Interesting Question About the Sacrament of Marriage

A reader writes:

I have enthusiastically read your blog for some time now. I greatly enjoy it. Anyway, I hope you can answer a question I’ve been struggling with.

As I was pondering the sacrament of confirmation, and how the Eastern Church delivers it to infants, it led me to a particular point about sacraments. The grace is freely given by God, and not dependant on the recipient’s preparation.

Infant baptisms are valid, infant confirmations are valid, because they were performed correctly, and do not reflect the recipient’s understanding. Similarly, the reality of the Eucharist, is not dependent on the recipient’s or observer’s acknowledgement. In fact as long as the mass is celebrated validly by a valid presbyter, as I understand it, it is the specific words and actions that cause the consecration, not the priest’s frame of mind, or earnestness.

So, my question. Why does this not apply to marriage. Why are annulments a thing? Yes I understand that they are declarations that the sacrament never took place. I’m asking why the sacrament never took place. If it was correctly performed, and no one was coerced, why is the validity dependant on the future intentions of the recipient? This doesn’t seem to jive with the aforementioned sacraments.

My guess would be that mere freedom and perfect performance of the words and actions in marriage rites don’t speak to the question of whether the people had sufficient knowledge and intentionality of what they were doing. Remember:  the couple being married doesn’t merely *receive* the sacrament: They *confer* it too.  The priest (at least in the Western Church) does not celebrate the sacrament of marriage.  He simply *witnesses* it.  It is the husband and wife who confer it on each other. Lots and lots of people enter into marriage with deeply immature notions of what they are doing and with no serious intention of fidelity to the vows they make.  This can’t be known oftimes on the wedding day, but the immaturity manifests itself in actions as time progreses and makes clear that one or both partners had no real belief in, understanding of, or intention to keep the vows they parroted.  If sufficient evidence for this is adducede, it follows that the vows are no more real, and therefore the sacrament no more valid, than if children made them.

By the way, a word abouut annulments: Lots of people find annulments scandalous (in the sense that they think the Church should not give them out so freely).  I find them scandalous in the sense that we laity have such a crappy understanding of marriage (despite the abundant catechesis we could easily find if we just got off our fat butts and did it).  The fact is, we laypeople–we laypeople–enter, at a 50% rate, into marriages we are are ready to bail on the moment we decide we need to go find ourselves and Eat Pray Love, or explore our sexuality, or the money gets tight, or some other juvenile rationale for stabbing our spouses and children in the back.  That’s not the Church’s fault.  It’s ours–us allegedly adult laypeople-for refusing to grow up (often while complaining that the Church treats us like children).  Annulments are a mercy offered by a Church that specializes in mercy so that , out of the societal wreckage wrought by the Pepsi Generation, at the very least thousands and thousands of betrayed spouses and betrayed children are not screwed out of happiness and still have a shot at some kind of stable family and happiness.  Blaming the Church for granting annulments is like blaming it for offering soup to the poor or hospitals to the sick.  The fault, dear laity, is not in annulments, but in ourselves.

And, by the way, the crime of no fault divorce (invented by and for heterosexuals) has done *infinitely* more damage to the family than gay “marriage” has done or will do.  No fault divorce was the bullet to the brain of marriage.  Gay “marriage” is just kicking the corpse.

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  • Dan C

    “despite the abundant catechesis…”

    Yes. Yes. Yes.

    One thing I hate hearing is the nasty comments about one’s CCD teacher and how awful he or (most likely) she was. She was most likely a barely high school educated person doing the best she could.

    If the person did not learn this in the home, then that is the first problem. The “bad catechesis” caused me to sin and stray crowd is a long ulcer for me. (We can find over-educated high end lawyers claim this nonsense in popular blogs on the web.)

    Second, catechesis, like all educational endeavors, is a weak motivator to change. One does not see many exhortations in the Gospel to “get educated” but to change instead. These are separate matters. More “education” is unlikely to change behavior.

    In terms of Sacraments that require effort and participation by the recipient, like Penance, the state and actions of the recipient are important for the Sacrament.

    One of the aspects I see a lot in conservative Catholicism is a legalism that focuses a lot on words and not meaning. I even read some apologists, all conservative, and they read like lawyerly tones that drone on. And if the apologist likes traditonal liturgy, it is even worse.

