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Sacrament Of Marriage

That Christian marriage (i.e. marriage between baptized persons) is really a sacrament of the New Law in the strict sense of the word is for all Catholics an indubitable truth. According to the Council of Trent this dogma has always been taught by the Church, and is thus defined in canon i, Sess. XXIV: “If any one shall say that matrimony is not truly and properly one of the Seven Sacraments of the Evangelical Law, instituted by Christ our Lord, but was invented in the Church by men, and does not confer grace, let him be anathema.” The occasion of this solemn declaration was the denial by the so-called Reformers of the sacramental character of marriage. Calvin in his “Institutions”, IV, xix, 34, says: “Lastly, there is matrimony, which all admit was instituted by God, though no one before the time of Gregory regarded it as a sacrament. What man in his sober senses could so regard it? God’s ordinance is good and holy; so also are agriculture, architecture, shoemaking, hair-cutting legitimate ordinances of God, but they are not sacraments”. And Luther speaks in terms equally vigorous. In his German work, published at Wittenberg in 1530 under the title “Von den Ehesachen”, he writes (p. 1): “No one indeed can deny that marriage is an external worldly thing, like clothes and food, house and home, subject to worldly authority, as shown by so many imperial laws governing it.” In an earlier work (the original edition of “De captivitate Babylonica”) he writes: “Not only is the sacramental character of matrimony without foundation in Scripture; but the very traditions, which claim such sacredness for it, are a mere jest”; and two pages further on: “Marriage may therefore be a figure of Christ and the Church; it is, however, no Divinely instituted sacrament, but the invention of men in the Church, arising from ignorance of the subject.” The Fathers of the Council of Trent evidently had the latter passage in mind.

But the decision of Trent was not the first given by the Church. The Council of Florence, in the Decree for the Armenians, had already declared: “The seventh sacrament is matrimony, which is a figure of the union of Christ, and the Church, according to the words of the Apostle: This is a great sacrament, but I speak in Christ and in the Church.'” And Innocent IV, in the profession of faith prescribed for the Waldensians (18 December, 1208), includes matrimony among the sacraments (Denziger-Bannwart, “Enchiridion”, n. 424). The acceptance of the sacraments administered in the Church had been prescribed in general in the following words: “And we by no means reject the sacraments which are administered in it (the Roman Catholic Church), with the co-operation of the inestimable and invisible power of the Holy Ghost, even though they be administered by a sinful priest, provided the Church recognizes him”, the formula then takes up each sacrament in particular, touching especially on those points which the Waldensians had denied: “Therefore we approve of baptism of children . . . confirmation administered by the bishop . . . the sacrifice of the Eucharist. . . . We believe that pardon is granted by God to penitent sinners . . . we hold in honour the anointing of the sick with consecrated oil . . . we do not deny that carnal marriages are to be contracted, according to the words of the Apostle.” It is, therefore, historically certain that from the beginning of the thirteenth century the sacramental character of marriage was universally known and recognized as a dogma. Even the few theologians who minimized, or who seemed to minimize, the sacramental character of marriage, set down in the foremost place the proposition that marriage is a sacrament of the New Law in the strict sense of the word, and then sought to conform their further theses on the effect and nature of marriage to this fundamental truth, as will be evident from the quotations given below.

The reason why marriage was not expressly and formally included among the sacraments earlier and the denial of it branded as heresy, is to be found in the historical development of the doctrine regarding the sacraments; but the fact itself may be traced to Apostolic times. With regard to the several religious rites designated as “Sacraments of the New Law”, there was always in the Church a profound conviction that they conferred interior Divine grace. But the grouping of them into one and the same category was left for a later period, when the dogmas of faith in general began to be scientifically examined and systematically arranged. Furthermore, that the seven sacraments should be grouped in one category was by no means self-evident. For, though it was accepted that each of these rites conferred interior grace, yet, in contrast to their common invisible effect, the difference in external ceremony and even in the immediate purpose of the production of grace was so great that, for a long time, it hindered a uniform classification. Thus, there is a radical difference between the external form under which baptism, confirmation, and orders, on the one hand are administered, and, on the other hand, those that characterize penance and marriage. For while marriage is in the nature of a contract, and penance in the nature of a judicial process, the three first-mentioned take the form of a religious consecration of the recipients.


In the proof of Apostolicity of the doctrine that marriage is a sacrament of the New Law, it will suffice to show that the Church has in fact always taught concerning marriage what belongs to the essence of a sacrament. The name sacrament cannot be cited as satisfactory evidence, since it did not acquire until a late period the exclusively technical meaning it has to-day; both in pre-Christian times and in the first centuries of the Christian Era it had a much broader and more indefinite signification. In this sense is to be understood the statement of Leo XIII in his Encyclical “Arcanum” (10 February, 1880): “To the teaching of the Apostles, indeed, are to be referred the doctrines which our holy fathers, the councils, and the tradition of the Universal Church have always taught, namely that Christ Our Lord raised marriage to the dignity of a sacrament.” The pope rightly emphasizes the importance of the tradition of the Universal Church. Without this it would be very difficult to get from the Scriptures and the Fathers clear and decisive proof for all, even the unlearned, that marriage is a sacrament in the strict sense of the word. The process of demonstration would be too long and would require a knowledge of theology which the ordinary faithful do not possess. In themselves, however, the direct testimonies of the Scriptures and of several of the Fathers are of sufficient weight to constitute a real proof, despite the denial of a few theologians past and present.

The classical Scriptural text is the declaration of the Apostle Paul (Eph., v, 22 sqq.), who emphatically declares that the relation between husband and wife should be as the relation between Christ and His Church: “Let women be subject to their husbands, as to the Lord: because the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the Church. He is the saviour of his body. Therefore as the Church is subject to Christ, so also let the wives be to their husbands in all things. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ also loved the Church, and delivered Himself up for it: that He might sanctify it, cleansing it by the laver of water in the word of life; that He might present it to Himself a glorious church not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that it should be holy, and without blemish. So also ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife, loveth himself. For no man ever hated his own flesh; but nourisheth it and cherisheth it, as also Christ doth the Church: because we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones.” After this exhortation the Apostle alludes to the Divine institution of marriage in the prophetical words proclaimed by God through Adam: “For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother and shall cleave to his wife, and they shall be two in one flesh.” He then concludes with the significant words in which he characterizes Christian marriage: “This is a great sacrament; but I speak in Christ and in the Church.”

