The Institution and Nature of Matrimony
"What food is to the individual, matrimony is to humanity in general. For as food serves to maintain the life of the individual, so marriage serves to maintain the life of the human race. Since the principal object of marriage, the right training of children, can only be attained when a man and a woman are united together by an indissoluble bond, the wise Creator in the beginning only created two human beings, saying : " They two shall be one in flesh " (Gen. ii. 24).
1. God Himself instituted matrimony in the beginning of the world, for the procreation of the human race, and the mutual assistance of husband and wife. Matrimony was instituted by God for the propagation of the human race; for He said to our first parents: "Increase and multiply and fill the earth" (Gen. i. 28). St. Francis of Sales calls matrimony the nursery-ground of Christianity, destined to fill the earth with believers, and complete the number of the elect in heaven. It was also instituted for the mutual support of the parties contracting it, for God said before Eve was created: "It is not good for man to be alone, let us make him a help like unto himself" (Gen. ii. 18). The woman being the weaker, needs some one on whom to lean; the man needs some one to care for him. The man is characterized by greater strength and energy; he seeks a sphere of activity in the world. The woman's nature is cast in a softer mould; her sphere of work is beside the domestic hearth. Thus the two complete each other, and each acts beneficially on the other. Matrimony has also a third object, that of preventing the sin of which the Apostle speaks in the first Epistle to the Corinthians (1 Cor. vii. 2). He who would set marriage aside, would give free rein to impurity. Many take a low view of marriage; they consider it as affording a legitimate means of indulging their lusts. Such persons will not be happy or contented, and will neglect the duties of their state. The happiness of matrimony depends to a great extent on taking an exalted view of its object.
Matrimony is a divine and by no means a human institution. It is because matrimony was ordained of God that the Church calls it a "holy and godly state." The opinion of the Manichees, that marriage was to be rejected, was condemned by the Church. Even the most uncivilized nations considered matrimony to be a divine institution, for they practised religious ceremonies of some kind on the occasion of a marriage, offering sacrifices or prayers. God Himself appointed the laws of marriage first through Moses and afterwards by Our Lord.
2. Christian marriage is a contract between man and woman, binding them to an undivided and indissoluble partnership, and conferring on them at the same time grace to fulfill all the duties required of them.
Marriage is therefore not merely a contract; it is at the same time an act by which grace is conferred. This contract is not concluded in the presence of a minister of the Church solely for the sake of obtaining the ecclesiastical benediction upon the betrothed couple, but in order that they may be truly united together before God in wedlock. It was this covenant, entered into in presence of a minister of the Church, which Our Lord raised to the dignity of a sacrament.
Marriage contracted without the solemnities required by the Church in all countries where the decree of the Council of Trent has been duly promulgated is invalid and null (Council of Trent, 24, 1). In the absence of a priest a valid marriage can be had by following the Church laws of Canon 1098. A contract which is invalid cannot become a sacrament, any more than wine, if it be not really wine, can be converted in the Mass into the blood of Christ. Matrimony is a type of the union between Christ and the Church (Eph. v. 32). As the Church, the Bride of Christ is one, so the man has but one wife. As Christ and the Church are inseparably united, so the union of the married is perpetual and indissoluble.
As the union of Christ and the Church is a covenant of grace, so also is the union of husband and wife. Christ is the Head of the Church, and the man is the head of the woman. The Church is subject to Christ, so the wife is obedient to the husband. Christ and the Church are animated by one spirit, and so it should be with husband and wife. Christ never abandons the Church, and the Church can never be unfaithful to Christ; so married people must never be unfaithful to one another.
Matrimony is declared to be a sacrament by St. Paul, and the early Fathers of the Church. St. Paul calls matrimony a great sacrament, because it is typical of the union of Christ with the Church (Eph. v. 32), a union by which grace is imparted. St. Augustine says that the superiority of marriage among the people of God consists in the sanctity of the sacrament. "The heathens," says St. John Chrysostom, "estimated the happiness of marriage by the number of children, whereas the Christian considers rather the sanctity of the sacrament." Some of the Fathers are of opinion that Christ raised matrimony to a sacrament at the marriage of Cana. At any rate the Church expressly declares that it is truly and properly one of the seven sacraments of the evangelical law instituted by Christ (Council of Trent, 24, 1).
3. Civil marriage is to be distinguished from Christian marriage, inasmuch as it is no sacrament, and consequently in the sight of God no true and real marriage for Catholics.
Civil marriage may be said to have originated with Luther, for he prepared the way for the State to legislate concerning marriage. What he began, the French revolution completed; for marriage was then declared to be a civil contract, concluded before a government official. Civil marriage is obligatory or compulsory when, as is the case in some countries, the marriage is otherwise not recognized by the State; it is optional, when the parties are free to choose whether the ceremony shall be civil or religious, as in America; finally it is unavoidable, if on account of the priest being debarred from marrying them through political reasons, or on other obvious grounds, the persons desirous of being married cannot be united otherwise than by the secular authorities. Civil marriage is not a sacrament, because it is not contracted in the manner ordained by God and the Church; it is nothing ,more or less than a legal form, which must be gone through in order that the marriage may be recognized by the State, and Catholics must submit to it, if there is no other means of having their union recognized by the State. They should, however, see that
the ecclesiastical ceremony takes place as soon after as possible; for until their marriage has been solemnized by the Church, they are bound to live apart, as in the sight of God they are not really husband and wife. Catholics who contract a civil marriage and are not afterwards married in a church, cannot obtain absolution, and are excluded from the sacraments until they obtain the sanction of God and of the Church upon their union, or give it up altogether. Catholics who prefer civil marriage when it is optional, or content themselves with it when it is unavoidable, are excommunicated. The Holy See condemns civil marriages in no measured terms; Pope Pius IX. declares that the union of man and woman, if not a sacrament, is a shameful concubinage, although perfectly legal according to the civil code.* Civil marriage has disastrous results for the State, for it undermines faith, authority, and morals.
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Source: The Catechism Explained, Imprimatur 1899