February 15, 2008
As you might expect, canon law has a great deal to say about marriage. The section of the Code that contains the Church’s marriage laws covers 111 canons and deals with topics as diverse as: a promise of marriage, pre-marital preparation, how, where and when Catholics can marry, and declaring a marriage invalid. Obviously, some of these topics deal only with Catholic marriages, but others contain information that pertains to all marriages, whether the parties involved are Catholic, Protestant, or non-baptized.
One of the first things that the Church teaches about every marriage is that it is an exclusive relationship between one man and one woman: this is called “the essential property of unity.” There is no “wiggle room” for a man to have more than one wife at a time, or for a woman to have more than one husband at a time, and it obviously also eliminates “same-sex marriages.” Unity, then, does not allow for a person to decide to marry but still carry on extra-marital affairs. At the same time, however, it also rules out an emotional tie to another person, such as the stereotypical “daddy’s girl” or “mama’s boy” who is still tied to the parental apron strings. To bring a third party into the exclusive relationship of marriage is to deny or compromise the unity of the marriage.
Another important aspect about all marriages is that they are indissoluble. This means they are permanent – for life. The Code says that a valid marriage between two baptized persons cannot be dissolved by any human power except death (canon 1141; note: dissolution of marriage is not the same as declaration of nullity). The Church holds that a couple’s marital bond is sealed by God and does not end, even if the emotional and physical relationship has ended in civil divorce. If a marriage does fail, the annulment process examines whether or not the sacramental bond of marriage was brought into existence at the time of the wedding vows. Through a declaration of nullity (annulment), the Church still recognizes that the civil marriage existed, but states that the sacramental bond of marriage did not in fact begin.
One of the “goods” of marriage is that of fidelity. Each person has the right to expect that the other will be faithful in the marriage. This ties in with the unitive part of marriage – the spouses are to be physically and emotionally faithful; this includes such things as pornography and internet romances – even if the persons involved never meet in real life! If one spouse is unfaithful during the marriage, that does not dissolve the marriage, nor is it necessarily a ground for declaring the marriage invalid. Instead, it shows that we sin: we don’t always do the right thing, especially if there was an intention at the beginning of the marriage to stay faithful.
Another “good” of marriage (although parents might not think so all the time!) is that of children. No one has the “right” to have children, but what married couples have is the right to conjugal acts that are open to the possibility of pregnancy. This means that one spouse cannot unilaterally decide not to have children, and thus deny the other person the right to have a say in the decision. Additionally, what goes along with the procreation of children is their education. Parents are to ensure, as best as they can, not only the physical survival and safety of their children, but also their social, cultural, moral and religious education (canon 1136).
The Code of Canon Law also talks about the interaction of the spouses to each other. This is called “the good of the spouses” and deals with their interpersonal relationship, or the “partnership of the whole of life.” Included are communication, the spiritual, intellectual, moral and social growth of each spouse, and cooperation and agreement in decision-making, among other things that make the marriage a true partnership.
The final “good” of marriage is that of sacramentality. If two persons who are baptized marry, it automatically is a sacramental marriage – even if one or both are not Catholic and do not believe that marriage is a sacrament. If a baptized person marries someone who is not baptized, that marriage is called “a good and natural” marriage and still includes all the above things. If the non-baptized person becomes baptized at some point during the marriage, then the marriage immediately becomes sacramental.
Through catechesis and pre-marital preparation, the Church tries to educate her members to a correct understanding of marriage so that they know to what they are consenting when they say “I do.”
Mary Tarver is a tribunal judge who was formerly employed by the Bismarck Diocese. She now works as a tribunal judge in the Diocese of Corpus Christi, Texas.