With all the confusion these days about what constitutes a marriage, it’s no wonder that there is further puzzlement when we speak of marriages as sacramental. We used to be able to take for granted, until recent times, that most everyone understood that, in its most basic form, marriage is the life-long union of one man and one woman for the good of each other and for having children and raising them to be upstanding members of the human community.
Today, however, we must stress that the marriage bond, or covenantal partnership, is not merely a man-made way of relating. Marriage originates from God at the very beginning of the creation of Adam and Eve, about which we learn in the opening chapters of the book of Genesis (see Gen. 1:27—28; 2:21—24), Marriage is part of God’s will for men and women and their flourishing, both before the fall of Adam and Eve as well as afterwards. This bond of marital love flows from the very fact that Adam and Eve were created in love by God and were made for love. Love, not just the emotion but true love, always expresses itself in seeking the true good of the other. As we know love whereby we seek what is truly good for each other, takes on many forms, but one of the greatest ways this is expressed is in the marriage covenant. This covenant is an agreement whereby a man and a woman exchange themselves to each other. Each gives himself or herself completely and permanently to the other, no holds barred. Yet, the marriage bond is a sacred one because God is the author of marriage.
Catholics refer to what I have just described as a natural marriage, or a natural marital bond, as distinguished from a sacramental marriage, or a sacramental marital bond. The word “natural” is here being used in a particular way, namely to explain an action that flows from the human nature of man and woman. In other words, men and women are the kinds of creatures who are made by God to be able to form covenants and give themselves to each other in marriage, among the many other natural acts of which they are capable on account of how they are created.
While a matrimonial bond is the union resulting from the gift of self that spouses make to each other, the form it takes (either natural or sacramental) results from whether or not the spouses are baptized Christians. In this light, marriages between a man and women are natural bonds when those who have vowed themselves to each other have not been baptized, or when one or the other of the spouses is not baptized. Thus, a non-baptized man and a non-baptized woman who marry form a natural marriage bond, as does a non-baptized person marrying a baptized person. If and only if, both the man and the woman are baptized is it possible for the marriage to be a sacrament.
Why is this important, especially if natural bonds of marriage are already holy, as noted above? The game changer between natural and sacramental marriages is the fact of the change in the souls of those who are baptized. Baptism is what transforms a person into an adopted child of God, cleansed from all sin and thus made a true worshipper of God through Christ and given the grace of the Holy Spirit to fulfill this new way of life.
The soul is even marked indelibly, such that every act that a baptized person does, whether good or evil, is done precisely as a person marked as belonging to Christ. Nothing but nothing is done apart from the fact of being baptized, and baptism, going all the way to the soul, cannot be undone, any more than someone can his or her ethnicity or blood ties. This means that when a baptized man and a baptized woman exchange marriage vows, they do so as belonging to Christ in a new way, and even their very act of marriage becomes a Christian form of worship of God. The difference between natural and sacramental marriage is not a degree of holiness, but the end (as in goal) of each kind of marriage. Natural marriage has natural ends, goals which are for the good of life on earth. Sacramental marriage, however, includes all the ends of natural marriage and, in addition, has the purpose of the spouses helping each other (and their children) to attain heaven through the special sacramental graces that come from belonging to Christ and being married in Him.
Catholics care about this important difference because sacramental marriage is a matter of nothing less than full, human flourishing both on earth and everlasting life in heaven.
Guest columnist Father Paul J. Keller, O.P., LTD. is an assistant professor of sacramental theology at the Athenaeum of Ohio and a member of the Dominicans of the St Joseph Province.