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Sacrament of Matrimony

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

“The Seven Sacraments Retreat”
March 2nd through 4th., 1990
In Cleveland, Ohio


Our present conference is on the Sacrament of Marriage. There are two names by which the Church refers to this sacrament – either marriage or matrimony. Most popularly when we refer to this sacrament it is matrimony, although marriage is an appropriate name.

I think the best place to begin an immense subject, is to ask ourselves, why did Christ, when He came into the world, institute the Sacrament of Matrimony? After all, marriage itself was already instituted by God at the dawn of human history. Evidently, there must have been a profound reason, and in plain language the reason was because it was necessary.

When God first instituted marriage, our first parents were told to live together, be faithful to one another, they were to be “two in one flesh”. But as we read the history of the human race, surely one of the most devastating effects of original sin is, it is a result of original sin, human nature in both men and women. Human nature now has tendencies that we have to resist and control if you want to remain faithful to the will of God.

Even the chosen people for some two thousand years, beginning with Abraham until the time of Christ. Even the chosen people, as we know, practiced polygamy. Whatever then, the Son of God who became man in the person of Christ was to do, He had better have provided some supernatural means (let’s change the adjective) some superhuman means of insuring that marriage would indeed be what God had originally intended it to be at the dawn of human history.

We begin by asking ourselves, “Why did Christ institute the Sacrament of Matrimony?” That was one reason. In order to preserve, and of course, restore the meaning of marriage to what God had originally intended it to be when the human race first began. But another reason why Christ, I don’t hesitate saying, had to institute the Sacrament of Matrimony is because as you remember at the Last Supper Christ told His followers, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another as I have loved you.” If then Christ raised the level of the practice of love beyond anything that had been known before, Christ commanded His followers to love one another as He who is God loves us. Such love, absolutely selfless love, was utterly unknown in all the previous ages of human history. Well, if Christ demanded that His followers practiced absolutely selfless love, patterned on the very love of God become man, then for married people, needless to say, every follower of Christ is obliged to practice selfless charity – this includes the married. And you don’t practice selfless charity without a lot of grace from God! That is why Christ instituted the Sacrament of the Eucharist- to provide us with the grace we need to love one another as He who is God became man has been loving us.

At the Last Supper He gave us the commandment to love one another with absolute selflessness and He instituted the Eucharist to make that humanly impossible command possible. Now back to marriage.

If Christ’s command to love one another as Christ has been loving us, if that command applies to all the followers of Christ, it surely applies to His married followers. And I have no hesitation in saying, that the selflessness of love demanded in marriage is impossible to observe unless Christ has instituted a sacrament to make, and I repeat, the humanly impossible-divinely possible through the grace received in the Sacrament of Matrimony.

Unity and Indissolubility

With that as an introduction we now begin to ask ourselves, “What are the qualities or divinely essential properties of marriage as a sacrament?” There are mainly two: There are unity and indissolubility. Both qualities, unity and indissolubility, are uniquely distinctive of marriage as a sacrament, because you see, we believe there are marriages and MARRIAGES; valid marriages which however, are not sacraments – we call them natural marriages. No unbaptized person can receive or enter in to the Sacrament of Marriage. Which is one fundamental reason you see immediately why for a Catholic to marry a nonbaptized is not to receive even for the Catholic, the Sacrament of Marriage. Either both receive the Sacrament or neither one does. Nevertheless, people who are not baptized can indeed be married, but they do not enter into the Sacrament of Marriage, and therefore these two essential qualities apply only and exclusively to the Sacrament of Matrimony.

What does the Church understand by the unity of marriage? She understands the monogamy of marriage. It is only one man, and one woman until death. It consequently excludes polygamy, which literally means having more than one spouse at the same time.

In the sixteenth century, the Council of Trent which was met in order to refute some of the errors that were then current, and my friends, those errors condemned in the sixteenth century are widespread, widespread in the twentieth century. Anyone who claims that, “Christians are permitted to have several wives simultaneously and that such a practice is not forbidden by any divine law” is heresy.

In the twentieth century the Church became more explicit, now this I think I will even repeat to make sure you clearly understand what I am saying. Not only is polygamy forbidden to Christians, but polygamy is forbidden to everybody. We therefore believe, since God became man in the person of Christ, either a plurality of wives or (and surely nowadays) a plurality of husbands, is forbidden not only to the baptized (to Christians) but it now a universal obligation binding on the whole human race. Don’t you think that needs saying?

That is the first distinctive quality of marriage – unity.

Secondly, indissolubility. Practically speaking, what the Church over the centuries has had mainly to defend is not so much polygamy, it has to defend indissolubility. There have been now in almost two thousand years of the Church’s history some major breaks with the Roman Catholic Church. The two most devastating were in the thirteenth century with the break of the Eastern Orthodox and in the sixteenth century of the Protestants. In both cases this was the main reason: the main reason why hundreds of millions of professed Christians are not Catholic is right here. Martin Luther wrote (just for the record) sixty-two volumes. I tell people I have read enough of Luther to be able to say this, you can spare yourself reading all those books. The main reason for the rise of Protestantism in the sixteenth century was in one monosyllabic word – sex.