It would be rash, of course, to infer immediately from the expression, “This is a great sacrament”, that marriage is a sacrament of the New Law in the strict sense, for the meaning of the word sacrament, as already remarked, is too indefinite. But considering the expression in its relation to the preceding words, we are led to the conclusion that it is to be taken in the strict sense of a sacrament of the New Law. The love of Christian spouses for each other should be modelled on the love between Christ and the Church, because Christian marriage, as a copy and token of the union of Christ with the Church, is a great mystery or sacrament. It would not be a solemn, mysterious symbol of the union of Christ with the Church, which takes concrete form in the individual members of the Church, unless it efficaciously represented this union, i.e. not merely by signifying the supernatural life-union of Christ with the Church, but also by causing that union to be realized in the individual members; or, in other words, by conferring the supernatural life of grace. The first marriage between Adam and Eve in Paradise was a symbol of this union; in fact, merely as a symbol, it surpassed individual Christian marriages, inasmuch as it was an antecedent type, whereas individual Christian marriages are subsequent representations. There would be no reason, therefore, why the Apostle should refer with such emphasis to Christian marriage as so great a sacrament, if the greatness of Christian marriage did not lie in the fact, that it is not a mere sign, but an efficacious sign of the life of grace. In fact, it would be entirely out of keeping with the economy of the New Testament if we possessed a sign of grace and salvation instituted by God which was only an empty sign, and not an efficacious one. Elsewhere (Gal., iv, 9), St. Paul emphasizes in a most significant fashion the difference between the Old and the New Testament, when he calls the religious rites of the former “weak and needy elements” which could not of themselves confer true sanctity, the effect of true justice and sanctity being reserved for the New Testament and its religious rites. If, therefore, he terms Christian marriage, as a religious act, a great sacrament, he means not to reduce it to the low plane of the Old Testament rites, to the plane of a “weak and needy element”, but rather to show its importance as a sign of the life of grace, and, like the other sacraments, an efficacious sign. St. Paul, then, does not speak of marriage as a true sacrament in explicit and immediately apparent fashion, but only in such wise that the doctrine must be deduced from his words. Hence, the Council of Trent (Sess. XXIV), in the dogmatic chapter on marriage, says that the sacramental effect of grace in marriage is “intimated” by the Apostle in the Epistle to the Ephesians (quod Paulus Apostolus innuit). For further confirmation of the doctrine that marriage under the New Law confers grace and is therefore included among the true sacraments, the Council of Trent refers to the Holy Fathers, the earlier councils, and the ever manifest tradition of the universal Church. The teaching of the Fathers and the constant tradition of the Church, as already remarked, set forth the dogma of Christian marriage as a sacrament, not in the scientific, theological terminology of later time, but only in substance. Substantially, the following elements belong to a sacrament of the New Law:

  • it must be a sacred religious rite instituted by Christ;

  • this rite must be a sign of interior sanctification;

  • it must confer this interior sanctification or Divine grace;

  • this effect of Divine grace must be produced, not only in conjunction with the respective religious act, but through it.

Hence, whoever attributes these elements to Christian marriage, thereby declares it a true sacrament in the strict sense of the word.

Testimony to this effect is to be found from the earliest Christian times onward. The clearest is that of St. Augustine in his works “De bono conjugii” and “De nuptiis et concupiscentia”. In the former work (chap. xxiv in P.L., XL, 394), he says, “Among all people and all men the good that is secured by marriage consists in the offspring and in the chastity of married fidelity; but, in the case of God’s people [the Christians], it consists moreover in the holiness of the sacrament, by reason of which it is forbidden, even after a separation has taken place, to marry another as long as the first partner lives . . . just as priests are ordained to draw together a Christian community, and even though no such community be formed, the Sacrament of Orders still abides in those ordained, or just as the Sacrament of the Lord, once it is conferred, abides even in one who is dismissed from his office on account of guilt, although in such a one it abides unto judgment.” In the other work (I, x, in P.L., XLIV, 420), the holy Doctor says: “Undoubtedly it belongs to the essence of this sacrament that, when man and wife are once united by marriage, this bond remains indissoluble throughout their lives. As long as both live, there remains a something attached to the marriage, which neither mutual separation nor union with a third can remove; in such cases, indeed, it remains for the aggravation of the guilt of their crime, not for the strengthening of the union. Just as the soul of an apostate, which was once similarly wedded unto Christ and now separates itself from Him, does not, in spite of its loss of faith, lose the Sacrament of Faith, which it has received in the waters of regeneration.” In these words, St. Augustine places marriage, which he names a sacrament, on the same level with Baptism and Holy Orders. Thus, as Baptism and Holy Orders are sacraments in the strict sense and are recognized as such by the Holy Doctor, he also considers the marriage of Christians a sacrament in the full and strict sense of the word.

Scarcely less clear is the testimony of St. Ambrose. In his letter to Siricius (Ep. xlii, 3, in P.L., XVI, 1124), he states: “We also do not deny that marriage was sanctified by Christ”; and to Vigilius he writes (Ep. xix, 7, in P.L., XVI, 984): “Since the contracting of marriage must be sanctified by the veiling and the blessing of the priest, how can there be any mention of a marriage, when unity of faith is wanting?” Of what kind this sanctification is, the saint tells us clearly in his work “De Abraham” (I, vii, in P.L., XIV, 443): “We know that God is the Head and Protector, who does not permit that another’s marriage-bed be defiled; and further that one guilty of such a crime sins against God, whose command he contravenes and whose bond of grace he loosens. Therefore, since he has sinned against God, he now loses his participation in the heavenly sacrament.” According to Ambrose, therefore, Christian marriage is a heavenly sacrament, which binds one with God by the bonds of grace until these bonds are sundered by subsequent sin that is, it is a sacrament in the strict and complete sense of the word. The value of this testimony might be weakened only by supposing that Ambrose, in referring to the “participation in the heavenly sacrament” which he declares forfeited by adulterers, was really thinking of Holy Communion. But of the latter there is in the present instance not the slightest question; consequently, he must here mean the loss of all share in the grace of the Sacrament of Marriage. This production of grace through marriage, and therefore its character as a perfect sacrament, was emphasized also by Innocent I in his letter to Probus (Ep. ix, in P.L., XX, 602). He declares a second marriage during the lifetime of the first partner invalid, and adds: “Supported by the Catholic Faith, we declare that the true marriage is that which is originally founded on Divine grace.”

