IT is a fact that the dechristianisation of our western protestantised, post-conciliar society has brought about a collapse of institutions and of morals in the family and the community (…). This demythification of marriage, and more generally of love and of the flesh, leads to a contempt for what had formerly been foolishly adored; it leads to a denunciation of sexual attraction and of woman its personification as a snare for creative freedom and for man’s pride. St. Paul was already warning the Christians of Rome about this : the end of all erotic idolatry is homosexuality, which is the quest for a truly free love, without snare and beyond the bounds… (Rm 1 :26-27) (…).
We shall scrutinise objectively what marriage is and in what way the Christian sacrament brings something real and transcendent to it. Having read these pages, the reader should not be able to reproach us for having consciously or unconsciously depreciated or exalted love and marriage. I simply wish the facts themselves to speak their own language of truth. But our aim here is theological : it is to cast light on the abyss of difference separating natural marriage from the sacrament of marriage. They are not at all the same thing. But who still knows that ? The Catholic Church alone (…).
MARRIAGE, INSTITUTION OF NATURE SACRAMENTUM
Of all human relationships, marriage follows immediately after man’s relationship with God (Cf. Gn 1 :26-28) (...).
The human being is led to the state of marriage by following his nature, whose instinctive force seems to be the most profound, powerful and universal law of the created order. The attraction of the sexes governs the living world (…). This carnal yearning, guided by its own instinct, tends to a determined fullness to a type of union that is none other than the act of generation. “ And God saw all the things that He had made, and they were very good. ” (Gn 1 :31) (…).
To make love, as is well said in a language that now regrettably passes for indecent, is to make a child. It is in this de facto meeting of two radically different intentions that disproportion, the risk of rupture, lying and sin is to be found. There can be a rupture between the consummated act of love in a passing moment and its possible consequences which last for a life time.
It is because of this fragile link between the act of loving and the act of childbearing, which are identical in being but separate in man’s thought and will, that the intellectual and moral loyalty of the two lovers precedes and prevails over the joy and intensity of passion, whose value it expresses and consolidates. On account of the consequences of his action, which is the child who may be conceived in love, a man’s commitment with regard to the woman demands a loyalty whereby the woman will be assured that the man will recognise the son of his own work; likewise the woman’s loyalty to the man must be such that he is sure that the child she conceives is his. This is where the alliance or the contract of an exclusive and perpetual union finds its deepest raison d'être, besides which the sudden elation of the senses by itself reveals an insignificance and almost menacing ambiguity.
Phenomenologically, this is at the root of the Catholic moralists' reversal of ends whereby they make procreation the first end of marriage and mutual joy the second end admittedly not with any great success since the Second Vatican Council. They are absolutely right to do so when they make no claim to be talking about love but wish to define its ultimate reason and essential form.
Does this mean that the spontaneous movement of the instinct is a snare held out by Nature ready to enclose insidiously those lovers who allow themselves to be caught thoughtlessly ? On an anecdotal level that may be true in many cases, but it is a derisory view of conjugal love that is radically false because the instincts it successively sets in motion mark the stages of the human being’s true flowering. Sexual love arouses in the woman’s psychology and physiology the maternal instinct and maternity in turn joyously opens up the whole latent array of her profound being : the desire for stability, the gift of life and total devotion. Far from being a loss of oneself, this instinctive path leads woman to that increase of being desired by her nature.
And likewise with fatherhood, although more slow to stir, more abstract and external and not physiologically consequent upon sexual appeasement, yet on seeing the child, the man’s movement of love is prolonged and enriches him with new feelings and releases a whole set of profound instincts : the need to provide, to lead, to protect and to defend. On becoming a father, be it haphazardly, the man feels himself to be invested with a new dignity, with an authority and with a responsibility that answers to his unconscious expectations. This new responsibility leads him to create and maintain that community of life and law, the issue of love, family, work and home. Fatherhood and motherhood are not love’s parasitical epiphenomena but are its ultimate fulfilment.
THE MATTER OF MARRIAGE
The place of marriage is the womb of the woman. The noblest love, the least calculated of instinctive impulse obey this high universal law of Nature presiding over the union of beings and moves towards this desired and sought for term. To speak of the union of the sexes is not a euphemism; it is a false language used to cover every misconstruction and disorder. Conjugal love is not equipollent but is oriented; it is man penetrating woman at the very deepest, there to shed his seed. I can write here what is printed a million fold for children in their sixth year of school. This alone is the exact and adequate description of conjugal union, besides which all else is merely chatter, illusion, deception or monstrosity. This description alone imposes the truth, namely that the term of love and the orgasm of pleasure are one with and inseparable from the possible start of a new life (…).