Priests did not want to remain celibate, and married people wanted to divorce and remarry. I taught this to my Lutheran students at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, and I made sure in their exams they put that down. In other words, it is the unbroken claim of the Catholic Church in the indissolubility of sacramental marriage that has cost by now hundreds of millions who have chosen to leave the Catholic Church.

In order to make as clear as possible what the Church means by indissolubility we should distinguish two forms of indissolubility, which by the way is the preferred word – *indissolubility rather than indissolubility, both are good English words, but in the Church’s vocabulary it is rather indissolubility.

External and internal indissolubility- what do the two mean? Internal indissolubility means that a marriage cannot be dissolved from within. What unites a couple in marriage is a deeply interior bond of which Christ who is God, is the author. So that in the title in one of Archbishop Sheen’s books, “Three to Get Married”- husband, wife and Christ. It is Catholic doctrine that a sacramental marriage is absolutely indissoluble. Notice internal indissolubility, and I have because of the importance of the subject identified four articles of our Catholic faith regarding the indissolubility of Christian marriage.

First – Christian marriage (these are all defined Truths) cannot be dissolved by reason of heresy, domestic incompatibility, or willful discretion by one of the parties – one of the parties looses their faith or the couple find living together… Let me tell a story. It must have been fifteen years ago. I was preaching at a midnight Mass in Virginia. Crowded church. I spent hours preparing the homily. The microphone worked until I got to the pulpit. It went dead! I stopped. The pastor rushed to the sacristy. It was just, as they say in New England, “dead”. Then after Mass the pastor told me, “This is the second time in the years that I have been here as pastor that the microphone has gone dead.” And then he said, “You are in good company, the last time was when Archbishop Sheen was preaching here.” Here is the explanation he gave, “ More than once,” he said, “ I have had it happen. No rational explanation, things just collapsed. The devil, when he does not want something said, he interferes.” Back to our subject.

Christian marriage cannot be dissolved by reason of heresy; some person – either husband or wife looses their faith; or domestic incompatibility, recognized by the way, by all fifty-states of shall we still call it, “our American Union”, or willful desertion by one of the parties. It is a defined article of faith - there is no break in that internal bond.

Second revealed and defined truth – the Church is not in error when she teaches that the marriage bond cannot be dissolved because of adultery on the part of either the husband or the wife. Adultery, proved adultery, does not dissolve the marriage bond.

Third article of faith – (this is the hard one) Consequently, neither party, not even the innocent one who gave no cause for the adultery, can contract another marriage while the other party is still living. My friends, you have to be a Catholic to believe it, and you have to be a good Catholic to live it! I know.

Fourth (and obvious) defined doctrine – Adultery is therefore committed, both by the husband who dismisses his adulteress wife, and marries again; and by the wife who dismisses her adulteress husband and marries again.

We are living, and I am speaking in, the most unstable country in the civilized world. Yet, in the light of what we are saying it is not my observation - it is revealed Truth, the Catholic Church will survive only where those four defined Truths are still believed and followed. In my judgement, this is the heart of the crisis in the Catholic Church today.

We go on.

Under what conditions is a marriage absolutely indissoluble from within? Under three conditions: That both husband and wife were validly baptized before marriage. You might be wondering – do these articles of the Catholic Church apply to baptized Protestants? Yes! First condition therefore, both husband and wife were baptized before marriage.

Second condition – there has been a valid marriage, and more specifically a valid marriage contract in which husband and wife knew they were entering a life-long union, which was open to the generation of children. They knew what they were doing and they both freely chose to enter this kind of marriage.

Third – that after marriage there was what we call “natural”, and not “contraceptive” intercourse between husband and wife. Contraceptive relations, though practiced for twenty years after a Sacramental Marriage, if the intercourse is not a natural intercourse that marriage can be dissolved. In other words if two people marry, they know what they are doing; they intend to marry and they marry before a priest (or now a deacon,), and at least two witnesses, they freely choose to marry and their marriage is consummated – even by one natural marital intercourse after marriage, then that marriage cannot be dissolved. But if they practice contraceptive intercourse, that marriage is sacramental indeed, but can be dissolved. It is only natural intercourse after marriage that consummates and thereby makes the marriage absolutely indissoluble.

A short observation – What is external, or if you wish, outward indissolubility? This is when a husband and wife remain internally still husband and wife, but externally for good reasons live apart, either temporarily or permanently.

