Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

29 May 2013

"Unpacking the Precepts": Marital Matters

The Catholic Church's matrimonial regulations are not currently listed as a precept, but that doesn't make them less binding for the individual who strives to live up to the Name.

This blog elsewhere features reflections on the "canonical form" of marriage.  In sum: A Catholic observes the proper form for the Sacrament of Matrimony when he or she marries in the presence of a duly-authorized priest or deacon in the presence of two witnesses.

A Catholic observes the proper "matter" for sacramental marriage when he exchanges marital consent with a baptized woman (she, with a baptized man).  One has to be suitable matter for sacramental marriage: to be baptized*; to be "of age" to offer matrimonial consent; to be free of any previously existing bond or any other impediment to marriage; to possess sufficient maturity and understanding of what marriage entails; and to choose what marriage entails, with this specific individual, setting aside now and forever all other possibilities.

*An unbaptized person cannot confer the sacrament of marriage upon his or her spouse; with permission, necessary for the sake of the baptized Catholic and obtainable through the agency of the priest/deacon preparing the couple, he or she may enter into a valid--but not sacramental--covenant of marriage with a baptized person.

"Marital consent" aims to "establish...a partnership of the whole of life...which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring" (can. 1055).  The "whole of life" suggests the essential properties of marriage: unity and indissolubility--"together, forever."

In the selection of a mate (as opposed to "falling in love," which sounds more like slipping on a banana peel, which I've never seen in my whole, short life), observant Catholics give due consideration to the individual with whom they are daring to enter into such a relationship.
  • Does this person share the Church's vision of matrimonial consent, which, not incidentally, is my vision too?
  • Do I know the Church's vision of matrimonial consent, and do I in fact consent to it (not expecting flawlessness, but radically depending on God's grace in order to offer free and informed consent)?
  • Do I know my future spouse long enough, well enough, to know if he or she knows and chooses sacramental marriage according to the Catholic Church?
  • Do I know myself well enough to know if I know and choose sacramental marriage according to the Catholic Church?  This last question takes a lifetime to answer, and yet a certain firm knowledge ought to be in place by the time one is intentionally "playing the field."
The exchange of vows is first moment in the establishment of a valid matrimonial covenant: the second moment is the initial conjugal act "which is suitable in itself for the procreation of offspring, to which marriage is ordered by its nature and by which the spouses become one flesh" (can. 1061§1).  A marriage is humanly indissoluble when the parties attest to their consent both publicly (vows) and privately (intercourse).

The 1983 Code of Canon Law mentions in passing that the conjugal act must be performed humano modo, "in a human fashion."  How else?  Modesty forbids a development of this topic; popular songs have treated various alternate modes that have crept into the practice of our species.  But these modes only (if at all) approximate the embodiment of total, faithful, permanent, exclusive, and fruitful love that are a sign of Christ's covenant with His Bride, the Church.  Sacramental marriage is not the only, but certainly the optimal and divinely ordained, context for this act.  Outside of this context, sex runs the risk of devolving into lesser, animalistic expressions of lust and power.

