Editor’s Note: A priest asked Deacon McManaman to write this article as something to give to couples who come to seek baptism for their child, but who are not married in the Church, to help them understand Catholic teaching on marriage and the importance of sacramental marriage. We are sharing this as a resource that may be useful to others. —ML

It is very common today for couples who were not married in the Church to bring their children to the Church for baptism. Having those children baptized is typically not an issue, but many priests find themselves trying to persuade such couples to have their marriages validated, and many couples are somewhat dismayed by their efforts. What follows are some important points about the nature of matrimony that might help couples in this predicament to better understand the importance of having a sacramental marriage, and thus the importance of having their marriages validated by the Church.

The first point is that matrimony is a sacrament. But what does that even mean? It means that matrimony is a channel of divine grace. But what exactly is divine grace? Grace is one of the most important concepts for a Catholic to understand; it is the indwelling of the Trinity, that is, the supernatural presence of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, within the soul. Grace is a sharing in the divine nature. No one is born in a state of grace (except of course the Blessed Mother — but this is another matter altogether).

Each one of us is born in need of a savior, for each of us inherited original sin, which is why we have our children baptized. But even the baptized must struggle with the effects of original sin, which baptism does not do away with. I am reminded of my good friend who was a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, whom I met while hitchhiking to Nashville, TN back in 1979. His influence brought me back to the Church when I was 17 years old. He witnessed our marriage, but a couple of days before our wedding he took my wife and me out for supper to give us his famous talk on marriage, which consisted of four points. One of those points was “concupiscence,” which is one of the effects of original sin. Concupiscence is an inclination to sin and self-seeking. He said if there is one thing that is going to destroy your marriage, it is concupiscence, or selfishness. I am my own worst enemy, and my battle in this life is primarily a battle against myself, that is, my own tendency to sin.

What do we need to rise above our inclination to sin and self-seeking? The answer to that question is divine grace. Without grace, which is a sharing in the divine life, we will sin, because without grace we are slaves to sin. Divine grace is supernatural, not natural; moreover, grace is given by God freely without our having earned it in any way; there is nothing we can do to procure it on our own, for it is sheer gift — although we can lose it on our own. Sin either weakens the effects of grace within us (venial sin), or it kills the grace of God within (mortal sin).

The sacraments are channels of grace, and matrimony is marriage raised to the level of a sacrament; as such, it is a means of divine grace. A couple with a valid sacramental marriage will have the graces necessary to fulfill the demands of the state of married life, the graces to be a good and faithful spouse and parent. We need these graces because marriage is tough; it is difficult, and it is work. It is difficult because, for one, we struggle with the tendency to selfishness (concupiscence).

Two conditions are necessary for a Catholic couple to have a valid sacramental marriage: canonical form and freedom from all marital impediments. Canonical form means that for baptized Catholics, “only those marriages are valid (truly marriages) which are contracted in the presence of the local Ordinary or parish priest or of the priest or deacon delegated by either of them, who, in the presence of two witnesses, assists” (Can. 1108 §1).

This means that, with rare exceptions, if a baptized Catholic is married outside the Church — for example before a Justice of the Peace — in the eyes of the Church the two are simply not married, although they are considered married by the state or province. If that is the case, the graces of matrimony will not be available to them, and so they are at a serious disadvantage. Without the supernatural strength provided by the sacrament of matrimony, will the couple have what it takes to make it through the difficulties and challenges that are an inevitable part of married life? In my experience, it is more likely that they will not.

The other condition for a valid sacramental marriage is that there must be no marital impediments. Allow me to explain. Marriage is a joining of two, male and female, into one flesh, one body. It is a mutual and total giving of the self, and since you are your body, to give yourself is to give your body, not partially, but completely. When a person gives his body entirely to another, he has not reserved any part for himself. And if she gives her body completely and entirely to him, then she cannot revoke what she gave. And that is why marriage is a total and irrevocable giving of the self.

However, there is another aspect to this. The couple enter into a covenant, an agreement, to be a one flesh union, but what they intend cannot be achieved by them alone. The specific relationship of husband and wife can only be brought into being by God. The couple cannot unite themselves into a marital bond that exists till death. They intend that, they commit to that, agree to that, they profess that in public, but now it is up to God to bring that relationship, which is a “one flesh union,” into existence. God unites the two. We know this through Scripture. Christ said in the New Testament, “What God has joined together, let no man divide,” and that includes the couple themselves. They too are not to divide this. The union itself comes from above, not from below. What comes from below is very important, so important that when that part is defective in some way, no union results.

It’s really quite remarkable to think of the significance of this. It is very weighty, a profoundly sacrificial thing to do on the part of the couple; and once those conditions have been realized, God responds and creates the marriage, the nuptial relationship, joins the two together into an indissoluble union, a unique relationship that human persons are unable to bring about on their own. That’s why the Church teaches that marriage is a divine institution. It is created by God, not by man, not by the state. The Church and the State only witness it and make laws that protect it.

