The Great Sacrament: Holy Matrimony

(This was written in preparation for a series of conferences on vocations and states in life that I gave at Saint Benedict Center in the Spring of 2005. Please see the end of this piece for a small table of contents with links to the other conferences.)

There is a story told of Pope St. Pius X that, when he was consecrated a bishop, he showed his mother the ring he had just received as bishop and said, “Mother, look at my Episcopal ring.” Mrs. Sarto drew his attention to her aged and work-worn peasant hand, revealing her wedding ring. “If it were not for this ring,” she said, “you would not have that ring.”

This is more than a wonderful story about a great saint. As we will see in a few minutes, it is a perfect illustration of a married couple succeeding at the primary purpose of their noble vocation. And despite all the attacks of the world and the devil against this institution, it must be said that marriage is a noble vocation.

This evening’s conference the first of four on this state in life. I’ve called it “the great sacrament” after what St. Paul said in his Epistle to the Ephesians, where he compared the union of husband and wife in matrimony to the union of Christ with the Church: “This is a great sacrament; but I speak in Christ and in the church.” (Eph. 5:32)

When I introduced this vocation in the first conference, I made only a few points about it:

1. It is a true vocation.1
2. It has a very high dignity.
3. Right motives are necessary to enter into it.
4. There are certain very grave and difficult duties that come with the married vocation.

Truly a Vocation. Tonight I would like to begin by repeating that Holy Matrimony is a true vocation. Why? It fits the definition: “A fixed manner of living, established to preserve grace in this world and to obtain glory in the world to come.” The many saints who lived their married life fully show that it is a state in which one can achieve great sanctity. Here is a small list of married saints: St. Monica, St. Thomas More, St. Basil the elder and his wife, St. Emelia, who were the parents of St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Peter of Sebastia. St. Joachim and St. Anne, and, of course, St. Joseph and Our Lady.

Definition. The Catechism of the Council of Trent gives us this definition of Matrimony: “The conjugal union of man and woman, contracted between two qualified persons, which obliges them to live together throughout life.” These words are fairly straight forward except one: “conjugal.” The word literally means “yoked together” (jugum is the Latin word for a yoke; we get the English word “join” from it). This “yoking” union is a far more radical union of two people than any other. This distinguishes it, the Catechism points out, from other unions that people can enter into, such as professional contracts.

Divine Institution. Matrimony was instituted by God Himself and is as old as the human race. We know this from the book of Genesis, which tells us that God gave Eve to Adam to be his helpmate, and commanded the two of them to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. From its very beginnings it was holy because it came from God himself. From its beginnings, it also fit the definition that I just gave. You can hear it in the words of Adam: “This now is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man. Wherefore a man shall leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they shall be two in one flesh.” (Gen. 2:23-24)

Different Dispensations. We can speak of the law of nature, under which Adam and his ancestors lived until the time of Moses. After that, the have the time of the Mosaic Law until the time of Christ. During each of these dispensations, each of these “laws,” marriage was in place. It existed in every nation, but among the true believers its holy ideal was maintained more than it was among the gentiles. However, it did not take long for the institution to lose its original lustre.

Decline and Restoration. We know that God permitted certain patriarchs to have more than one wife, just as later on, in the Mosaic Law, He permitted the Jews to write a bill of divorce. Our Lord fixed this state of affairs, though, “Have ye not read,” said He, “that he who made man from the beginning, made them male and female? And he said: For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they two shall be in one flesh.” (MT 19:4-5). He said further that “Moses by reason of the hardness of your heart permitted you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.” (MT 19:8)

New Testament. So Our Lord restored matrimony to its original dignity. But then he did something more. He elevated it to a sacrament, one of those seven external signs God instituted to give grace. The tradition is that Our Lord instituted the sacrament at the wedding feast of Cana, where he showed very clearly by his presence that matrimony was a good and holy thing.

True marriage” and “sacramental marriage.” Even though Christ instituted matrimony as a sacrament, the primitive, non-sacramental, institution still exists. When two Jews or two pagans, or two Moslems marry, it is still “true marriage.” They still enjoy the natural bond that Adam and Eve were given, and it is still indissoluble, as matrimony was from the beginning. However, it is not a sacrament. Very significantly, when two such people have the natural bond and then convert, at their baptism the natural bond is automatically elevated to the sacramental dignity. Have you ever heard of a couple converting to the faith and getting sacramentally married after their baptisms? You won’t. The Church doesn’t do it.

