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Why Is Marriage a Sacrament?

Audio only:

Why is the Church so defensive about marriage even when it is not sacramental? Why does the Church insist on the goodness of natural marriage? What does this say about sacramental marriage?


Cy Kellett:
Hello, and welcome again to Catholic Answers Focus. I’m Cy Kellett, your host. And today, we take a look at marriage with Father Hugh Barbour, Norbertine priest. I know the temptation is killing you right now.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
What temptation?

CK:
You know what I’m talking about. I could see the word forming in your mouth.

FHB:
No. No, absolutely not. I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m not going to do it.

CK:
You’re not going to do it now?

FHB:
No, no, absolutely not.

CK:
Oh, now you make me look bad.

FHB:
I refuse. But you can do it. Go ahead. You can do it.

CK:
Marriage.

FHB:
Yeah, fine. But I’m not going to do that.

CK:
Okay. Fair enough. Marriage.

FHB:
I can talk like my teddy bear, but not like an incompetent bishop.

CK:
Marriage is a strange institution. It’s odd because everybody does it everywhere you go. But it’s also a sacrament of the Catholic Church. So, explain that to me.

FHB:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). It’s very simple. For the sacraments, you need the foundational one, the one which is, theologians call the primary analogot: What sacrament would be there, even if we didn’t have anything else?

CK:
I’m scared to say.

FHB:
Of one of the sacraments.

CK:
Oh, well you’d have to have baptism. Right?

FHB:
Well, yes. But that’s in the Christian era, but let’s just say for the whole existence of the human race-

CK:
Oh, I see. Okay.

FHB:
Now, strictly speaking, you don’t call it the sacrament before Christ, but let’s just say the one sacrament, which always had a form and a matter from some way-

CK:
Yeah. That’s marriage.

FHB:
… From the first day of the creation of man and a woman that is the sixth day of creation, that always existed. That’s more fundamental than any other because without people, there wouldn’t be any God…

CK:
None of this matters.

FHB:
… Destined for eternal life.

CK:
Right.

FHB:
Then none of the other sacraments make any sense.

CK:
Okay. So, we have Adam and Eve, Adam-

FHB:
It’s the Ore sacrament, as that Germans would say.

CK:
… Adam identifies as a man and Eve identifies as a woman.

FHB:
Oh, my goodness gracious. Why are you saying this? You’re confusing the good people that are listening to this podcast.

CK:
Because it is so basic.

FHB:
Adam is man. Adam means man.

CK:
I was being somewhat facetious.

FHB:
Yes, I hope so.

CK:
Yeah. Right. The very foundational fact about the human creature is we are man and woman.

FHB:
Well, the first fact is we’re made in God’s image and likeness, and then male and female He created. God made man in His image and likeness and male and female, he created them.

CK:
Right.

FHB:
But the image and likeness is found in both male and female. There are two sides to the picture. And so, everything that’s in male and female is found beforehand in an eminent and infinite matter in God.

CK:
Okay. Fair enough. So, marriage-

FHB:
So, a bit of reflection.

CK:
… Marriage, even in our fallen state, we intuit the importance of this. I mean, marriage is just essential everywhere.

FHB:
Right. And that’s very important to note, but in our unfallen state, which lasted as long as Adam and Eve had not fallen, but it’s very important to look at what Genesis says there: “God put Adam into a deep sleep.”

CK:
Right.

FHB:
Right? And of course, he didn’t find him on the animals and he helped meet for himself. No companion, nothing.

CK:
Right.

FHB:
It’s not good for man to be alone. Well, so he put him into a deep sleep and the Father of the church said that in that sleep, he received the revelation of all that would follow from his descendancy in terms of the destiny of the human race. So, he received the revelation of the coming of Christ that God would take flesh in human nature and that that would be one of his descendants.

Now, he didn’t hear that he was going to fall and all of that. That part was poignantly left unrevealed to him because he had to experience it himself.

CK:
Right.

FHB:
But it was revealed to him. And so when he wakes, God had taken a rib from his side and formed a woman out of it. And when Adam sees her, he says, “This after all, is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” And so scriptures say, “And for this reason, a man shall leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife. And the two will become one flesh.”

And see, Paul goes on to say, “This means a great mystery, I mean that of Christ and his church.” So from the beginning, the union of man and woman in matrimony was a sign of the future human salvation. And St. Thomas goes to far as to say that it’s impossible that Adam did not know of Christ because of his marriage to Eve. That’s the primal revelation of the coming incarnate Redeemer. He says that. He says, “Impossible es credere that Adam did not know of Christ.” Now, modern theologians will just look at that and roll their eyes, but let them, because it’s right there in the Summa.

