What The Catholic Church Thinks About Marriage

Why the Church Maintains Courts to Examine Failed Marital Relationships

It appears sufficiently clear that the Code is in no way intended as a substitute for faith, grace, charisms and especially charity in the life of the Church and of the faithful. On the contrary, its purpose is rather to create such an order in the ecclesial society that, while assigning the primacy to love, grace and charisms, it at the same time renders their organic development easier in the life both of the ecclesial society and the individual persons who belong to it. – John Paul II, Apostolic Constitution Sacrae disciplinae leges

The intimate community of life and love which constitutes the married state has been established by the Creator and endowed by him with its own proper laws . . . God himself is the author of marriage.” –Gaudium et spes, 48

Marriage is not a purely human institution despite the many variations it may have undergone through the centuries in different cultures, social structures, and spiritual attitudes. These differences should not cause us to forget its common and permanent characteristics. –Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1603

We will add one more official reference to important Church documents later, but for now these three citations might begin our journey into how the Catholic Church has come to see marriage. To outline that walk through history and sacramental theology, it might be useful to frame the discussion in the context of the Profession of Faith proclaimed by the faithful every Sunday. As a reminder, this profession can be traced back to the earliest days of the Church so that it is often referred to as the Apostles’ Creed. Let’s begin with the opening line:

I believe in one God, the father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

What does this have to do with marriage? Reread the citation from the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes above. God made it all, and has the power, and the authority to do so according to his plan, not that of any other single person, any group of persons, or any government created by any group of persons. Since marriage as it is meant to be, a partnership between two human persons wherein love is nurtured and future generations are engendered, predates any human culture, then marriage can truly be said to be among the original creative acts of God. It would seem that if we truly accept the profession of faith, then we must also accept God as the author of marriage, and its lawgiver. This leads to a couple of initial conclusions. We, none of us, can shape it to be what we want it to be. We must then undertake to discover what it is in and of itself. There is a long tradition of just such research within the framework of organized religion, in particular the religion which formulated the very profession we accept. That means anyone who wants to get married must accept marriage created by God. All because I believe in God the Father. But there’s more to the story:

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son. . .

What does that have to do with marriage? The life and ministry of Jesus were for a purpose, and anyone familiar with the Gospel of John and the three letters of John will be familiar with the underlying purpose of God’s redemptive work in Jesus. It’s often referred to as the Law of Love, and in general leads to the belief that though Jesus, people, and in fact, the world, are to be made holy and sacred. Since people are more often than not interrelated by any number of bonds, then marriage is among the relationships Jesus intends to make holy and sacred. In fact, the faith community has for a long, long time held that one of the primary purposes of any relationship, and all the more so in marriage, is to perfect others and lead them to the ultimate end of salvation, the Kingdom of God. Husbands and wives fall in love, and that means they ought to have as their primary concern the salvation of the spouse, and of the family and children which may result. If we truly believe in Jesus then marriage takes on a special character as a means of assisting somebody in getting into heaven! But there’s still more:

I believe in the Holy Spirit. . .

Anyone familiar with the Word as recorded for us in both the Old and New Testaments understands that God speaks to his people through a variety of means, including prophets, evangelists, and the Spirit working in individuals and communities. St. Paul reminds us that for the committed Christian, there are manifold gifts and each and every one of them is given for a purpose. That purpose is for the building up of the body of Christ. It would seem, then, that anyone who proclaims belief in the Holy Spirit admits of certain rights of the community in any marriage and obligations of the marriage toward the community! Here’s where we include the other citation mentioned at the outset of this article, so take a look at the commitment to which any Catholic couple agrees at the time of the marriage, a commitment which all marriages mirror in some way:

In the presence of one another, we individually declare our freedom to marry and our freedom from anything that hinders us from celebrating the Sacrament of Matrimony. We hold marriage to be a life-long and faithful union; a process of choosing each other for the mutual sharing of our life and our love; a union which is open to children; a union which is modeled after and symbolizes God’s ever faithful love for his people. It is this partnership of life and love that we seek in marriage and to which we will publicly give our consent during the marriage ritual.

We include this important citation at this point because of what follows in the Profession of Faith, namely:

I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. . .

If we truly believe in a church, and have placed our belief in the one God who creates all things, then when we come to get married we bind ourselves not only to the marriage created before God, but to the rules of the faith community (that holy, catholic and apostolic church) which by or own belief is charged with the proper administration of the most sacred moments in the life of the community, among them, marriage. Let’s see why this might be so.

