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ANDRÉ DUMAS , JORGE E. MALDONADO
Love between man and woman is the only real marriage, which takes place when they discover each other, delight in each other and cleave to each other, as we read in Gen. 2:23‑25 and as Jesus confirms in the gospel (Mark 10:6‑9 and par.). Love is what makes marriage, and not the other way round. Love is not legitimized and made to last through formal religious marriage.
The churches eventually became increasingly concerned with preserving marriage, maintaining the civil status of married couples and, through marriage, keeping a hold over private life, emotions and the confession, to which the children would later belong. Ecumenism exists because of the relations between the various historic churches with their individual theologies and liturgies. Very often it is precisely when a marriage takes place that a genuine, loyal and respectful ecumenism turns out to be most difficult to put into practice – hence the significance of both the marvel of human love and the hindrances the various churches can create when it is made official.
While the Bible includes a great many prescriptions for worshipping God and running one’s life, neither the Old Testament nor the New contains any rules for the marriage ceremony. In the remote age of the patriarchs, for example, marriage included polygamy. In a similar way the NT also accepts the manners of its day, when women were subordinate to men and men were responsible for women’s honour and happiness. Christians had civil marriages in line with the customs of the civilization and city to which they belonged; there was no specifically Christian marriage during the first three centuries.
The great novelty, however, was that believers practised different customs in the Lord. The God of the people of Israel and of the church of Jesus Christ is in fact a God who joins with humanity in a fervent, patient, strong and elective divine covenant* of love. And it is indeed in human love in marriage that the prophets and apostles of God found the most striking and enduring parable to illustrate the bond God has with us, which is neither a yoke nor a link that lacks warmth but a live exchange. Now at last human marriage for its part stops being an arrangement or a custom and becomes a sharing of everything between two beings who, however, remain quite distinct individuals. They are covenanted in love, one for the other.
Marriage as a church sacrament
By “sacrament”* here we must understand the loving covenant of God with human beings and the church ceremony which alone validates and binds and is therefore as indissoluble as, for example, God’s link with us in Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus Christ. Through the sacrament marriage establishes an unchangeable state which is strong enough to combat our estrangements, instabilities and infidelities. But marriage as a sacrament also runs the risk of looking like a prison with the church holding the key.
Much interest was devoted to the initial conditions for a valid marriage (the free consent of the partners, the fulfilment of the due conjugal obligations of sex) – more than in the development of the partners’ lives, whereas the whole Bible is simply the story of the high points in the covenant between God and his people. The sacrament becomes the central act, with its conditions and the possibilities for its annulment by a court of the church.
For Roman Catholicism, marriage, clearly defined by the council of Trent,* is one of seven sacraments provided by the church for the salvation of souls, which was evolved in the 13th century in the period of the great cathedrals and scholastic theology. It sanctifies and provides a framework for the subsequent periods of one’s life. Marriage is undoubtedly a sacrament in a category of its own. Its biblical roots lie in the Latin translation of the Greek words behind Eph. 5:32 (a profound “mystery”). But does this phrase apply to marriage or to the incarnation of Jesus Christ, who leaves his Father in heaven to cleave to his bride on earth, the church?
It is the married partners who give each other the sacrament. But since Trent the sacrament has to be presided over by a priest, and most frequently the nuptial mass is referred to and the eucharist is celebrated.
“Sacrament” is a strong word. Like baptism, it is not something renewable. But is this word really appropriate theologically, since it is not related here directly to the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ as in baptism and the eucharist? When situations of spiritual and psychological difficulty and distress subsequently arise, should people remain sacramentally married, even if they have separated and have no common life? And why should divorce* – the failure of marriage – remain the only unforgivable sin?
Anglicans have kept the word “sacrament” for marriage but do not have the seven medieval sacraments. The Protestant churches speak of a “ceremony of blessing” when two partners declare before the whole congregation that they have decided to be joined together in the presence of God and when they make their gratitude public and pray the God of the covenant to go with them and bless them in their future commitments. The word “ceremony” seems more correct theologically than “sacrament” – more firmly rooted in the biblical vocabulary and in the practice of the ancient church. It also makes it possible to invoke again God’s blessing on those who, having failed, contract a new union. Nevertheless, a strong word is needed here too, involving complete commitment, as God entered into a commitment with his people and Jesus Christ did with his church.
Hesitation about marriage: the decision to love
All the churches are faced today with a crisis in marriage. Frequently people are hesi- tant about marrying, for there are so many divorces. Life in partnership has become considerably longer. Can there be a certainty of getting along well together for so long with truly felt happiness, and not simply because of a vow to be faithful? Also, civil society has come to terms with the fact of unmarried couples and their children, who are by no means looked down on. So whether marriage is called a sacrament or a blessing, what does the part played by the churches add or guarantee here?
The ecumenical movement, with its diminishing differences and developing convergences, is in contrast with the past history of our churches. It is the most united possible proclamation of the active goodness of God today. Likewise, marriage means deciding to live for each other as God decided to live for us in Abraham, David and Jesus Christ, and we in turn decide to live for him. An irresolute love which is always hesitant inevitably becomes weak and gradually disappears. Marriage is the opportunity to decide in love and also to say so in front of witnesses, to make them happy and strengthen us.
