An Image of Christ and His Church – What is Marriage?: Part VI

Editor’s Note: This is the sixth in a series of articles to explore the American Bishops’ Pastoral Letter, “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan.” Read Part I here, Part II here, Part III here, Part IV here, Part V here, and Part VII here.

The relation of husband and wife is a mirror of Christ and His Church. The husband images Christ in the family, as the head of the household, just as Christ is the head of the Church. His love is to be a love that transcends human love; it is to be a love like Christ, Who hands Himself over, Who sacrifices Himself for His Bride.  It is to be agape. The wife, as so beautifully described by Pope Pius XI, is to be the heart of the family. She is the image of the Church, supported by Christ the head, fruitful and culture-forming in her feminine receptivity. She is to obey the husband.

Here is another “hard saying” which many take genuine, but unnecessary, offense to. We must strive to recapture the true Christian notion of obedience, a virtue necessary to all Christians, no matter what their gender, age, or state of life. Virtues such as obedience and sacrificial love are necessary to the right ordering of society, and are necessary for the achievement of holiness. Obedience does not compromise human dignity, it enhances it, obedience does not destroy human freedom; it fulfills it. This obedience does no damage to the natural equality of spouses, any more than the equality, freedom, or dignity of a religious novice is damaged by obedience to a superior; any more than the equality, freedom, or dignity of a believer is diminished by obedience to Holy Mother Church; any more than the equality, freedom, or dignity of Jesus Christ was compromised by obedience to the Father. Spouses are called, as are all Christians, to be subject to one another for the sake of Christ, but that does not alter their roles. The subjection to which spouses are called to is subjection and obedience to their respective roles: the husband as the head of the family in loving leadership, and the wife as heart in her role as receptive and fruitful center of family life.

Catholics should have no fear of this “hard teaching” since the Church alone has maintained the integrity of all the “hard teachings” of her most faithful spouse. Msgr. Charles Pope recently wrote a very beautiful meditation on this “unpopular” teaching on the Archdiocese of Washington Web site. He says, “God is not playing around here or choosing sides. He has a comprehensive plan for husbands that is demanding and requires him to curb any notions that authority is about power and to remember that, for a Christian, authority is always given so that he who has it may serve.”

As Pope Pius XI so prophetically put it:

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 a 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 not 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 (Casti connubii, 27).

Here it is perhaps opportune to break and describe the prerequisites for marriage, especially from a canonical perspective. Legislation on the covenant and contract of marriage is one of the bedrocks of Canon law. Indeed, it was one of the chief topics addressed during the period when the Church made law into the scientific subject it is today. During Canon law’s formative period in the 11th and 12th centuries, marriage was at the forefront of the discussion. You see, in the pre-modern period, many areas that today are part of civil law (or are claimed by civil law) were the exclusive jurisdiction of the Church, especially things which had to do with the personal goods of society, things like marriages and wills. Therefore it was the Church who had the responsibility to legislate on matters relating to marriage.

In the first place, the Church had to decide who was capable of marriage, and who was not. This meant outlining things regarding the suitability of the prospective spouses from natural and divine law. For instance, the Church has always set age limits, in previous times beginning at puberty, but amenable to adjustment based on prevailing socio-cultural conditions. Today, Canon law states that the youngest valid age is 16 for men and 14 for women, while giving local bishops the power to raise the minimum age for weighty reasons. The reason for this law is to preserve the freedom of those who have achieved rationality and who have attained sexual maturity. Given different cultures, however, there are many reasons that may militate for the raising of the minimum age. Another important aspect of marriageability is the ability to fulfill the procreative function in a human manner, for just as same-sex couples are naturally impeded from having a procreative union, so are those who are perpetually impotent at the time of marriage. If one is unable to complete the sexual act in a human manner, that person cannot marry. Note that this does not prevent people who are naturally sterile from entering marriage. They are able to complete the sexual act in a human way, even though the act will not result in conception, yet it remains a complete conjugal act, open to the transmission of life.

There are groups of people who cannot marry because of various existing impediments. Obviously those who are already married cannot, until their current spouse dies naturally (oh, and by the way, one cannot be complicit in the murder of one’s spouse either and validly marry again, so don’t get any ideas!) Neither can those in perpetual religious vows or those who have been ordained be married. In certain cases, priests in the Eastern Rite, in the Anglican Use, or converting ministers can remain married, but ordination excludes the possibility of future marriages for them.

