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The sacrament of matrimony in Catholicism was an amalgamation of various influences, cultures and decisions. A large number of these conditions existed in the 12th Century. Therefore, it is necessary to trace the history of the sacrament, and thus link it to modern occurrences today.
Practices and characteristics of marriage in the Catholic faith
The Catholic wedding is a rite that has the same format as the other six sacraments. All conventional weddings in this religion consist of the following practices: storytelling, gathering, action and then commission. Gathering in a marriage ceremony occurs in more or less the same way that a mass does. Family members accompany the bride and groom in most instances. In some settings, the bride and her father come after the arrival of the groom and his party. Modern couples prefer processions that convey mutuality by walking in together.
After the procession, which is often the highlight of the event, attendants will listen to a portion of scripture; this is the storytelling bit. Here, couples will select a story that captures the meaning of their marriage. In most circumstances, many will talk about the creation of new life. Alternatively, others may refer to the unification of two entities into one. Sometimes participants may opt to combine both messages.
‘Action’ involves the exchange of vows. In traditional weddings, priests would read all the vows while the bride and groom would merely say I do. Nowadays, a good number of couples prefer reading their vows to one another. Most vows will consist of a pledge of faithfulness and love. In addition to the latter aspect, the bride and groom ought to exchange rings, where the physical element (ring) complements the verbal element. This part of the ceremony often ends with a kiss.
Lastly, the attendants will partake of the Holly Communion in the commission phase. The priest will perform the Eucharist prayer then invite the group to receive the communion. Afterwards, he will bless the wedding couple and thus send them to the world as representatives of Christ’s love.
Why marriage is a sacrament in the Catholic faith
A sacrament is understood as a sign of grace that Jesus gave to the church in order to bring life into it. One ought to look at scriptural teachings in order to understand why Catholics treat marriage as a sacrament. The book of Ephesians serves as a critical starting point for this analysis.
In chapter five and verse twenty two, Paul urges the Christian brethren to follow Christ’s example when relating to one another in marriage. He advises women to submit to their husbands in the same way that the church subjects itself to Christ (Lehmkuhl par 14). Paul explains that since the husband is the head of the home, then he must follow Christ who was the Church’s head.
He then adds that husbands ought to love their wives and cherish them; they ought to proclaim the same love that they have for themselves to their wives. After this, Paul discusses how man and woman must forget about their separateness and become one. The Apostle concludes this declaration by stating that Christian marriage is a sacrament.
Catholic leaders made the deduction that marriage was a sacrament from the words of the Apostle himself. They depended on his comparison of the ceremony to the relationship between Jesus and the Church. Individuals were called upon to realise the supernatural life of Christ by the way they conducted their marriages.
As such a Christian marriage is a symbol of the grace that is encompassed in its efficaciousness. Since the Apostle considers marriage as one rite, then it is only fitting to think of it as a sacrament. According to this teacher of the gospel, marriage brings out the divine grace of Christ.
St Augustine also contributes to this debate through his assertions as found in chapter 24. He likens marriage to a holy institution that cannot be negated because it mirrors the Church. Since the church cannot be separated from Jesus, then two people who have been joined together in holy matrimony must remain united. In this regard, marriage is a sacrament owing to its equivalence to the Holy Orders or Baptism. St. Augustine taught that the holiness of marriage placed it on the same level as these other sacraments.
Origins of matrimony
The foundation of the theology of Catholic matrimony dates back to the twentieth century. Although early Christians married and had children, they had different interpretations of what the practice meant to their lives. Catholics at the time faced immense pressure from other faiths to have a strong doctrine on marriage.
The Church needed to set some rules that would harmonise practices of marriage in the middle ages. Nonetheless, this process did not occur harmoniously; church leaders from different regions had their own interpretations of what marriage should entail. They took thousands of years to articulate these sentiments and unify them under one voice (Peters 70).
Romanic culture and Germanic tribes were the main sources of influences in this matter. Germanic tribes often treated marriage as a family matter. Children were betrothed to suitable mates through parental decisions (Peters 66). Many times, it was done in order to safeguard family property or family names.