A church, or ecclesial community, has a theology: a systematic understanding of God and his relationships with people developed over time and regularly taught to the members of that church. A church also has special celebrations which mark its theological understanding of its relationship to God, ceremonies which both invoke his presence and blessings, and which call upon the faithful to appropriately live out their own lives and relationships in a fundamentally religious manner. A church, as was suggested in the first citation at the outset of this article, also has rules and regulations to make sure that people can do what belonging to the church requires and do it in a timely, wholesome manner. Among the most important of all human relationships, whether in or out of an organized church, is marriage, so any church ought to have in its collection of rules and regulations some understanding of marriage as it affects the life of the ecclesial community, that is, the part of the church beyond the couple who ‘get married’.

So, where does our belief in Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and church get us as regards marriage? There are some obvious conclusions to be drawn. First, marriage is not a personal possession. While some people speak of ‘my marriage’, or even ‘our marriage,’ as if it were the property of the individual or couple, it isn’t. Marriage is perhaps the most public of human relationships and therefore never under the thumb of any of its celebrants. No one who ‘gets married’ can define it as he or she pleases, nor can they change its terms at personal, or even mutual whim. Marriage exists apart from anyone who wants into that relationship and has its own rules, its own regulations, its own obligations, its own duties, its own expectations, and couples must undertake to meet all of those requirements as both individuals and as a married team. The rules and regulations spring not so much from what the church might want, or from what its members might want, but from the church’s intense study of marriage according to faith.

First and foremost, marriage is seen as both the key and initial cell of a society, and that includes the church (for a fuller study, do a Google search for St. John Paul II’s Apostolic exhortation Familiaris consortio). Marriage forms the bedrock on which all society is based by revealing the essential human interrelationships. That means marriage must be, like society, long lasting or permanent. It also means that there better be a strong sense of fidelity to the relationship. It also means that there better be an openness to extending the life of the relationship beyond its original partners and into the limitless future by doing what it takes to make children. It also means that there better be some serious teamwork going on to make that happen, and that means a partnership in which both parties are equal in every sense of the word. Such a community, formed by husband and wife, becomes sign and symbol of God’s ever faithful love for his people by fulfilling the command of Jesus to evangelize the world by living the law of love.

It ought to be clear that if the community of faith, the church, has rules for getting married which derive from the Profession of Faith, then people who come to the church to get married ought to follow them. Once married, there are other rules to follow which do not generally concern the Tribunal. But those which are in place to get married are the constant concern of the Tribunal. In fact, in many Tribunal processes touching on marriage, the usual ‘piece’ of marriage being examined is consent, the moment in time when the rules to get married must all be in place. Essentially, the rules are quite simple, and can be found in numerous church documents, from the Catechism and Code cited above to hundreds of books and pamphlets published for the education and preparation of young people, middle aged people, and older people who want to get married.

So what are these simple rules? For a fuller exposition, see the EXPLANATION OF THE GROUNDS OF NULLITY document on this web page (see the “Guidance Documents” tab) that discusses the grounds for a nullity of consent, but at root there are four issues of greatest concern:

  • Anyone who wants to get married must be free to do so.
  • Anyone wanting to get married must know that marriage is a permanent consortium [partnership] of a man and a woman which includes some sexual cooperation and apart from any personally defined notion, expectation, desire, want or need.
  • Anyone wanting to get married must have the interior disposition to undertake the actual object of marriage in its complete form of a permanent, faithful and equal partnership open to the generation and education of offspring.
  • Anyone who wants to get married must have the interior capacity to ‘deliver the goods’, which is to say, the ability to live out the obligations to spouse, children, community and church entailed by the exchange of consent.

Once a particular marriage has, as the Roman Rota (analogous to a Catholic “supreme court”) likes to say, suffered “shipwreck,” it is the consent that is being examined to make sure the rules were in fact followed to the letter. It is only consent that is being examined. However, since consent arises from what anyone knows, the past life of the parties can be helpful. And since the way people live out even the most flawed consent may well lead to a number of years spent together, the course of a marriage is also useful in determining whether consent followed the rules.

The Church’s Tribunals, like its faithful, are obliged to a way of life which derives from and is empowered by the Profession of Faith.

Prepared by the Tribunal of the Diocese of Toledo, and copyright 2009 by the Tribunal of the Diocese of Toledo.

The citations contained in this article can all be found at the official Vatican web site, https://w2.vatican.va/content/vatican/en.html.