Marriage is an ontological union of subordination that is specific though relative. Ontological, this union is determined by nature before being the will’s operation; it is physical before being moral. The conditions of this union are determined by anatomy and physiology, which are those of the complementarity of organs as functions, that is of two independent systems that are strictly adjusted to each other, capable of synchronisation and perfectly finalised. This complementarity gives place to a non-symmetrical operation where man has the dominant and active role and woman the passive, submissive role. There is no need to insist in order to prove the point : man acts on and in woman (...).
THE FORM OF MARRIAGE
If the static or structural definition of conjugal union is man’s presence and action in the woman where the conception of the child takes place, its dynamic or formal definition will be that of man’s ascendancy over the woman, whom he leads to his ends, love, pleasure and engendering according to his will. Here is where there is a striking difference between him and her (…).
With man holding the power of decision in this union of love, he can turn it to the opposite of love. His natural authority can go beyond the limits until it becomes a hateful tyranny, brutality or violence. It is for moral science to define the nature of his superiority in accordance with the law of reason. It will be an important chapter in human rights and in the penal and civil legislation to determine the content and limits of the authority of the head of family. And when all these points have been set in order one question will remain in suspense : who and what can maintain man within the legitimate limits of his strength and authority ?
It is woman’s nature not to refuse nor control but to accept all in giving herself. It is a beautiful but dangerous gesture. This docility and abandon must also have its moral and civil laws otherwise woman’s condition having become unliveable, she will pass from one extreme to the other. From a degrading state of servitude she will pass to one refusal and revolt. via the ambiguous relationship of seduction.
One sees, therefore, that the laws of conjugal union are inscribed in nature and that it is not easy to accomplish to perfection (…).
NATURAL MARRIAGE CALLS FOR CHRIST’S SACRAMENT
We find the explanation for the imbalance in the couple in the third chapter of Genesis, by reference to original sin. “ To the woman He said : ‘ I will intensify the pangs of your childbearing; in pain shall you bring forth children. Yet your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall be your master. ’ ” (3 :16) (…). For marriage to be securely instituted, protected and perpetuated it must be founded on some solid foundation, which transcends the couple and their will, which may be arbitrary or too fragile. If this union between two very different beings – between the man who is strong, active and free of all consequences, and the woman who is constrained to a state of passivity and burdened by the weight of childbearing – if such a union is to be re-established, another force and another wisdom must intervene. In fact another love must intervene to sustain the weak and govern the strong and so establish the equality of perfect spiritual love.
Marriage also stands in need of redemption; its nature requires a supernatural foundation. There has to be a sacred rite, a sacrament, so that it ceases to be a man’s and a woman’s ruin, to become their means of salvation. This is another domain where the harm and horror of modern laicism become apparent.
THE NUPTIAL RITE
SACRAMENTUM ET RES
All peoples have sought in religious rites, sacred laws and taboos an external aid, a valorisation and a supernatural force to save marriage from the infirmity consuming it. They sought but did not find.
THE RITE IS NOT ANOTHER THING
If the Catholic Church alone upholds all the demands for marriage, it is because these demands do not appear to be overwhelming for true Christians. The Church, in fact, considers the sacramental rite to be a source of new superabundant energy and still more as the efficacious sign of supernatural reality transfiguring the whole of conjugal life. That is why, amidst universal incomprehension, even on the part of her own faithful, the Church has always refused to consider her sacred rite as being something added to the natural union, which is contracted by the spouses themselves, who administer the sacrament of marriage to each other. I am thinking, for example, of the blessing given by the priest (…).
The Church stands out and is obdurate. She will have the sacrament consist absolutely in nothing other than the contract in which the spouses express their will and give themselves to each other, so that the only minister of the sacrament can be the spouses themselves, surprising though that may seem (…). In the face of modern laicism Leo XIII forcefully declared : “ Every legitimate marriage between Christians is a sacrament in and by itself. Nothing is further removed from the truth than a sacrament having an added decoration or property from outside, susceptible of dissolution and of being separated from the contract by men’s will ” (…).
So, there is no need to insist on the rites and ceremonies of marriage because all rites and formulas are acceptable, as was recognised by the Council of Trent, provided that the spouses themselves contract marriage in a true and explicit manner before the Church (…).
THE MATTER OF SACRAMENTAL MARRIAGE
In a purely natural perspective, the matter of marriage is, as we have said, the womb of the woman, let us say her body or, better still, the welcoming, accepting, living (…).