At the same time, two Catholics cannot validly marry before a Justice of the Peace or a Protestant minister. It just doesn’t work.

Organization of Rest of Conference. From here on out, I’ll be speaking only of the sacrament, not the natural bond. I’ll be speaking of it in terms of the two purposes of matrimony and the three blessings of matrimony.

Two Purposes. First we have the two purposes of matrimony. What are they? The primary purpose is the procreation and education of children. The secondary purpose is generally divided into two: mutual assistance and the quieting of concupiscence.

Mutual Assistance. Mutual assistance is easily explained. The husband and the wife provide for each other’s needs as well as the needs of their children. The husband is the bread winner and the wife is the bread baker. All of the needs of life, from the most basic (food, clothing, and shelter) are somehow mutually provided by the one for the other.

Quieting of Concupiscence. This is the traditional way to refer to the “passionate,” or purely sensual side of sexual relations. Details on this are best left to other contexts, but I will say a few things here. The husband and wife are each obliged to render the “marriage debt” to one another. True, they should practice moderation in their use of their sexual powers, and, at times, it is wholesome and holy, by mutual consent, to put off relations for ascetical reasons. But this should be only temporary. Saint Paul said it best: “Let the husband render the debt to his wife, and the wife also in like manner to the husband. The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband. And in like manner the husband also hath not power of his own body, but the wife. Defraud not one another, except, perhaps, by consent, for a time, that you may give yourselves to prayer; and return together again, lest Satan tempt you for your incontinency” (I Cor. 7:3-5).

There are other reasons people can marry, but these two purposes, these two ends are the most important. If their order is reversed, or if the first is left out, then the marriage will be a bad one. However, as long as one’s other reasons for marriage leave intact those first two purposes, they are not sinful. So it’s not sinful to marry Jane instead of Sally because Jane is prettier, just as it wasn’t a sin for Jacob to prefer Rachel to Lia.

Errors. But to reverse the order of these two purposes is disastrous. The Church tells us this, and a story from Holy Scripture backs it up. In the first conference, I quoted what the Angel Gabriel said to Tobias: “Hear me and I will show thee who they are, over whom the devil can prevail. For they who in such manner receive matrimony as to shut out God from themselves and from their mind, and give themselves to their lust, as the horse and the mule, which have not understanding; over them the devil hath power” (Tobias 6:16-17). Right after that, the angel tells Tobias that for the first three nights of their marriage, he and Sara should refrain from consummating the marriage, spending the time in prayer. “And when the third night is past, thou shalt take the virgin with the fear of the Lord, moved rather for love of children than for lust, that in the seed of Abraham thou mayst obtain a blessing in children” (Tobias 6:22).

Three Blessings. Guided, perhaps, by his love of the Blessed Trinity, St. Augustine speaks of the three blessings of matrimony. These three blessings are offspring, fidelity, and sacrament. Here is how the Saint himself explains them:

“Fidelity signifies that outside the matrimonial bond there shall be no sexual intercourse; Offspring signifies that children shall be lovingly welcomed, tenderly reared, and religiously educated; Sacrament signifies that the bond of wedlock shall never be broken, and that neither party, if separated shall form a union with another, even for the sake of offspring. Such is the law of marriage, which gives luster to the fruitfulness of nature and sets a curb upon shameful incontinence.” (quoted in Casti Connubii No. 10)

Offspring. Let’s go into more detail on these three blessings. The first is offspring. Today, we are very well aware of the terrible crimes of abortion and birth control. These things are really nothing new, since they were found in the ancient world. The Catechism of the Council of Trent has this to say about them: “married persons who, to prevent conception or procure abortion, have recourse to medicine, are guilty of a most heinous crime — nothing less than wicked conspiracy to commit murder.”

It is worth noting that to reject the idea of begetting offspring goes against the very meaning of the word matrimony. It literally means “office of a mother” in Latin, coming from the words matris (mother) and munus (office).