As early as the second century we have the valuable testimony of Tertullian. While still a Catholic, he writes (“Ad Uxorem”, II, vii, in P.L., I, 1299): “If therefore such a marriage is pleasing to God, wherefore should it not turn out happily, so that it will not be troubled by afflictions and needs and obstacles and contaminations, since it enjoys the protection of the Divine grace?” But if Divine grace and its protection are, as Tertullian asserts, given with marriage, we have therein the distinctive moment which constitutes a religious action (already known for other reasons as a sign of Divine grace) an efficacious sign of grace, that is, a true Sacrament of the New Dispensation. It is only on this hypothesis that we can rightly understand another passage from the same work of Tertullian (II, ix, in P.L., I, 1302): “How can we describe the happiness of those marriages which the Church ratifies, the sacrifice strengthens, the blessing seals, the angels publish, the Heavenly Father propitiously beholds?”

Weightier, if anything, than the testimony of the Fathers as to the sacramental character of Christian marriage is that of the liturgical books and sacramentaries of the different Churches, Eastern and Western, recording the liturgical prayers and rites handed down from the very earliest times. These, it is true, differ in many unimportant details, but their essential features must be traced back to Apostolic ordinances. In all these rituals and liturgical collections, marriage, contracted before the priest during the celebration of Mass, is accompanied by ceremonies and prayers similar to those used in connection with the other sacraments; in fact several of these rituals expressly call marriage a sacrament, and, because it is a “sacrament of the living”, require contrition for sin and the reception of the Sacrament of Penance before marriage is contracted (cf. Martène, “De antiquis ecclesiæ ritibus”, I, ix). But the venerable age, in fact the apostolicity, of the ecclesiastical tradition concerning marriage is still more clearly revealed by the circumstance that the rituals or liturgical books of the Oriental Churches and sects, even of those that separated from the Catholic Church in the first centuries, treat the contracting of marriage as a sacrament, and surround it with significant and impressive ceremonies and prayers. The Nestorians, Monophysites, Copts, Jacobites etc., all agree in this point (cf. J. S. Assemani, “Bibliotheca orientalis”, III, i, 356; ii, 319 sqq.; Schelstrate, “Acta oriental. eccl.”, I, 150 sqq.; Denzinger, “Ritus orientalium”, I, 150 sqq.; II, 364 sqq.). The numerous prayers which are used throughout the ceremony refer to a special grace which is to be granted to the newly-married persons, and occasional commentaries show that this grace was regarded as sacramental. Thus, the Nestorian patriarch, Timotheus II, in his work “De septem causis sacramentorum” mentioned in Assemani (III, i, 579), deals with marriage among the other sacraments, and enumerates several religious ceremonies without which marriage is invalid. Evidently, therefore, he includes marriage among the sacraments, and considers the grace resulting from it a sacramental grace.

The doctrine that marriage is a sacrament of the New Law has never been a matter of dispute between the Roman Catholic and any of the Oriental Churches separated from it — a convincing proof that this doctrine has always been part of ecclesiastical tradition and is derived from the Apostles. The correspondence (1576-81) between the Tübingen professors, defenders of Protestantism, and the Greek patriarch, Jeremias, is well known. It terminated in the latter’s indignantly scouting the suggestion that he could be won over to the doctrine of only two sacraments, and in his solemn recognition of the doctrine of seven sacraments, including marriage, as the constant teaching of the Oriental Church. More than half a century later the Patriarch Cyril Lucar, who had adopted the Calvinistic doctrine of only two sacraments, was for that reason publicly declared a heretic by the Synods of Constantinople in 1638 and 1642 and that of Jerusalem in 1672 — so firmly has the doctrine of seven sacraments and of marriage as a sacrament been maintained by the Greek and by Oriental theologians in general.

Doubts as to the thoroughly sacramental character of marriage arose in a very few isolated cases, when the attempt was made to formulate, according to speculative science, the definition of the sacraments and to determine exactly their effects. Only one prominent theologian can be named who denied that marriage confers sanctifying grace, and consequently that it is a sacrament of the New Law in the strict sense of the word — Durandus of St. Pourçain, afterwards Bishop of Meaux. Even he admitted that marriage in some way produces grace, and therefore that it should be called a sacrament; but it was only the actual help of grace in subduing passion, which he deduced from marriage as an effect, not ex opere operato, but ex opere operantis (cf. Perrone, “De matrimonio christiano”, I, i, 1, 2). As authorities he could cite only a few jurists. Theologians with the greatest unanimity rejected this doctrine as new and opposed to the teaching of the Church, so that the celebrated theologian of the Council of Trent, Dominicus Soto, said of Durandus, that it was only with difficulty he had escaped the danger of being branded as a heretic. Many of the leading scholastics spoke indeed of marriage as a remedy against sensuality — e.g. Peter Lombard (whose fourth book of sentences was commentated by Durandus), and his most distinguished commentators St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, Petrus de Palude. But the conferring of sanctifying grace ex opere operato is not thereby excluded; on the contrary, it must be regarded as the foundation of that actual grace, and as the root from which springs the right to receive the Divine assistance as occasion requires. That this is the teaching of those great theologians is evident partly from their explicit declarations concerning the sacrament of marriage, and partly from what they defined as the essential element of the Sacraments of the New Law in general. It is sufficient here to give the references: St. Thomas, “In IV Sent.”, dist. II, i, 4; II, ii, 1; XXVI, ii, 3; St. Bonaventure, “In IV Sent.”, dist. II, iii; XXVI, ii.

