Matrimony

When treating 'the sexual order', Ch. 9 will contribute to our picture of marriage. But what of the sacrament of matrimony? How did Christian marriage come to find its place among the seven sacraments? To acknowledge it as a visible sign instituted by Christ and conferring grace takes us beyond arguing for an equal dignity for the wife and the lifelong nature of the marriage bond.

In the OT, wives became more or less the property of their husbands, who could divorce them for 'something offensive' (Deut. 24: 1). In earlier times polygamy was practised; later Judaism became more aware that monogamy represented the ideal. Jesus himself drew images from weddings for some of his parables (e.g. Matt. 21: 1—14; 25: 1—13). John's Gospel reports how Jesus attended a wedding during his public ministry (John 2: 1—11); the other Gospels show how Jesus strove to safeguard the institution of marriage. He wanted to restore the original plan of God for a married partnership as expressed in the story of creation (Gen. 2: 18, 24); hence Jesus excluded divorce and remarriage as contrary to the divine will: 'what God has joined together let no one put asunder' (Mark 10: 9).

New Testament Christians recognized the crucified and risen Jesus to be their divine Spouse; collectively they were united to him like a wife to a perfectly loving husband (e.g. Rev. 21: 9). The Letter to the Ephesians appeals to this 'great mystery' of the union of all the baptized with Christ to encourage a startlingly elevated view of the loving relationship between Christian husbands and wives (Eph. 5: 25—33). This powerful comparison implies the sacramental status of Christian marriage. Yet it took centuries for this implication to be fully elaborated.

As we saw in Ch. 1, Ignatius of Antioch held that it was up to the local bishop to approve marriages between Christians (Epistle to Polycarp, 5. 2). But he mentioned nothing about a sacramental celebration of the marriage contract. The early third-century Apostolic Tradition prescribed no particular ceremony for a married couple seeking entry into the church: the husband 'should be taught to be content with his wife' and vice versa. A bachelor who asked for baptism should be taught to avoid fornication and, if and when he decided to marry, to do so 'according to the [civil] law'. A man living with a concubine should either stop doing so or marry her legally (16. 6—7, 24). But from the third century, Christians, while following the forms of marriage current in civil society, practised some service of blessing, and replaced the sacrificial rites of solemn Roman weddings with a celebration of the Eucharist. Moral teaching from the NT guided, of course, the way in which they lived out their married and family life.

During the first Christian millennium and later, Manichaeans, Montanists, and other groups denigrated marriage, and even attributed it to the forces of evil. Early regional councils such as the First Council of Toledo in 400 (DH 206) and the Council of Braga in 561 (DH 461—2; ND 402/11, 12) rejected such errors, and upheld the essential goodness of marriage and the procreation of children. Some like Tertullian, at least at the time when he wrote Ad Uxorem (of which more in Ch. 9), did not condemn marriage but only second marriages: widows and widowers should not remarry. Centuries later in 1208 Pope Innocent III was to defend the right of widows and widowers to remarry (DH 794; ND 1802). The shorter life expectancy during the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages made this provision particularly relevant.

As we shall see in Ch. 9, Tertullian wrote for his wife a beautiful account of how shared Christian faith should bless the life of a married couple—a vision of marital union that understood it to be much more than the means for avoiding sexual sin. St Augustine of Hippo seems to have been the first (in 401) to list the purpose and shape of matrimony; he wrote not only of 'offspring' (proles) but also of 'fidelity' (ifides) and 'mutual consent' (sacramentum) (DeBono Coniugali, 3). He played here on the fact that the Latin word sacramentum not only denoted the act of legal consent but also corresponded to the meaning of 'mystery' in Ephesians 5: 32, in which the 'mystery' of the love of Christ the divine Spouse for his bride the Church is related to Christian marriage. There was more to Augustine's view of marriage than simply the procreation and education of children.

By the beginning of the second millennium, European rulers had turned over to bishops and their assistants the celebration of marriage and the administration of matrimonial matters. The liturgy for Christian marriage adopted many of the symbols used in civil ceremonies: for instance, the veil worn by the bride, her ring, and her joining hands with the bridegroom. But there were also changes: instead of the bride's father, the priest led her to the bridegroom. Church control over marriage was reflected in the seventh canon from the Second Lateran Council of 1139, which denied the validity of marriages 'contracted against ecclesiastical law'. The work of Thomas Aquinas and other leading medieval theologians clarified finally the sacramental status of Christian marriage;

hence in 1274 the Second Council of Lyons put marriage down on its list of seven sacraments (DH 860; ND 28). In 1439 the Council of Florence appealed to the Letter to the Ephesians when affirming the sacramental status of Christian marriage, 'the sign of the union of Christ and the church'; it followed Augustine and other Fathers of the Church in recognizing in matrimony a 'triple good':

The first is the begetting of children and their education to the worship of God. The second is the faithfulness which each spouse owes to the other. Third is the indissolubility of marriage, inasmuch as it represents the indissoluble union of Christ and the church. But, although it is permitted to separate on account of adultery, nevertheless it is not permitted to contract another marriage, since the bond of a marriage legitimately contracted is perpetual. (DH 1327; ND 1803)

Within a century this teaching came under fire from those motivated by a growing sense of personal and Christian freedom and, in particular, by a sense that life in the Spirit requires no law.

