This post continues a series of reflections that I began here.
In the last post in this series, I described four kinds of marriage: natural marriage, civil marriage, sacramental marriage, and “neo-marriage,” and said that I’d have more to say about sacramental marriage in another post. This is that post.
The first thing to point out is that these four kinds of marriage aren’t mutually exclusive. Both civil and sacramental marriage build on natural marriage, to begin with. A civil marriage need not be a sacramental marriage, and a sacramental marriage need not be a civil marriage (though in this country, at least, they mostly are). Being “sacramental” is an additional layer added to natural marriage by Jesus Christ. And that means we need to talk about what a sacrament is.
Here’s the deal. As Christians, God asks a lot of us. Becoming holy is no easy thing, and we can’t do it on our own. So He gives us help, in the form of grace. And because we are not simply spiritual beings, but are naturally body-and-soul together, Jesus gave us the sacraments: physical actions by which He promises to give us spiritual graces, provided that the relevant conditions are made. Thus, baptism, a pouring of water combined with particular words, cleanses us of Original Sin and makes us co-heirs with Christ.
(Note: I am not a theologian; I am a software engineer. If I screw this up, somebody please gently let me know, so I can fix it.)
There are three things that are required for a valid sacrament:
- The valid form
- The valid matter
- The proper intent
The form is the ritual involved. In baptizing someone, you must baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. The matter is the water, and, I imagine, the person being baptized. And the proper intent is the intent to baptize the person. In the Eucharist, the form is the Mass, the matter is the gifts of bread and wine, and the intent is the intent that the Holy Spirit should come upon the gifts and make them the Body and Blood of Christ.
If any of these three requirements are not met, there’s no sacrament. For example, a priest can say the Eucharistic prayers all day long, but if he’s simply intending to memorize them rather than “confect the sacrament”, then there is no sacrament.
So let’s look at marriage. The form is the wedding vows the couple make to each other before witnesses. The intent is the intent to be truly married in Christian matrimony, forsaking all others, until death do them part. The matter, well, the matter is the couple themselves; and there’s a reason we use the phrase “consummating the marriage.”
Catholics, of course, are required to get married in the Church. This involves pre-marital counseling (to make sure the couple have the right intent) and a Catholic wedding service (to make sure the form is correct). The consummation can usually safely be left to the couple themselves. Now, the requirement to be married in the Church is, as I understand it, a matter of canon law rather than Church doctrine; and indeed, the Church assumes that Christians married in other denominations are also sacramentally married….assuming the intent is right.
This, by the way, is what it means for a marriage to be annulled: a Church tribunal looks into it and determines that the conditions for a valid sacramental marriage were not met, e.g., because one of the two were previously married, or because one or both did not truly intend Christian matrimony.
Being a sacrament, marriage confers grace on the couple: grace that will strengthen them and (if used properly) allow them to grow in holiness together. And as I’ve indicated above, the proper action of the sacrament isn’t simply the vow the two make to each other; it’s also the consummation, the act of sex itself, by which the two of them become one flesh.
Now, if you think about, how cool is that? Here’s a sacrament the couple can enjoy over and over again, without help from anyone else, in the privacy of their own home, and be truly blessed by God each time. It’s not only good, it’s good for them!
There’s more to sacramental marriage than that, of course. There’s a whole vast theology, some of which I’m slightly familiar with, and which I really don’t feel qualified to to describe at more than the simplest possible level. For example, marriage is an image of the faithful, self-sacrificing and fruitful love of God for his people; and it is this that is behind the Church’s prohibitions on divorce, contraception, and sex outside of marriage.
I don’t propose to defend the Church’s teachings here; I’m more concerned with their consequences. And the chief point I want to make is that sacramental marriage is pretty darn cool, being the intersection of the love of a man and woman for each other with the love of God for them both, yielding significant spiritual benefits for the couple.