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Requirements For Matrimony

January 13, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


The celebration of the Sacrament of Matrimony between two baptized Catholics, as we saw last week, normally takes place during the Eucharist. “Since marriage establishes the couple in a public state of life in the Church,” states the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), “it is fitting that its celebration be public, in the framework of a liturgical celebration, before the priest (or a witness authorized by the Church), the witnesses, and the assembly of the faithful” (n. 1663).
Having prepared by worthy reception of the Sacrament of Penance, the spouses offer themselves to one another and seal that offering in Christ’s own sacrifice; they then unite themselves to our Lord and Savior by receiving His Body and Blood in Holy Communion.
We also saw last week that in the Latin tradition, to the surprise of many, the priest is not the one who confers the sacrament on the two parties being joined in Holy Matrimony. As Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ, points out in volume 3 of his catechetical work entitled Fundamentals of Catholicism, the couple “confer it on each other and so are rightly called the ministers of the sacrament. In addition to being an official witness, the priest also confers special blessings on the newlyweds, but these are not essential to the contract and the sacrament” (p. 350).
Likewise, we saw that the consent of the couple is the form of the sacrament, and that within that form the mutual giving of oneself to one other is the matter of the sacrament.
The Catechism now allocates a relatively lengthy section (consisting of 13 paragraphs) to consider the requirements for a valid Christian marriage, focusing especially on matrimonial consent. To begin, it clearly states: “The parties to a marriage covenant are a baptized man and woman, free to contract marriage, who freely express their consent” (CCC, n. 1625).
The Catechism goes on to explain that “to be free” means two conditions must coexist: 1) the parties are not under constraint, and 2) they are not impeded by any natural or ecclesiastical law.
Before launching into a thorough examination of the specific requirements for a sacramental marriage, it would be good to understand differences between natural and sacramental marriage. This explanation will draw liberally from an excellent two-part article by Dr. Benedict Nguyen, JD/JCL, entitled “Marriage Law Revisited” (MLR) which appeared in Adoremus Bulletin early in 2016 (see volume XXI, nn. 5-6, January-March, 2016).
The difference between natural and sacramental marriage is characterized by Dr. Nguyen as being “perhaps one of the most commonly misunderstood distinctions regarding the Church’s teachings on marriage” (MLR, I, 6). It is a misunderstanding that has led to rampant confusion at a time in history when marriage and family are under attack on many fronts.
In a nutshell, natural marriage refers to “a marriage that a man and a woman have when they enter into a marital relationship containing all the natural elements that God has put into what marriage is” (ibid.). As discussed earlier in this series (see volume 150, nn. 10-11; March 9-16, 2017), marriage was established by God at the time of creation — it is a vocation that “is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator” (CCC, n. 1603).
Original sin, to be sure, had a devastating effect, for “it had for its first consequence the rupture of the original communion between man and woman” (CCC, n. 1607). Yet, where the natural law elements of marriage are followed, “a human person, whether baptized or not, is able to enter into a true, valid marital relationship as God designed it to be” (MLR, I, 6).
Sacramental marriage (or “Christian marriage”), on the other hand, takes place “when two baptized persons have a valid natural marriage and, because they are baptized, that marriage is now also a sacrament of the Church with all that it means to be a true sacrament” (ibid.).
Indeed, “by elevating marriage to the dignity of a Sacrament,” explains Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, “[Christ] made possible a healing of the discord between man and woman and the restoration of the beauty and dignity of the union of husband and wife” (Basic Catholic Catechism Course [BCCC], p. 176).
Important to note is that all the requisite elements of a valid natural marriage must be present for one to enter into a valid sacramental marriage.
The natural law elements of marriage are contained in canon 1055 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law (CIC) and consist of the following: 1) entered into by one man and one woman; 2) established by and between the two parties [through consent]; 3) entered into as an irrevocable, exclusive partnership for the whole of life; and 4) entered into for the purpose of the good of the spouses and for the procreation and education of offspring (cf. MLR, I, 6).
For a natural marriage to be sacramental the parties must be baptized, for as we saw earlier in this series: Baptism is the gateway to the Christian life and the indispensable door which allows access to the other sacraments (see volume 148, n. 43; October 29, 2015).
Referring to canon 1057 § 1, the Catechism explicitly states: “The Church holds the exchange of consent between the spouses to be the indispensable element that ‘makes the marriage.’ If consent is lacking there is no marriage” (CCC, n. 1626). Moreover, as we saw last week, matrimonial consent is defined as “an act of the will by which a man and a woman mutually give and accept each other through an irrevocable covenant in order to establish marriage” (CIC, canon 1057 § 2).
When both parties have freely consented, “there arises between the spouses a bond which by its nature is perpetual and exclusive” (CIC, canon 1134). The Catechism continues by affirming that “this consent that binds the spouses to each other finds its fulfillment in the two ‘becoming one flesh’ (Gen. 2:24; cf. Mark 10:8; Eph. 5:31)” (CCC, n. 1627).
In what, then, does consent consist? “The consent must be an act of the will of each of the contracting parties, free of coercion or grave external fear (cf. CIC, canon 1103)” (CCC, n. 1628).
To validly give their consent, the parties must possess the proper capacity to enter into marriage. This means they must be free from “diriment impediments,” which the Code defines as facts or circumstances which “render a person unqualified to contract marriage validly” (CIC, canon 1073). Requisite capacity and the exchange of consent are required to make any act of marrying valid; however, for Catholic marriages, a third requirement of marrying according to canonical form is also required (cf. MLR, II, 7).
Specific diriment impediments which cause a person to lack the capacity to marry validly are enumerated by the Code in canons 1083-1094.
These include: insufficient age (under 16 for a boy and under 14 for a girl); impotence (but not sterility); prior marriage bond; disparity of worship (i.e., a baptized Catholic cannot marry a non-baptized person); under the obligation of Holy Orders or public perpetual vow of chastity as in a religious institute; abduction; complicity in murder of a spouse in order to marry; consanguinity (natural relationships with certain degrees); affinity (i.e., in-laws) in the direct line; public propriety (e.g., notorious or public concubinage); or in a legal relationship arising from adoption (cf. MLR, II, 7-8).
As Dr. Nguyen points out, “four of these, because they are considered to be of the natural law of marriage, apply to all persons, whether a baptized Catholic or not, and cannot be dispensed (CIC, canon 86)” (MLR, II, 8). These include: marrying below the age of reason, impotence, a prior marriage bond, and certain degrees of consanguinity.


