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The validity of Sacraments (5): Holy Matrimony
June 28, 2011, 8:50 am
Filed under: Opinion | Tags: , ,

The final Sacrament to be considered in respect of validity is Matrimony. This is in fact a fairly important issue. What is necessary for a Sacramental marriage? It is to be remembered, first, that marriage belongs to the natural created order, and has been made sacramental for believers by Christ. Pope John Paul II has called it “the primordial sacrament”. We must look at the natural institution first.

The Book of Common Prayer summarises the nature of marriage admirably; it was instituted for the procreation and upbringing of children, for the proper exercise of the sexual faculty, and for the mutual support and comfort of the parties. It is between one man and one woman, for as long as they both shall live. What is necessary for the initiation of such a life-long commitment? It is the teaching of the Church that the ministers of the sacrament are the couple themselves. From a natural point of view, it is necessary merely that the parties should understand what they are undertaking, should be capable of fulfilling it, and seriously intend it.

Of course, marriage and family life are of great importance to the wider community, and tend to have further consequences, economic and social, within that community. Marriage is therefore a public matter, and has always been surrounded by publicly acknowledged formalities as to its initiation, continuance and (in practice) even dissolution. There are conditions required by the State for the recognition of marriage, and also (for believers) conditions required by the Church. However, it should be noted that these are required for public recognition: they are “legal”, not “natural” requirements.

Catholic Canon Law requires that two baptised Catholics should exchange their vows in the presence of an authorised priest. However, baptised non-Catholics are not bound by this rule. The question may be asked, then, how sacramental validity may be affected by the intervention of positive law. Could the Church, if it chose, make conditions that would invalidate the marriages of non-Catholics? One could certainly imagine circumstances in which it might seem advantageous to treat any marriage of a convert as invalid from a Catholic point of view, just as Anglican Orders are treated in practice as invalid. But could the Church actually do this? In what circumstances can an act which would, but for the intervention of Canon Law, be a valid sacrament be rendered null and void?

If two Christians understand and seriously intend to undertake the responsibilities of marriage, but for some reason (which may be left unspecified here) fail to observe the formalities required by State or Church, how does their union stand in the sight of God? From a legal point of view it may be invalid, but is it so from a sacramental point of view? Are the promises they make not binding? Are they free from the responsibilities that may come from having children? Are they necessarily deprived of the grace to fulfil their responsibilities? I am assuming that (whatever mistaken ideas they may have) they are in “good faith”. The “form” of matrimony consists in the performative utterance, “I N. take you M. as wife/husband” (or some such formula), and it is “consummated” by their actual physical union. Can legal requirements actually nullify this commitment?

(to be continued: one more post)

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