    Catholicism is not a series of words like some dungeons and dragons magic spell that has to be said correctly, or contract law in which the exact phrasings have to occur or someone will cheat you out of millions (a mythology that contract lawyers like to create anyway). We are actions and relationship, with Christ and each other.

    • Unfortunately, my catechesis was pretty much “Jesus loves you rah rah rah, now memorize these ten commandments and we’ll tell you a nice story about John the Baptist’s parents and let you color the pictures, and we’ll learn some nice songs about Abraham and St. Michael’s rowboat”.

      • Dan C

        Which is not incorrect.

        Your catechesis was likely more intense than, say, all those who received the Sacraments after listening to Francis Xavier one afternoon.

    • You say “lawyerly” like it’s a bad thing ;>

      • IRVCath

        Aye. There’s a reason that we do have a Code of Canon Law.

        And just because one is a “high-end lawyer”, doesn’t mean they know their faith or even received even the rudiment of education in the Faith that today is necessary (which is why we don’t catechize like St. Francis Xavier – differing conditions).

        Furthermore, true, there is actions and relationship, but laws describe and shape actions and relationships. This is true in both civil and canon law.

  • James H, London

    I agree with Dan C – catechesis can only go so far.

    The fault is in ourselves. Maxima culpa nostra. We’re the ones who’ve decided marriage is disposable. Like a lot of (most?) other ills, I think this one can be traced to contraception.

  • Heather

    One other thing that your reader might consider is that while an infant baptism or confirmation requires no conscious participation on the part of the infant in order to be valid and effective, once that infant grows up that is no longer the case. The parents of a child make the baptismal promises on the child’s behalf. But once someone has reached the age of reason, baptism requires instruction and preparation and the person being baptised needs to ask for it him- or herself. That’s why we have months or years of RCIA or other adult catechesis before someone can convert to the Church.

    There is no analogous situation for infant marriage. In some cultures in the past families would betroth young children for purposes of family alliances, but even then they still weren’t actually married until they grew up. In order to be married you always have to make those promises for yourselves. Ex opere operato still applies in that it is not the personal holiness of the couple that causes the sacrament to be effective, but you still need the proper form, matter, and intent, and in a shamefully high number of weddings at least one if not all of those three are defective or missing altogether.

  • Andy, Bad Person

    This whole thing is very good. The best answer to the reader’s question lies right in your first paragraph. Some of the reader’s confusion comes from a false analogy between receiving Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist, and the conferral of Matrimony. As you said, that sacrament is both given and received by the bride and groom as the proper ministers, not only received as in the case of the other sacraments.

    A closer analogy would be likening an “annulable” marriage to a Mass in which the priest, through some defect, has no intention of consecrating the species of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. Without that intent, no consecration happens. The validity of a sacrament is dependent on the minister, not the recipient. Marriage is different because the bride and groom are both the ministers and the recipients, just like you said.

    The rest of this is excellent. It’s important to see annulments as a mercy, and one that the Church is well within her authority to provide.

    • antigon

      May be missing something here, but don’t see where mercy comes into this. It’s not a mercy to acknowledge that Cleveland, Ohio is in Ohio, just a fact; & so with the validity or want thereof, of a Sacrament. T’is a mercy They exist, to be sure, as that Christ left us a Church to delineate what constitutes Them – but what does isn’t a mercy, just a fact, no?

      • Andy, Bad Person

        I don’t see why fact and mercy have to be exclusive of one another in this case.

  • Dan C

    One other point about marriage being about “actions and relationship” and not legalistic language said in some proper incantation- valied marriages require active assent to certain matters – children, for instance, and require intercourse. Absent this, and a marriage can be invalid.

  • This is not quite right, at least for the US. The large majority of the time, a Catholic priest is witnessing a sacramental marriage while simultaneously conducting a secular marriage. The question I would have regarding our conduct of marriage is how bad does secular marriage have to be before it would be better to stop doing this dual ceremony.

    For various legal reasons, I ended up separating the two in my own marriage. I count my religious marriage as my anniversary date. The rest is rendering unto Caesar and, for me, a triviality. I think that we’d be better off if we were to more widely adopt this attitude.