For this reason the churches certainly do not compel people to marry but rejoice with those who have decided to marry. The happiness of human love on earth makes God happy in heaven. That is what the churches have to say on marriage – and it is a word rather more spiritual than moral, psychological or sociological in these days when many are hesitant about making up their minds.
In most parts of the world today, marriage is a voluntary joining of two lives intended to last for the life-time of the couple. The understanding of marriage has changed dramatically over the centuries from patterns of relationship based on control and subordination to those characterized by mutuality and equality. The transition towards a more personal approach to marriage has not been easy throughout the centuries, but over the last decades the pace of change has tended to increase dramatically.
In every culture there are laws which clearly mark the beginning (and the end) of marriage, rituals that involve the community (to assure the adequate social transition), and customs (norms and rules) for support and encouragement. Thus, the voluntary relationship established between husband and wife is unique to them and to those around them, and it is clearly differentiated from the relationship to other relatives, the community and the society at large. In most societies marriages are one of the most important public events in common life.
Marriage has been defined in various ways: as a mystery, a sacrament, a contract, a vocation, a communion, an institution, etc. Each definition corresponds to a specific historical moment and cultural context.
In the West until recently, couples, families and households were part of a whole; to deal with one of them was to deal with them all. In many parts of the world this is still the custom. W.J. Everett affirms: “When a prelate blessed a marriage he also was blessing a family (matrimonium) and a household (patrimonium). He was also legitimizing the formation of an enterprise central to the economic, social and governmental welfare of the people as a whole... It is little wonder that today we have such trouble sorting out what the church’s concern really was when it got involved with marriage.”
The shift from agricultural to industrial economies has had a profound effect on marriage, the family and households all over the world. Economic, cultural and scientific changes deeply affect the understanding of marriage, its nature and goals. Women and men today tend to feel less hesitant about remaining single, and those who choose to marry expect happiness, self‑fulfilment, “instant therapy” from the marriage relationship. Procreation is considered an option rather than the inevitable outcome of the marriage union. Married couples share a greater commitment to interpersonal intimacy and are increasingly aware of the equal rights of both sexes. Longevity and birth control* have provided couples with the possibility of looking forward to the time when the marriage will develop into a long‑term friendship, independent of procreation and raising children.
Commissions have been appointed in almost every mainline Protestant church to reflect on marriage and to reformulate a Christian approach to it. The Orthodox church is looking afresh into its liturgies of marriage to find theological and pastoral elements to meet new demands. Vatican II developed a new paradigm to describe Roman Catholic marriages, described by David Thomas as a shift “from viewing marriage primarily as a biological and juridical union to one which is more interpersonal, spiritual and existential”.
Marriage in the history of the church
The Bible nowhere records the requirement of a religious ceremony, and in the early church marriage was not a religious matter. Most weddings during the first four centuries were presided over by the father, who joined the hands of the couple. Occasionally bishops were invited to officiate. Late in the 4th century Christian wedding ceremonies acquired sacred character by having a priest or bishop bless the couple or, more commonly, the bride (for fertility). In the 9th century Charlemagne in the Western church (802) and Emperor Leo the Wise in the Eastern church (895) tried to impose the rule that a priest must officiate at weddings and the church accord its blessings.
In southern Europe the Roman tradition had long held that the consent (consensus) of either the couple or their parents was required, since arranged marriages were universally practised among all social strata. The Germanic and Frankish traditions of northern Europe, however, insisted that the key element was consummation (copula) after the marriage consent. Since then, these two positions have been part of the church’s discussion of marriage, divorce and annulment.
In the 9th century marriages began to be held in the church. This practice was gradually given liturgical form, and by the 12th century, marriage was validly and legitimately contracted in a marriage liturgy, into which the “civil” ceremonies had been assimilated. At the same time, theologians began to discuss the sacramental nature of marriage, though it was not until the council of Trent (1545‑63) that official status was given to marriage as a sacrament.
Facing the proliferation of clandestine marriages, the church used the theology of the sacramentum, a sacral sign, to defend the Christian marriage, though no saving power was explicitly accorded to marriage. Edward Schillebeeckx asserts: “The idea that sacraments in the strict sense were those of importance for Christian life contributed directly to the inclusion of marriage among the seven, despite the fact that marriage was not regarded at this time as having a power of grace, but only as being a sign of more sublime mystery.”
With the Protestant Reformation, sacraments* were questioned. The Reformed churches agreed that marriage as a sacrament and obligatory celibacy were not in accordance with scripture or with the original Christian tradition. Marriage was seen by the reformers as a purely ethical matter to be controlled by the government, rather than a symbolic matter under church jurisdiction. Other concepts were used to characterize marriage, such as “vocation”, “covenant” and “communion”. In modern Protestantism the covenant* model is very widespread as a protest against the individualistic connotations of contract or the overly naturalistic approaches in hierarchical sacrament models. However, says Georges Crespy, “there is no, in the strict sense of the term, Reformed doctrine of marriage which has been expressed and proposed to Protestant people as a demand or requisite of faith”. This does not mean that there is no Protestant theological reflection on the subject or that marriage has necessarily been secularized. In the Protestant countries marriage still remains within the province of the Christian communities.