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Additionally, parents from the ladies’ side chose their child’s spouse in order to extend their networks. More often than not, family members presided over the ceremony. Conversely, the Romans treated marriage as a civil matter. Two people could get married if they consented to one another. No elaborate ceremony was necessary in this culture. Furthermore, the two entities could terminate their marriage by simply withdrawing their consent.
Christians in the medieval era emulated some of these practices by involving a presiding authority in their weddings. In Romanic cultures, most couples gave the family head this task; however, with the infiltration of Christian faith among the Germanic tribes, it became necessary to use clergy men as witnesses.
Later on, the Christian faithful decided that bishops would preside over the ceremonies. Since Church leaders played an important role in this ritual, they started thinking of it a baptism. Eventually, the leaders treated it as a sacrament. Christian leaders decided that they had to instigate moral behaviour by creating a uniform marital law.
Any sacrament that had variations in the body of Christ was immoral to them. In the twelfth century, Christian leaders wanted to answer specific questions pertaining to matrimony. For instance, they needed to clarify the purpose of marriage, how long entities should remain in it, whether they were expected have children, and so on.
The theologians thought about the duration of marriage, and decided that it should be insoluble. They relied upon biblical texts and St. Augustine’s interpretations to come up with this resolution. In the book of Mark, chapter 10, verses 11 and 12, Jesus tells his followers that they will have committed adultery if they leave their husbands or wives and get married to others. Even the person who marries a divorcee would also be guilty of adultery.
Twentieth century theologians used the literal interpretation of this verse to settle on the permanence of marriage. A number of them also focused on St. Augustine’s teachings. He affirmed that divorce was unfeasible in the Christian faith because a wife is bound to her husband in the same manner that Christ is bound to the Church. (Hegy and Martos 135).
No one can destroy the union that one possesses with Christ; similarly, no one should destroy the union between man and wife. These Christian leaders found St. Augustine’s teachings convenient to their circumstances as they needed a doctrine that would minimize divorce. Many of them had seen the isolation and breakdowns that these separations caused. It was, therefore, appropriate to have laws that would build the family unit.
The 12th Century church leaders made some exceptions to the insolubility of marriage by introducing the law of annulment. A marriage could be rendered void if it was found that the parties got married under certain conditions. First, if one of the partners was coerced in to the marriage, then it became void. Alternatively, if one of the parties was impotent, related to his or her spouse, already married or underage then the Church could annul the marriage.
It was also decided that marriage should occur among consenting parties even when the parents of the parties involved did not agree to it. Additionally, the leaders at the time felt that a marriage could still be honoured without the presence of witnesses or an elaborate ceremony.
However, in subsequent years, the clergy changed this requirement. It eventually became mandatory for couples to announce their wedding well in advance and to invite at least two witnesses to participate in the process. Records of the weddings also had to be made.
In the 16th Century, members of the Catholic clergy decided that they would use celibacy to test an individual’s commitment to God’s work (Witte 6). If one could not live such a life, then one was not deemed worthy to serve in leadership circles. The Catholic Church treated celibacy as an indication of spiritual discipline. Servants of God needed to emulate the apostle Paul.
Since he was highly devoted to the Gospel and the growth of the early church, he made the conscious decision to refrain from physical intimacy. Likewise, anyone who wished to follow such a path needed to demonstrate this spiritual strength. Those who chose the path of marriage were deemed as weak and ill-suited to become clergymen. This pattern of celibacy became a reality even in modern times.
Symbolic meanings and values
The Catholic understanding of marriage may be categorised into the following schools of thought: contractual, sacramental and natural. The clergy realises that marriage has natural purposes. First, man is inherently sinful; he has a tendency to become lustful if he does not direct his passions to the kingdom of God.
Therefore, marriage offers the ultimate solution to the problem of lust by giving man a permanent companion. Additionally, God commanded Adam and Eve to multiply and fill the earth. Marriage allows man to fulfil this divine calling through children. It performs a natural function of growing the kingdom of God. Therefore, child rearing and companionship are complementary to one another. If the Church prioritises only child rearing, then infertile couples may find no meaning in marriage.
