In her excellent book, Forming Intentional Disciples, Sherry Weddell quotes some alarming statistics regarding the Church in the United States. One in particular bears mention and that is the number of marriages celebrated in the Church has decreased by 60 percent since 1972. What makes this alarming is not only that the number of Sacramental Marriages has decreased, but instead it signals a divorce between marriage and its sanctifying effect in many people’s minds. This essay offers some reflections in this regard.
All the sacraments confer sanctifying grace but each one also has special graces attached to it called sacramental graces. Matrimony (for ease of use, I will use the term “Matrimony” to refer to the Marriage that is sacramentally constituted) is no different in this regard.
Nowhere else is the dictum that “grace perfects nature” more visible than in Matrimony. Marriage is part of man’s constitution “in the beginning.” Man and woman by nature are drawn to it. Yet in our fallen state, the relationship between the spouses is marked by strife and division. The conjugal instinct, that is the desire to give of oneself fully to another person remains, but it becomes tainted with selfishness and division (Gn 3:16). By wedding Himself to mankind in the Incarnation, God has come to heal this division and make it a living sign of His relationship with the Church, His Bride (Eph 5:22-33). This visible sign, constituted as a Sacrament, becomes an infallible means of sanctification.
It is important to make two key distinctions at this point. While the Sacrament of Marriage requires only that the man and woman be baptized and exchange consent (and that there are no impediments like already being married, age, etc.) in order to be valid, this does not mean that its sanctifying effects are felt by all. Matrimony is referred to as a “Sacrament of the Living” meaning that its effects remain bound when the spouses are not in a state of grace (or fall into sin during the marriage).
The second distinction has to do with the nature of the Sacrament itself. The sanctifying grace is not simply given on the day of the wedding. Instead this Sacrament is continually exercised by the spouses and is a means of ongoing sanctification. Each instance of self-giving love causes the spouses to grow in conformity to Christ. This does not mean “great” acts of service and love only, but the very simple domestic acts all married couples must deal with. In other words, every moment of married life causes holiness in both the husband and the wife. Rather than division and competition, the spouses strive “to outdo one another in love and honor” (Romans 12:10).
When seen as a source of sanctifying grace, the demands of marriage ought to be viewed in a positive light. The harder the trials, the greater the merit. The harder the trials, the more each spouse becomes a source of sanctification for the other. Rather than running from or avoiding trials, the spouses can embrace them with the surety that they are being “made holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:27).
Like Baptism and Holy Orders, Matrimony constitutes a person in a state of life. When God calls to a state of life, He also equips. What makes the sacramentality so important is that it gives the recipient a continuing right to the sacramental graces needed for the faithful performance of the duties of married life. In other words, it is not just that God gives sacramental graces, but that He has set up the sacramental system such that He is obliged to give them. From our perspective this means that we can absolutely expect to receive these graces.
What are the sacramental graces attached to Matrimony? In short, they are the graces that in some way or another act against the pitfalls of marriage in a fallen world. Before examining these sacramental graces it is necessary to stress that marriage in a fallen world between one man and one woman for life is a practical impossibility. For two people to be united such that they are one flesh (loving the other as they do their own bodies) and yet with no reduction in their personality is humanly impossible. But with God, all things are possible. This is what makes the numbers quoted in the introduction so alarming. We cannot save marriage as an institution on our own. Only the Church can save the institution of marriage by showing forth the splendor of Sacramental Marriage. Without accesses to the Sacramental Graces and the awareness that they are available, more and more marriages will fail.
In paragraph 1607 of the Catechism, the rupture of the original communion of man and woman was manifested in three ways:
- Their relations were distorted by mutual recriminations;
- Their mutual attraction, the Creator’s own gift, changed into a relationship of domination and lust.
- The beautiful vocation of man and woman to be fruitful, multiply, and subdue the earth was burdened by the pain of childbirth and the toil of work.
With these three effects of the Fall, we can consider three specific Sacramental graces. Msgr. Cormac Burke in his new book The Theology of Marriage goes into these in detail, but a summary here follows.
First, there is the grace to overlook the other spouse’s defects. All too often, marriage suffers because of the quirks and character faults of the two spouses. Being yoked to someone who has some particular faults that you are bound to find annoying (at the least) can be extremely taxing. Insert into this the presence of the Accuser who hates marriage and seizes on the smallest faults in our spouses in order to stir up the embers of hatred, and marriage is in danger. To counter this tendency, God gives us the graces needed to dwell on the positive characteristics of our spouses and to forgive as He forgives.
Second, the spouses are given the Sacramental Grace to purify sexual love. In Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI speaks of, despite objections from the more secularly minded to the contrary, Christ’s role in purifying sexual love (eros). He says that “eros needs to be disciplined and purified if it is to provide not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns” (DCE, 4). He goes on to say how Christianity purifies eros so that it becomes one with agape (that is “gift love”). This happens most especially through Matrimony. Yet the conjugal instinct, because it is so powerful, must also be tempered even in marriage and used in the right ways at the right time. Christ, through Matrimony, gives to the spouses the power of conjugal chastity.
Finally, Matrimony also bestows the grace to live out “the vocation of man and woman.” This is related to more than just “gender roles” but to see the truth of sexual complementarity. As Msgr. Burke points out, “complementarity implies that each sex can be a humanizing inspiration and guide to personal growth and maturity for the other.” Something is seriously wrong in a marriage when the spouses are incapable of evoking a sexual response in each other. This response is not just physical but means that a wife should admire her husband’s particularly masculine qualities which she very likely lacks in equal measure just as a husband should admire his wife’s particularly feminine qualities which he likely lacks in equal measure. Men tend to have virtues related to being “thing” oriented and therefore have a greater aptitude for technical aspects of life. Women tend to lack these qualities by nature and can learn from men how to acquire them. Women on the other hand often have virtues that are more relational in nature. Men tend to lack these qualities and therefore needs to emulate his wife in order to be more completely a person. This is what we mean when we speak of complementarity—it is not just a matter of a physical coupling but by discovering and acquiring truly human values that are characteristic of the other sex. This is why man (and woman) needs a “helper fit for him” (Gn 2:18). Of course this only happens when men are truly masculine and women truly feminine. As Msgr. Burke says, “When a man truly runs as a man, he provokes his wife’s admiration; and she, when she runs as a woman, provokes his. Further, the more a woman the wife is, the more she motivates the husband to be a man; and vice versa. Sexual excellence stimulates emulation.”
While it is in vogue to blame the problems in marriage on the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s, the Church saw these problems coming long before the Revolutionaries struck. When Pope Pius XI wrote Casti Connubii in 1930, Marriage was already in decline because of the self-absorbing gravity of contraception. He wrote that “When we consider the great excellence of chaste wedlock, Venerable Brethren, it appears all the more regrettable that particularly in our day we should witness this divine institution often scorned and on every side degraded” (CC 44). The Pontiff’s prescient words are more appropriate today. The Church needs to once again proclaiming “the great excellence” of Sacramental Marriage and offer this most precious gift to those who have turned away from the Church.