Marriage in the Catholic Church
What is Marriage?
The Sacrament of Marriage in the Catholic Church is a covenant between a man and a woman for life, “until death do us part”. Marriage is also a vocation, a particular way in which God calls some to live out the Christian life. A commitment to marriage requires that the couple mutually seek the good and virtue of the other, always calling upon God to strengthen their love and open their hearts to welcome and nurture children. Marriage between baptized Christians, regardless of denomination, is bound by God and is considered a Sacrament in the Catholic Church.
Marriage as a Sacrament
A number of elements must exist for the sacrament of Matrimony to occur. The first is observing the Canonical Form of marriage: a Catholic must ordinarily be married within a Catholic Church and before a priest or deacon and two witnesses (unless a dispensation from Canonical Form was sought from and granted by the bishop). This is true even if only one party is Catholic. (The marriage of two persons who are not Catholic is recognized even if they had not married in a Church ceremony or religious service.)
What Makes a Valid Marriage?
However, following the proper Canonical Form is not all that is necessary for a valid sacramental marriage to take place. For the marriage bond to be considered valid by the Catholic Church, the couple must have certain specific intentions at the time of consent: the couple must know what marriage is, and they must intend their marriage to be lifelong and open to children; they must intend fidelity and their mutual good; and they must also have the physical and psychological ability, as well as the personal maturity, to follow through on what they have intended.
When a baptized man and woman meet these conditions, Catholics believe that God has made the couple one in the Sacrament of Matrimony (cf. Mt. 19:5). Jesus taught this indissolubility of the bond of marriage: “Therefore, let no one separate what God has joined” (Mt. 19:6). For this reason, the Catholic Church holds that it is impossible for any human being to break the bond, the covenant, that God creates between husband and wife.
Presence of all of the above factors creates a sacramental, indissoluble union. This, then, is an enduring marriage bond which the Church teaches cannot be dissolved even if the civil government, in a decree of divorce, no longer recognizes that a marriage exists.
The Catholic Church holds that the bond of marriage takes place when a man and a woman exchange consent through wedding vows according to the practices of their own faith tradition. In fact, this bond is recognized even when unbaptized persons exchange vows according to their beliefs and practices.
Even if the civil government declares a decree of divorce that a marriage no longer exists, the Catholic Church recognizes, respects, and presumes that the marriage bond endures between persons of any faith background. For this reason, examination of any previous marriage is necessary before marriage in the Catholic Church is possible.
Divorced persons, regardless of religious affiliation, have the right to apply for an annulment of their former marriage. Persons who are not members of the Catholic Church often pursue an annulment in order to establish their freedom to marry a Catholic.
The Marriage Tribunal
Unfortunately, not every marriage is successful, and many marriages end in divorce – even marriages that are entered into with the best intentions. The Church is aware of the stress and suffering experienced by separated, divorced, and remarried people, particularly Catholics, and it expresses its pastoral concern in different ways, especially through the ministry of the Marriage Tribunal.
A Tribunal is a Church court which considers all known aspects of the marriage and decides whether or not the sacramental bond was indeed established. The Marriage Tribunal is composed of trained personnel and is designed to help determine whether the divorced and remarried person, or the divorced person intending another marriage, is free to have his or her marriage celebrated in the Catholic Church. The law of the Church requires that every diocese have a functioning Marriage Tribunal.