Catholic History


THE Nature of Marriage as such._ Marriage is a natural contract between man and woman, which Christ has raised to the dignity of a sacrament. Heathens maybe, and are, united in true marriage, and their union is of course a lawful one, sanctioned and blessed by God Himself, who is the author of nature as well as of grace. But it is only among baptized persons that the contract of marriage is blessed and sanctified in such a manner as to become a means of conferring grace, so that we must distinguish between marriage in itself or according to the natural law on the one hand and the sacrament of marriage on the other. Theologians commonly give the following definition of marriage taken from the Master of the Sentences. It is "viri mulierisque conjunctio maritalis inter legitimas personas individuam vitae societatem retinens." It is "conjunctio viri et mulieris" _ i.e. the union of man and woman, the persons between whom the contract is formed; it is "maritalis" _ i.e. it implies the giving to each power over the person of the other, and so is distinct from the union of friend with friend, man with man in business, and the like; it is "inter legitimas personas" _ i.e. between those who are not absolutely prevented by lawful impediment from contracting such an union; "individuam vitae societatem retinens," it binds them to an undivided and indissoluble partnership during life, and so is distinct from such unhallowed unions as are contracted for a time or may be ended at will. If we add, "gratiam conjugibus conferendam significans" _ i.e. being an (efficacious) sign of grace to be bestowed on the persons contracting _ we have the full definition of marriage as a sacrament. Of course, the definition gives the bare essentials of marriage, for it ought to include the most perfect union of heart and soul, sympathy and interest.

Two points in the above definition may cause some difficulty, since it assumes that even in the law of nature a man can only have one wife (and of course a woman only one husband), and further that by the same law the marriage tie lasts till death.

With regard to the former point, polygamy, according to St. Thomas ("Suppl." lxv. I), does not absolutely destroy the end of marriage, for it is possible that a man with several wives should protect them and provide for the education of his children. And therefore (as many theologians suppose, from the time of the Deluge) God allowed the Patriarchs and others, whether Jews or heathen, to have more wives than one. But polygamy cruelly injures the perfect union of marriage; it degrades man by sensuality and exposes woman to the miseries of jealousy and neglect; it endangers the welfare of the children, and so may be justly stigmatized as contrary to the law of nature. Moreover, monogamy alone is contemplated in the institution of marriage: Gen. i. 24, "Therefore a man will leave his father and his mother and will cleave to his wife, and they shall be one flesh." The legislation in Deut. xxv. 5 seq. appears to assume that monogamy was the rule among the Hebrews; so does the book of Proverbs throughout, and particularly the beautiful description of the good wife in ch. xxx.,1 and the same idea pervades the noble poetry of Ps. cxxviii. (see also in the Deutero-canonical books, Tob. i. II; Ecclus. xxvi. I) It was not till A.D. 1020 that a law of Rabbi Gershon ben Judah in the Synod of Worms Absolutely prohibited polygamy among the Western Jews. It was practiced by the Jews of Castile even in the fourteenth century, and still survives among the Jews of the East (Kalisch on Exodus, P. 370; on Lev. P. 374). But our Lord Himself expounded and enforced the natural law of marriage, and recalled men to the idea of marriage given in Genesis. It is worth noticing that He quotes the Septuagint text, which is more express in favor of monogamy than the Hebrew: And the two shall be one flesh." (So also the Samaritan "and there shall be from the two of them one flesh" the New Testament invariably, Mark x. 8; 1 Cor. vi. 16; Ephes v. 31 and the Vulgate. The Targum of Onkelos, on the other hand, exactly follows the Hebrew.) Again, since Christ spoke generally of all mankind and not simply of those who were to be members of his Church, theologians hold that He withdrew the former dispensation, and consequently that polygamy is unlawful and a violation of natural law even in heathen. (Billuart, "De Matrimon." diss. v. a. I.)