I don’t have to tell you, we all know this is a very difficult article of our faith. It is one thing to believe in the Trinity or the Real Presence, or the Incarnation – we cannot comprehend these mysteries anyhow. Ah! But to believe and remain firm in your belief - that, once contracted, a sacramental marriage and naturally consummated after the wedding, that the marriage cannot be dissolved by any human power. Let me tell you, this takes a great deal of faith.

It is not my place here to say the least, to even touch on or let alone develop the whole question of so-called annulments. Once a marriage is sacramental, because both had been baptized before they married and their contract between themselves was valid; they knew what they were doing and they wanted to enter that kind of life long union; and then their marriage was consummated by natural intercourse – then the word “annulment” of marriage is a misnomer. You do not “annul” what no power on earth can dissolve. And I am speaking in a country in which as we all know, there have been and sadly still are, so many unstable marriages.

What I want to do for the rest of this conference is to share with you my own deep convictions, born not only of my knowledge of theology, but my over forty years of experience with married people. To realize that, that the Sacrament of Matrimony is real! It does give grace – thank God that Christ instituted this Sacrament!

What do we believe that God gives those who are married? The quotation is a little long but I think it is worth making. It happens to be from section fifty of the Second Vatican Council’s document on “The Church in the Modern World”. Let me first read what the Second Vatican Council says and then some observations:

“Christ our Lord has abundantly blessed this gift of selfless love in marriage. Coming as it does from the spring of Divine love and modeled on Christ’s own union with the Church. Just as with old, God encountered His people with a covenant of love and fidelity. So our Savior, the Spouse of the Church now encounters the Christian spouses through the Sacrament of Marriage. He abides in them in order that by their mutual self-giving spouses will love each other with enduring fidelity as Christ loved the Church and delivered Himself up to death for her. Marriage and married love are by nature ordered to the procreation and education of children. True married love, and the whole structure of family life which results from this married love, is directed to disposing the spouses to cooperate courageously with the love of the Creator and Savior who through them would increase and enrich His family from day to day until the end of time.”

This is not poetry. It is hard, very hard reality.

What is the fundamental reason why Christ instituted the Sacrament of Marriage? In order to provide husband and wife with that kind of love, love for one another and love for the children except for them would not come into the world. That it might give them that kind of love which human nature by itself cannot possess, and the verb is “cannot”. If as those of you who are married know better than I, should I say that I wonder? I counseled too many husbands, too many wives; I can tell you, you need – how you have got to believe that you have the grace to love, love a person who you met and courted and thought you knew. But it is not only that after marriage the eyes of husband and wife are open as they have never been opened before – Oh no! Why didn’t somebody tell me before? It is not only that, it is – shall I say it? People change, and they can change dramatically. They can change physically. The woman that a man married when he married her normally is in the “flower of youth”. In case nobody told you, women do get older. But people change morally. The faith convictions that they may have had, the virtues that they may have had – really practiced, either before marriage or in the earlier years of matrimony. From having been models of virtue they can be, shall I say, patterns of vice. In other words, the first grave need for the graces of the Sacrament of Matrimony is to sustain the love between husband and wife. When we marry a person, if we marry for life (as our faith tells us we do) then we marry a person who will, just because they are human beings – change. Or I can change in my perspective, it is not what it used to be.

Second reason – still on the level of sustained love between the spouses. It is one thing to have met someone, to call someone even your close friend; it is something else to live with a person. There are wives, I know because I met them. They call me up long distance, married a week- they wake up one morning and they realize that they married a man, and shall I say the same holds for the husbands. In other words, superhuman grace is needed to continue loving, and listen, I have told this to too many married couples. Not only is the love to be sustained, I hope you believe me I was speaking with the *** of the Church behind me, the love between husband and wife should grow! And the very differences of personality and how different people can be, the very conflict between one of the couple’s has a strong iron will, the other also has a strong iron will. I don’t know any of you well enough to fear saying what I am going to say next. During my five years of teaching at the state university in Western Michigan, an experiment of the Jesuits, if the Jesuits could survive on the faculty of a state university – just about. What I learned from counciling hundreds of my students that I don’t say regularly, I won’t even say generally, I will just say that… End of Tape #7

Beginning of Tape #8

…in order to, on the one hand, for a person who has a strong will, which in more appropriate language means, a “self-will”. In order for that strong, alias “self-will” to love another person, and if the other person also has a strong will, no marriage will survive on a fifty-fifty ratio. It must be one hundred percent on both sides. The willingness to give in!

Graces from the Sacrament of Marriage

The Sacrament of Marriage provides graces. I have six-seven graces, and those that receive the Sacrament of Marriage are infallibly assured by Christ, who instituted the sacrament, that they have the power and the strength to practice them:

The grace to practice generosity. It is love. The Sacrament of Marriage has been instituted by Christ, in order that we might be enabled to love – love as Christ, our Master and Model loves us – generously, giving. And the hardest part of giving, is giving-in.