Educate.” So married couples have an obligation to cooperate with God in the begetting of children. However, they are not just to beget children, but also to “educate” them. Sometimes, when the primary end of matrimony is discussed, the word “education” is replaced with “proper rearing.” In other words, it’s not simply reading, writing, and ‘rithmitic we’re talking about. The education spoken of here includes everything it takes to raise a child: food, clothing, shelter, religious instruction, other forms of instruction, discipline in behavior, good mental and physical habits, everything.

And this “education” is primarily the responsibility of the parents, even if they send their children to a conventional school. “Home schoolers” are not the only parents who are to educate their children. In every case, the parents are the “primary educators” of their children in this broad sense of the word.

Dignity of Child Rearing. Pope Pius XI points out that the dignity of this child rearing is measured by the dignity of human life itself, which is destined to live forever, each of us being called to a supernatural reward in heaven.

Here are his words: “Christian parents should understand, moreover, that their duty is not only to propagate and maintain the human race on earth; it is not even merely to rear worshipers of the true God. They are called to give children to the Church, to beget fellow-citizens of the Saints and members of the household of God, in order that the worshipers of our God and Savior may increase from day to day. … for it is their function to offer their children to the church so that she, the fruitful Mother of the sons of God, may beget them anew to supernatural righteousness in the waters of baptism, make them living members of Christ, sharers of immortal life, and heirs, finally, of that eternal glory to which we all fervently aspire.”

Is this not a noble thing? In other words, we’re not just educating children for this life, to be good people, to be good citizens of the earthly city, but to be inhabitants of the heavenly city. This is why I called the story of St. Pius X and his mother “a perfect illustration of a married couple succeeding at the primary purpose of their noble vocation.”

Indissolubility. This duty of the education of offspring is one of the fundamental reasons for the indissolubility of marriage. If husband and wife could break up and marry others, then the children would have no stability. The fact that the couple stays together for life makes it possible to rear the children correctly.

Fidelity. Now we come to the second blessing of matrimony: fidelity. This is that faithfulness that the husband and wife must have to each other. In a negative way, it forbids both husband and wife to have marital relations with anyone but their lawful spouse. It also forbids polygamy (having more than one wife) and polyandry (having more than one husband).

Positively. But positively, fidelity goes much further than a mere prohibition of adultery and other crimes. The blessing of fidelity leads husband and wife to that unity and charity that God intended “from the beginning.” In the book of Genesis, Adam said, “Wherefore a man shall leave father and mother and shall cleave to his wife and they shall be two in one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). St. Paul tells us “The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and in like manner, the husband hath not power of his own body but the wife” (I Cor. 4:7).

Pope Pius XI tells us that this mutual love of the husband and wife goes beyond mutual help. Husband and wife actually sanctify each other: “This outward expression of love in the home demands not only mutual help but must go further; it must have as its primary purpose that man and wife help each other day by day in forming and perfecting themselves in the interior life, so that through their partnership in life they may advance ever more and more in virtue, and above all that they may grow in true love toward God and their neighbor… and by God’s grace to arrive at the summit of perfection, as is proved by the example set us of many saints.”

Hierarchy. Under this blessing of fidelity, the Holy Father discusses the order that exists in holy matrimony. He quotes an unpopular passage from St. Paul: “Let women be subject to their husbands as to the Lord, because the husband is the head of the wife, and Christ is the head of the Church.” (Eph. 5:22-23).

He goes on to explain the passage:

27. This subjection, however, does not deny or take away the liberty which fully belongs to the woman both in view of her dignity as a human person, and in view of her most noble office as wife and mother and companion; nor does it bid her obey her husband’s every request if not in harmony with right reason or with the dignity due to wife; nor, in fine, does it imply that the wife should be put on a level with those persons who in law are called minors, to whom it is customary to allow free exercise of their rights on account of their lack of mature judgment, or of their ignorance of human affairs. But it forbids that exaggerated liberty which cares not for the good of the family; it forbids that in this body which is the family, the heart be separated from the head to the great detriment of the whole body and the proximate danger of ruin. For if the man is the head, the woman is the heart, and as he occupies the chief place in ruling, so she may and ought to claim for herself the chief place in love.

28. Again, this subjection of wife to husband in its degree and manner may vary according to the different conditions of persons, place and time. In fact, if the husband neglect his duty, it falls to the wife to take his place in directing the family. But the structure of the family and its fundamental law, established and confirmed by God, must always and everywhere be maintained intact.