In a supernatural perspective the matter of the sacred rite is this same consent, this same yes, expressed by the woman but surpassing the instinct and joy of nature. It is the Yes of a person indwelt by grace, who knows that she must suffer and who sees therein her vocation, her salvation and the mysterious ways of Providence fulfilled in her (…). In a Christian perspective, therefore, the woman’s yes must be assimilated to the Blessed Virgin Mary’s fiat in view of the Cross. [p. 12] It implies the will to offer her life with Christ and for Christ, as seen in her spouse. In baptismal life, which is a mystery of death and resurrection, of immolation and spiritual fecundity, the Christian finds the strength to become an accepting spouse, entirely dedicated, devoted and faithful beyond limit. Subjection and alienation, which is the woman’s (hard) condition, is accepted out of obedience to the Lord and in accordance with His word : “ For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel shall save it. ” (Mk 8 :35) (…).
The Christian woman says to her husband what she hears the Church say daily to Christ and she pronounces her yes of love, joy and limitless self-giving in memory and renewal of the Church’s yes. In this sacrament she is Church of The Church, always saying her yes of faith, hope and charity to Christ’s love, union and fecundity.
THE FORM OF SACRAMENTAL MARRIAGE
Naturally speaking, the active and determining element of marriage is virile potency : hence a eunuch cannot contract sacramental marriage. This virile potency is that of the body in the first place but also directly that of the whole man. It implies initiative, resolution and responsibility and it prevails over the woman’s consent. But it cannot just be a matter of brute instinct; there must also be a conscious, reasoned and willing commitment to take responsibility for wife and children and their common future.
This commitment must be supernatural for a man’s natural independence tends to free him from every rule, so his is the yes of a being sure of himself as a future head of family, putting into effect a project for the future, laden with difficulties (…). How could it be possible for a man in the recklessness of his passion and in the inexperience and optimism of his youth to have this supernatural sense of life if he had not received Christian initiation, that is if he did not already possess the grace and character of baptism or better still the Gift of the Holy Spirit of Confirmation ? That is why there can be no true and sure husband, or only exceptionally, unless he is Christian.
In a Christian perspective, therefore, the Husband’s consent, his I will, is akin to the Ecce Venio, which, according to the Epistle to the Hebrews, Christ pronounced at the moment of Incarnation : “ Behold I come that I should do thy will, O God. ” (Heb 10 :7) (…). The Christian spouse formulates his marriage vows in Christ’s name and with Christ’s help, remembering His words : “ Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for his friends ”, and the precept of His disciple John : “ and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. ” (1 Jn 3 :16) (…).
It is in the name of the Lord and under His impulse that the Christian husband, like another Christ, himself Christ’s minister, makes memorial of and renews the mystical marriage of His Lord with the Church on the Cross, in taking to himself a spouse.
THE HUSBAND'S POWER, THE WIFE'S WILL
It is the man’s power that makes the sacrament, but the power of the Christian originating in Baptism (…). The Husband’s power is analogous to priestly power which is, as we have said, like the Bishop’s or priest’s conjugal rights over his Church, become his spouses, his mystical body, to redeem, sanctify, enliven and make fruitful (…). For truly the spouse’s sacramental power pertains to Christ’s Royal Power rather than to His Priestly Power (…).
In submitting to this power the woman’s will adds a value, a subject being, without which the power would be nothing, having nothing to exercise itself on (…). She is like the diocesan Church entrusted by the Pope to the care of the newly ordained Bishop whose mystical spouse and people she is; She is like the nation entrusted by the consecrating Bishop to the Prince to be its spouse and father. For this reason I should like to see the bride at the marriage ceremony also dressed in white in memory of her baptism, and to avoid worldliness she should carry a candle in her hand, signifying that she is a new creature entering fully into this sacrament in which she is no longer just herself but the espoused Church, sanctified and made fruitful in Christ by the ministry of her husband.
THE SACRAMENT OF THE ALLIANCE
The marriage liturgy, therefore, should cast a full light on these two essential components of the sacrament : the relationship of man and woman in a holy and happy subordination of one to the other and their profound union with the Most Holy Trinity in this most intimately Christian mystery.
The new ritual, it must be said, does little to bring out these two elements; nor did the old ritual do much better. To find something satisfactory it will be necessary to search among the amazing profusion of ancient rituals (…). The bride’s subordination is already apparent in the very name by which Christian marriage was formerly known – “ traditio sponsae ”. It was giving away the bride to her husband. In the old Spanish rite the father of the future bride gave her to the priest who blessed her and then gave her to her husband. And until quite recently the priest said to the bridegroom in the Toledo Ritual : “ I give you a companion and not a servant; love her as Christ has loved the Church. ” (Mouret 178) There we have realism and mysticism together! (…).
