The Marriage Vows
Matrimony is unique among the sacraments of the Church for a number of reasons. First, it was the last of the sacraments to be established, around the year 1200, which is quite late in the history of the Church. Second, the husband and wife, rather than a member of the clergy, administer the sacrament to each other. Third, the purposes of marriage within the Church have changed and have been challenged since earliest times.
In the early days of the Church, married couples who converted to Christianity did not have to be remarried in the Church; their marriage was considered valid. The Church also recognized civil ceremonies between two Christians as valid for creating a Christian marriage. The Church did not require the blessing of a priest or any other liturgical trappings.
During the Middle Ages, when European tribes overtook the Roman Empire, a conflict arose between Roman civil law and European law and custom regarding marriage. European law held that marriage was a contract; that the couple owed each other sexual rights to procreate; and that witnesses and a formal ceremony were required. Parents who arranged marriages for their children to increase their power and property wanted marriages to be public contracts. Roman law held that only the couple's vows to each other were important and that they could be taken in private. A whole series of popes declared on the side of Roman law, ruling that marriage was the result of a couple's mutual consent and nothing else. No witnesses were required, and no contract needed to be signed.
However, such privacy led to problems. Parents who arranged marriages in what they held to be the best interest of themselves and their children were still being thwarted. There were abuses as well. Jealous or greedy people could prevent someone's marrying by claiming they had already wed someone else in private, and no one could dispute these false charges.
In the twelfth century, at the Second Lateran Council, theologians declared Matrimony to be a sacrament; it was later upheld by the Councils of Lyons and Florence. The Church decided upon three essential statements on matrimony:
The grace of the sacrament is to assist the couple to grow in holiness and perform their married duties.
To reflect Christ's fidelity to his Church, marriage must be indissoluble.
The real ministers of the sacrament of Matrimony are the marriage partners themselves; they confer the sacrament on each other.
Given the indissoluble nature of the marriage bond, have there ever been any grounds for dissolving a marriage?
Yes. Spouses seeking to get out of a difficult marriage have been able to do so through the process of annulment. If one party forced or tricked the other into marriage, did not want to or was unable to consummate the marriage, or never intended to have children, the other partner can have the marriage declared invalid. More recently, some marriages have been annulled on the grounds that a “community of love” could not be entered into or sustained.
The more public form of marriage did not receive a formal introduction until the Council of Trent decided in 1563 to consider valid only those marriages that had been celebrated before a priest and two witnesses. Later, in 1917, the Code of Canon Law went further. Marriage gained status as a contracted, legal proceeding that was understood to be the exchange of rights to sexual intercourse with the purpose of begetting children (the primary purpose of marriage).
Vatican II softened this strict view of marriage by redefining it as a sharing of life between two human beings who love each other. The begetting of children is seen as a natural development from this sharing.
Modern Catholics face many social issues: high divorce rates, changing social patterns that see couples living together outside of marriage, the use of fertility technologies to allow single women to have children, and other stresses on the traditional family unit. The Church sees these practices as problematic and has come to appreciate even more the love and faithfulness in an authentic marriage. Today, the Church places less emphasis on marriage as a contract, on whether each member of the couple is a baptized Catholic, and on how children fit into the picture.The Question of Divorce
The Church understands that valid marriages sometimes become untenable for one or both partners. However, given the indissoluble nature of the bond of marriage, a Catholic cannot remarry while the former spouse is still living. Otherwise, the person commits a grave sin and cannot receive the Eucharist or enter fully into the life of the Church. If, while the former spouse remains alive, the person lives a chaste life, he or she remains a member of the Church in good standing.
Marriage is a celebration of the transcendent mystery of the couple's love and faithfulness. The Church supports those virtues through pre- and postmarital counseling and education, helping the couple grow, develop, and sustain their affection and fidelity over the years of their married lives.