When two people come together in holy matrimony, God becomes the third person in the relationship, and God works in and through your relationship. As such, it is considered one of the seven sacraments of the church. In today’s Catholic Church, you meet with a pastor several months before the wedding, fill out paperwork and then proceed to go into a marriage preparation program. In the past, the church was mainly concerned with making certain that the marriage was legitimate whereas now the focus is on the marriage preparation. The idea behind this is simple: if we spend a long time preparing for our future careers by going to college to get our degrees and learn to work in our field, how much more should we be prepared to take such a significant step as marriage to another human being? Therefore, the focus on marriage preparation is intended to allow the couple to live fully and lovingly together by getting ready for the marriage itself.
Friendship is a big part of daily human activity on various levels – socially, mentally, emotionally, and particularly spiritually. Friendship reflects God’s love for us, as we enter into relationships with other people and through this human experience is reflected the divine experience. When two people enter into a marriage, this becomes particularly valid. Vatican II established marriage as a commitment that two individuals make to each other by making a covenant with one another. Prior to this, marriage was understood more in contractual than covenantal terms. In this view, the marriage is a contract in which you agree to the legal exchange of each other’s body – which, as we understand today, is not a very loving and caring approach but more of a physical and legalistic approach. In fact, marriage is one of the two major issues discussed at Vatican II (the other being revelation). Although this caused a big problem between the bishops, and it created further problems for annulment cases – where marriage was once simply treated as a contract – since now, the idea was that marriage was an interpersonal partnership filled with love that was intended to be life-long.
The debate, therefore, came down to the difference between a contract and a covenant. Covenants are quite biblical, such as the covenant made between Moses and God (the Mosaic Law), the New Covenant made between Jesus and his followers, and smaller covenants are seen between God and man in the cases of Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and others. A covenant, than, is much different from a contract. A contract is usually something that deals specifically with things whereas a covenant deals specifically with individuals. Contracts are also generally made for a set amount of time whereas a covenant is intended to last forever. A contract can be made in a business setting, but a covenant between two people would be on the psychological, emotional and spiritual levels. The debate then deals with the level of maturity between the two individuals.
Perhaps a better understand is this: a marital contract is what two people use to enter into marriage, but the hope is that as these two grow, mature and develop together that they come to realize the purpose and meaning of a marital covenant and take it as their own. Entering into a marriage covenant is a serious matter. You are committing yourself wholly and fully to the other person, and both individuals realize that to make the covenant work – just as covenants between God and man – there must be trust, communication, honesty, and love, as well as seeing all of this in light of their faith in Jesus. Vatican II defined faith as committing oneself freely and completely to God, which certainly sounds a lot like a marriage covenant. This is likely why there were marriage comparisons in early Christian literature between Christ and the Church. Both marriage and faith in Christ require commitment, hence why it sounds so similar. Marriage is considered one of the official seven sacraments of the church, and it is mainly for this reason.
Marriage is listed by some as sacramental on several levels: through the sexual love, the creative love, the loving itself, the ecclesial love and finally, the spiritual love. These various ways of experiencing marriage as a sacrament allow the couple to engage with one another on levels not experienced beforehand. The sexual level allows them to join together and become one, as you are actually entering into one another physically and joining together in the closest possible way physically. On the creative level, they learn to take care of each other but sometimes also taking care of children as well as elderly parents. On the level of loving itself, this love is reflective of God’s love for us and although love between the two individuals can take a variety of forms during their lives, it can also show those who know the couple of their faithfulness to each other and to God. The fourth level is the ecclesial level, in which the couple models itself after Christ’s love for the church. There is then the spiritual level, in which the relationship reflects God’s own life: his communion, love and relational nature as a Trinity.
As time goes on, we are faced with the idea that marriage and its relation to the church may one day go back to the way it was in the early church, when marriage was primarily between the family and the church had little to no involvement in it. Later on, blessings and the actual ceremony came to be performed in a church or basilica, but the church still stayed out of the actual marriage and preparation. However, when the barbarians began their invasions of Europe, the church started getting involved in marriages. When the barbarians swept through Europe, they would often only leave the local pastor and church, and the pastor was then forced to take over the town and keep records, specifically those of marriage. Now that the church had control in marriage – as well as financial support from those who were married – that power stayed intact. Theologians in the 1200s developed Christian theology based on marriage, and around this time marriage came to be used and seen as a sacrament, tying it firmly to the church.
However, one of the issues with considering marriage a sacrament was admitting the sexual nature of marriage, and seeing this as a way to somehow grow with God. The solution to this for theologians of the time was to portray sex as a way to procreate and fulfill our duty to fill the earth, and not on the intimate and loving aspect of sex in marriage. As such, it was not until this past century around the time of Vatican II that marriage had an emphasis more on the personal and loving nature between a husband and wife and less on the contract aspect. Post-Vatican II, Christians have an appreciation for the new emphasis on the personal nature of marriage. This is also seen as agreeing with much of Protestant views on marriage as a covenant. One of the issues facing the Catholic Church today is the idea that there are people entering into marriages who are unbaptized believers – as such, should their marriage be looked at as sacramental? There have been several different ways this is handled. For example, believers in Autun, France in the 1970s were given a work that listed three forms of marriage and asked to choose which form they believed was best. The Vatican later banned this method. In short, Vatican II’s emphasis on the personal nature of marriage has been a blessing and a benefit for many albeit an issue for some, and has brought into focus the covenantal nature of marriage. It has also brought out issues such as unbaptized believers which theologians are grappling with, but as a whole the decisions at the council have brought marriage into a new era of religious history and sacramentality.