    • I agree, and it is one of the reasons why I am indifferent to the legality of civil gay marriage, or gay marriage in other religions.

      • You’re indifferent to the idea of a priest conducting a civil marriage?

        • … Yes? Isn’t that your point, that Catholic marriage and civil marriage are two separate things? I’m not sure what you are getting at, otherwise.

          • IRVCath

            Not precisely. The Church recognizes civil registry marriages between non-Catholics.

          • The current practice is that priests do civil marriages. My point is questioning whether that is always a good idea.

      • I am indifferent to the legality of civil gay marriage

        You shouldn’t be. It’s bad for society.

        • I’m not so sure, especially given that gays who wish to marry are a very small portion of society. I’m much more concerned with what heterosexuals have done to marriage and family stability.

          • That’s definitely a fair point. I guess I would say that one should be concerned about both while granting that heterosexual misuse has been more practically destructive.

    • IRVCath

      Because the civil authority, the Church acknowledges, has the right to govern the civil effects of marriage (for example, in inheritance, the issue of legally-recognized marriages is privileged over other issue), and that we as Catholics are bound to follow the State’s marriage laws, insofar as they are just restrictions, just as we should follow, say, the State’s laws on education. That the State also has laws that open marriage up to unjust abuse does not invalidate the fact that we should follow just laws on marriage. Caesar does, after all, sometimes have good laws. Those we should follow.

      Furthermore, certain jurisdictions have statutes against falsely holding oneself out to be married (though I know California and much of the South have exceptions). This would lead to priests and the couples being arrested.

      • In other countries, it is routine to split the ceremonies. What is the difficulty in saying that the state is perfectly welcome to its concept of marriage and that the concept has drifted so far away from Catholic teaching that priests will no longer serve as secular administrators of civil marriage?

        The legal difficulty of falsely holding oneself to be married could be resolved in two ways, civil disobedience to an unjust law or simply requiring that a secular marriage license is shown prior to the religious ceremony. The bishops can hash out which is the better variant.

        • IRVCath

          And in all those countries, the Church denounced the governments who did so.

          • You used too many pronouns for me to understand what you’re trying to say.

  • Dan C

    I think the story of half of all marriages failing is a statistic that needs explaining. In terms of marriages that fail, 1/3 of all first marriages fail, I think. Remarriages fail more often.

  • Bill Burns

    Formal cases for annulment hinge on the matter of freely given consent. Participants must be competent to give consent (capable intellectually and emotionally), able (having a proper understanding and knowledge of the obligations and the qualities of the party they’re marrying), and willing (having no internal of external circumstances that coerces them to seek marriage). Future intentions don’t enter into the question of validity, but intentions, capacities, and qualities on the day of the wedding do. For example, if someone has some incapacity to assume the obligations of marriage (due to mental illness, addiction, extremely poor judgment), that may be a condition for invalidity. If someone conceals a quality from their partner that would have affected the other partner’s desire for marriage, that could impact validity. The case always hinges on the circumstances at and preceding the time consent is exchanged, not on conditions or circumstances that arise after that time. Hope this helps.

  • “If it was correctly performed, and no one was coerced, why is the validity dependant on the future intentions of the recipient? ”

    Most of the time it isn’t. The one case I can think of where it is, is the case of abandonment under duress, which kind of leads us back to the question of what is consent and commitment? Did they lie when they promised for better or worse?

  • Bad Andy and Heather both make good points. I think the reader who poses the original question has a subtle misunderstanding of how sacraments work.

    It is true that the sacraments are free gifts of God to us, and they do not depend on us so far as their power or effectiveness goes. However, they do depend on us so far as our ability to receive their grace goes. Therefore, intention and understanding really are necessary for a valid sacrament.

    On the part of the minister, there must be an intention to do “what the Church does” in administering the sacrament. So, Bad Andy’s example of a priest intending not to consecrate the bread and wine, despite going through the motions. Likewise, a non-believer can validly be the minister of baptism, but only insofar as he/she intends to baptize “as the Church does”.