RECONSTRUCTION OF THE ALLIANCE
In the beginning there was no sacrament of marriage because there was no need of it. In Paradise all love was of God and love’s natural instinct and conjugal union infallibly harmonised the union of the first human couple with that of their Creator and Father. It was the breaking of their fidelity to God through original sin which at the same time broke the fragile bond of their mutual fidelity and wounded our first parents in their natural love as much as it did in their physical being. “ You are surely doomed to die ” (Gn 2 :17).
Like all life on this earth, human love will thenceforth irremediably exhaust itself. It fell prey to illness, aging and death; it no longer testified to that infinite love and was no longer the invulnerable sign of the Divine Covenant. How could it keep the marks of its perfection ? Every marriage becomes a drama subject to misery and corruption (…). It is Christ who will restore it to its full dignity for He is the truth, the way and the life, who forms, purifies, sanctifies and makes fruitful His Spouse, the Church, and who calls men, his disciples, to cooperate in His work as Bridegroom either in the flesh or according to the order of grace as other Christs. To some He gives the vocation to become priests who will give children to the Church to feed and make fruitful through the sacraments : to others He gives the vocation of being husbands and fathers of families or kings and princes of peoples to govern, nourish, protect and give new increase (…).
Marriage is directly a work of Christ for His Church and it is ordained for the increase of the people of the Alliance through the holiness of the conjugal bond which is the foundation of holy families (…).
THE CHRISTIAN ALLIANCE IS SACRIFICE
Such a high concept, which is neither illusory nor sentimental, but is both physical and real in the Christian supernatural life of the spouses, obviously bears within it a very high moral law (…). For one who knows himself to be identified with Christ through the sacrament and by the grace of this holy union transformed in Him, there is but one moral imperative : to act for his wife as Christ does for the Church, because he is in some manner the figure of Christ; she is very really his Church, member of his Body. He sees in her the chosen soul, the new creature of promised glorious immortality redeemed by Jesus at the price of His Blood and now supported on the path of salvation by her spouse at the price of his sweat, tears and perhaps his blood, thus continuing Christ for her.
In seeing beyond the carnal everyday appearances and beyond imperfections, sin and even betrayal, the woman sees in her husband Christ the Saviour, just as the Church sees in her Parish Priest Christ the Pastor, sacramentally present and finds therein the meaning and laws of her vocation : fidelity, submission, trust, untiring love and devotion, tenderness for this man who is unique for her because he alone is her other Christ. Where the pagans would say a demi-god we would say a son of God (…).
LOVE STRONGER THAN DEATH
Human love, like everything earthly and wounded by sin, politics for example, falls of its own free movement into usury, sickness, corruption and death. Only the Christian possesses the remedy for this wound and the food of immortality in the fruit of the tree of life, which is Christ’s Cross, coming through the sacraments (…). Christian spouses also experience the natural exhaustion of feeling and weariness of the will, complicated by all the trials of everyday earthly existence and weighed down still more by the burden of their own sins. By virtue of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, however, conjugal love can be victorious and can grow in the spouses until it attains eternal life for through Baptism it takes its source in Christ and is renewed in the sacrament of marriage which is perpetually at the disposal of the spouses.
This force will be equal to the greatest trials, even adultery and desertion. At its utmost, the love of Christians, always founded on Christ, can and must prevail over the forces of hatred and death. Human forgiveness at its greatest will always find a forgiveness that is even greater; the example, force and law for human forgiveness is the infinite forgiveness of the Divine Bridegroom for us His sinful Spouse. Truly “ this sacrament is great ” or to translate it literally, which would be better : this is a great mystery (…).
"In the evening of life we shall be judged on love ”, not on instinct, joy and success but on the love that pardons, that is devoted and self-sacrificing because such love is God’s presence amongst us. The spouse will be asked firstly : “ Did you love Christ ? ” and since she will not know how to answer, she will be asked again : “ How did you love your husband, who was Christ for you ? ” Likewise the husband will be asked : “ Were you devoted to the Church ? ” and since he will not know how to answer, he too will be asked again : “ How did you treat your spouse, because what you did for her you did for my Church present in your spouse. Did you do well or badly, were you faithful or adulterous, did you care for or did you neglect her ? ”
And the Church in eternity will be the faithful resplendent image of our holy loves, of our families and of our parishes with their carnal and spiritual bonds transfigured, configured to Christ for the eternal nuptials (…).
Fr. Georges de Nantes
Excerpts from CCR n° 98, May 1978, pp. 4-17.