Last week, I wrote about the tendency to forego the usual custom of having a Funeral Mass when a Catholic dies. I tried to share that this new trend has troubling presuppositions and consequences. Another worrying concern that keeps making an appearance, and is so common that we hardly advert to it, is how people get married (or don’t!).
Some Catholics who have had the benefit of a Catholic education (many through college!) choose to live together without making any commitment to each other in a formal way. The contract of civil marriage and the covenant of the Sacrament of Matrimony are both seen to be irrelevant and unnecessary. Even if they intend to get married, they co-habitat together: to all intents and purposes, a married life except they have not gone through the public acknowledgment of this commitment. For a marriage, whether civil or ecclesiastical, is a public declaration to the community that both husband and wife are initiating a permanent bond between them. The community has a stake in their decision, for our nation is made up of nuclear cells we call families that contribute to and profit from the commonweal of the nation. Families are important to the future of the nation and the breakdown of the family spells disaster for the country, hence the need for regulation of marriages by the state, for the good order and the proper development of our nation.
A public commitment is also important to the children of this union. At times, I have had in my office a couple that is asking for baptism for their child. Sometimes this is their second or even third child. Yet they are still living together without any formal commitment of marriage. When I tell them that their child has a right to that public vow to stay together, the couple seems surprised. They saw their decision to forego a public declaration as purely a private matter; but it isn’t just that. We all have a responsibility to be a part, and to contribute to, the wider community, which is why we vote, pay taxes and join the military. We have responsibilities to our nation and marriage and family that, whether we like it or not, are part of that connection.
And that is true for everyone, even the atheist; but when we move to the religious sphere, it becomes even more an obligation. When we speak of the Sacrament of Matrimony we are putting God into the equation. Even if the human community recognizes this couple as married through a civil rite, that does not automatically mean that God recognizes the marriage. For Catholics, Canon Law explicitly requires them to be married in Church before a priest or deacon. Only if they are marrying an unbeliever can they receive formal permission from their Bishop (through a dispensation) to marry in another religious or secular rite. Since Christ gave the Church the right and the obligation to regulate her own laws (by ‘binding and loosing’), Canon Law is binding on all Catholics.
Interestingly enough, the Church recognizes the marriage of two non-Catholics in whatever circumstances they choose to profess their commitment. So if two Jews marry, it is a valid marriage before God. If they divorce and one of them wants to marry a Catholic, the Jew must get a Catholic Annulment since the indissolubility of the marital commitment is presumably in force even outside the faith.
So, getting back to our couple that is married by the state and not before God, they need to make the commitment of Matrimony before a priest or deacon. This does not mean that they have to go through any expense. The Church does these ‘convalidations’ either before a congregation or more privately before a few witnesses; but the couple needs to be married in the sight of God before receiving communion at Mass.
In addition, the Sacrament of Matrimony confers special graces on the couple that the civil rite, by definition, cannot bestow. Grace comes from God and not from the State. The State declares the two to be married, but it is an action totally accomplished by the free-will decision of the couple. In the holy Sacrament of Matrimony, it is God who joins the two into one, which is why no human being or law can separate what God Himself has joined together.