Many Catholics have married “outside the Church,” for one reason or another. This group of Catholics includes those who have remained active in the Church, as well as those who have left, and not practiced the Faith for some time. Also, this article will not explore the many circumstances that may have led these Catholics to marry through secular authorities, or Protestant ministers, or some other pathway. I want only to urge and discuss some of the reasons why these Catholics ought to get their marriage officially witnessed to, by and within the Church, as soon as they can. It is something well worth the effort, no matter how many years have passed with the situation as-is.
Christians, and the One Catholic Church
When Jesus first gave to Peter and the apostles authority over matters of the Church, He was giving that authority to them and also to their successors who would follow them – that is, the Pope and the Bishops of the (present-day) Catholic Church. Jesus certainly did not think that His Church would last for only one generation of leaders! Authority was passed to popes and bishops for many centuries – but the issue of authority got very confused with first the Orthodox and later the Protestant divisions from the one Church.
The question of who has rightful religious authority today, for Christians, is confused because we have so many different Christian denominations – yet Jesus instituted only one. The break-up of the Church into denominations was not God’s original plan, intention or desire. Jesus instituted one and only one Church! Jesus sent out one and only one Church! “Denomination” is not a word in the Bible. Scripture expresses for us all to read, God’s will for the unity of faith, the unity of believers:
1) The one faith – one Lord – one Baptism –
Eph 4:1 I, then, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received,
2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love,
3 striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace:
4 one body and one Spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call;
5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism;
6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
2) Jesus prayed that all Christians be one! He prayed first for His apostles, and then for all who would later believe in Him through their testimony:
Jn 17: 20 I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word,
21 so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.
3) St. Paul also wrote, urging Christians to be and to remain in one mind, in agreement – that is, keeping true in the one Gospel truth:
1 Cor 1:10 I urge you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.
Authority was Given by Jesus Christ:
In the beginning, authority was given to the one Church, personally to Peter and then to the other apostles:
1) God gave Peter and the apostles authority to “bind and loose” in the Church He was forming and would send out to the world. First to Peter (and the future Popes):
Mt 16:18 And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.
19 I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
2) And again, to the Apostles generally:
Mt 18:18 Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
Thus all Christians were intended by Christ to be under the authority of Christ’s one Church, governed and served by one Pope after Peter and with one body of Bishops after the one body of the apostles. Again, all Christians, not just “all Catholics,” were to be under the same one authority – because God’s plan was for one and only one Church. Today Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Eastern Orthodox, etc. etc. – all Christians – even though they don’t know it or believe it to be true – all Christians ought to be gathered into Christ’s one and only one Catholic Church, gathered under the leadership and service of the one Pope and the Bishops in union with him in Christ. Jesus formed, instituted and sent out one and only one Church, with one and only one Gospel Truth in the one and only one Holy Spirit.
The Sacrament of Marriage
Marriage has been in the world since the Garden of Eden, when God Himself brought Eve to Adam, and joined them together, and made them “one.” The understanding and meaning of marriage was not fully revealed to mankind, however, until the Passion of Christ! The grace of Christ poured out for the world, to gather men and women into His Church, changed forever the understanding of marriage for men and women. The grace of Christ poured out made possible for the world the witness and the sacrament of a Christian marriage. Marriage is a holy sacrament when it is entered by two validly baptized Christians.
For Christians, because of the meaning of Christian marriage, the Church and Christ must have an intimate part and role in their wedding. For Catholics, this normally means that the Church (represented by at least two witnesses) and Christ (represented by the clergy of the Church, a bishop, priest or deacon) must be present to witness their wedding. We see something of the meaning of a Christian marriage in Paul’s exhortation for a married couple, in Ephesians. We hear that a Christian marriage is itself a picture for the world – a model for the world – a proclamation to the world of Christ’s saving love-commitment for His Church, His Bride, His Body.
Eph 5:21 Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord.
23 For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church, he himself the savior of the body.
24 As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything.
25 Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her
26 to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word,
27 that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
28 So [also] husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.
29 For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church,
30 because we are members of his body.
31 “For this reason a man shall leave [his] father and [his] mother
and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”
32 This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church.
33 In any case, each one of you should love his wife as himself, and the wife should respect her husband.
In Catholic sacramental theology, there are two sacraments whose holy grace given to the ones receiving the grace, is grace given for the salvation of others! That is, the grace given to a priest or deacon when he is ordained, is grace given to empower him to serve others and help bring those others to salvation. So also in a sacramental marriage: the grace given to the husband in marriage is to empower him to help his wife enter salvation; the grace given to the wife in marriage is to empower her to help her husband enter salvation.
As Paul wrote, “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” In this way husbands are to love their wives, and by the grace of the sacrament they can do this! They are empowered in grace to do this, and they are responsible before God to do this.
Wives also are to help their husbands to salvation, and to sanctification, and they can do so in the grace of the sacrament. They must see to it that they allow him his headship, and in submission to him in love and reverence, to all things true, help form him in the image of Christ who must be the model for his manhood and his role as husband and father.
Thus the sacramental grace of human marriage is closely bound to the mystical marriage of Christ and His Church, and both marriages, the human and the mystical, are ordered – by the grace made present by the Cross – to holiness, to sanctification, to salvation. This is why it is so important, and so appropriate, that the Church be present – be an official witness to – a Christian wedding. And Paul’s writing in Ephesians also makes it clear why it is so important and so appropriate that every Christian marriage, every day after the wedding, welcome Christ and His Church – and His holy truth and grace – into their home and their married life.
And again, to stress why this emphasis on the Catholic Church is so important to every Christian marriage: Christ formed and sent one and only one Church, the one now known as the Catholic Church. Baptized Catholics have a precious gift from God, in their Baptism and also in their Catholic identity, because His one Church and that one alone has the fullness of His truth, and the full measure of His sacramental graces. But what a person is given, a person is also responsible for! Thus Baptized Catholics have also a solemn responsibility to accept all that Christ has entrusted to us, and to honor Him by our faithful obedience to His truth, and His mission.
For the Catholic, the “all” that is held for him or her in the Catholic Church is precious, and sacred, and powerful, and true: all the sacraments, all the Holy Scripture, all the wonderful history and legacy of the saints – all the many spiritual treasures that God has given and that the Church has accumulated over the 20 centuries of her following of the Lord in the Holy Spirit. But if there were no other benefit in the Church for a baptized Catholic beyond the graces of a Catholic Christian marriage, it would still be worth every effort to return to the Church for that one reason. The fullness of sacramental grace can empower the fullness of Christ in the marriage – and that would lead to the fullness of the marriage, and indeed of life itself for the husband, the wife, and the children who might bless such a marriage.
And then there is the effect of such a blessed marriage and family on a world very hungry for examples of truth, and happiness, and holy faith. In a Catholic Christian marriage, the world ought to be able to see a picture, a model, a human example of a supernatural covenant - that holy covenant between Christ and His Church. Paul reveals this to us, in Ephesians chapter five. The question for us, and especially for those Catholics who still need to bring their marriage into the fullness of the Catholic faith: Are we prepared to live that truth which God shows us is true?
R. Thomas Richard