Perhaps a segment from paragraph 49 of Vatican II's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) would illustrate "a human manner":
This love is an eminently human one since it is directed from one person to another through an affection of the will; it involves the good of the whole person, and therefore can enrich the expressions of body and mind with a unique dignity, ennobling these expressions as special ingredients and signs of the friendship distinctive of marriage. This love God has judged worthy of special gifts, healing, perfecting and exalting gifts of grace and of charity. Such love, merging the human with the divine, leads the spouses to a free and mutual gift of themselves, a gift providing itself by gentle affection and by deed, such love pervades the whole of their lives: indeed by its busy generosity it grows better and grows greater. Therefore it far excels mere erotic inclination, which, selfishly pursued, soon enough fades wretchedly away.
This love is uniquely expressed and perfected through the appropriate enterprise of matrimony. The actions within marriage by which the couple are united intimately and chastely are noble and worthy ones. Expressed in a manner which is truly human, these actions promote that mutual self-giving by which spouses enrich each other with a joyful and a ready will. Sealed by mutual faithfulness and hallowed above all by Christ's sacrament, this love remains steadfastly true in body and in mind, in bright days or dark. It will never be profaned by adultery or divorce. Firmly established by the Lord, the unity of marriage will radiate from the equal personal dignity of wife and husband, a dignity acknowledged by mutual and total love. The constant fulfillment of the duties of this Christian vocation demands notable virtue. For this reason, strengthened by grace for holiness of life, the couple will painstakingly cultivate and pray for steadiness of love, large heartedness and the spirit of sacrifice.
Authentic conjugal love will be more highly prized, and wholesome public opinion created about it if Christian couples give outstanding witness to faithfulness and harmony in their love, and to their concern for educating their children also, if they do their part in bringing about the needed cultural, psychological and social renewal on behalf of marriage and the family. Especially in the heart of their own families, young people should be aptly and seasonably instructed in the dignity, duty and work of married love. Trained thus in the cultivation of chastity, they will be able at a suitable age to enter a marriage of their own after an honorable courtship.
The last paragraph suggests that suitable preparation for sacramental marriage begins not "at least six months before the desired wedding date," but upon reaching the age of reason.  This preparation depends on diligent spouses/parents who are striving for holiness.  But parish priests (and, by extension, dioceses) are obliged to foster worthy supplements for the Domestic Church, to wit:
  1. "Preaching, catechesis adapted to minors, youth, and adults, and even the use of instruments of social communication, by which the Christian faithful are instructed about the meaning of Christian marriage and about the function of Christian spouses and parents;
  2. "Personal preparation to enter marriage, which disposes the spouses to the holiness and duties of their new state;
  3. "A fruitful liturgical celebration of marriage which is to show that the spouses signify and share in the mystery of the unity and fruitful love between Christ and the Church;
  4. "Help offered to those who are married, so that faithfully preserving and protecting the conjugal covenant, they daily come to lead holier and fuller lives in their family" (Canon 1063)
It may seem self-evident, but legal language has to stipulate it: "It is for the local ordinary to take care that such assistance is organized fittingly, after he has also heard men and women proven by experience and expertise if it seems opportune" (Canon 1064).  "IF"?!  If it's experience and expertise you want, I sure as hail can't offer it, except as a parish priest who has been preparing couples for nearly ten years.  I suppose that makes for a certain experience and expertise.  I know that our parish has many long- and well-married couples who qualify.  We've been aiming to form a "Marriage Enrichment Team" for that very purpose, but it hasn't taken off yet.  

In the meantime, there's always...the a source of...experience and expertise.  People have witnessed the Zsa Zsa Gabors, Britney Spearses, and Kardashians and conclude easily enough that "that's not how marriage is supposed to look," but they still may lack an authentic picture.  This will be more and more the case with every passing year.  We sorely need living witnesses of the proper form and matter for sacramental marriage, people of Christian (especially Catholic) stock who are willing to share their victories and struggles with regard to marital totality of investment, fidelity, and openness to new life.

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Here is an FAQ page on Marriage, courtesy of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Thank you. Very informative. I agree, we need "living witnesses" to marriage, lived fully within the Catholic faith tradition. These are the people who should be leading both marriage prep and marriage enrichment.

  2. Shelly, I attach an article on this subject of the relationship between the state of grace and marital fruitfulness (, whose author considers the matter beyond the scope of the article. Though the matter may veer from the topic of this article, it is not at all irrelevant.
    The same question may be asked regarding the unworthy reception of any sacrament. Like the wicked people being lamented in the Psalms, couples who contract marriage in mortal sin appear to prosper as much as their more virtuous counterparts. There's no grace-o-meter to plug into. But, then again, "Wisdom is vindicated in all her children" (Lk 7:35); that is to say, "the truth will out," it will manifest in the life of a couple who are casual about matters of faith. But, then again, God never ceases to offer actual graces to which a couple may in time respond, to glorious effect. One hopes that they've been made aware of the facts regarding sin and grace for the fruitfulness of their married life. That is the responsibility of the cleric preparing them for marriage.

  3. Father, thank you. I deleted the original question since I figured I could find the information myself -so thank you for answering!