The Wedding at Cana (photocopy)

Of Spouses, the Real World, and the “Where” of Christian Marriage

David S. Crawford

"The condition for the possibility of Christian marriage is the virginal consent of Christ and of his Mother on behalf of the world."

1. Introduction

The Church’s teaching concerning the indissolubility of sacramental marriage has been a source of controversy for a long time. But the liberalization of divorce in modern western societies has dramatically increased pastoral challenges for the Church. A number of authors have recently addressed the issue by interpreting the indissoluble bond in terms of moral obligation.1 Others have argued that the indissoluble bond is something to be accomplished as the spouses’ love matures over a lifetime.2 Indissolubility does not therefore occur in a single moment of sexual consummation, which in any case is said to be “outside sacrament.”3 Certainly, it is argued, the couple in entering a Christian marriage is entering into a sacrament, and surely this sacramental marriage is supposed to last a lifetime. Certainly, there is a moral obligation of love, care, and fidelity.

However, in a sinful and fallen world we often fail to live up to our obligations or to achieve the ideal. Sometimes, the argument continues, the relationship itself dies. This is a reality that must be taken into account by the Church. Once a given marriage has in fact dissolved, the response of the Church should be to offer the mercy and reconciliation of Christ and of all the faithful. Thus, while it is true that marriage is “indissoluble” in terms of its moral commitment or as an ideal to be achieved, it is not true that it is absolutely indissoluble in the sense that no power on earth can cause the dissolution of a marriage ratum et consummatum, at least as this last phrase has been understood by the Church. “Therefore it is not helpful for the Church to speak of indissolubility as being the effect of the sacrament independent of the wills of the spouses. Instead the sacrament’s effect is to assist the couple in their efforts to build a consortium of intimate love so that the destruction of their love becomes virtually unthinkable.”4

Several authors have used the scholastic tradition to buttress these arguments. What is the bond, it is asked, but a relation? This relation does not exist, somehow, somewhere, above and beyond the couple.5 Therefore it must be “in” the couple themselves. Marriage is not a character sacrament, so the content of this “in” cannot be an indelible sacramental character such as that of Baptism or Holy Orders. So what type of relation is the bond? From a scholastic point of view, a relation is an accident. Thus the marital relation cannot have some kind of separate or autonomous existence. While, as an accident, the bond is “ontological,”6 this does not mean that it escapes human freedom. It is “a relationship of obligation,” “sealed by God’s grace and commitment to the spouses.”7 The bond is therefore essentially moral.8 As a relation, it therefore has no necessary or essential indissolubility.

Of course, the question of sacramental marriage’s indissolubility raises many important issues, including its ecumenical implications, historical background, and doctrinal status—not to mention the best interpretation or even the theological sufficiency of scholastic understandings of “relation.”9 However, this essay can only address one basic question. As we can see, an important starting point for the issue of indissolubility is in fact the question of “where” this bond is to be located. Does the bond lie solely within the spouses? If so, is it to be located in the order of being, of freedom? Is it rooted in something above and beyond the spouses, however much it might also arise from and shape their freedom? So, the question returns, “where” is this bond and what does it have to do with the real-world marriages of men and women, of flesh and blood?


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