Monday, May 12, 2008

The unity of marriage and sacrament for the baptized

I am the judicial vicar in my diocese. Thanks for the great article on Mixed Marriages and Dispensation from the Canonical Form. You have in fact enlightened me on some delicate issues, especially, in the area of dispensation from canonical form. I know that the bishops have the competence to give such dispensation, but when you suggested three possible forms that could be used when the canonical form is dispensed with, my bishop got nervous and asked me: Can a civil marriage become a sacramental marriage in this case?
I agree with you, but can you elaborate on this point in a future article?

I really expected this question to be raised and I thank you for doing so. Hence, I hasten to follow up the previous article with this discussion of the unity of marriage and sacrament for the baptized. Indeed this is a principle of sacramental theology that has been wonderfully reflected in Canon Law.

The Sacramental Dignity of Marriage

It is quite common to refer to the sacredness of marriage—in the same way that people refer to the sacredness of the ballot—even when referring to one between non-believers (i.e., natural marriage). But here we are not referring to this kind of sacredness of marriage as a natural institution, but rather to the dignity of marriage between baptized persons due to its establishment by Christ as a true sacrament of the Church. We can understand this better in a discursive manner as follows:
1) Marriage has existed as a natural institution since the first man and woman came to exist, as beautifully described in the book of Genesis, chapter 2.
2) What Jesus Christ revealed was his will to constitute this reality—previously existing—into a sacrament of the New Law. He did not will to impose or invent a new and distinct reality, or even to innovate or change what already existed. He simply gave that reality a new mode of existence—without changing it in any way—as a sign of the union between Christ and his Church, that is, as a sacrament.
Christ’s words to the Pharisees, derogating the Mosaic precept of making a libel of divorce in case of casting away an unworthy wife, are quite revealing: Have you not heard read that the Creator, from the beginning, made them male and female, and said, ‘For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? Therefore now they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.
In other words, what Christ wanted was to go back to the original design of marriage by the Creator, not to change it.
3) The will of Christ to constitute marriage into a sacrament means that the spouses—when both have received baptism—are constituted as sign, receive a particular supernatural grace in order to live their conjugal condition, and are called to carry out a proper task within the ecclesial community.
In other words, sacramentality is found within marriage itself—i.e., in the two baptized persons in their relationship as spouses. Hence, we can speak of the identity between sacrament and marriage in the case of baptized spouses.

The Identity of Marriage and Sacrament among the Baptized
in the Code of Canon Law

This identity of marriage and sacrament is wonderfully given juridic expression in c.1055 of the Code of Canon Law:
Can. 1055 —§1. The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament.
— §2. For this reason a matrimonial contract cannot validly exist between baptized persons unless it is also a sacrament by that fact.

The wording of §1 in fine is quite significant: this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament. The word used—raised—means that the reality has not been modified or innovated, but rather simply raised, its nature remaining intact, to the dignity of a grace-bestowing sign in the case of baptized spouses. It is this fact of it having been raised to sacramental dignity that this reality—i.e., marriage contracted between baptized persons—is given such a detailed treatment by canon law (devoting to it no less than 110 canons), thus giving each of the elements that enter into its constitution a detailed juridic protection.
The wording of §2, on the other hand, cannot be more precise: For this reason [i.e., that Christ has raised the natural marriage covenant between baptized persons to sacramental dignity] a matrimonial contract cannot validly exist between baptized persons unless it is also a sacrament by that fact. This conclusion of c.1055 gives juridic expression to a fundamental doctrine of sacramental theology: the identity—not just inseparability—between the conjugal pact and the sacramental reality. In other words, between the baptized there cannot exist a merely natural marriage without it being by that very fact also a sacrament.


The ultimate conclusion of the foregoing discussion, when applied to the case of a mixed marriage that has been granted a dispensation from canonical form is that whatever public ceremony it may go through—provided the other requirements of canon law for a valid marriage are present (i.e., the active presence of a sacred minister to ask for the marital consent of the parties, plus two other witnesses)—that marriage would be a sacrament. This would include, among other possibilities, the following (which are in fact those prescribed by the Spanish Episcopal Conference on 25.I.1971 and confirmed by a General Decree, 26.XI.1983, Art.12, §3):
1) a religious ceremony acceptable to the non-Catholic (but Christian) party and/or his/her relatives;
2) a religious ceremony acceptable to both parties;
3) a non-religious ceremony—e.g., a civil ceremony before a civil authority.
In all these cases—we should add—the essential properties and ends of marriage must not be excluded.