On the other hand, marriage in the Catholic faith is also contractual in nature. Marriage binds parties to one another through their free will. They remain obligated to one another, and must devote themselves to love and give service to each other. Individuals cannot abscond their parental or connubial duties in this context. The contractual view of marriage explains why certain allowances exist in the catholic view of marriage. Once parties violate the conditions of the contractual relation, then the marriage becomes null and void.
Lastly, marriage in the Catholic Church had a sacramental purpose. If it was properly done, it would symbolise the grace that Christ gave to the Church. Nonetheless, one must realise that among the sacraments, marriage was not particularly edifying. Marriage was a solution to a problem rather than a source of righteousness. Therefore, those who could remain celibate were given greater honour than those who could not (Witte 4). The sacramental perspective led to the permanence of marriage.
As stated earlier, marriage is a contract between two individuals who vow to remain together for life. This promise implies that fidelity is intolerable in marriage. Unfaithfulness in marriage would be tantamount to making a mockery of the sacrament. Furthermore, individuals with children must act as shining examples to them. They must honour the promise they made to God as well as to the Church. In fact, this is one of the few aspects of the sacrament that falls in line with civil practices today.
Annulment versus divorce
An annulment takes place when the Church declares that there was never a marriage to begin with. The concept of annulment has created a lot of controversy inside Catholic Circles. Conditions under which an annulment can occur have already been described above. Nonetheless, modern clergy also recognise other aspects such as drunkenness or insanity. Divorce on the other hand is the termination of a valid marriage as recognised by the Catholic faith.
Statistics indicate that the number of divorces in the Catholic faith has increased to 40,000 in the 2000s, yet this was 368 in the late 1960s. Something must have happened to cause this increase, and analysts blame the church for this.
They claim that grounds for annulment have dramatically expanded to the point of making it possible for almost anyone to get an annulment if one wants it. Studies also indicate that almost three-quarters of these annulments occur in the US.
Therefore, one may argue that the culture in this part of the country is slowly becoming incompatible with the doctrines of traditional Catholic faith. In other parts of the world, some Catholics even ignore the requirement for annulment and divorce at will. This poses questions about the relevance of Catholic legal structures in modern times.
Jenks (1) explains that the above matter has placed the Catholic Church at crossroads. Since divorces have become more frequent, churches may either opt to stick to their conventional doctrines, which require spouses to stay married for life, or they can accept this new phenomenon and change.
If the Catholic Church maintains its current stance, it is likely that it may loose a wide portion of its followership. However, if it yields to these modern pressures, then some critics may view it as weak and unprincipled. Analysts may claim that the Catholic Church prioritised church membership over sound doctrine. A number of adherents may even feel that the church has betrayed them. It is not easy to choose any of these paths as either of them will affect the Church substantially.
Jneks (24) highlights a number of reasons that may have propagated these recent increases in annulment as well as divorces. The author cites individualism as one of the reasons behind the phenomenon. Additionally, people have become more educated and are willing to challenge the status quo.
Society has witnessed an unprecedented change in gender roles. Many women want to focus on their careers and this has taken a toll on their roles as wives or caregivers. As such, it is no longer tenable to expect such low requests for annulment of divorce in the Catholic body. Few Catholic leaders have talked about the latter factors, despite these numerous changes. Most of them have turned a blind eye to the problem, and only made the situation worse.
The circumstances that favour observance of the sacrament of matrimony have changed dramatically over the years. This explains why so many annulments and divorces occur. The Catholic Church must respond to these concerns or face the danger of loosing its followership.
Jenks, Richard. Divorce, annulments, and the Catholic Church: Healing or Hurtful. Binghampton, NY: Howarth Press, 2002. Print.
Hegy, Pierre & Martos, Joseph. Catholic Divorce: the Deception of Annulments. New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006. Print.
Lehmkuhl, Augustinus. “Sacrament of Marriage.” The Catholic Encyclopaedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 3 May 2012 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09707a.htm>.
Peters, Christine. “Gender, sacrament and ritual: the making and meaning of marriage in late medieval and early modern England.” Past and present 169(2000): 63-97. Print.
Witte, John. From sacrament to contract: marriage, religion and law in the western tradition. Westminster: John Knox press, 1997. Print.