Marriage as a Sacrament

Marriage before a priest and the freedom to marry due to lack of form

One of the reasons that I love history is that, it helps us to understand the intent and logic of those things which seem illogical and confusing otherwise. It also prevents us from making assertions about something always being the case when in fact it was not.
Long before the Church developed and required a ritual for marriage, there was a consensus on three points.
• Marriage is a sacrament,
• Marriage is a lifetime commitment
• The consent of the couple makes the sacrament.
Clearly one of the key issues that arose was, what constitutes consent? What intention must be part of the consent? How can the couple and others know that commitment, how must it be expressed? What are the conditions that should be present to be sure that the consent is mature, freely given and sincere?
Without a public ritual there were obvious problems. When there was a private commitment, it meant that one partner could later claim that there had been no such agreement. Pressure, including threat and kidnapping could extract false consent. The Church had at times and in various places prohibited secret marriages but still recognized them because of the commitment. Marriage was among the many other matters that Council of Trent sought to regularize in order to live out the Gospel with less confusion and misinterpretation.
In 1534, the Council decreed unequivocally that Marriages were to occur in public, that is, with witnesses and before a priest. The couple made the commitment and hence the marriage, but the priest was there to ask questions to be sure that the couple were free to marry and freely entering the marriage for life. After that time Catholics have been required to be married before a priest or deacon. Revision to the Code of canon Law after Vatican II allowed to Church to dispense from the “form” and allow a Catholic to marry a non-Catholic before a minister of another Christian denomination, provided that the couple had in the preparation for the marriage testified to their free consent in pre-nuptial interviews, preserving the emphasis on gaining proper public consent.
These efforts to protect the rights, especially of women to entry marriage freely and intentionally truly through a public Catholic ceremony have had consequences for determining the validity of marriages. Marriages by Catholics outside of such procedures without a dispensation are not recognized by the Church as valid. However, since the Church could hardly bind those outside of the Church to our procedures and rituals and since we view the marriage as arising from the consent of the couple, we presume marriages of non-Catholics whether civil or religious to be valid. Therefore if a divorced Catholic who was not married in the church and without dispensation from form wishes to remarry there is a very simple process for declaring the first marriage void. One need only submit evidence that they were Catholic and entered the marriage without following the requirements of the Church.
On the other hand a divorced non-Catholic who wishes to enter marriage with a Catholic must receive a Catholic annulment, because the Church presumes the validity of marriages of non-Catholics, based on their public consent.
Divorce and Excommunication

Faced with preserving Catholic families in an increasingly secular and religiously diverse world, the American bishops in 1884 asked the Holy See for permission to impose automatic excommunication on Catholics in the United States who divorced civilly. This was not part of the universal law of the church but a special penalty in the U.S. intended to stop the wave of civil divorces and protect the family. In 1977, the US Conference of Bishops asked for and received permission to end this automatic excommunication. In 1983, the New Code of Canon Law lifted previously automatic excommunications which were no longer imposed by the Code.

If those who are divorced are not automatically excommunicated, why is there all the discussion of whether divorced and remarried Catholics may receive Holy Communion? The issue today is not the divorce, itself. The Church does not recognize divorces as having any effect on the validity of Catholic marriages, even though it sees that there may be valid reasons such as adultery and abuse which might necessitate a civil separate even a civil divorce.

The issue for the Church is the entry into another civil marriage or cohabitation while still in a marriage which is still viewed as valid in the Church. Persons who have remarried without Church annulment are seen as engaged in a public sin. Divorced and remarried Catholics are in fact encouraged to remain active in the Church attending mass but not receiving the Eucharist.

This may seem confusing but it has three important practical consequences for divorced Catholics.
1. If you are divorced and not remarried you are not excluded from the Eucharist.
2. If you did remarry, but your later marriage ended in divorce or death, and you are not in another active marriage you may return to communion after going to confession.

If these situations apply to you and you had mistakenly believed that you were permanently excluded from the sacraments, please come to confession and return to full active participation in the sacraments. If you know of someone who may be mistaken in their presumption that may not return to the sacraments, please encourage them to speak to a priest to help them understand their situation in the Church.

The Us Conference of Catholic Bishops has an on-line program to familiarize Catholics on this and other issues related to family and church. Visit the site and learn more about your faith.

Marriage Preparation not Wedding Preparation
As couples get engaged over the holidays, they may well be surprised that the Archdiocese requires a six month preparation period. Couples might spend years discussing and imagining the ceremony, and will certainly spend many hours planning the details of the reception and even the ceremony. If a few hours of celebration requires preparation and planning wouldn’t a life time require some concentrated advance work as well?
We have all heard stories of couples who met, married quickly after that, and remained together for their whole lives, that may well be you. There are also those who date for a decade, marry and then divorce. The truth of the matter is of course that no amount of time and no program however well designed and executed can guarantee the success of a marriage, but if we want something to work out we usually like to consider it and do all we can to be ready.
As we have seen, the consent of the couple is essential for the sacrament of marriage. It is not a simple “I do” because within that consent are a number of elements including permanence, fidelity and openness to having children. There are also factors coloring and affecting the ability of any person to knowingly, sincerely commit themselves to a deep permanent sharing of self in matrimony. Marriage is not just a change of legal status for an existing relationship. It builds on an existing love, respect and commitment but transforms what is, into a new shared identity through life giving mutuality and total sharing lived out with the help of God’s grace in the community of believers.
We used to rely primarily on the accepted cultural expectations and family example to assist couples with that transition. Today, sadly many couples come to marriage without a cultural and family experience of successful marriages.
Parishes and the Archdiocese have established a variety of programs to assist couples. All couples must have a formal interview with a priest or deacon which touches on their freedom to marry and their intention. People of course might view these as mere formalities in which they can jump the hurdles by providing the correct answers. It should however also encourage honest self-reflection which deepens the commitment. We are developing a new program here to assist engaged couples. Please call or email Fr. Clifford as soon as you get engaged.


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