The Second Vatican Council used the word 'covenant' more commonly than 'contract' to describe the partnership that is marriage. This term recalls the covenant which God made with the Jewish people of Old Testament times, and the new covenant made between God the Church by Christ's coming to earth. It refers primarily to a relationship between people rather than a set of rights and responsibilities, and when the relationship is damaged in some way, personal violation, rather than material loss, is the primary negative effect. Covenant is intrinsically about the deepest meanings in human life, not merely about commercial transactions. As such, it is best understood by ordinary people rather than lawyers(1). Covenant as a type of relationship is intrinsically witnessed by God rather than by people or human organisations, and entering into them requires a degree of mental, emotional and spiritual maturity (note that these three are never absolute - but our understanding of marriage is such that 'adults' are generally judged to have attained them sufficiently to enter into a marriage covenant).
The use of this word reflected a change in Catholic understanding of the nature of marriage between two baptised persons. Traditional theology viewed marriage as a sacrament, certainly. But it was a sacrament occurring in the context of a contract between man and woman, rather than in the context of the relationship between them. Adopting the idea of marriage as covenant shifted the fundamental basis for the sacrament of marriage from one which focussed on mutual obligations to one based on the loving commitment between to people.
Lawler argues that the radical and solemn commitment that is implied by covenant is a mutual commitment to:
- Create a life of equal and intimate partnership in abiding love
- Create and sustain a climate of personal openness, acceptance, trust and honest that will nurture such an intimate community and the abiding love that is essential to it. This intimate community of love is made possible when certain rules of behaviour are created which will respect , nurture and sustain it
- Explore together the religious depth of human existence and to respond in the light of Christian faith, and
- Abide in love and in covenant and to withdraw from them only if the life of intimacy has ceased to exist and if all available means to restore it have been tried and have failed.
The 'rules' in the second point are nothing more (or less) than the fundamental 'rules' for life as a Christian, namely, love and service. There are numerous scriptural passages which show this. This point also relates to the way in which Ephesians 5:22 (Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord') should be interpreted. The first point to consider in understanding this verse is its wider context. The overall instruction being given in 5:21-33 is that all people should 'be subject to one another out of reverence to Christ'. This was particularly revolutionary to a people living in a culture of extreme hierarchy and dominance. To make the point, the letter-writer provides examples based on ordinary household relationships. Husbands and wives are instructed that their relationships should mirror those of Jesus and his Church, and it is clear (from various parts of scripture and from tradition) that Jesus relationship with the Church is one of leadership through service, not authority. Thus, mutual service, not domination is one of the fundamental rules of Christian marriage, as well as how Christians are to treat one another.
Theologians have defined three different dimensions of human love which are present and necessary in the love between husband and wife.
- Agape is love for the sake of others,
- Philia is love for a friend,
- Eros is love for one's own sake.
All three are necessary components of Christian marriage, if such marriage is to be the whole personal relationship which is necessary fulfil the implications of marriage as a covenant relationship as listed previously. Husband and wife must love each other. They must also be each others best friend, and their life together must satisfy their sexual needs.
Catholic understanding makes a distinction between the sacramentality and validity of marriages. To be sacramental, it is necessary that both partners in a marriage have been baptised by a Christian church using a form which Catholicism considers valid (basically involving water and a trinitarian formula). Valid, on the other hand, requires a number of factors including the consent of the couple and the authority of the minister etc. The distinction between these two aspects of marriage is most important when considering cases where the marriage is 'over' in the eyes of the couple. Sacramental marriages may be dissolved if they were not consummated or annulled if there are sufficient ground to doubt the validity of the marriage. Non-sacramental marriages, on the other hand, may be dissolved under the pauline or petrine privileges.
[The session that this essay is based on ] provided a number of insights into the sacrament of marriage. The teaching that marriage is a sacrament that the couple 'give' to each other with God as witness raises some interesting issues. The other sacraments, are (we believe) perfectly executed when they are carried out according to the Church's rites and by people who intend what they effect etc. The particular liturgical execution may be poor, but the visibile presence and action of Christ is fully present. But with marriage, it is hard to say that the sacrament is fully present immediately after the wedding ceremony, or even after 50 years of life together. The sacrament is not one moment of interaction with God, but a lifetime.
Also, I have an impression that the theology of marriage is that it is somehow less 'sorted out' than the other sacraments. Baptism is a one-off exercise involving forgiveness of sins. But when the inevitable happened and people committed serious sin afterwards, the early Church developed a sacramental means of dealing with the damaged relationships. But it has not been able to do so adequately(2) for marriage. Even confirmation, which has a number of problems associated with it, at least has the problems well defined. But for marriage I get a sense that many of the issues to do with the personalistic approach are still not fully stated. My own view is that part of the problem is that almost our entire theology of sexuality is intrinsically tied to marriage. We acknowledge that all people are sexual, and that this is an important and sacred part of their identify. But we link this absolutely with procreation, and thus with family and marriage. I suspect that until we can face the issues around sexuality, and in particular the sexuality of people who are not married (for whatever reason), we will not deal with marriage breakdown well.
Hand in hand with the impression that the theology of marriage is less 'sorted out' than the other sacraments is the observation that it is the best 'classified' - there are plenty of rules and categories for describing marriages in legalistic terms. But we do not have good descriptions for the theology of marriage breakdown when it is approached from a 'thoroughly personalistic' point of view.
Footnotes:(1) I take issue with Lawyer/Palmer who say covenant is best understood by 'lovers, poets and theologians'. Such people are important in giving voice to society's dreams, but tend to have less understanding of a daily grind which is the reality of a marriage covenant. Lovers in particular are in the grip of a set of biochemical processes which by their very nature are anything but permanent.
(2) Annulments and dissolution’s appear to apply to only a small proportion of cases.