The same principles apply to the second point of difficulty. Moses, our Lord declares, permitted divorce because of the hardness of men's hearts, i.e. to prevent greater evils; and in consequence of this dispensation it was perhaps lawful for the heathen to imitate the example of the Jews in this respect also. But here, too, Christ has recalled all mankind to the primitive institution. The apparent exception which our Lord makes will be considered below, and certain cases in which marriage may be really dissolved have been explained in the article on DIVORCE.

II. The Sacrament of Marriage. A. sacrament is an outward sign, and nobody doubts that in marriage, as in all other contracts, some outward sign on the part of the contracting parties is necessary. They must signify their consent to the solemn obligation of living together as man and wife. It is plain, too, that marriage may be called a sacred sign, for it typifies, as St. Paul (ad Ephes. v.) assures us, the mysterious union between Christ and the Church, which is his bride. But is it an efficacious sign of grace? That is, is the contract of marriage accompanied by signs which not only betoken, but necessarily, in consequence of Christ's institution, convey grace to all baptized persons who do not willfully impede the entrance of the grace into their hearts? This is a question on which Catholics are divided from Protestants, and which was agitated among Catholics themselves late even in the middle ages. St. Thomas ("Supp." xlii. a. 3), though he assumes that marriage is a sacrament of the new law, inquires whether it "confers grace," and mentions three opinions: first, that it does not do so at all, and this opinion he dismisses at once; next, that it confers grace only in the sense that it makes acts lawful that would otherwise be sins (this opinion he also rejects, but in a less summary way); and thirdly, that when "contracted in the faith of Christ," it confers grace to fulfill the duties of the married state, and this opinion he accepts as "more probable." It is plain that all which the second opinion attributes to marriage may be truly said of marriage as a natural contract, and does not by any means amount to a confession that marriage is a Christian sacrament in the sense of the Council of Trent. What St. Thomas gives as the more probable opinion is now an article of faith, for the council (Sess. xxiv. De Sacram, Matr.). after stating that Christ Himself merited for us a grace which perfects the natural love of marriage and strengthens its indissoluble unity, solemnly defines (Can. I) that marriage is " truly and properly one of the seven sacraments of the evangelical law instituted by Christ."

The same council speaks of Scripture as insinuating (innuit) this truth, and more can scarcely be said. One text, indeed, as translated in our Douay Bible, would certainly seem to settle the question _ viz. Ephes. v. 31, 32, "For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall adhere to his wife; and they shall be two in one flesh. This is a great sacrament, but I speak in Christ and in the Church." But we venture to think that this is not the true sense of the Vulgate, "Sacramentum hoc magnum est; ego autem dico in Christo et in ecclesia," which exactly answers to the original Greek, except that "in Christo et in ecclesia" would be better rendered as in the old Latin of Tertullian ("Contr. Marc." v. 18 ; "De Anima," II), "in Christum et in ecclesiam." "Sacramentum" need not mean a "sacrament" any more than the Greek musterion which it represents, and to prove this we need not go beyond the text of the Vulgate itself, which speaks of the "sacramentum" of godliness, I Tim. iii. 16; the "sacramentum" of the seven stars ; the "sacramentum" of the woman and the beast, Apoc. i. 20 ; xvii. 7. Indeed, though the word "sacramentum" occurs in fifteen other places of the Vulgate, it cannot possibly mean a sacrament in any one of them. We translate accordingly, "This mystery is great, but I speak with reference, to Christ and the Church " _ that is, the words, "For this cause shall a man leave," etc., contain a hidden or mysterious sense,2 in virtue of which St. Paul regards Adam's words about the union between man and wife as a type or prophecy of the union between Christ and his Church. We have the authority of Estius for this interpretation which is that generally adopted by modern scholars, and he denies that the ancients appealed to this text to prove marriage a sacrament.

On the other hand, St. Cyril ("Lib. ii. in Joann.") says that Christ was present at the wedding in Cana of Galilee that He might sanctify the principle of man's generation, "drive away the old sadness of childbearing," "give grace to those who were to be born;" and he quotes the words of St, Paul, "If any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; old things have passed away."