The real reason why some jurists hesitated to call marriage a grace-giving sacrament was a religious one. It was certain that a sacrament and its grace could not be purchased. Yet such a transaction took place in marriage, as a dowry was ordinarily paid to the man. But this objection is baseless. For, although Christ has raised marriage or the marriage contract to the dignity of a sacrament (as will be shown below), yet marriage, even among Christians, has not thereby lost its natural significance. The dowry, the use of which devolves on the man, is given as a contribution towards bearing the natural burdens of marriage, i.e., the support of the family, and the education of the offspring, not as the price of the sacrament.

For a better understanding of the sacramental character of Christian as opposed to non-Christian marriage, we may briefly state the relations of the one to the other, especially as it cannot be denied that every marriage from the beginning has had, and has, the character of something holy and religious, and may therefore be designated as a sacrament in the broader sense of the word. In this connection we cannot pass over the instructive encyclical of Leo XIII mentioned above. He says: “Marriage has God for its Author, and was from the very beginning a kind of foreshadowing of the Incarnation of the Divine Word; consequently, there abides in it a something holy and religious; not extraneous but innate; not derived from man, but implanted by nature. It was not, therefore, without good reason that our predecessors, Innocent III and Honorius III, affirmed that a certain sacrament of marriage’ existed ever among the believers and unbelievers. We call to witness the monuments of antiquity, as also the manners and customs of those peoples who, being the most civilized, had a finer sense of equity and right. In the minds of all of them it was a deeply rooted conviction that marriage was to be regarded as something sacred. Hence, among these, marriages were commonly celebrated with religious ceremonies, under the authority of pontiffs, and with the ministry of priests -so great, even in the souls ignorant of heavenly doctrine, was the impression produced by the nature of marriage, by reflection on the history of mankind, and by the consciousness of the human race.”

The term “sacrament”, applied by the pope to all marriage, even those of infidels, is to be taken in its widest sense, and signifies nothing but a certain holiness inherent in marriage. Even among the Israelites marriage never had the importance of an Old Testament sacrament in the strict sense, since even such a sacrament produced a certain holiness (not indeed the interior holiness which is effected by the New Testament sacraments, but only an external legal purity), and even this was not connected with the marriage contract among the Jews. The sanctity of marriage in general is of another kind. The original marriage, and consequently marriage as it was conceived in the original plan of God before sin, was to be the means not merely of the natural propagation of the human race, but also the means by which personal supernatural sanctity should be transmitted to the individual descendents of our first parents. It was, therefore, a great mystery, intended not for the personal sanctification of those united by the marriage tie, but for the sanctification of others, i.e. of their offspring. But this Divinely ordered sanctity of marriage was destroyed by original sin. The effectual sanctification of the human race, or rather of individual men, had now to be accomplished in the way of redemption through the Promised Redeemer, the Son of God made Man. In place of its former sanctity, marriage retained only the significance of a type feebly representing the sanctity that was thenceforth to be acquired; it foreshadowed the Incarnation of the Son of God, and the close union which God was thereby to form with the human race. It was reserved for Christian marriage to symbolize this higher supernatural union with mankind, that is, with those who unite themselves to Christ in faith and love, and to be an efficacious sign of this union.


Although the Church realized from the first the complete sacramentality of Christian marriage, yet for a time there was some uncertainty as to what in the marriage contract is the real essence of the sacrament; as to its matter and form, and its minister. From the earliest times this fundamental proposition has been upheld: Matrimonium facit consensus, i.e. Marriage is contracted through the mutual, expressed consent. Therein is contained implicitly the doctrine that the persons contracting marriage are themselves the agents or ministers of the sacrament. However, it has been likewise emphasized that marriage must be contracted with the blessing of the priest and the approbation of the Church, for otherwise it would be a source not of Divine grace, but of malediction. Hence it might easily be inferred that the sacerdotal blessing is the grace-giving element, or form of the sacrament, and that the priest is the minister. But this is a false conclusion. The first theologian to designate clearly and distinctly the priest as the minister of the Sacrament and his blessing as the sacramental form was apparently Melchior Canus (d. 1560). In his well-known work, “De locis theologicis”, VIII, v, he sets forth the following propositions:

  • It is, indeed, a common opinion of the schools, but not their certain and settled doctrine, that a marriage contracted without a priest is a true and real sacrament;

  • the controversies on this point do not affect matters of faith and religion;

  • it would be erroneous to state that all theologians of the Catholic school defended that opinion.

In the course of the same chapter Canus defends, as a vital matter, the opinion that without the priest and his blessing a valid marriage may take place, but a sacramental form and valid sacrament are lacking. For this opinion he appeals to Petrus de Palude (In IV Sent., dist. V, ii) and also to St. Thomas (“In IV Sent.”, dist. I, i, 3: “Summa contra gentiles”, IV, Ixxviii), as well as to a number of Fathers and popes of the earliest centuries, who compared a marriage contracted without sacerdotal blessing to an adulterous marriage, and therefore could not have recognized a sacrament therein.