The Sacrament of Matrimony provides grace for the practice of selflessness. Who else would of thought thirty years ago we would live to see, I understand a multimillion circulating magazine called, “Self”. I have read enough of it to assure you it lives up to its title. I am afraid that a lot of people when they marry, and they tell either – she tells him or he tells her, “I love you”. What they mean, “I love you for what you can give me”. And when either the other partner runs out of “giving” anymore, or the ego of the partner wants “more”, then we just say without a second thought, “They no longer love one another”. Ah! Memorize this, “Love means to give”. Those two words are divinely revealed synonyms. And the hardest thing to give, the most precious possession we have, is ourselves.

The Sacrament of Matrimony provides the married couple with the grace to practice humility. The very intimacy of married love means that I am completely open, body and soul to the other person. To remain this open to another person takes a lot of humility.

Fourth – the Sacrament of Matrimony provides the married couple with grace for life-time practice of patience. I sometimes ask people if they know what the Latin verb, “pati” means? The Latin verb “pati” means “to suffer”. And the present participle of the verb in Latin is “patiens”. We just drop the “s” and put a “t” at the end. A patient person by definition is a “suffering” person. Am I clear? You don’t begin, to begin, to start to begin, to practice patience unless you have some suffering. Expect – that is the nature of marriage. Expect your partner to provide you with a life-long opportunity for the practice of patience, but you better be sure you got what it takes to remain patient. You do through the Sacrament of Matrimony.

Fifth virtue – you might not expect this. The sacrament of Matrimony provides the married couple with a life-time claim to joy. The word joy, by the way, is carefully chosen. I didn’t say a life-time of pleasure. Is it possible to be deeply happy inside, even though my body is wracked in pain, and I like to add along with interior joy – and showing that joy which is my definition of cheerfulness. In case nobody has ever told you, wives like to have their husband’s cheerful, and the same, the husbands like to have cheerful wives. What a combination – suffering but cheerful! Don’t tell me you don’t need a lot of grace for that.

Sixth – the Sacrament of Matrimony provides the married couple with a life-time grace to practice chastity. Let’s not forget, chastity does not mean that only the unmarried are to practice chastity. Oh no! Married people are to practice chastity. What else is adultery except a sin against marital chastity. And in today’s sex mad world with well over fifty percent divorce rate in the United States there are cities in the country that have a 100% divorce rate every year. It doesn’t mean that all the people that marry divorce in a given year, but there are in cities as many divorces in a given year as there are marriages. The future of the Church depends on us believing in the superhuman graces conferred through the Sacrament of Matrimony.

Finally, this sacrament confers on the married partners the virtue of loyalty – sometimes called fidelity. The virtue of commitment, the virtue of remaining faithful to your promise, and on this level it is not only that the future of the Church depends, but the future of our society. We Catholics are to be models of what married life should be, so that remaining faithful to what we believe Christ wants marriage to be, that we will with the grace of God win many persons to the Catholic Church who are inspired by what they see among believing, faithful, Catholic husbands and wives.

As you read the history of the Church in the early centuries, how do you explain that a handful of men called by Jesus, no special qualifications, moving from Palestine to Rome, by the end of the first century do you know, there were over one hundred dioceses in the Catholic Church – by the year 100 AD! And by the beginning of the fourth century the Catholic Church had become so strong, so widespread, that the Roman Emperor had no choice, he had to give the Catholic Church freedom. Three centuries of persecution, it just made the Church grow!

What are the two qualities (this is non-Catholic, non-Christian unbelieving historians that tell us) the two main reasons why the Catholic Church had such phenomenal growth against all human odds was because of the charity and chastity of the faithful. That there were even, and if you can imagine people, sober, sane and intelligent men and women who would even sacrifice marriage in a life-time of virginity. And that married Christians did not divorce and remarry.

The orator Cicero, you all I am sure know something about him, he writes in one of his letters (he was a member of the Roman Senate), “A senator was late in coming to senate meeting, and the rule was you had to explain why you were late. So the Senator told his fellow senators, ‘Apologies for being late, I have just divorced *meum vigsium quattarm uxorium – my twenty-fourth wife’.” There is no stability in marriage outside of Catholic Christianity – period, close the book.

And the second was the practice of charity. We read, if you already read it, read it for the first time the, “Confessions of Saint Augustine” what he tells about his mother Monica who happened to be married to a pagan. The love of Monica (that is Augustine’s mother), Patricius (that is her husband, the father of Augustine) when the pagan’s saw that loving unlovable, in this case loving an unfaithful spouse. Ah, when you see that you realize it must be the work of God.


Lord Jesus, you instituted the Sacrament of Matrimony for all of us to see that except for your grace what you demanded of your married followers could not be practiced, provided dear Jesus, we who are married remain faithful to the graces you are giving us. We will conquer the world! Amen.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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