CK:
You have to explain it to me a little bit more though. Why does the presence of the wife make that clear to him? Because he knows that he is-

FHB:
Because he knows that this is coming from his own union with her, that it’s procreation. Because there is a number of persons we can help with some people, everybody, or practically everybody, or half the human race, or a third. I mean, the statistics of human salvation are not really edifying or useful to consider. Remember when the apostles say, “Lord, are there few saved?” He says, “Don’t.” He didn’t answer the question. He says, “Just strive to enter by the narrow gate.”

So the descendancy of Adam in view of Christ and the redemption of the human race was of those destined for eternal life and the glory of heaven. And that comes out of human procreation. So, that in the traditional theology of the church, that is of the fathers and the doctors and the medieval doctors, Christ comes again, and the world comes to an end quote, unquote. And at that point, human procreation ceases because the kingdom of heaven is filled. We’re not like Mormons; we don’t go on procreating infinitely.

CK:
Yeah.

FHB:
And so consequently, that whole number, When The Saints Go Marching In, that whole number is, they’re in Adam’s dream as it were in his loins, ready to be conceived and be redeemed through Christ. The new Adam, of course Adam didn’t know that, who will make up for Adam’s sin and bring about an even race saved by his sacred passion. Is that an explanation?

CK:
It is. Yeah. It’s clear to me now. But so, in the very beginning of the book of Genesis, we have this kind of explication of marriage. Marriage is right there from the very beginning, and it’s a man and a woman. But many people today will say, “Well, that’s actually an advanced view of marriage. People have had all kinds of views of marriage throughout history. Sometimes, there’s been polygamy.

FHB:
Sure.

CK:
I don’t know what else, though. I mean, people act like there’s an infinite number, but really, there’s polygamy or monogamy. I don’t know.

FHB:
Well, there’s also polyandry.

CK:
Polyandry. Okay.

FHB:
That’s especially unusual.

CK:
Yeah, that’s right. Not typical because of our natures, because we’re not the same, men and women.

FHB:
You can’t conceive numerous children from polyandry.

CK:
Yeah. Right.

FHB:
That’s the model of marriage for Hollywood.

CK:
Yeah. Okay.

FHB:
Yeah.

CK:
But I mean, even in the world where people pretend like there’s an infinite variety, there’s not an infinite variety. There’s only so many ways you can join people together. But people will say, “Look, that’s not really true that that marriage is this man and woman thing.”

FHB:
Well, our Lord makes it very clear and Christian theology has always been clear on this point. And to the extent to which it’s not clear these days is because it’s been affected by the evolutionary materialistic view of modern philosophy. Because in point of fact, our Lord says, “In the beginning, old Moses wrote that a man could write a decree of divorce and marry another woman. But I say to you, it was not so from the beginning and a man who divorced his wife and marries another commits adultery.” Right. So our Lord says from the beginning, it was monogamy, a union between one man and one woman.

Now, it’s true that for various reasons in history of the world, including that one end of marriage is with procreation, God allowed for a time the practice of polygamy. But that was in view of one of the legitimate ends of marriage in fact, the principal one, in spite of the fact that modern theologians, including some reputed to be Orthodox, always like to say that, “No, that’s not the first in the marriage.” But it is. Then, I mean, sorry.

CK:
No, but it’s funny. I think that we don’t like to hear that because we-

FHB:
Because there’s so much more to marriage than that.

CK:
… Well, yeah. But not only that, that there’s so much more than that, but we don’t like to hear anyone say it’s not all about me. So, do you know what I mean? That the modern mindset is, it’s about me. So really, the marriage must be about me and my love. It can’t be about somebody else.

FHB:
Something as cold as the common good of the whole human race?

CK:
Yeah. Right. It can’t be that.

FHB:
Yeah. We don’t want that. No, not at all.

CK:
Yeah. I just think that’s the habit of the modern mind.

FHB:
Right. No. There is some truth to that. But in any case, that end of marriage, which is procreation, and of course for that, you need to educate the children, so that they themselves can reach the perfection and happiness of human existence. That’s our Lord’s teaching. And it’s very, very clear that He said it was so from the beginning. So, His gospel teaching is to simply return to the purity of the original creation. And that’s why in the Eastern rites, the wedding right is full of references to the incarnation, the virginal conception of Mary, to the prophecies of Isaiah and of the original plan with Adam and Eve. In the Roman rite, typically, it’s very-

CK:
Letter to the Romans.

