Like Jewish marriage, Christian marriage is conceived of as a covenantal relationship that mirrors God's relationship with humanity and Christ and his church. For Roman Catholics, marriage is also the sacrament of matrimony. As a sacrament, an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace, it not only serves the well-being of the spouses and the procreation and education of children, but also represents the perfect communion of life and love between Christ and the Church.
In the Western Catholic Church as well as in other Western Christian traditions, the couple acts as the minister of marriage. Thus the exchange of consent is seen as sealing the sacrament of marriage and the priest or other minister is merely a witness. In the Eastern tradition, the proper minister of the sacrament is the priest or bishop. After receiving the mutual consent of the spouses, he successively crowns the bride and groom as a sign of the marriage covenant.
Until the sixteenth century, Catholics in the West could marry simply by exchanging consent. This was changed by the Council of Trent (1545–1563), which required a public procedure for Catholics to enter into marriage. These changes were made due to concerns about the abuses of "clandestine" marriages, desertions, and denial by one or the other spouse that an exchange of consent had ever actually taken place.
Because marriage is understood as a sacrament instituted by Christ and confirmed by him as an indissoluble bond between man and woman, the Catholic Church has a long-standing tradition of careful, legal judgment (that is, in accordance with the written code of Church law) by which it determines if a marriage was contracted in a state of less-than-free consent or of seriously flawed consent. A freely contracted marriage thus cannot be one that is agreed to under constraint of any kind or is impeded by natural or Church law. In such an instance, a marriage between two baptized Catholics may be declared null (granted an "annulment"), thus declaring that, despite appearances to the contrary, the relationship was not a marriage relationship.
But this declaration of "annulment," which then gives a person the right to contract a sacramental marriage in the Catholic Church, should be understood for what it is not. It is not an indication that a relationship between the two persons never existed, nor is it an indication that it was not necessarily a very loving relationship. An annulment does not even say that a marriage never existed between the parties, but only that the marriage was not a canonically valid one. This refers to the terms of the Code of Canon Law, the official rules for much of the life of the Catholic Church, which is descended from attempts in ancient Roman and Medieval tradition to spell out human and Church relationships on the basis of Gospel teaching. In Church law, a marriage that is declared de facto invalid (and for which an annulment can be issued) is known as a "putative" marriage—but a marriage nonetheless. Finally, an annulment does not declare children born of the union to be illegitimate; rather, Church law clearly states that all children born of either a valid or a putative marriage are to be considered equally legitimate.
Due to the relationship between sexuality and marriage, a marriage where the consent is valid but free consummation open to procreation has been non-existent may be dissolved. Thus while the medieval theological debate as to what establishes marriage—consent or consummation—has long been resolved in favor of the former, the latter continues to play a role in the understanding of the nature and meaning of marriage. Finally, since only a marriage between baptized persons is regarded as a "sacramental marriage," it is considered possible to dissolve a marriage between a baptized and nonbaptized person for the sake of allowing the baptized person to affirm a life of Christian faith. Thus the Pauline Privilege (based on 1 Corinthians 7) allows for the dissolution of a marriage originally contracted by two nonbaptized persons when one converts to Christianity and finds that the relationship with the nonbaptized party seriously impedes the other's ability to be faithful to Christ. The Petrine Privilege also involves marriages between a baptized person and a nonbaptized person, but the circumstances are broader, although only direct dispensation from the Pope as the successor of Peter dissolves the marriage.
The Rite of Marriage approved by the Catholic Church in 1969 allows for one of three forms: the celebration of the sacrament during Mass, the celebration of the sacrament outside of Mass, and the celebration between a baptized and a nonbaptized Catholic. Regardless, the exchange of consent must be witnessed by a priest or deacon and at least two other witnesses. The exchange of consent involves recognizing three elements of marriage: freedom of choice, fidelity and perpetuity, and the acceptance of children and their Christian formation. At the solemn moment of consent, each spouse-to-be pronounces words expressing willingness to take the other as husband or wife: "to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part." Marriage thus is held to introduce one into an ecclesial order; that is, it creates rights and duties in the Church between the spouses and toward their children. It is also a "state of life" in the Church and creates a "domestic Church."
The most perfect form of human relationship is that of a marriage, the perfect human relationship of exclusive, deep love and total, unreserved, lifelong intimacy. This has been particularly emphasized in recent statements of Catholic Church teaching such as Familiaris Consortio, a pastoral letter of Pope John Paul II and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Catholic understanding of marriage has clearly changed in important ways over the centuries, however. Many early Christians understood marriage in negative terms—marriage was for those, St. Paul said, who could not do as he did, to allow them to still live virtuously. Up to the Second Vatican Council, the primary end of marriage was held to be procreation and the upbringing of children; the well-being of the spouses was seen as secondary. Since the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World was developed during the Second Vatican Council, however, marriage has been seen as having both purposes intertwined, with no one dimension having primacy over the other. In part this is a development of the personalist worldview that so dominated Catholic thought in the twentieth century and which was itself seen as a culmination of earlier philosophical trends in Christian life.
