September 5, 1998

The Sacrament of Matrimony – Part 1

Catholic Marriages in the Context of Abundant Life


The Catholic Church considers matrimony a sacrament: an outward sign instituted by Christ to give Grace. Some Protestants have the same view of matrimony while others believe Jesus did not especially bless it, and some believe it is not limited to the union of a man and woman. Some Hindu sects define a sacrament differently, but consider marriage a sacrament. For this article, we will only consider the Catholic sacrament.

Here are some important characteristics for a Catholic Marriage:

  • Entered into freely, with the intention of living the sacrament.
  • It is permanent, enduring until one of the spouses dies.
  • Catholic husbands and wives are to be faithful unto death. This is not merely sexual fidelity, but also a dedication to seeking the good of the spouse over all others. There can be no competition between God and the spouse. Honoring and serving the spouse is done out of love and dedication to God.
  • There is a complementarity involved. The husband and wife are different, yet one, as the Church and Christ are different and yet one. This requires a man and woman to express, who are as different physically, and yet become one.
  • It is open to life. Even in cases where the marriage act cannot produce children, the couple is obligated to be open to children. This may result in adoption, missionary work, other charitable work, or teaching. Later, this may be expressed through the love and acceptance of grandchildren.
  • The husband and wife give their bodies to each other, not just in the marriage act, but also through their presence at meals and the other ordinary events of life. Unnecessary absence should be avoided. This part varies according to the nature of the persons in the marriage. (1 Corinthians 7:3-7)
  • The marriage reflects the love of Jesus for his Church. (Ephesians 5). In this way, the marriage is a sign to the world and points to God.
  • It is evangelical, because it witnesses to the love of God. Their children and those seeing this sacrament are constantly reminded of the Holy Trinity and invited to participate in the life of God.

The Vows

First of all, the marriage ceremony (or rite) marks the public declaration of the marriage. The couple make promises to one another in keeping with the Church’s teachings on the obligations of husband and wife. Many couples use vows approved by the Church, but some write their own, with the approval of the officiating priest. These are real promises made to each other. They are to be kept. Failing to keep them is failing to be a sign of God’s love.

Headship of the Husband

The husband is the head of the marriage because he symbolizes Christ, just as the wife symbolizes the Church. If the husband is not respected as such, the marriage is not a sign of Christ’s love for the Church (Ephesians 5:22-24). This does not mean the husband orders the wife around anymore than Jesus “orders” us around. In all things, the Church considers the intention of Christ, and in an ideal Catholic marriage, the husband and wife are so completely one with Jesus that serious conflicts do not occur. This certainly prohibits any abuses by the husband since he is called to imitate Jesus. This teaching should worry husbands more than wives, since an abuse of this teaching is tantamount to blasphemy.

Defer to One Another

Ephesians 5:21 sets the overall tone of the sacrament by stating that the husband and wife must defer to one another. While the husband is the head, he will anticipate the needs and preferences of the wife often and do what he can to bless her life. Each spouse is to seek the good of the other, and the mutual good above all. In a Catholic marriage with children, there will be many times when this scripture is extended to the children and other relatives as well. It should be true for the whole Church.

Role of Children in the Sacrament

Children are called to respect and obedience. One view of the sacrament of matrimony is that it reflects the Trinity. Just as the Holy Spirit proceeds from the love of the Father and the Son, the children of a Catholic marriage are an embodiment of the sacrament. They are a sign, too, and the whole family should be a sign of the Trinity, as well as a loving Christian community. As the children grow, their parents gradually relinquish authority so the children can follow Jesus on their own. In a Catholic family, there is no room for abuse, rudeness or domination. The family should be marked by love, with courtesy, truthfulness, and gentleness. Children should be invited into the prayer life of the parents (of course there should be one!). The parents have the primary responsibility for the Catholic education of their children (Ephesians 6:4). No one else has a better opportunity. 1 Timothy 3:4-5 provides a good view of raising children.

One good illustration of the relationship of children to the parents is that of planets. The parents “orbit” God, and the children “orbit” the parents. Children should not be at the center of the family. It takes children a very long time to learn how to love and live as disciples of Jesus. Parents have to be able to give and guide with great patience while their children develop. It is wrong to have children so the parents can fulfill their desires to be great pianists or doctors through their children.

An Outward Witness

The sacrament of matrimony is public and invites hypocrisy. There is a tendency on the part of some families to “put on a show.” This is, of course, not a sign of Christ’s love, which is real and consistent. While everyone tends to behave better in public, the motivation should be the love of God, not how we look to others. The outward appearance must flow from the inward Grace given by God and nutured in the family. Children especially know the real state of affairs, and will grow according to what they have witnessed in private moments.

Choice of Spouse

Dating provides ample opportunities to find out whether the other person could ever live out the fullness of Catholic marriage. A potential spouse must follow Catholic teaching and resemble Jesus Christ. They must not desire premarital sex, and should have a rich faith life, filled with prayer and the good deeds that accompany great faith. Bad temper, greediness, or coldness may indicate a person that will not be a good spouse. For women, they should consider whether they would be comfortable being “submissive” to the man they are considering. For men, can they trust the woman to provide her part of the marriage. For both, they should be sure the other person would be a fit parent for their children. Above all else, is the other person very much like Christ?

It is good to remember that St. Paul counseled us to not seek marriage. We will know if we are called, but we should not put the desire for a spouse above God. Many Christians have been limited by bad marriages because they didn’t wait or have their priorities straight.

Copyright 1998 William E. Rushman – Permission to copy granted provided this notice is retained.

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