Other impediments, because they arise from ecclesiastical laws, may be dispensed by the proper ecclesial authority in accordance with canonical procedures specified by canons 85-86. For example, a diocesan bishop is able to grant a dispensation that allows a Catholic to marry a non-baptized person.
Other impediments, as noted by Fr. Hardon, require a dispensation that is reserved to the Pope (cf. BCCC, pp. 183-184). A notable example is the granting of a dispensation for those who have previously entered Holy Orders or have taken a public perpetual vow of chastity.
In paragraph 1629, the Catechism takes up the topic of declaration of nullity. A popular, but unfortunate and incorrect term that one often hears is annulment, which implies that a valid marriage is being dissolved. As Fr. Hardon points out, “a decree of nullity is not synonymous with the termination of a once-valid marriage. It is not a ‘Catholic form of divorce.’ Rather, it entails merely verification of a fact: a marriage apparently valid in fact never occurred on the wedding day” (BCCC, p. 183).
Lack of consent is the most common impediment to validity. As in capacity, there are several elements (as enumerated in CIC, canons 1095-1103) that can impede valid consent. “The Church, after an examination of the situation by the competent ecclesiastical tribunal, can declare the nullity of a marriage” (CCC, n. 1629) if these elements were present when the supposed wedding took place.
We will examine these elements in more detail next week as well as the Church’s “declaration of nullity” process.

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is a Consecrated Marian Catechist.)

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