Many of the Protestant Reformers, while maintaining the holiness and goodness of marriage in the order of creation, (1) denied its sacramental status and canonical restrictions in the order of grace. Hence (2) they rejected the juridical function of the Church in matrimonial matters. (3) Adultery and sometimes other causes could justify divorce. (4) Because it seemed to contradict the order of created nature, many Reformers disparaged a celibate priesthood and the vow of chastity observed by religious men and women. The Council of Trent in 1563 took its stand on all four issues. (a) It upheld marriage as a sacrament instituted by Christ, whose 'grace perfects the natural love' of a married couple, 'confirms' their 'indissoluble union, and sanctifies' them (DH 1799; ND 1806); (b) it insisted on the competence of the official Church in matrimonial matters, which included the right to determine the necessary conditions for contracting a valid marriage (DH 1803—4, 1812; ND 1810-11, 1819). To put an end to injustices arising especially from secret marriages, the Council laid down legal procedures to be followed: the banns or public notification of an impending marriage (which in any case had been compulsory since Lateran IV in 1215 (DH 817)); the spouses to be questioned before two or three witnesses about their free decision to marry; their consent to be blessed by the parish priest or his delegate (DH 1813-16).180 The priest who

180 On this decree of Trent see 'Tametsi', Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church , 1576, and 'Ne Temere', ibid. 1139.

blessed the marriage was viewed as acting as an official witness and not as the minister of the sacrament. Here matrimony stands apart from the other six sacraments, inasmuch as those who 'minister' the sacrament to each other are the bride and bridegroom.

On the question of (c) adultery as grounds for divorce, the Council wanted to avoid offending Orthodox Christians who allow remarriage in such cases. In a carefully worded canon it reiterated the Western teaching and tradition that, during the lifetime of the two spouses, 'the marriage bond cannot be dissolved because of adultery' (DH 1807; ND 1814). The Gospel of Matthew stood behind this difference between East and West. Unlike Luke 16: 18 and Mark 19: 9, Matthew 5: 31—2 and 19: 9, respectively, presumed that, in the case of 'unchastity', Jesus intended an exception to his unconditional prohibition of divorce. The Orthodox understood the Matthean clause, 'except for reason of unchastity', to allow divorce and remarriage in the case of adultery. Catholics regarded this clause as justifying separation but not remarriage. More recently some Catholic and other scholars have interpreted the Matthean clause as prohibiting marriage within the forbidden degrees of kinship (see Lev. 18: 6—18).181 Such an incestuous union would in fact not be a genuine and valid marriage, and in Church law would require not a divorce but a decree declaring it to be null and void.

Against (d) the Reformers who belittled a celibate way of life, the Council of Trent took a strong line, 'anathematizing' those who asserted that 'the married state surpasses that of virginity or celibacy' and who denied that 'it is better and happier to remain in virginity or celibacy than to be united in matrimon/ (DH 1810; ND 1817). The teaching of Christ remained the point of reference. But what had he taught? He introduced something new in the history of the Jewish religion by recognizing the value celibacy could have for the kingdom of God (Matt. 19: 10—12). Jesus invited his hearers to be ready to leave everyone and everything for the sake of the kingdom he proclaimed, mentioning in particular 'brothers, sisters, mother, father, children, and land' (Mark 10: 29). Luke 18: 29 added 'wife' to the list of those whom an individual might have to leave for the sake of Christ and the kingdom. In view of the coming end of all things, St Paul agreed with Luke and recommended celibacy, recognizing

181 See J. A. Fitzmyer, To Advance the Gospel: New Testament Studies (New York: Continuum, 1981), 79—111.

at the same time that it is a gift granted only to some. The Apostle held that marriage is good but in the final age of the world celibacy could be better (1 Cor. 7: 1—40). But he never claimed that, in general and apart from the particular calling of individuals, celibacy is essentially 'better or happier' than matrimony.

The Second Vatican Council was to locate the question of married and celibate ways of life within an overarching context by following the NT teaching that all the baptized are called to holiness (Lumen Gentium, 39-42)—married people no less than celibate priests and consecrated religious men and women.182 Married life, the 'primary form of interpersonal communion' (Gaudium etSpes, 12), embodies the 'unity and fruitful love which exists between Christ and his church', is a path to holiness, and makes the family into 'the domestic church' (Lumen Gentium, 11). To be sure, the Council of Trent acknowledged, as we saw above, how the 'grace of Christ perfects the natural love' of married couples, 'confirms their indissoluble union and sanctifies' them. But the language of Vatican II is more effective and personal in calling marriage an 'intimate partnership of life and love'183 that involves 'total fidelity and 'unbreakable unity', and in highlighting the importance of sexual love for the total married relationship (Gaudium et Spes, 48-9).

In presenting the sacrament of marriage, we have obviously followed once again the route of history. One can understand the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church by being informed about where they came from and how they developed. That is not to disparage other ways of presenting these sacraments: for instance, by showing how they are celebrated today in Church life, both among Eastern and Western Catholics. The post-Vatican II reformed rite of Christian marriage sets out beautifully the Catholic view of this sacrament. But we decided on a historical exposition. After completing it, we want to stand back and summarize what the sacraments mean.

0 0

Post a comment