29. With great wisdom Our predecessor Leo XIII, of happy memory, in the Encyclical on Christian marriage which We have already mentioned, speaking of this order to be maintained between man and wife, teaches: “The man is the ruler of the family, and the head of the woman; but because she is flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone, let her be subject and obedient to the man, not as a servant but as a companion, so that nothing be lacking of honor or of dignity in the obedience which she pays. Let divine charity be the constant guide of their mutual relations, both in him who rules and in her who obeys, since each bears the image, the one of Christ, the other of the Church.”

Sacrament. The last of St. Augustine’s three blessings of matrimony is “Sacrament.” The saint speaks of indissolubility under this heading: “Sacrament signifies that the bond of wedlock shall never be broken, and that neither party, if separated shall form a union with another, even for the sake of offspring.” We can go beyond indissolubility when discussing sacrament.

Remember, a sacrament is an external sign instituted by Christ to give grace, so matrimony is a source of grace. It sanctifies.

The Council of Trent infallibly taught that matrimony is a sacrament. This was against the Protestants who rejected the sacramental character of marriage. The council taught that in the sacrament, “married love is perfected, the indissoluble unity of marriage secured, and the married parties sanctified.”

Here, once again, is Pius XI, this time considering the sanctifying power of matrimony: “Hence this sacrament not only increases sanctifying grace, the permanent principle of the supernatural life, in those who, as the expression is, place no obstacle (obex) in its way, but also adds particular gifts, dispositions, seeds of grace, by elevating and perfecting the natural powers. By these gifts the parties are assisted not only in understanding, but in knowing intimately, in adhering to firmly, in willing effectively, and in successfully putting into practice, those things which pertain to the marriage state, its aims and duties, giving them in fine right to the actual assistance of grace, whensoever they need it for fulfilling the duties of their state.”

Duties. I would like to wind up by considering the duties of married couples. Here they are, in the words of The Catechism of the Council of Trent.

Duties of a Husband. “It is the duty of the husband to treat his wife generously and honourably. It should not be forgotten that Eve was called by Adam his companion. The woman, he says, whom thou gavest me as a companion. Hence it was, according to the opinion of some of the holy Fathers, that she was formed not from the feet but from the side of man; as, on the other hand, she was not formed from his head, in order to give her to understand that it was not hers to command but to obey her husband.

“The husband should also be constantly occupied in some honest pursuit with a view to provide necessaries for the support of his family and to avoid idleness, the root of almost every vice.

“He is also to keep all his family in order, to correct their morals, and see that they faithfully discharge their duties.”

Duties of a Wife. “On the other hand, the duties of a wife are thus summed up by the Prince of the Apostles: Let wives be subject to their husbands: that if any believe not the word, they may be won without the word by the conversation of the wives, considering your chaste conversation with fear. Let not their adorning be the outward plaiting of the hair, or the wearing of gold, or the putting on of apparel: but the hidden man of the heart in the incorruptibility of a quiet and meek spirit, which is rich in the sight of God. For after this manner heretofore the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord.

“To train their children in the practice of virtue and to pay particular attention to their domestic concerns should also be especial objects of their attention. The wife should love to remain at home, unless compelled by necessity to go out; and she should never presume to leave home without her husband’s consent.

“Again, and in this the conjugal union chiefly consists, let wives never forget that next to God they are to love their husbands, to esteem them above all others, yielding to them in all things not inconsistent with Christian piety, a willing and ready obedience.”

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Here is a small table of contents with links to the other conferences in this series. If a given conference is not linked, that means it is not posted yet on this web site. (Back to top.)

1. The Big Decision: Your Options, God’s Plan.
2. The Better Part: The Religious or Priestly Vocation.
3. Flying Solo: The Chaste Single State.
4. The Great Sacrament: Holy Matrimony.
5. Who will it be? Choosing a Partner.
6. The Chaste Preparation: Courtship.
7. Till Death Do Us Part.

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1 In the talks, I used the words “vocation” and “state in life” interchangeably. In fact, they are different concepts, and whether marriage constitutes a true “vocation” in the strict sense is a matter of some debate. My opinion is that it does not. Regardless, that is a rather academic point. It is indisputable that marriage is a true “state in life” — and a holy one, in which those who live it can become great saints.