St. Augustine ("Tract. 9 in Joann." cap. 2) holds similar language. This theory, however credible in itself, certainly does not lie on the surface of St. John's narrative.

More may be made of I Tim. ii. II seq. "Let a woman learn in quietness, in all subjection. But teaching I do not permit to a woman, nor to have authority over a man, but to be in quietness. For man was first formed and then Eve, and Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived hath fallen into transgression; but she shall be saved through her childbearing,3 if they continue in faith and love and sanctification with temperance." St. Paul excludes women from the public ministry of the Church, and reserves that for men. But he assigns them another ministry instead. They are to save their own souls by the faithful discharge of their duties as wives, and to be the source of the Church's increase, for it cannot subsist without marriage any more than without the sacrament of order. Women are to be the mothers of children whom they are to tend and train for the service of Christ. And just as a special grace is given to those whom God calls to the priestly state, so is "the state of marriage placed under the protection and blessing of a special grace, as being dedicated to the Church and subserving its continual growth and expansion." Thus the intercourse of the sexes, which is apt to become a source of fearful corruption, is blessed and sanctified, more even than in its primitive institution, and directed to a still higher end, that of carrying on the Church's life on earth. The natural union is holy and beautiful: Christ perfects the union of heart and soul and makes it still more holy and beautiful by sacramental grace; and, hallowed by a sacrament, marriage becomes the perfect antitype of Christ's union with His Church. He cleansed His Church that He might unite it to Himself He sanctifies Christian man and woman in their union that it may be "a hallowed copy of his own union with His Church" (see the eloquent passage in Döllinger, in "First Age of the Church," Engl. Transl. pp. 361, 362).

The reader must remember that we do not allege this last passage as in any way conclusive from a controversial point of view, though we do think it fits in well with the Catholic doctrine. Many authorities are alleged from tradition, one or two of which we have already given in speaking of the marriage at Cana. St. Ambrose, "De Abraham," i. 7, says that he who is unfaithful to the marriage bond "undoes grace, and because he sins against God, therefore loses the share in a heavenly mystery (sacramenti cælestis consortium amittit)." St. Augustine, "De Bono Conjugali," cap. 24, writes: "The advantage of marriage among all nations and men lies in its being a cause of generation and a bond of chastity, but as concerns the people of God, also in the holiness of a sacrament (in sanctitate sacramenti)." Here the distinction drawn between natural and Christian marriage.. and still more the comparison made between the "sacramenta" of marriage and order.4 seem to warrant our rendering of "sanctitate sacramenti."

(To be Continued)


1 The estimate of women is high throughout the Old Testament. We need only remind the reader of Mary, the sister of Moses, Deborah, Anna. See also Prov. xiv. I ; xviii. 22; xix. 14 (even xxi. 9, 19, are not really different in spirit). The most unfavourable judgment is that of Eccles. vii. 28.

2 The formula, "This is a great mystery," is a common Rabbinical one, See Schoettgen, Horæ, P. 783, seq.; and the same Chaldee word for "mystery" is preserved in the Penshito rendering of the verse.

3 Bishop Elicott, ad. loc., translates "through the childbearing" _ i.e. through the birth of Christ. It seems to us incredible that St. Paul, if he really meant this, should have expressed it by an allusion so obscure and abrupt.

4 He says the "sacramentum ordinationis " remains in a cleric deposed for crime, and that the bond of marriage is only loosed by death However, cap. 18 proves that St. Augustine did not use the word "sacramentum" in its precise modern sense, for he calls the polygamy of the Jews "sacramentum pluralium nuntiarum" as typifying the multitude of converts to the Church.

5 Döllinger objects to the instance from I Cor. v. i. because he says there is no Greek word for "Incest," so that the Apostle was obliged to use porneia. Why porneia rather than moicheia? As to Amos vii. 17, "Thy wife will commit fornication In the city," he urges that this defilement was not to be voluntary on the woman's part, and therefore was not adultery. This argument proves too much. If it was not adultery because not willful, no more was it "fornication."

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