In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "Thus the marriage bond has been established by God himself in such a way that a marriage concluded and consummated between baptized persons can never be dissolved. This bond, which results from the free human act of the spouses and their consummation of the marriage, is a reality, henceforth irrevocable, and gives rise to a covenant guaranteed by God's fidelity. The Church does not have the power to contravene this disposition of divine wisdom." (1640).
Marriage over the centuries has been come to be seen as part of the divine plan itself to deepen human intimacy and to allow the direct human experience of the relational, trinitarian God. Marriage is seen as a way to deepen community and to strengthen family life. The indissolubility of marriage is thus an essential property of marriage and not a mere separate good unto itself. Therefore, marriage occurs with the publically witnessed consent of the spouses in the presence of a priest, who witnesses the sacrament but does not actually perform the marriage bond itself—since that is based on shared free and public consent and the consummation of their sexual relationship as intimate partners.
The weight given to this rich, emerging understanding of the theology of matrimony has led the Catholic Church to require mandatory marriage preparation. As a result, the Catholic Church has developed pioneering programs in the United States and around the world in recent decades. In the words of Pope John Paul II, "the Church must promote better and more intensive programs of marriage preparation in order to eliminate as far as possible the difficulties that many married couples find themselves in, and even more in order to favor positively the establishing and maturing of successful marriages." The 1993 study of marriage-preparation programs (Michael G. Lawler, Center for Marriage and Family, Creighton University) confirms the usefulness of these programs: A proportional random sample of 40,000 couples married between 1987 and 1993 found that in the first year of marriage, 94 percent found the preparation to have been valuable. Major issues in Catholic marriage preparation today include pre-existing sexual relationships, second marriages, and cohabitation—studies show that perhaps as many as 50 percent of all couples married today have been living together before marriage.
Every Catholic diocese in the United States has come to require some form of marriage preparation since the Diocese of Phoenix first made this a requirement for contracting sacramental marriage in the late 1960s. More than 264,000 Catholic sacramental marriages were performed in 1998—184,000 between two Catholics and 80,000 between a Catholic and a non-Catholic, compared to 426,000 in 1970. This is due to demographic changes as well as the greater likelihood for some Catholics to contract exclusively civil marriages not recognized by the Church.
The tradition of separation of church and state in the United States has curiously produced a situation whereby the majority of marriages have been, and continue to be, celebrated in the context of a religious service. The relationship between church and state in the United States is one that recognizes the legal independence of religious officials as part of a private, and completely distinct, sphere with which the state does not interfere. Thus ministers, priests, rabbis, and other religious officials in the United States are recognized as having the civil power to witness marriages. In localities with particular religious traditions, such as Quaker communities in Pennsylvania, legal sanction also exists for a marriage witnessed by the couple themselves, with no specifically recognized religious official being present at all. In other countries, where tensions exist or have existed between the government and a currently or formerly established church, such as Catholicism in certain countries in Latin America, marriage is less likely to be contracted before a religious official and the state is less likely to permit a religious official to act as a witness for the consent for a civilly recognized marriage.
While the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches require baptized church members to marry before an authorized priest or deacon, all other Christian churches allow members to "validly" marry before any official recognized by civil law. Marriages of Catholics not in the form prescribed by the Church manner are said to have a "lack of form." Church courts consider these marriages so obviously invalid that declarations of invalidity can be given by a simple procedure without a more involved judicial process. One interesting piece of canonical tradition regarding Catholic marriage tribunals is the custom of the "Defender of the Bond," who is responsible for calling the attention of the Church tribunal to anything that can be considered to positively support a finding of the validity of the marriage. Also, no declaration of invalidity of a sacramental marriage is definitive until a similar second decision has been reached by an appeals court (of the "second instance"), to which all marriage-related cases are automatically referred.
Bellah, Robert et al. Habits of the Heart. 1985.
Davis, Kingsley, and Amyra Grossbard-Schechtman, eds. Contemporary Marriage: Comparative Perspectiveson a Changing Institution. 1986.
Everett, William Johnson. "Marriage: A Protestant Perspective." In Religion and Family: A Practical Theology Handbook, edited by Herbert Anderson et al. 1998.
Harakas, S. Guidelines for Marriage in the OrthodoxChurch. 1980.
Hogan, Richard M. Covenant of Love: Pope John Paul IIon Sexuality, Marriage, and Family in the ModernWorld. 1992.
Lawler, Michael G. Marriage and Sacraments: A Theologyof Christian Marriage. 1993.
Waddell, Paul J. "Marriage: A Catholic Perspective." In Religion and Family: A Practical Theology Handbook, edited by Herbert Anderson et al. 1998.
Witte, John, Jr. From Sacrament to Contract: Marriage,Religion, and Law in the Western Tradition. 1997.