The appeal, however, to the above authorities is unfortunate. St. Thomas Aquinas, in the first article cited by Canus, entitled “Utrum consistant sacramenta in verbis et rebus”, raises the following difficulty: “Penance and marriage belong to the sacraments: but for their validity, words are unnecessary; therefore it is not true that words belong to all the sacraments.” This difficulty he answers at the end of the article: “Marriage taken as a natural function and penance as an act of virtue have no form of words: but in so far as both belong to the sacraments, which are to be conferred by the ministers of the Church, words are employed in both; in marriage the words which express mutual consent, and also the blessings which were instituted by the Church, and in penance the words of absolution spoken by the priest.” Although St. Thomas mentions the words of blessing along with the words of mutual consent, he expressly calls them an institution of the Church, and hence they do not constitute the essence of the sacrament instituted by Christ. Again, though he seems to understand that marriage, also, must be administered by the ministers of the Church, it cannot be denied that the contracting parties in Christian marriage must be guided by ecclesiastical regulations, and cannot act otherwise than as ministers subject to the Church or dispensers of the sacrament. If, however, St. Thomas in this passage attributes to the sacerdotal blessing too great an influence on the essence of the sacrament of marriage, he manifestly corrects himself in his later work, “Summa contra gentiles”, in which he undoubtedly places the whole essence of the sacrament in the mutual consent of the contracting parties: “Marriage, therefore, inasmuch as it consists in the union of man and woman, who propose to beget and rear children for the glory of God, is a sacrament of the Church; therefore the contracting parties are blessed by the ministers of the Church. And as in the other sacraments something spiritual is signified by an external ceremony, so here in this sacrament the union of Christ, and the Church is typified by the union of man and woman according to the Apostle: This is a great sacrament, but I speak in Christ and in the Church.’ And as the sacraments effect what they signify, it is clear that the persons contracting marriage receive through this sacrament the grace by which they participate in the union of Christ and the Church.” Hence the whole essence and grace-producing power of marriage consists, according to St. Thomas, in the union of man and woman (in presence of the priest), not in the additional blessing of the priest prescribed by the Church.

The same seems to be true of the passage from Petrus de Palude cited by Canus. As his work, “Commentarium in IV Librum Sententiarum” is not so readily accessible, we may state precisely the edition used here: It bears as a final note the comment: Explicit scriptum in quartum sententarium Clarissimi et Acutissimi doctoris Petri de Palude patriarch Hierosolymitani, ordinis fratrum prædicatorum perquam diligentissime Impressum Venetiis per Bonettum Locatellum Bergomensem mandato Nobilis viri Octaviani Scoti Civis Modoetiensis Anno a natali partu Intemerate Virginis nonagesimotertio cum Quadringentesimo supra millesimum XII Kalendas Octobris.” Here it says expressly in dist. V., Q. xi (fol. 124, col. 1): “It seems that one who contracts marriage in the state of sin does not sin although the essence of marriage consists in the mutual consent, which the parties mutually express; this consent confers the sacrament and not the priest by his blessing; he only confers a sacramental.” Further on, in dist. XXVI, Q. iv (fol. 141, col. 4), he says: “Marriage is such that its efficacy is not based on the minister of the Church (the priest). Its essence, therefore, can exist without the priest, not because it is a necessary sacrament — though it is indeed necessary for human society, just as baptism is necessary for the individual — but because its efficacy does not come from the minister of the Church. Perhaps, however, it is not lawful to contract marriage except in the presence of the Church and before the priest, if this is possible.” These passages are clear. It is hard to see why Melchior Canus tried to support his opinion by the opening words of the first quotation. He supposes that from the words “it seems that one who contracts marriage in the state of sin does not sin” the conclusion is to be drawn that de Palude means in this case a marriage which is not a sacrament; for to administer or receive a sacrament in a state of sin is a grave sin, a sacrilege. But on the other hand, it is to be noted that de Palude in unmistakable terms declares the mutual consent to be the conferring of the sacrament. The words, “it seems”, merely introduce a difficulty: whether this expresses his own view, he does not make clear, in so far as the contracting of marriage means the reception of a sacrament; in so far as it is the administration of a sacrament he regards it as probable that the administering of a sacrament in sin is an additional sin only in the case of ministers ordained for the administration of the sacraments, but the contracting parties in marriage are not such ministers.

The opinion of Canus finds but little support in the expressions of the Fathers or in papal letters, which state that marriage without the priest is declared unholy, wicked, or sacrilegious, that it does not bring the grace of God but provokes His wrath. This is nothing more than what the Council of Trent says in the chapter “Tametsi” (XXIV, i, de ref. Matr.), namely, that “the Holy Church of God has always detested and forbidden clandestine marriages”. Such statements do not deny the sacramental character of marriage so contracted; but they do condemn as sacrilegious that reception of the sacrament which indeed lays open the source of grace, yet places an obstacle in the way of the sacrament’s efficacy.

For a long time, nevertheless, the opinion of Canus had its defenders among the post-Tridentine theologians. Even Prosper Lambertini, as Benedict XIV, did not set aside his pronouncement, given in his work “De synodo dioecesana”, VIII, xiii, that Canus’s view was “valde probabilis”, although in his capacity as pope he taught the opposite clearly and distinctly in his letter to the Archbishop of Goa. To-day it must be rejected by all Catholic theologians and branded at least as false. The inferences not contemplated by the originators of this opinion, but deduced later and used in practice against the rights of the Church, constrained succeeding popes repeatedly to condemn it formally. Subservient Catholics and court theologians especially found it useful as warranting the secular power in making laws concerning validity and invalidity, diriment impediments, and the like. For, if the sacrament consisted in the priestly blessing and the contract, as was never doubted, in the mutual consent of the parties, evidently then contract and sacrament must be separated; the former had to precede as a foundation; upon it, as matter, was founded the sacrament, which took place through the blessing of the priest. But contracts, which affect social and civil life, are subject to state authority, so that this can make such regulations and restrictions even as to their validity, as it deems necessary for the public weal. This practical conclusion was drawn especially by Marcus Antonius de Dominis, Bishop of Spoleto, afterwards an apostate, in his work “De republica ecclesiastica” (V, xi, 22), and by Launoy in his work “Regia in matrimonio potestas” (I, ix sqq.). In the middle of the last century Nepomuk Nuytz, professor at the University of Turin, defended this opinion with renewed vigour in order to supply a juridicial basis for civil legislation regarding marriage. Nuytz’s work was thereupon expressly condemned by Pius IX in the Apostolical Letter of 22 Aug., 1851, in which the pope declared as false especially the following propositions: The sacraments of marriage is only something which is added to the contract of marriage and which can be separated from it; the sacrament consists only in the blessing of the marriage. These propositions are included in the “Syllabus” of 8 December 1864, and must be rejected by all Catholics. In like manner Leo XIII expresses himself in the Encyclical “Arcanum” quoted above. He says: “It is certain that in Christian marriage the contract is inseparable from the sacrament; and that, for this reason, the contract cannot be true and legitimate without being a sacrament as well. For Christ our Lord added to marriage the dignity of a sacrament; but marriage is the contract itself, whenever that contract is lawfully made. . . . Hence it is clear that among Christians every true marriage is, in itself and by itself, a sacrament; and that nothing can be farther from the truth than to say that the sacrament is a certain added ornament, or external adjunct, which can be separated and torn away from the contract at the caprice of man.”