One of the cardinal principles for matrimonial union that the Church has defended since the very beginning is that the consent of the couple must be free and, insofar as possible, publically manifested. This prevents both outside compulsion to marry (for instance parental demand) as well as forced abduction of women. It serves to enhance women’s dignity, and in the end, the dignity of marriage and society as a whole. The upshot of this irreducible demand for freedom is the seriousness of the vow: it is lifelong, permanent, and exclusive. Once validly uttered, there is no going back.

A great debate arose in the 12th century over what constituted the essence of marriage as a sacrament, whether it was the exchange of vows, or whether it was the subsequent accomplishment of the sexual act. After many years of debates between canonists and theologians, a sort of compromise was worked out. When vows are exchanged a real marriage exists, called a ratified marriage. This is a real and valid marriage, but can be dissolved in a very small number of cases. Once vows have been exchanged and the couple has engaged in sexual intercourse in a human way (that is with passion justly ordered though right reason), then the marriage becomes indissoluble. The couple has become one flesh and no power on earth can separate them. St. Francis de Sales describes this when he says “God joins husband to wife with his own Blood and for this reason the union is so strong that the soul must sooner break from the body of one of them than the husband from the wife. The union must be understood principally not of the body but of the heart, affections, and love.”

Marriage is also unique among the sacraments because in it alone, the spouses are the ministers of the sacrament to each other. The presence of the priest or deacon, while required in normal circumstances for validity, is merely the requirement of an official witness of the Church. In extraordinary cases, two baptized people can merely exchange vows in the presence of witnesses. As an example, after the persecutions of Catholics in 17th century Japan, the faithful were without clergy for over 200 years. Japanese Catholics continued the practice of the faith by administering the sacraments proper to the laity, Baptism and Marriage. There is an opinion among Eastern Orthodox that the minister of marriage is the priest, or lies in the priestly blessing, but this cannot be maintained, given the possibility for marriage in extraordinary situations (especially since this position was developed only in the last several centuries). In any case, the beautiful ceremony of crowning that one can see in our Eastern Catholic churches certainly requires the presence and ministrations of the priest.

“Like” Truth and Charity Forum on Facebook!

All of these very significant considerations are necessary because of the immense dignity that marriage possesses, as a sacrament and channel of grace, but also as the external witness to the whole world of the relationship between Christ and His Church. It is completely right and proper that the Church take special care with such an important state of life. Marriage is to be a witness, for Marriage is a reflection of the inner life of God Himself: Marriage images the Trinity.

Married love, by its sacramentality, draws on the grace that is given freely by the Triune God, who lives as a community of Persons in absolute Unity. Humans are created in the image and likeness of God, and God is a communion of Persons. Men and women, in their complementarity are called to live in a communion of Persons that, like the Trinity, is loving and life-giving. God the Father utters his all-comprehensive Word, the Son, and the two, loving each other from all eternity spirate the Holy Spirit, as from one principle. God, being One, is not Alone. “It is not good for the man to be alone” so God creates for him a helpmate. From their complementarity and mutuality, children are born, the fruit of love. So is human society born, in a reflection of the communion of the Trinity. How great and sublime is this sacrament, this mystery, which, so intrinsic, basic, and necessary to human nature, is at the same time the image and symbol of the inner Trinitarian life of God Himself.

Donald S. Prudlo is Associate Professor of Ancient and Medieval History at Jacksonville State University in Alabama. He is also Associate Professor of Theology and Church History at Christendom. His specialty is Saints and Sainthood in the Christian Tradition, and he is the author of The Martyred Inquisitor: The Life and Cult of Peter of Verona (+1252) (Ashgate, 2008) and has recently edited The Origin, Development, and Refinement of Medieval Religious Mendicancies (Brill, 2011).
Articles by Donald:

  • tcstrenge

    Thank-you for this indispensable teaching; so many troubled marriages can be saved and others enhanced by these beautiful teachings Jesus has given us through our Holy Mother the Church.

  • Michelle Berghout

    The statement “she is to obey the husband” is sure to stir up negative reaction. Blessed John Paul’s teaching on mutual submission between spouses, which he explains in his Apostolic letter on The Dignity and Vocation of Women, is a sure way to a happy and holy marriage! God bless, Michelle Berghout

  • LittleFlower

    If you marry someone who has been surgically sterilized, is it a valid marriage?