FHB:
… It’s pretty much derogating from all of that and it’s a less happy picture, at least traditionally. Although, there is the marriage blessing, the nuptial blessing, which has that nice, happy tone, but it’s pretty contractual and it makes a concession to the weakness of human nature and all that. But that’s because of the development of our theology. Their marriage rite was developed at a time when they already had the civil sad part of it worked out.

CK:
Yeah.

FHB:
And in the West and the hinterlands of the Frankish and dramatic trust-

CK:
Oh. I see. Yeah.

FHB:
… They needed to have both. So, they kind of tended to strip it down a bit. But yes. The original beautiful sacrament of humanity is ultimately that of the natural institution of marriage lifted by our Lord to the level of a sacrament, which bestows grace in view of signifying His union with His church that is with souls. And that’s what the sacrament signifies.

CK:
I don’t want to say it in terms of value, but there’s an essential difference between a natural marriage and a sacramental marriage? Or is that a wrong way to talk about it?

FHB:
Well, if you mean by essence levels of existence, yes.

CK:
Okay. Can you explain that to me? The difference?

FHB:
So the natural marriage, which is already a good, means simply that human nature is so constituted, that man is ordered towards a permanent lifelong union with a woman in view of the procreation and education of children and their mutual, what St. Thomas calls obsequium, their mutual honor and reverence, which of course includes, in case you know this word, it includes sex, right? So, people want to separate sex from children. And so, they’re really offended nowadays, even Catholics, when you say it’s procreation.

CK:
Yes. Right.

FHB:
But what they’re really annoyed by is not that. So, you don’t want it to be for love? But they’re thinking, “No, but I want sexual love that’s not just about procreation.”

CK:
Yes.

FHB:
That’s what they’re talking about. They’re corrupted by the current culture, but that’s just parenthesis.

CK:
Because the current culture has in fact separated procreation from sex.

FHB:
And we suffer more greatly-

CK:
And there are profound consequences.

FHB:
… And so, certain Catholic apologists, not here, of course, for John Paul The Second’s teaching and whatnot, they bend over backwards to sound like they’re all in sync with this point of view. And that they’re not minimizing the importance of just simply sexual relations.

CK:
Right.

FHB:
The fact is, there isn’t anything as just simply sexual relations. It’s always related to procreation, even if they’re beyond the age of procreating.

CK:
Yeah.

FHB:
It still symbolizes and effectually sizes, would it be possible as in the case of Zachary and Elizabeth, Anne and Joachim, Abraham and Sarah-

CK:
Sure.

FHB:
… That it does happen.

CK:
Right.

FHB:
And so, yeah.

CK:
There is actually a much fuller joy in a way that-

FHB:
Of course.

CK:
… Sex that’s connected to family, that’s connected to history that’s connected to this long… the whole progress of the human race is a joyful thing in a way that sex that’s just entertainment is not a joyful thing.

FHB:
Right. And they overreact to this seemingly restrictive or cold view or clerical view, they sometimes say, of sexuality. And it’s not reasonable, but there you have it. And that union of the spouses in love is the part of marriage which subsists continually when it develops well, because of the fact that the couple are equal as a son and a daughter of God, of airs of grace and eternal life growing in grace, living a life of prayer, called to even a mystical union with the Lord, all of that comes together in that aspect of the relationship that they become true friends, that isn’t friends have to be equals. But under the aspect of marriage in its first finality, that is a procreation, equality is not a category that really needs to be used because it’s a complementarity that requires such a difference of roles that if you’re just insisting on dividing it up, you’ll never get it.

But the other end, which is still always given there by St. Thomas, this mutual reverence and love, that is the question of a spiritual friendship greater than which there is no other type of friendship, according to St. Thomas. The friendship between a married man and his woman and the woman and her man is absolutely the highest form of friendship when it occurs. But there is the challenge.

CK:
So, okay. So, this is true in natural marriage as well, that it can lead to a intimacy of friendship that is the highest form of friendship?

FHB:
I would say, natural marriage is much more difficult because there, you have the cultural forms, which are mostly related to family, stability and continuation.

CK:
Right.

FHB:
That is, if you take marriage as a simply natural institution. You’ve got all the different cultures of the world and there it is. Yes, it could happen. And of course, God’s grace influences everything, but in the sacrament of matrimony because it’s focused on the worship of God, then there’s a union through charity with the work of Christ that is in His death on the cross and everything that goes up to that, including, “Love one another as I’ve loved you.” And the perfect, “I no longer call you servants, but friends.” That is, Lord claims our equality with Him and that’s men and women.