As it is certain, therefore, from the point of view of the Church that marriage as a sacrament is fulfilled only through the mutual consent of the contracting parties, it is a matter of secondary consideration, how and in what sense the matter and form of this sacrament are to be taken. The view that most correctly explains this is perhaps the one that is generally prevalent to-day; in every contract two elements are to be distinguished, the offering of a right and the acceptance of it; the former is the foundation, the latter is the juridicial completion. The same holds true of the sacramental contract of marriage; in so far, therefore as an offering of the marriage right is contained in the mutual declaration of consent, we have the matter of the sacraments, and, in so far as a mutual acceptance is contained therein, we have the form.

To complete our inquiry concerning the essence of the Sacrament of Marriage, its matter and form, and its minister, we have still to mention a theory that was defended by a few jurists of the Middle Ages and has been revived by Dr. Jos. Freisen (“Geschichte des canonischen Eherechts”, Tübingen, 1888). According to this marriage in the strict sense, and therefore marriage as a sacrament, is not accomplished until consummation of the marriage is added to the consent. It is the consummation, therefore, that constitutes the matter or the form. But as Freisen retracted this opinion which could not be harmonized with the Church’s definitions, it is no longer of actual interest. This view was derived from the fact that marriage, according to Christ’s command, is absolutely indissoluble. On the other hand, it is undeniably the teaching and practice of the Church that, in spite of mutual consent, marriage can be dissolved by religious profession or by the declaration of the pope; hence the conclusion seemed to be that there was no real marriage previous to the consummation, since admittedly neither religious profession nor papal declaration can afterwards effect a dissolution. The error lies in taking indissolubility in a sense that the Church has never held. In one case, it is true, according to earlier ecclesiastical law, the previous relation of mere espousal between man and woman became a lawful marriage (and therefore the Sacrament of Marriage), namely when a valid betrothal was followed by consummation. It was a legal presumption that in this case the betrothed parties wished to lessen the sinfulness of their action as much as possible, and therefore performed it with the intention of marriage and not of fornication. The efficient cause of the marriage contract, as well as of the sacrament, was even in this case the mutual intention of marriage, although expression was not given to it in the regular way. This legal presumption ceased on 5 Feb., 1892, by Decree of Leo XIII, as it had grown obsolete among the faithful and was no longer adapted to actual conditions.


From all that has been said, it is clear that while marriage, inasmuch as it is an outward sign of grace and also produces interior grace, has the nature common to all the sacraments, still, viewed as an external sign, it is unique and very different from the other sacraments. The external sign is a contract; hence marriage, even as an effective sign or sacrament, has precisely the nature and quality of a contract, its validity depending on the rules for the validity of contracts. And, as we can distinguish between a contract in its origin and a contract in its continuance, so we can distinguish between the sacrament of marriage in fieri and in facto esse. The sacrament in fieri is the above-mentioned mutual declaration of consent; the sacrament in facto esse is the Divine bond which unites the married persons for life. In most of the other sacraments also there is this distinction between sacrament in fieri and in facto esse; but the continuance of the other sacraments is based mostly on the inamissible character which they impress upon the soul of the recipient. Not so with marriage; in the soul of the recipient there is a question of no new physical being or mode of being, but of a legal relationship which can as a rule be broken only by death, although in individual cases it may otherwise be rendered void, provided the marriage has not been consummated. In this respect, therefore, marriage, especially as a sacrament, differs from other contracts, since it is not subject to the free will of the individuals. Of course, the choice of a partner and especially the contracting or non-contracting of marriage are subject to the free will of the individuals; but any revocation or essential altering of the terms is beyond the power of the contracting parties; the essence of the contractural sacrament is Divinely regulated.

Of still greater importance is the contract aspect of the sacrament in fieri. In the other sacraments, the conditional administration is admissible only within narrow limits. There can only be questions of conditions of the present or past, which, according as they are verified or not verified in fact, there and then admit or prevent the valid administration of the sacrament. But generally even these conditions have no influence on the validity; they are made for the sake of greater reverence, so as to avoid even the appearance of regarding the sacramental procedure as useless. The Sacrament of Marriage, on the contrary, follows the nature of a contract in all these matters. It admits conditions not only of the past and present, but also future conditions which delay the production of the sacrament until the conditions are fulfilled. At the moment, these are fulfilled the sacrament and its conferring of grace take place in virtue of the mutual consent previously expressed and still continuing. Only diriment conditions are opposed to the essence of the Sacrament of Marriage, because it consists in an indissoluble contract. Any such conditions, as well as all others that are opposed to the intrinsic nature of marriage, have as a result the invalidity of both the contract and the sacrament.