Besides re‑affirming the sacramental nature of marriage and the church’s right to regulate, annul or dissolve it, the council of Trent resolved that the only valid contract of marriage for baptized Christians was one made in the presence of a priest and two witnesses (though not necessarily liturgically or in church). Marriage, which had always been a secular reality experienced “in the Lord”, now seemed to have become an exclusively ecclesiastical affair. Today, despite the above‑mentioned new emphasis of Vatican II, the Roman Catholic doctrine and practice of marriage seems frozen in the 16th century.
Points of convergence and divergence
A controversial issue in the Christian understanding of marriage is its ends or purposes. The Roman Catholic point of view has focused primarily on procreation and rearing children and secondarily, as The Catholic Encyclopedia (1976) says, “the mutual aid, both material and spiritual, and the overcoming of sexual concupiscence in a legitimate manner”.
Most Protestant churches tend to start the list of the purposes of marriage with companionship, without denying the natural effect of sexual intercourse: procreation. Relationship is explained as required for the sake of offspring. The fecundity resulting from the marriage union is a byproduct of the union between man and woman, which is valuable for its own sake. “To give relationship priority in importance is not 20th century perversity,” says Helen Oppenheimer. “It picks out a strand in our tradition that has always been there (cf. 1 Sam.1:8), though no doubt reliable contraception makes the strand easier to find.”
Another point of controversy is related to divorce.* The Roman Catholic Church does not accept divorce, while Protestant and Orthodox churches generally do. Rome, however, holds the “right of the key” to annul a marriage, but it excommunicates those who divorce (see excommunication). The Orthodox church does not exclude the divorced from communion and in certain cases determines that marriage does not exist, going so far as to bless subsequent marriages when they are entered into with a spirit of repentance. Olivier Clément comments: “The indissolubility of the bond does not promote love. The question of divorce arises when nothing is left to save; the bond declared indissoluble at the beginning is already broken, and the law has nothing that can replace grace. The law can neither heal nor restore to life, nor can it say ‘Arise, and walk.’”
Most Christians, however, agree on certain characteristics of marriage that claim to be Christian: it is monogamous, holy, based on fidelity and companionship, and intended to last until death. All hold high views of its importance as a divine space, established by God at creation* as a foundation of human society and a blessing for humankind.
Among Eastern churches, the Pauline idea of the church as the bride of Christ exerted an earlier and greater influence. Their liturgies of marriage were inspired in the communion of Christ with the church. More emphasis also has been placed on the mystical meaning of marriage and its spirituality. Furthermore, theologians of the Eastern churches had a less pessimistic view of sex and sexuality than the Western church, church fathers and scholars. Marriage, then, is regarded by the church as a miniature where unity (uniqueness, monogamous character, fidelity), sanctity, catholicity and apostolicity (moving towards others) are present.
Theological reflection on marriage, forged throughout centuries to transform a civil contract into a liturgical event, has helped canonists and church jurists to define their field in juridical abstractions, but it has been of scarcely any help in pastoral matters or in the treatment of marriage as an anthropological fact.
A great deal of effort has been invested in defining marriage in its initial stage, the wedding ceremony: how to enter in it, who presides and legitimates, which liturgy is the most appropriate, etc. Proportionately less attention has been accorded the study of marriage as a life‑spanning process, comprising stages of growth, dilemmas and pains, crises and challenges. Oppenheimer declares: “In the very ordinariness of the immense claims they make upon each other – the give‑and‑take of everyday life – married people have a humanly valid mystery which is able to be a model of the grace of God.” Never before in the history of humankind has married life been led back in such a remarkable way to its original, authentic shape and form as it has today. It is time to look afresh at marriage from this perspective after crossing the threshold of a new millennium. In doing so, new and creative pastoral understandings and tools may become available to the church, couples and families of today.
JORGE E. MALDONADO
n P. Evdokimov, Le sacrement de l’amour (ET The Sacrament of Love: The Nuptial Mystery in the Light of the Orthodox Tradition, Crestwood NY, St Vladimir’s Seminary, 1985) n W.J. Everett, Blessed Be the Bond: Christian Perspectives on Marriage and the Family, Philadelphia, Fortress, 1985 n A. Hastings, Christian Marriage in Africa, London, SPCK, 1973 n D. Mace & V. Mace, The Sacred Fire: Christian Marriage through the Ages, Nashville TN, Abingdon, 1986 n H. Oppenheimer, in New Dictionary of Christian Ethics, London, SCM Press, 1986 n E. Schillebeeckx, Marriage: Human Reality and Saving Mystery, London, Sheed & Ward, 1978.
The text above is extracted from “ Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement ” 2 nd Edition , published by World Council of Churches (courtesy of World Council of Churches)