Marriage a sacrament that keeps on conferring grace

I was speaking with a friend the other day about Cardinal Marc Ouellet’s marvelous book Mystery and Sacrament of Love: a Theology of Marriage and of the Family for the New Evangelization.

In the book, Cardinal Ouellet explains the graces of the sacrament of marriage are not a one off thing that happens at the marriage ceremony, but continually available to the couple, to enable them to participate in their marriage in the life of the Holy Trinity.

I also remember how I was told in marriage the priest does not confer the sacrament, but the couple confers it on each other.

So my friend said she was twenty-one and her husband 27 when they married. They didn’t have much of a clue about the Catholic faith, though they were brought up Catholic.  But they have both grown in faith since then.

I began to think about this again upon reading this post at Fr. Ray Blake’s blog.  He writes about some of the concerns he has in the wake of the changes in annulment proceedings and the effect it is having on some parishioners.  He writes:

Already in my parish a couple of people with less than perfect marriages have been asking if possibly they might not be married after all; doubts have been sown. According to Cardinal Kasper the Holy Father has said he believes 50% marriages could be or are invalid, which seems a rather pessimistic attitude to the sacraments. Of course if one suggests 50% of marriages are invalid, could one not apply the same criteria to ordinations, if bad catechises could be criteria for invalidity, as some are suggesting, could not bad theological formation (or moral formation) be a good reason to suggest one’s priest or bishop’s ordination was null and void and the same for the sacraments he has celebrated?

That way of course lays theological madness and sees a return to a new Donatist Crisis, which actually one does see amongst certain uber-Catholics of an ultra-‘traditional’ stripe. The Church has always understood that Christ is greater than the Church, than the sacraments, and certainly greater than the weak and limited people who receive the sacraments, by his Grace he makes up for our sins and deficiencies.

It occurred to me that these couples with “less than perfect marriages” can start by by believing more and more in the supernatural graces of the sacrament of marriage, pressing in to God in Jesus Christ until they start to see those graces manifest in their lives and in their marriages.  We really do have such a loss of faith in the efficacy of all the Catholic sacraments, starting with the amazing, amazing grace of our Baptism.  We are translated from the kingdom of darkness into the Kingdom of Light when we are baptized.  We are given new natures, totally by grace, nothing we deserve and our task is to work out this gift, this new identity and incorporate it ever more in our daily lives.

Any marriage that has two people who are wholly devoted to obeying God in love and marriage is bound to succeed.

Of course there are circumstances where in reality no real marriage took place and the impediments to grace—lack of capacity, fraud, unwillingness to have children, and so on —continue.   But the default should not be among Catholic couples to think, oh, my marriage is difficult, therefore maybe it isn’t valid.  The sacrament is a sign of continuing, ongoing graces.  Avail yourself!   Same with your baptism—learn about your new identity in Christ.

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2 Responses to Marriage a sacrament that keeps on conferring grace

  1. Stephen K says:

    Dear Deborah, just a couple of comments: first, you seem to me to be saying ‘don’t worry if the start is not perfect, it can get better’. This does not necessarily sit well with saying that ‘Of course there are circumstances where in reality no real marriage took place and the impediments to grace—lack of capacity, fraud, unwillingness to have children, and so on —continue. But the default should not be among Catholic couples to think, oh, my marriage is difficult, therefore maybe it isn’t valid.

    The Church attitude to marriage is that, for Catholics, only sacramental marriage – i.e. that witnessed by a priest – is a valid marriage, and marriage will only be sacramental, hence valid, if there are no impediments at the time of the ceremony.

    There are two propositions in this that I think are both objectionable and fly in the face of human experience: (1) that the state of marriage is determined at a single particular moment of time – which is at odds with your own evolutionary statement, and one which I think is borne out in different ways in lived experience – and (2) that the stuff or substance of marriage in the case of Catholics is different from that in non-Catholic marriages. What that stuff or substance might be I have not yet heard intelligently identified or expressed – and perhaps your other readers can have a go at doing so – but in any case, a strictly juridical or legal approach to marriage, its definition, its identification, its analysis, and what often comes across as poetical hyperbole or mystical floridity about the “sacrament of matrimony”,seem to me to fall greatly short of the ordinary human experience of it.

    I also happen to think that there are contradictions in the concept of annulment. I came across an op-piece on a trad site about the new ‘annulment’ process. I won’t attach it but will simply summarise that the writer identified an important issue to keep in mind in any reflection about this new “annulment” process: namely, that it will not necessarily encourage or result in more applications to have marriages declared invalid because many do not seek annulments – not because it takes too long, is painful or fraught or too expensive, but – because it requires a moral sell-out to a fiction that a marriage never existed in the first place. I think he’s right. I think it’s true that many Catholics, many people, believe that marriage is not indissoluble, and the Church has no sustainable right in insisting on it. Many people believe that honesty demands that first marriages were real, and so are second ones.

    Contrary to the view that Pope Francis has that many marriages are not valid, I wonder rather whether in fact the real issue – the real state of things – is that most marriages are valid but they are not permanent, metaphysically or otherwise. The ‘annulment’ concept is, when you think about it, pastorally repugnant. In effect it is evidence that the Church does not believe in good or bad marriages, but something much more desiccated and abstract – namely, only that there is marriage or there is not. This belief is intrinsically incapable, I think, of being a foundation for, or of leading to or representing things like mercy or compassion or empathy which are being claimed for this so-called reform. I think Pope Francis is trying to be ‘merciful’ and I don’t expect in my lifetime any Pope to do anything other than twist and perform theological gymnastics within the straitjacket of centuries of claiming a particular meaning of Jesus’ words. But really, my view is that this ‘reform’ only muddies the waters currently swirling around Catholic sacramentology and it is annulment practice in itself that is offensive and needs scrapping.

  2. EPMS says:

    “Any marriage that has two people who are wholly devoted to obeying God in love and marriage is bound to succeed.” No doubt, and I am sure if I thought about it long enough I could identify a couple or two who appeared to be in this situation. I have also known one or two people who struck me as being saints. The rest of us are struggling along at a lower level. I would also agree with the observation that many people do not enter the annulment process because the statement “despite the fact that I was in love with X, made a commitment to X, raised Y children with X, and spent Z happy years with X before it all fell apart, X and I were NEVER married” just seems like a flat-out lie. A priest who steals from the collection plate and molests choirboys may be defrocked, but he remains a priest forever and can pronounce absolution “in extremis” We don’t try to pretend his ordination was somehow invalid.

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