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The Sacramentality of Marriage


Nicholas J. Healy Jr.

(Photo by Melanie Reyes Photography)

In his noted interview with Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro in August 2013, Pope Francis summed up his vision for the Church with a memorable image: “I see the Church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars. You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds. Heal the wounds.”

Among the most painful and most serious wounds of our time is the widespread breakdown of marriages. This wound is both a human tragedy — a source of deep suffering for the spouses and especially for their children — and, as Pope Francis argues, a “profound cultural crisis … because the family is the fundamental cell in society” (Evangelii Gaudium, 66).

In order to address this challenge, Pope Francis has called for a renewed pastoral approach that situates marriage and the family at the heart of the Church’s evangelical mission. The Church’s ability to heal wounds depends on her faithful witness to God’s merciful love incarnate in Jesus Christ and communicated in the sacraments. One of the tasks of the upcoming synod on the family is to help the faithful rediscover the vital connection between the sacraments and pastoral care in difficult situations.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines a sacrament as an “efficacious sign of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us” (1131). By his Incarnation, the Son of God entered history and united himself with creation. The sacraments are a masterwork of God whereby the saving mystery of Christ’s life, death and resurrection is extended in time and communicated to us in order to gather us into communion with him. Through the Holy Spirit, the ordinary things of God’s good creation — water, oil, bread, wine — become signs that contain and mediate God’s love for us. Just as in the Incarnation God assumed an entire human existence, so too do the sacraments enable God’s grace to encounter and heal all of the important moments of human life. Birth, marriage, illness and even death are brought into communion with God’s life and love.

Among the seven sacraments, marriage has a unique significance insofar as the natural institution of marriage belongs to the order of creation. As the Catechism puts it, “The vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator” (1603). The new gift that Christ brings to marriage restores the original order of creation that had been wounded by sin. Christ heals and restores marriage by making the conjugal love between a man and a woman a real symbol of his love for the Church.

St. John Paul II taught us that, through the grace of the sacrament, the consent by which spouses mutually give and receive one another “participates in ... the very charity of Christ who gave himself on the Cross” (Familiaris Consortio, 13). For this reason, a sacramental marriage concluded and consummated between baptized persons can never be dissolved.

One of the great insights of St. John Paul II concerns the relationship between human love and the indissolubility of Christian marriage.

He wrote: “Being rooted in the personal and total self-giving of the couple, and being required by the good of the children, the indissolubility of marriage finds its ultimate truth in the plan that God has manifested in his revelation: He wills and he communicates the indissolubility of marriage as a fruit, a sign and a requirement of the absolutely faithful love that God has for man and that the Lord Jesus has for the Church. ... Christian couples are called to participate truly in the irrevocable indissolubility that binds Christ to the Church his bride, loved by him to the end” (Familiaris Consortio, 20).

Sacramental indissolubility is a supreme gift of mercy whereby divine love indwells human love and allows this love to grow beyond itself to participate in God’s love and faithfulness. This grace enables those who exchange wedding vows to say in truth, “I pledge my life to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, unto death,” and know that these words are true. The gift of indissolubility means that despite the difficulties and suffering that come with human failure and sin, the sacramental marriage bond remains an abiding source of mercy, forgiveness and healing.

In this light, let us return to the image of a field hospital after a battle. In one sense, the Church is the hospital and the sacraments are the medicine that really contain and mediate the healing grace of God’s love. Yet there is always more to the sacraments, especially the sacrament of the Eucharist, which sums up our faith and encompasses the whole of our lives. The sacraments are not just medicine; they are more like the hospital itself — a place of healing and renewal. And more than being simply a hospital, the sacraments disclose the deepest truth of creation. They open a space for authentic human life, for mercy and forgiveness, and for the renewal of all creation.

The sacraments are surprisingly capacious gifts. In the Eucharist, the whole mystery of Christ’s life and love is, as it were, concentrated and really given to the Church. So too in marriage, a sacramental bond gathers up and contains all of one’s life, even the most difficult and painful situations of illness, suffering and abandonment. Forgiveness and mercy are always present, not simply as an ideal or in spite of the supposed failure of the marriage, but in and through the undying marriage bond. It is this sacramental bond, “strong as death” (Song 8:6), that remains a sign and source of mercy and a real symbol of Christ’s victory.

NICHOLAS J. HEALY JR, is assistant professor of philosophy and culture at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C. He is a member of Father Rosensteel Council 2169 in Silver Spring, Md.