CK:
Right.

FHB:
That’s the Christ is neither male nor female part of the aspect of the relationship. But that in marriage, it begins with the complementarity of the procreative end, which is completely natural. But which in Christian marriage is elevated to the level of a sign of God’s fruitful union with the human race. That is, if you can think about it, a couple who are united in marriage and procreate a child in the sacrament of matrimony, their love in procreating a child is a sacrament which represents the mystical marriage of Teresa of Avila, Therese of Lisieux, or John of the Cross, or the great mystics, that is.

And they may say, “Gosh, my married life doesn’t feel like that. I’m glad that they had that grace. I wonder if I do.” They would probably turn and say, “Well, I wouldn’t have this grace if it weren’t for Christ to establish the sacrament so that I might exist and live to the worship of God, thanks to my good parents who had me baptized and raised in the true faith.”

CK:
So, is a Christian marriage a failure if it doesn’t end in friendship? Or is there a way in which it’s okay to… I mean, I guess you don’t always have a choice. Your spouse isn’t always willing to be a friend to you.

FHB:
Well, of course, there’s no such thing as failure as Robert Hugh Benson, the great Catholic priest writer in England said to his spiritual directees, “There’s no such thing as failure in our system. As long as you realize that there’s a difficulty, you are able to get around it through the grace and the power of God and your faith in Him.” So, it’s true that men and women don’t easily form friendships. They form romantic relationships, and then as you notice, there’s more equality in the relationship once they’re a couple who have children and they know other couples have children. And so, there’s a community around that. And so, you live in a context of a number of families who know each other and live out their lives together. Then they get older, the kids leave the house and they’re left together, empty nest.

CK:
Right.

FHB:
And then, they might find they don’t have that much in common. Or that the guy’s friends are all other guys like him and the woman’s friends are all other women like her, which is normal because those are the ones that they’re most like, and friendship is about likes, people that are like you. And so, it can very well happen that you get the old fashioned marriage where he’s sitting in front of the TV, complaining about what this, that team is doing or not doing nowadays and talking to his friends about it. And she’s there on the phone talking to her friends. And so, that the friendships tend to be mostly with members of the same sex as they get in that state.

But a marriage that is consciously and intentionally modeled after the model of Christ and His Blessed Mother and Saint Joseph that really tries to see marriage as a spiritual context in which they’re to grow in grace and holiness, there a true friendship can occur and a very deep one, but also one which is more difficult to maintain, but it is entirely possible.

You think of the various third orders in the Church’s history, the couples who both joined the third order of Saint Francis, which is by far the most influential, then there’s third order Carmelites. And we even have the Norbertines in this part of the world. But the fact is that couples can aspire to a spirituality which in the high middle ages led to a lot of couples, he went to monastery and she went to a convent. He is a lay brother. She is a lay sister after they had raised their kids. And that was not as some scholars cynically pointed out, the sort of the medieval version of a divorce, is because they had lived out the ends of their marriage and saw their children happily married and with their own grandchildren and then they could live their lives in quiet contemplation happily maybe because they had means endowing a monastery, or doing something.

CK:
Yeah. Right.

FHB:
That was the thing. But the lay brothers of the medieval monastery were not these sort of thugs that you see in movies with these laborless monasteries, they seemed like idiots. You look at the Name of the Rose, with movies like that.

CK:
Yeah. Yeah.

FHB:
They’re bizarre characters. It was not that way at all. These were sophisticated guys who ran farms, who were soldiers, who practiced crafts and what not. And the reason why the monks were able to concentrate on the liturgy and do all of that and work in theology and preaching and so on is because the whole monastery structure was made up of all these married men-

CK:
Oh, right.

FHB:
… Who were either widowers or just simply separated in religious life from their wives and who were able to run enormous farms because they did it before they entered.

CK:
Yeah. They knew what they were doing.

FHB:
Right. They know what they doing and it was a Christian community more like that of Jerusalem. They gave everything they had and came and lived with the apostles and worshiped God and served the community by maintaining all this means. And that was the original model.

So people always say, “Well, the Jerusalem church.” And you think of modern charismatics or something like that, but actually, you ought to think of the 12th and 13th centuries in the Middle Ages where all of these married people, no one batted an eye if both of them went to monasteries and continued their work.

CK:
Yeah.

FHB:
It wasn’t like they were going into the cluster and they were going to run the farm and sew the clothes, do the cooking. I mean, they basically continued their domestic life, but in a life of retirement since their kids were already able to take care of themselves.

