I am going to consider the Sacrament of Marriage in the Catholic Church, and what it means for a couple when they decide to make that commitment to each other. I will explain what the vows made by a couple during a Catholic marriage ceremony mean. I will then look at the Catholic Church’s teachings on Sex outside of marriage, Responsible parenthood and Divorce, and how the words and actions involved in the Marriage ceremony emphasise these teachings. I will begin by explaining and discussing the Marriage Vows.
For a Catholic, marriage is a sacrament. A sacrament is described (by the Catechism of the Catholic Church) as:
“An outward sign of inward Grace, ordained by Jesus Christ, by which Grace is given to the soul.”
“…An outward sign…” refers to the words and actions carried out, that openly display the intentions and the faith of a person.
“…Inward grace…” refers to the relationship a person has with God. ‘Grace’ is our own special relationship with God. It is said to be ‘Inward’ because nobody can actually see it, but the person who gains it can feel it themselves.
“…Ordained by Jesus Christ…” is in reference to the times when Jesus told his followers to do something, indicating that these sacraments should be celebrated. To ‘ordain’ is to decide or organise something.
“…By which Grace is given to the soul.” The soul is the name we give to the inner part of us that feels emotions, and experiences a relationship with God. The Celebration of a sacrament is a way to improve a relationship with God, as is praying and Thanksgiving.
Marriage is a sacrament because it does all four of these things.
The outward signs of marriage are the words and actions carried out by the Priest, the Bride and the Groom: Actions such as the exchange of rings, and words such as the mass readings, and the Priest’s introduction all emphasise the inward grace which the couple receive. When two people give themselves to each other in a marriage, they are promising to put their spouse’s needs and intentions before their own. They promise to love and honour their husband or wife, and look after them if they are in need. This loving relationship pleases God, as the couple are sacrificing their own wishes and desires to put another person first. A love and care like this for the spouse fulfils Jesus’ most important commandment- “Love thy neighbour as thyself “, and allows a person to deepen their relationship with God, as He loves everyone in the same way.
No-one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us (1 John 4: 12)
In the New Testament, there are certain places where Jesus tells us that Marriage is something we should celebrate, and is right.
The following are the words used in the Marriage Vows made by a man and woman who are marrying in the Catholic Church. When these words are said, the actual sacrament of marriage takes place, and the sacrament is given from one spouse to the other: (rather than the Priest, as he is only there as a witness to God)
“I, (name), do take thee, (name), to be my lawful wedded husband/wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until death parts us”
When this vow is said, the couple become married to each other. I will now explain each part of the marriage vow, and its emphasis in the teachings of the Catholic Church.
“…to have and to hold, from this day forward…”. This section refers to the responsibility a person is undertaking by fully committing him or herself to another person. When somebody marries, they are promising to put another’s life, welfare and happiness before their own, and it also means that someone else is doing the same for you. They vow to care for and love the other person more than they care for and love themselves, and expect that person to do the same for them, from that moment until the marriage ends. (by death)
“…for better for worse…” When two people join together in marriage, they are committing themselves to keeping faithful to the promises made in the sacrament at all times. This includes the more difficult times, such as financial problems, redundancy, family problems, a bereavement or other various pressures and troubles which may put a strain on a couple’s relationship. Being married commits a person to remain devoted to them when times are good, and when times are hard.
“…for richer for poorer…” This part does not simply refer to financial problems, but to the quality (richness) of the relationship between the couple. The essence of a relationship is how much a person enjoys being with the other, how comfortable they are with each other, the amount of time they spend together and how much the two people have in common and can do together. Naturally, a marriage cannot be of the highest quality all of the time in terms of the nature of the time you spend together (or apart). This promise therefore includes times when a partner may be away for some time, or when an argument between the couple takes place. Being committed in marriage means that the couple must remain faithful to the sacrament in happy (richer) times, and in harder (poorer) times.
“… in sickness and in health…” In committing to a marriage, the couple take full responsibility for one another’s welfare and happiness. This means that no matter what the situation is, the couple must remain faithful to each other, and to the responsibility they are undertaking. There will be times when a partner is ill due to a cold, or virus, or is perhaps injured in an accident. This may also lead to illnesses that are more serious or even disability, all of which the other partner must be prepared to deal with and remain faithful to the sacraments.