It is from this definition (a joining of two into one flesh) that we can determine the properties of marriage, and it is from these properties of marriage that we can determine the impediments of a valid marriage. Impediment is from the word ‘impede’, which means to prevent. These are obstacles that prevent a marriage from being valid. Now, it is important to know who it is that administers the sacrament of matrimony. Most couples will answer: “the priest.” The answer, however, is the couple themselves administer the sacrament to one another; the priest is only a witness. The priest or deacon administers the sacrament of baptism, for example, but not matrimony. Now, if I am baptizing a baby and while pouring the water decide to get creative and say: “I baptize you in the name of the Creator, the Great Lover, and the eternal breath of God,” that would be an invalid baptism. The baby would have to be baptized again. So even with baptism, there are two aspects: one from below and one from above: I am coming from below, and I have to perform the rite properly and say the words: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” but God alone works from above, actually bringing about in the soul of the child what baptism is intended to bring about, namely forgiveness of original sin, the grace of regeneration, the virtues of faith, hope, and charity infused into the soul of the child, the seven personal gifts of the Holy Spirit infused, etc.

Since you administer the sacrament of matrimony, it is you that renders it valid, not the priest — he just witnesses what it is you are doing. And so, it is very possible that at the end of that ceremony, a couple has an invalid marriage. There are certain conditions that must be met, and if any one of these conditions is not met, we have an impediment. If you have an impediment, you can have your marriage annulled, which means there was never any marriage in the first place. This is not a divorce — the Church does not recognize divorce.

The first impediment is coercion. Love is not love unless it is freely given. So, if one is coerced, we have a defect of consent. The marriage is not valid. Later on, when the marriage fails, because the sacramental graces are not present, he or she will be able to get an annulment, if it can be established that there was coercion and that under normal circumstances, he or she would not have consented to this marriage.

Next, there is fraud: the person you married is not the person you thought he or she was, for example, you discover that he or she was leading a double life, or withheld information that if you had it, you never would have consented in the first place.

Another impediment is leaving an opening for divorce. Since marriage is a complete and total giving of the self, the intention must be “till death do us part,” not “till love do us part.” Death alone dissolves a marriage. Many people marry while not intending it to be till death, but until it “gets old,” at which point they will move on to more exciting things.

Next is the inability to consummate the marriage. The inability to perform the sexual act renders a marriage invalid; the reason is that marriage is a joining of two into one flesh, and so the couple must be able to become one flesh in the act of sexual union. Note that infertility is not an impediment.

The deliberate intention not to have children is an impediment. Openness to children is a necessary condition for a valid marriage. One may never end up having children, due to infertility, but the openness to children is required for a valid marriage.

A prior bond of marriage is an impediment. A person might be still married to another. Only death severs the marital union, so if a person had a previous marriage and the spouse is still alive, the Church presumes validity, until it can be determined to be invalid. If the person is a Catholic and was married outside the Church, and then got divorced, recognized by the state, and then later on met someone and wished to be married in the Church, that’s certainly possible, because the Church would not have recognized the previous marriage, because it lacked canonical form (was outside the Church).

And finally, psychological immaturity. This is not always easy to detect, and it is hard to define. Let’s just say that the two getting married must have the moral and psychological equipment to be married. Some people do not have the capacity to be married, to actually carry out what they vow to carry out. Children can’t be married; they don’t have the capacity, for they are typically self-centered. But moral adulthood, moral maturity, implies being able to love the other for the other’s sake, not for my sake. Some adults just do not have the capacity to actually achieve what marriage requires. They do not understand what marriage is, they do not understand what love is, and where they are morally at this moment is such that their marriage vows would be a lie.

Matrimony is a profoundly noble vocation, just as religious in nature as the priesthood itself. It is a great mystery according to St. Paul, a sign of the love that Christ the Bridegroom has for his bride, the Church. It is a very important counter-cultural witness to the true nature of love as fidelity, steadfastness, endurance, which are the properties of the love of the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, all this at a time when marriage is still on the decline. A validation is more than a stamp, or a formal blessing of an otherwise natural marriage. It is the establishment of the marriage itself as a sacramental reality and a source of grace.

Image: Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

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Douglas McManaman was born in Toronto and grew up in Montreal. He studied philosophy at the University of St. Jerome’s College (Waterloo) and theology at the University of Montreal. He is a permanent deacon of the Archdiocese of Toronto and ministers to those with mental illness. He taught Religion, Philosophy and the Theory of Knowledge for 32 years in Southern Ontario, and he is the current chaplain of the Toronto Chapter of the Catholic Teachers Guild. He is a Senior Lecturer at Niagara University and teach Marriage Prep for the Archdiocese of Toronto. His recent books include Why Be Afraid? (Justin Press, 2014) and The Logic of Anger (Justin Press, 2015), and Christ Lives! (Justin Press, 2017), as well as The Morally Beautiful (Amazon.ca), Introduction to Philosophy for Young People (Amazon.ca), Readings in the Theory of Knowledge, Basic Catholicism, and A Treatise on the Four Cardinal Virtues. He has two podcast channels: Podcasts for the Religious, and Podcasts for Young Philosophers. He currently lives with his wife and daughter in Ontario, Canada.

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