Spring 2006

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

1. See, for example, Kenneth Himes and James Coriden, “The Indissolubility of Marriage: Reasons to Reconsider,” Theological Studies 65, no. 3 (September 2004): 453–499, where we are told that “[v]ows of marriage are vastly more important than promises to make a dinner engagement. But the pattern of making a commitment through free consent and then breaking it is similar” (489). See also Ladislaw Örsy, Marriage in Canon Law: Texts and Comments, Reflections and Questions (Wilmington, Del.: Glazier, 1986), 272, n. 10.

2. See, for example, Michael Lawler, “Blessed Are the Spouses Who Love, for Their Marriages Will Be Permanent: A Theology of the Bonds in Marriage,” The Jurist 55 (1995): 218–242. According to Lawler, the point at which marriage is consummated, and therefore “indissoluble,” occurs when conjugal love has become perfected (241), a point which he grants lacks precision (236). The effect is to place emphasis on the spouses’ own moral development within the obligations of marriage, rather than on the character or nature of marriage as such. See also, Edward Schillebeeckx, “Christian Marriage and the Reality of Complete Marital Breakdown,” in Catholic Divorce: The Deception of Annulments, ed. Pierre Hegy and Joseph Martos (New York: Continuum, 2000), 82–107.

3. Lawler, “Blessed Are the Spouses Who Love,” 219.

4. Himes and Coriden, “The Indissolubility of Marriage,” 496.