A further quality of the Sacrament of Marriage, not possessed by the other sacraments, is that it can be effected without the personal presence of the mutual ministers and recipients. A consensual agreement can be made in writing as well as orally, and by proxy as well as in person. Hence these methods are not opposed to the validity of the sacrament. Of course, according to ecclesiastical law, the form prescribed for validity is, as a rule, the personal, mutual declaration of consent before witnesses; but that is a requirement added to the nature of marriage and to Divine law, which the Church can therefore set aside and from which she can dispense in individual cases. Even the contracting of marriage through authorized representatives is not absolutely excluded. In such a case, however, this representative could not be called the minister, much less the recipient of the sacrament, but merely the agent or intermediary. The declaration of consent made by him is valid only in so far as it represents and contains the consent of his principal; it is the latter which effects the contract and sacrament, hence the principal is the minister of the sacrament. It is the principal, and not the agent, who receives the consent of and marries the other party, and who therefore also receives the sacrament. It does not matter whether the principal, at the exact moment when the consent is expressed by his agent, has the use of reason, or consciousness, or is deprived of it (e.g. by sleep); as soon as the mutual consent is given, the sacrament comes into being with the contract, and the conferring of grace takes place at the same time, provided no obstacle is placed in the way of this effect. The actual use of reason is no more required for it than in the baptism of an infant or in extreme unction administered to an unconscious person. It may even happen in the case of marriage that the consent, which was given many years ago, only now takes effect. This occurs in the case of the so-called sanatio in radice. Through this an ecclesiastical impediment, hitherto invalidating the marriage, is removed by ecclesiastical authority, and the mutual consent previously given without knowledge of the impediment is accepted as legitimate, provided it is certain that this consent has habitually continued according to its original intent. At the moment of the ecclesiastical dispensation the original consent becomes the effective cause of the sacrament and the hitherto presumptive, but now real, spouses receive the sacramental effect in the increase of sanctifying grace, provided they place no obstacle in the way.


As we have several times emphasized, not even marriage is a true sacrament, but only marriages between Christians. One becomes and remains a Christian in the sense recognized here through valid baptism. Hence only one who has been validly baptized can contract a marriage which is a sacrament; but every one can contract it who has been validly baptized, whether he has remained true to the Christian faith, or become a heretic, or even an infidel. Such has always been the teaching and practice of the Church. Through baptism one “becomes a member of Christ and is incorporated in the body of the Church”, as declared in the Florentine Decree for the Armenians; so far as law is concerned, he remains irrevocably subject to the Church, and is therefore, in legal questions, always to be considered a Christian. Hence it is a general principle that all baptized persons are subject to universal ecclesiastical laws, especially marriage laws, unless the Church makes an exception for individual cases or classes. Hence not only the marriage between Catholics, but also that contracted by members of the different sects which have retained baptism and validly baptize, is undoubtedly a sacrament. It matters not whether the non-Catholic considers marriage a sacrament or not, or whether he intends to effect a sacrament or not. Provided only he intends to contract a true marriage, and expresses the requisite consent, this intention and this expression are sufficient to constitute a sacrament. But if he is absolutely determined not to effect a sacrament, then, of course, the production of a sacrament would be excluded, but the marriage contract also would be null and void. By Divine ordinance it is essential to Christian marriage that it should be a sacrament; it is not in the power of the contracting parties to eliminate anything from its nature, and a person who has the intention of doing this invalidates the whole ceremony. It is certain, therefore, that marriage contracted between baptized persons is a sacrament, even the so-called mixed marriage between a Catholic and a non-Catholic, provided the non-Catholic has been validly baptized. It is equally certain that marriage between unbaptized persons is not a sacrament in the strict sense of the word.

There is, however, great uncertainty as to how those marriages are to be regarded which exist legitimately and validly between a baptized and an unbaptized person. Such marriages may occur in two ways. In the first place, a marriage may have been contracted between unbelievers, one of whom afterwards becomes a Christian, while the other remains an unbeliever. (Here believer and unbeliever are taken in the sense of baptized and unbaptized.) The marriage contracted validly while both were unbelievers continues to exist, and though under certain circumstances it is dissoluble, it is not rendered void simply because of the baptism of one of the parties, for, as Innocent III says (in IV, xix, 8), “through the sacrament of baptism marriage is not dissolved, but sins are forgiven”, and St. Paul expressly states (I Cor., vii, 12 sq.): “If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she consent to dwell with him, let him not put her away. And if any woman hath a husband that believeth not, and he consent to dwell with her, let her not put away her husband.” There is question here, therefore, of a marriage which subsequently has developed into a marriage between baptized and unbaptized. Secondly, there may be question of a marriage, which from the beginning was a mixed marriage, i.e. which was contracted between a believer and an unbeliever. By ecclesiastical law, such a marriage cannot take place without a dispensation from the Church, which has made disparity of worship between baptized and unbaptized a diriment impediment. In regard to both kinds of mixed marriage it may be asked whether they have the character of a sacrament, and whether they have the effect of imparting grace at least to the baptized party. As to the unbaptized party, there can clearly be no question of sacrament or sacramental grace, for baptism is the door to the other sacraments, none of which can be validly received before it.

The opinions of theologians on this point vary considerably. Some maintain that in both kinds of mixed marriages the baptized party receives the grace of the sacrament; others deny this in the case of a marriage contract contracted by unbelievers which subsequently becomes a mixed marriage, and affirm it in the case of a marriage contracted by a believer with an unbeliever in virtue of a dispensation from the Church; a third class again deny that there is a sacrament or sacramental grace in either case. The first view was held as probable by Palmieri (De matrimonio christiano, cap. ii, thes. ii, Append. 8. 3), Rosset (De sacramento matrimonii, I, 350), and others; the second by the older authors, Soto, Tournely, Collet, and, among recent authors, especially by Perrone (De matrimonio christiano, I, 306-311); Sasse and Christian Pesch declare at least in favour of the sacramental character of a marriage contracted with ecclesiastical dispensation between a baptized and an unbaptized person, but express no opinion on the other case. The third opinion is upheld by Vasquez and Thomas Sanchez, and is at the present time vigorously defended by Billot (De sacramentis: II, De matrimonio, thesis xxxviii, sec. 3) and Wernz (Jus Decretalium, IV, v, 44).

