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Clerical marriage II
July 18, 2012, 9:12 pm
Filed under: Opinion

The second of four posts on this subject. (scroll down for the previous post)

It is common ground, I think, that the Church has no power to alter the essential character or conditions of a sacrament. It cannot change the “matter”, for instance, the use of water in Baptism or of bread and wine in the Eucharist. It cannot change the “form”, although it can determine whether a given form of words is adequate to express the Church’s intention. If a particular form has been accepted as valid at one time, it seems inconceivable that it should lose that character (assuming that the minister clearly does not intend to use it in the sense understood by the Church). The precise requirements for validity vary according to the sacrament. In particular, the minister for Baptism may be anyone, while for Eucharist, Penance, and Unction a priest is necessary. Holy Orders can only be conferred by a bishop, and the bishop must at least consecrate the chrism used in confirmation, even if it is administered by a properly authorised priest. Marriage differs from all the others, in that the ministers are the couple themselves, and the essential form consists in the expression of their intention to live together, and of their willingness to have and to nurture children together. The marriage is said to be “consummated” by their actual physical union.

Pope John Paul II memorably termed marriage “the primordial sacrament,” meaning by that phrase that it is natural to, and co-existent with, the human race itself. Even before the institution was “sacramentalised” in the stricter theological sense, it was a divinely instituted state, primarily to serve the interests of humanity itself, and in particular of children, but also for the welfare and happiness of their parents. In Christianity, it also signifies “the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church”, to use the words of the Anglican marriage service.

Because in fact, in the context of actual human society, marriage brings with it a range of rights and responsibilities, including economic and educational, it has been subject to legal regulation in particular ways. This has involved determining, for legal purposes, what actually counts as a marriage; and this in turn has required the observance of certain formalities, and having certain witnesses. None of these is required by Divine Law, inasmuch as, if a couple were so situated that they could not observe them- say, because they were marooned on a desert island- they could still exchange their consent and accept the responsibilities of marriage, God alone being their witness.

This suggests that human legislation is concerned only with the public recognition of marriage, not with its inner reality. As far as the Church is concerned, and its own legislation, it suggests that, as with the other sacraments, the Church may determine what shall be lawful for its celebration, without affecting its validity. The Roman Church (I use the term strictly here) claims that by its legislative will it can make conditions for the validity of marriage: however, this is what I would wish to question. De facto, the Church exempts those outside its visible communion from such legislation, but logically the claim to legislate regarding sacramental marriage must de iure extend to all the baptised. Is it seriously maintained that, by insisting on regulations that he knows would not be recognised or accepted by non-Catholics, the Pope could actually invalidate the marriages of any Christians who did not observe them? Such would appear to be the reductio ad absurdum of the claim to have power over the essence of the sacrament itself, as opposed to merely regulating its orderly celebration.

(To be continued)

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5 Comments so far
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Just a quick side-comment, not directly related to your main argument. In the East, the ordinary minister of the sacrament of Marriage is the priest, in his capacity as a representative of the gathered Church. The Orthodox see Marriage as an intrinsic part of the community of the Church – for this reason, a marriage that has not taken place in the Church is considered to be “incomplete” – though, of course, for reasons of economia, such a marriage may be recognised as “complete” in individual cases.

Comment by Stephen

Thank you for this. The Orthodox perspective raises interesting questions about the relationship between marriage as a “natural” institution, and marriage as a sacrament. Does grace “build on” nature, or does it belong to an entirely different and distinct order? Do the Orthodox require a priest as minister of Baptism?

Comment by Fr Paul Spilsbury SSC

The answer to the first question is above my pay grade, but I’ll ask someone who knows. I think it’s the former, though, as (for example) a civil wedding is accepted by the Church as a valid marriage (providing the same wedding would also have been valid had it been performed by the Church: e.g. the parties are male and female, and freely give their consent, etc). A distinction is drawn between a marriage that is merely valid, and one that is sacramental.

As to the second question: Baptism may be performed by anyone – even a non-Christian – as long as they pour water over the head, use the Trinitarian formula, and intend to do what the Church intends by baptism. The normative minister is a priest (not a deacon), but I suspect that this may be because in the East, Baptism and Chrismation are almost always done together, and the latter is a priestly function.

Comment by Stephen

Further clarification, from a friend, who asked his priest.

The relationship between Holy Matrimony and (for example) civil marriage is similar to the relationship between antidoron (the blessed bread shared by all at the end of the Divine Liturgy) and the Holy Mysteries received in Communion.

The former is a celebration between the Children of God, and is what some might call a “sacramental”. The latter is a celebration between God and His children, and is a Sacrament.

This is obviously only a basic comparison and there are all sorts of nuances, but according to my source it is a fairly good starting point.

Comment by Stephen

Thanks. This is most interesting and helpful.

Comment by Fr Paul Spilsbury SSC




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