Recently two friends of mine, a life-long Catholic and her husband who is a convert, came to me with a problem. After having listened to a series of talks on the Theology of the Body, they found themselves unable to reconcile the difference between their understanding of sacramental marriage and the churches teaching on the perpetual virginity of Our Blessed Mother Mary.
I have to admit that my answer to the question was just this side of murky, which caused me to launch an investigation into the theology of sacramental marriage. Perhaps you have been challenged by this topic as well. Part of the confusion comes from the impression – whether implied by some commentators or inferred by some hearers – that given the holiness of the marital embrace, a marriage is not complete until the nuptial act has occurred.
There are the points that have helped me to come to terms with this issue. As with so many things in the Catholic faith, it isn’t a matter of one or the other, but of both.
The first point to observe is this: Marriage and the nuptial act are natural goods. Sex within marriage is not a sin. Saint Augustine Goes into this in great detail in his work, ‘The defense of marriage’.
We must also note when a marriage begins. A marriage is a true marriage after the public declaration of vows, assuming the ability to engage in the act that normally brings forth children exists. It is at this point in time that grace of the sacrament is conferred and the two people are truly married.
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 1626.
Finally, while sex is a natural good, Catholics must not forget that some people are called to something higher, even ‘better’ in certain ways then others might be. The counsel of Trent put it this way:
If any one saith, that the marriage state is to be placed above the state of virginity, or of celibacy, and that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity, or in celibacy, than to be united in matrimony; let him be anathema — CANON X, Doctrine on Matrimony.
After taking some time to reflect on these points and the deeper context from which they are drawn I think I would like to explain it this way to my friends.
There appear to be two forms of the Sacrament of Marriage, one that we could call the ‘ordinary form,’ the other that one might call the ‘extraordinary form’. While both are the same vocation, the second requires a special calling beyond the normal call to the vocation of marriage. The extraordinary form is the type of marriage Joseph and Mary had and is sometimes referred to as a Josephite marriage.
The special charisma of the Josephite marriage is that it is ‘fruitful’ in a different way rather then the generation of natural children — although Joseph and Mary’s unique union had the additional characteristic of being fruitful in both ways. From time to time and for various reasons in history their have been some couples who have felt called to this type of celibate marriage.
It is not less of a marriage then a priest is any less of a priest because he is not also a friar with a vow of poverty. For some priests this extra ‘call’ to something beyond ‘normal’ holy orders adds to the person and mission that God intends for them in a special way. However, it isn’t everyone’s call.
There is a small voice of the modern American in the back of my head that balks at this idea. I mean how can two people be ‘married’ without the union of the nuptial bed? It seems so ‘unnatural’.
Well, yes it is unnatural; in fact it is supernatural. Some people give up the natural good of food for the purpose of building a healthier body. Why is it shocking that some couples might choose to give up the natural good of the nuptial act, if by doing so they gain healthier souls? In the end celibates do not give up sex because it is ‘sinful’. That has simply never been the teaching of the church; they give it up because they hope to live a life that points the way to what will come in the next life, to something better and higher. They give testimony to the fact that ‘the time is short’. We are not long in this state or world.
It seems to me that in this day and age where people don’t treat sex as sacred, perhaps the message of the value of celibacy, and why it is valuable is more then many people can fully process. This might be why many Catholic commentators who are trying to promote healthy marriage don’t address the subject. At the same time, I have to ask if maybe this isn’t part of what people need to hear. Not only is the marital act sacred, but his world is temporary and even marriage won’t be here forever — it will be replaced by something holier and better.
For further reading see:
1) CCC-Cathecism of the Catholic church ARTICLE 7 THE SACRAMENT OF MATRIMONY
2) On the Good of Marriage -St. Augustine
3) Chapter 13.On Marriage and Concupiscence (Book I) – St. Augustine)
4) REDEMPTORIS CUSTOS
Counsel of Trent, DOCTRINE ON THE SACRAMENT OF MATRIMONY