factor, an element that the theological commission felt the church can “further define.” It is the requirement that a sacramental marriage, though it comes into existence by mutual free consent, does not become absolutely indissoluble until it is consummated—i.e., “completed.”
Consummation as a process
The identification of “consummation” with physical intercourse is a cultural addition to the teaching of Christ, a historically conditioned requirement of the canonical construct that admits of and cries out for updating. It was put in place in the 12th century to resolve a theological and practical dispute about when marriage begins, known as the consent-copula controversy. Alexander III forged the canonical compromise with which we live today: True marital consent creates the sacramental marriage bond, but such a marriage is not absolutely indissoluble unless it is physically consummated. The cultural importance of the sexual act as the juridical completion of a marriage was understandably appropriate for its time, but its sacramental role requires a fuller interpretation.
The Second Vatican Council asserted a deeper, personalist understanding of the object of marital consent: the persons themselves rather than the right to sexual acts. “The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” explicitly rejected the hierarchical relationship of the ends of marriage: procreation as primary, and remedy of concupiscence as secondary.
Accordingly, the church should be open to the idea that sacramental marriages pass through varied stages apart from sexual intercourse before absolute indissolubility emerges. In other words, the sacramental marriage bond must be “consummated” before the indissoluble sacramental marriage is “completed,” but this “consummation” may not in most cases be fulfilled simply by a single physical act. Successive stages of completion, yes; a single physical act, no.
The church should be open to the idea that sacramental marriages pass through varied stages apart from sexual intercourse before absolute indissolubility emerges.
It seems eminently appropriate to require the actuation of true interpersonal self-giving before one concludes that the spouses’ mutual consent is fully consummated, that is, completed, and therefore absolutely indissoluble. With some, this may occur immediately; with others it may emerge over time; and some may unfortunately never achieve the unity required for a consummated sacramental marriage. As with declarations of nullity, hindsight may be the only way to determine whether such completion occurred.
Saving the sacrament
We are losing the battle for marriage as a sacrament. Over the past 25 years there has been a 52 percent decrease in the number of Catholic marriages in the United States, in contrast to a 30 percent increase in the Catholic population (341,622 Catholic marriages in 1988; 163,976 in 2013). At the same time, divorce remains a major concern for all, including Catholics.
Many divorced Catholics may fortunately be declared free to remarry because they never married in the church to begin with. Many other Catholics or their prospective spouses, however, are still bound to a presumably valid marriage.
Many believe that a large number of marriages today should be declared invalid on psychological grounds. Yet the number of cases adjudicated by Catholic tribunals in the United States has dropped drastically, perhaps by half, in the last quarter of a century. What if these tribunals were given another task? Studying the capacity of spouses at the time of their marriage is quite effectively done by judges and professional counselors. Would a tribunal not be just as capable of studying whether a Christian couple truly completed the sacrament initiated by their vows?
Francis’ promulgation of streamlined norms in 2015 has facilitated the canonical process of nullity, although further revision would be helpful (for example, acceptance of a qualified lay person as a single judge). But streamlining the process and recognizing the forum of conscience can go just so far. Elements of the canonical construct itself need radical revision: an appreciation of marital sacramentality and consummation that is consonant with the church’s deeper understanding of the sacrament Christ has given us.
The sacrament of marriage is a gift to build up the people of God, not merely by the wonder of bringing children into the world but by fostering Christian families in a ministry of life and love for God and each other. This sacrificial life should be marked not only by the duty of permanence but by daily resurrection to new life. It should be a deep encounter of faith, as mysterious as that of Christ’s incarnation, one that over time (a time that may be unique for each couple) is completed sacramentally and indissolubly—in other words, consummated, in the best sense of our Christian tradition and the teaching of Christ.