However during a person’s life, events may take place, which seriously damage a person’s mind or body. This includes very serious accidents, where the person may be almost completely paralysed and therefore entirely dependant on a carer (their spouse), and also when a person contracts a disease such as Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s, which mean the person cannot look after themselves. The marriage vow requires a husband or wife to put their spouse’s welfare before their own, thus committing themselves to caring for a person even when they are completely dependant on them, or are terminally ill. That person may not be able to speak, eat by themselves, dress themselves, or even communicate, and yet their spouse must be prepared to look after them. That is a huge responsibility.
“…to love and cherish…” To ‘cherish’ is to love, protect and nurture. When two people marry, this part refers to the promise they make to look after their husband or wife, and show them their complete love and devotion. This helps their partner to feel happy and special, because someone loves them so much. This section helps the couple understand how much the other partner loves them, and how they will protect and help them to advance their capacity to love and to be happy. When a partner cherishes their spouse, they help them to grow and be a better person.
Husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it. (Ephesians 5: 28-29)
This part of the New Testament shows how a husband and wife should love one another as they love themselves, and in turn, they will receive ‘feed and care’ from each other.
“…until death parts us.” This final part of the marriage vow wraps up the whole of the promises made. It means that a marriage is to last for a lifetime. All of the things said previously must all remain that way for a lifetime, because that is the sort of commitment marriage is. The Catholic Church teaches that only when one partner dies does a marriage end. Marriage is sacred – a gift from God, and therefore can only be ended by God. Divorce can only end the legal aspects of a marriage, where in the eyes of the law, the couple are no longer married. In God’s eye however, any marriage lasts until one of the partners dies.
I have now explained what each part of the Marriage Vow demands from a Catholic Couple, and to complete the second part of this coursework, I will describe and explain the teaching of the Catholic Church on three areas – Sex outside of marriage, Responsible parenthood and Divorce.
Sex outside of Marriage.
The Catholic Church teaches that sexual intercourse has two purposes. Firstly, sex is intended to deepen the loving relationship between a couple committed to each other, which is known as ‘concupiscence’. (“Concupiscence” means “enjoyment”). Secondly, sex is for the procreation of human life. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says this:
“The married couple forms the intimate partnership of life and love established by the creator and governed by his laws”
This quote tells us that only a married couple can have the most intimate partnership (sex) which is for the creation of life (to have children) and love (enjoyment and deepening a husband and wife’s love for one another), It was made and given to them by the ‘creator’ (God), and it must be carried out under his rules.
It is therefore, regarded by the Catholic Church that sex between an unmarried couple is wrong.
Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed should be kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. (Hebrews 13: 4)
The Church believes that for Sex to remain a sacred gift from God, it must be open to the creation of new life, and it must deepen the relationship between a committed couple. There are three recognised forms of sex outside of marriage, and they are: Adultery, Fornication, and Homosexual activity
Adultery is any sexual act between a man and woman, where at least one of them is already married to another person. This also includes situations where at least one of the adulterers is separated or legally divorced. The church teaches that when a person gets married, if they then have sex with someone other than their spouse, they commit adultery. Adultery cannot fulfil the two sacred requirements for Sex. If a man and woman are having an affair, it is extremely unlikely that they are happily prepared to become pregnant with a child, and therefore the sexual act is not open to human life. Furthermore, sex is to deepen the relationship between a couple who have made lifelong commitments. If the couple is not married, they do not have that commitment. This issue links in with the Church’s teachings on divorce, which I will detail on later.
Fornication is a sexual act between an unmarried couple. This includes boyfriends and girlfriends, and even engaged couples who are to be married. Since it is generally more likely for a couple not to want to start a family until they are married, there is no guarantee that a sexual act between an unmarried couple is open to the creation of new human life. Moreover, the couple can have made no lifelong commitment while they are still unmarried.
Homosexual Activity is a sexual act between two people of the same sex. It is not considered to be a gift from God. Clearly, to create new human life, both a man and woman are needed, and therefore a homosexual act cannot be open to the creation of new life. Neither the church nor the state accepts homosexual marriage (because human life cannot be made), and therefore no lifelong commitment can be made between the couple.
The Church considers all of these forms of sex outside of marriage to be wrong, as none of them allow for both purposes of sex to be fulfilled. The church teaches that the creation of new human life should under no circumstances be perceived as a mistake or a problem, because all human life is sacred.