CK:
It reminds me of something. My mother used to say these theological things with no explanation. I think you were meant to just figure it out for yourself, but she’d say, “The point of this”, talking about her marriage to my father, “is for us to get each other to heaven.” And then as a child, you’re supposed to figure that out, I guess. But what does that mean?

FHB:
Well, I mean-

CK:
What does it mean?

FHB:
… Ultimately, that is friendship, because friendship is love of the other’s true good. If you love the true good of the other and the other loves your true good and that is two people that want to help each other get to heaven, well, that’s friendship. Friendship doesn’t always have to be lovey dovey or consoling.

CK:
No. Right. Real friendship is desiring the highest good for the other.

FHB:
Right. And the friendship between two warriors is not exactly comfortable.

CK:
No.

FHB:
You watch each other get shot or blown up, but a couple also who love each other in marriage, they have lots of struggles, but it can be a true friendship if they earnestly work for the salvation of each other, the sanctification.

CK:
So, the Church looks upon natural marriage as a very high good. It values natural marriage.

FHB:
Right. So much so that if two unbaptized people or one baptized person and an unbaptized person, because that’s not a sacramental marriage, either. They both have to be sacramentally baptized. When that unbaptized couple is baptized, if they don’t withdraw the consent that they made to their original marriage, automatically the marriage is sublimated to a sacramental order just by the fact that they’re being baptized. They’re sacramentalized immediately.

CK:
But this is also why the Church defends marriage in the public sphere-

FHB:
Exactly.

CK:
… Because it’s not just saying Christian marriage is the particular good, it’s saying that natural marriage, there is such a great good to it, it has to be defended.

FHB:
Well, natural marriage is naturally indissolvable just like sacramental marriage. The only way a natural marriage can be dissolved is in view of a sacramental marriage and the impossibility of a sacramental marriage with the one of the natural partners. But in and of itself, it’s for life. That’s why the Church has never supported divorce or new marriage, even societies that were not Christian. And that was true, until recently, that was a universal understanding.

CK:
And the Church never takes the attitude, You non-Christians do whatever you want.”

FHB:
No.

CK:
“This is for us Christians over here.”

FHB:
No. We may in practice have to do that simply because no one understands our perspective.

CK:
Sure. Or doesn’t listen to us.

FHB:
Right.

CK:
Right. No one’s asking our opinion on it certainly, but I feel like we have to defend sometimes the Church’s defense of marriage because people will say, “Well, what do you care? You can do your Christian marriage.” But that’s not what the Church is saying. The Church is saying that the fundamental good of society of everything depends on this.

FHB:
Upon marriage in the household. Right.

CK:
All right. So before we close then, if I can ask you for some practical guidance on living the sacrament of the marriage, if I say, “Oh, okay, father, I get it. Maybe I didn’t know that before, that there’s this symbolism of Christ and the Church and marriage and all that. So, I want to live this as a sacrament with my wife or with my husband. What am I supposed to do to live it as a sacrament?”

FHB:
Well first, make a little meditation because married couples, they marry each other by the mutual consent of marriage, verbally expressed and internally accepted, that’s the matter and form of the sacrament of matrimony, that the outward vows and the internal consent. And of course in the Eastern churches, they require also the presence and blessing of a priest for the sacramental marriage. But that’s something the Church can do. She can add conditions, but she can’t take away from the minimum. So in the Roman rite, we still focus on the consent of the couple which is always has to be there.

Now you consider that, that imagine your husband coming to you with the sacred host in extraordinary circumstances, because that’s still extraordinary, no matter how many times it might be able to happen. Or imagine your wife coming to you with the precious blood, also extraordinary. And think, “This one, whatever else I know or think or feel about him or her, is giving to me the very body and blood of God.” And just think about that and then visit and console him under those appearances, wherever he’s present and consider that your marriage exists so that that sacrament might be celebrated for the salvation not only of your children, but of all children. And then maybe we’ll meet and we’ll reach what’s called the wedding feast.

CK:
Amen. Right. It all ends in a feast too. It started with a marriage and it ends at a marriage.

FHB:
Yeah.

CK:
Father Hugh Barbour, thank you very much.

FHB:
God bless you.

CK:
And you as well. And thank you to everybody who has joined us here on Catholic Answers Focus. Share us, will you? Let other people know about us. We’re trying to grow this podcast. Let other people know what’s going on here because we think it’s kind of important to let the culture know where we talk about Jesus and about things like marriage and all of that. So, we appreciate if you would share it. I am Cy Kellett, your host. We’ll see you next time God willing right here on Catholic Answers Focus.

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