No side brings convincing proof. Perhaps the weakest grounds are adduced for the opinion which, in regard to marriage contracted by unbelievers, claims sacramentality and the sacramental grace after baptism for the party who, subsequently to the marriage, is baptized. These grounds are mostly negative; for example, there is no reason why an unbaptized person should not administer a sacrament, as is clearly done in the case of baptism; or why the sacramental effect should not take place in one party which cannot take place in the other, as in the case of a marriage between baptized persons where one party is in the state of grace and the other is not, so that the sacrament of marriage confers grace on the former, but not on the latter. Besides, it is not fitting that the baptized person should be altogether deprived of grace. As against this view, there seems to be a weighty reason in the fact that such a marriage contracted in infidelity is still dissoluble, even after years of continuation, either through the Pauline Privilege or through the plenary authority of the Holy See. And yet it has always been a principle with theologians that a matrimonium ratum et consummatum (i.e. a marriage that bears the sacramental character and is afterwards consummated) is by Divine Law absolutely indissoluble, so that not even the Holy See can on any grounds whatsoever dissolve it. Hence, it seems to follow that the marriage in question is not a sacrament.

This argument reversed, together with the reason of fitness mentioned above, tells in favour of the sacramentality of a marriage contracted with ecclesiastical dispensation between a baptized and an unbaptized person. Such a marriage, once it is consummated, is absolutely indissoluble, just as a consummated marriage between two baptized persons; under no circumstances may recourse be had to the Pauline Privilege, nor will any other dissolution be granted by Rome (for documents see Lehmkuhl, “Theol. Mor.”, II, 928). A further reason is that the Church claims jurisdiction over such mixed marriages, institutes diriment impediments to them, and grants dispensations. This authority regarding marriages Pius VI bases on their sacramentality; hence it seems that the marriage in question should be included among marriages that are sacraments. The words of Pius VI in his letter to the Bishop of Mutila are as follows: “If, therefore, these matters (he is speaking of marriage) belong exclusively to the eccliastical forum for no other reason than that the marriage contract is truly and properly one of the seven sacraments of the Law of the Gospel, then, since this sacramental character is inherent in all marriage-matters, they must all be subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the Church.”

However, these arguments likewise fail to carry conviction. In the first place, many deny that the mixed marriages in question pertain exclusively to the jurisdiction of the Church, but claim a certain right for the State as well; only in case of conflict the Church has the preference; the exclusive right of the Church is confined to marriages between two baptized persons. The Church also possesses some authority, no doubt, over all marriages contracted in infidelity, as soon as one party receives baptism, but this does not prove the sacramentality, after the conversion of one party, of a marriage contracted by infidels. Furthermore, it is uncertain whether matters affecting the nature of Christian marriage are subject to ecclesiastical authority for the sole reason that Christian marriage was raised to the dignity of a sacrament, or for the more general reason that it is a holy and religious thing. In the document cited above Pius VI gives no decision on the point. In case the latter reason is of itself sufficient, then the conclusion is all the more secure if, as Pius VI says, “the raising to the dignity of a sacrament” is taken as a reason. In fact the elevation of marriage to a sacrament can well serve as a ground for ecclesiastical authority, even in regard to a marriage which is only an inchoate sacrament.

As positive proof against the sacramentality of the mixed marriages with which we are dealing, the advocates of the third opinion emphasize the nature of marriage as a contract. Marriage is an indivisible contract which cannot be one thing for one party and another thing for the other party. If it cannot be a sacrament for one, then it cannot be a sacrament for the other. The contract in facto esse is not really an entity that exists in the parties, but rather a relation between them, and indeed a relation of the same sort on both sides. Now, this cannot be a sacrament in facto esse, if in one of the parties the basis of the relation has no sacramental character. But, if the contract in facto esse be no sacrament, then the actual contracting of marriage cannot be a sacrament in fieri. Were the opposite opinion correct, the contract would be rather lame, i.e. firmer in the believing party than in the unbaptized, since the greater constancy of Christian marriage arises precisely from its character as a sacrament. But such an uneven condition seems opposed to the nature of marriage. Should it be urged on the contrary that as a result in extraordinary cases these mixed marriages might be dissolved just as in the case of those contracted by two unbaptized persons, this inference is to be rejected. Apart from the question whether the inner constancy does not of itself exclude such a dissolution, it is quite certain that, externally, the most complete indissolubility is secured for such mixed marriages, or, in other words, that the Church, which by its approval has made them possible, also makes them by its laws indissoluble. A dissolution in virtue of the Pauline Privilege is thus not certainly available, since it might be utilized in odium fidei, instead of in favorem fidei. In any case, as to the application of this privilege, the Church is the authoritative interpreter and judge. These arguments, though not perhaps decisive, may serve to recommend the third opinion as the most probable and best founded.

There still remains the one question, on which also Catholic theologians are still to some extent divided, as to whether and at what moment marriages legitimately contracted between the unbaptized become a sacrament on the subsequent baptism of the two parties. That they never become a sacrament was taught in his day by Vasquez, and also by the canonists Weistner and Schmalzgrüber. This view may to-day be regarded as abandoned, and cannot be reconciled with the official decisions since given by the Holy See. The discussion must, therefore, be confined to the question, whether through the baptism alone (i.e. at the moment when the baptism of the later baptized of the two partners is completed) the marriage becomes a sacrament, or whether for this purpose the renewal of their mutual consent is necessary. Bellarmine, Laymann, and other theologians defended the latter view; the former, which was already maintained by Sanchez, is to-day generally accepted, and is followed by Sape, Rosset, Billot, Pesch, Wernz etc. This opinion is based on the ecclesiastical teaching which declares that among the baptized there can be no true marriage which is not also a sacrament. Now, immediately after the baptism of both partners, the already contracted marriage, which is not dissolved by baptism, becomes a “marriage of the baptized”; for were it not immediately a “sacrament”, the above-mentioned general principle, which Pius IX and Leo XIII proclaimed as incontestable doctrine, would be untrue. Consequently we must say that, through the baptism itself, the existing marriage passes into a sacrament. A difficulty may arise only in the determination as to where in such a case the matter and form of the sacrament are to be sought, and what act of the minister completes the sacrament. This problem, it would seem, is most readily solved by falling back on the virtually continuing mutual consent of the parties, which has been already formally given. This virtual wish to be and to remain partners in marriage, which is not annulled by the reception of baptism, is an entity in the parties in which may be found the ministration of the sacrament.

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