    On the part of the recipients, there can be many obstacles to grace, which can invalidate the sacrament. A refusal to repent invalidates the sacrament of Penance; I have heard of seminarians whose ordinations were deemed invalid because they intended not to receive the sacrament of Holy Orders. Such obstacles can, deliberately or implicitly, be put in the way of Matrimony as well.

    The point that the man and woman are simultaneously ministers and recipients of the sacrament (at least in Western practice) is a good one, and shows how obstacles can arise in one unbeknownst to the other.

    Meanwhile, God’s grace is free and full and exuberantly abundant. The limits are in us and our ability or willingness to receive his grace, not in God.

  • Jared Clark

    Imagine if a person were “baptized” with sunscreen, or “confirmed” in Thor, or if a priest tried to consecrate a biscuit from Hardees. These examples are inherently ridiculous, but they are demonstrations that it is possible to for a sacrament to be invalid.

    In the case of marriage, lack of preparation is not, as far as I know, a reason for annulment. A reason might be that one of the spouses lied, tricking the other into the vows, or another that a Catholic marries an unbaptized person outside the Church without receiving permission from his priest and bishop. In that case, since he is bound by previous vows, he cannot freely make a vow under those circumstances.

    I’m no canon lawyer, so I may not be providing the best examples of what could cause an invalid marriage, but I hope I’ve helped your reader in some way.

    • Andy, Bad Person

      In the case of marriage, lack of preparation is not, as far as I know, a reason for annulment.

      If that lack of preparation leads to the lack of intent to understand and make the vows with full knowledge, then it can.

      Imagine if a person were “baptized” with sunscreen,

      I’ll be pedantic. I work in the liturgy; it’s what I do. Also, see my name. If said sunscreen is water-based, theoretically you could baptize with it, at the very least in an emergency. Most people would just spit in that emergency, though.

      • Jared Clark

        That is a good point on preparation. I should have been more exact and said that if the couple makes the vow with correct intent and full knowledge, then a lack of preparation in the sense that either spouse did not think of the hardships of married life is not a valid reason for an annulment. As for the baptism…(EDIT: for some reason, the image I posted isn’t showing. It was a picture from Futurama with the caption “You are technically correct; the best kind of correct”, which, if it had shown, would have been mildly amusing)

        • Andy, Bad Person

          That Futurama quote is one of my favorites.

      • Raymond

        For my brother in law, lack of preparation was not the reason for his annulment. He wanted to annul two marriages so that he and his current wife could renew their vows in The Church. The diocese expressed concerns about the annulments, but when he gave the diocese $5000, all concerns disappears and they renewed their vows in a lovely ceremony after Sunday Mass.

  • Elmwood

    My parents divorced and I’d like to think I was born in wedlock but who knows. I don’t think my father understood what marriage means in the catholic sense, or at least he didn’t take it too seriously.

    I almost prefer the orthodox method of allowing remarriage out of mercy and recognition of human weakness. The truth is only God knows if a marriage is valid or not, the church only makes an informed guess.

  • Clifton Wolfe

    Mark. . You gave a good answer but to not really answer his question. Let us review… He asked “If it was correctly performed, and no one was coerced, why is the validity dependent on the future intentions of the recipient? ” It isn’t. It is NOT their future intentions but their intentions AT THE TIME OF THE VOWS that go towards validity.

    • Mariana Baca

      I think by “future intentions” they mean intentions had at the moment for what they intend in the future, not intentions they will have in the future. E.g. I intend marriage to last forever, I intend to be faithful forever, etc.

  • Mariana Baca

    “If it was correctly performed, and no one was coerced, why is the validity dependent on the future intentions of the recipient? ” Because full consent and knowledge is a necessary element of the sacrament of marriage, the way the words of consecration are needed for the Eucharist or the Trinitarian formula is necessary for baptism. If the participants don’t consent to marriage and all it entails (including having the mental capacity to make such vows), they aren’t getting married, just like if I baptise someone in the name of Thor I’m not baptising anyone. Not all sacraments have the same requirements.

    That said, all sacraments depend on the celebrant “intending to do what the Church intends” when they perform it. If the participants mean something different than the Church when they get married, they aren’t performing the sacrament. Same applies to those performing a baptism, confirmation, or the Eucharist.