Marriage: Contract Or Covenant?
"I understood that marriage is forever - for better or worse, for richer, for poorer. Now the Church is granting annulments right and left. Whatever happened to 'let no man put asunder?'"
This is not just a question. It is a cry of anguish from many sincere Catholics who are confused, upset, at times angry, when they hear that someone who has been married five, then even twenty-five years, obtained a Church annulment and remarried with Catholic rites. How could a marriage go on for years and still be invalid, they want to know.
Certain factors have brought about the considerable increase in Church annulments over the past two decades. First, the Second Vatican Council fostered development in the theology of marriage by interpersonally restoring the relationship of the spouses as an essential component of marriage.
Secondly, advances in psychology having provided a deeper understanding of the complexity of both human decision making and interpersonal relationships. And so the Church has new insights for appraising a marriage. Marriage, after all, is the most important decision most people make, and marriage is the most intimate of adult relationships.
The Second Vatican Council Fathers repeated that marriage is ordained for the begetting and the education of children, "the supreme gift of marriage." But the Fathers also noted that some other purposes of matrimony are not of less account. Marriage, they said, is a "communion of life, and maintains value and indissolution even when offspring are lacking..." (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, #50). The Council Fathers returned to the teaching of medieval theologians like St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas. They taught that the relationship between spouses fortifies traditional ends of marriage, namely, children, fidelity and permanence.
Most fundamentally, the Council returned to the biblical theme of marriage as a covenant and interpersonal commitment based on trust, self-giving and sacrificing love. Unfortunately, this focus on the interpersonal core of marriage had become blurred ever since the 1550's by a legalist mentality in the Church which viewed marriage within the limited scope of sexual rights and duties. As long as a man and woman had pronounced their vows and had consummated the marriage physically, it was presumed valid, regardless of the quality of the interpersonal relationship. The Second Vatican Council restored community of life between spouses as an essential element of marriage. The Second Vatican Council changed the understanding of marriage only by deepening it.
Marriage is something greater than a contract, for it involves also a sacrifice. The woman sacrifices an irreparable gift, which was the gift of God and was the object of her mother's anxious care: her fresh young beauty, frequently her health, and that faculty of loving that women have but once. The man, in his turn, sacrifices the liberty of his youth, those incomparable years that never return; the power of devoting himself to her whom he loves. Therefore, Christian marriage is a double oblation, offered in two chalices; one filled with virtue, purity and innocence; the other with unblemished self-devotion. These two cups must be both filled to the brim in order that the union may be holy and that heaven may bless it.
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