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A Question of Faith: When is Marriage A Sacrament

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As part of marriage preparation, the priest informed us only a marriage between two baptized persons is a sacrament. Since my fiancé is not baptized, how will the Church view our marriage?

Catholics exult marriage, believing God is its author. Marriage is meant to be a covenant between two baptized persons that signifies the union of Christ and the Church. However, the Church recognizes that marriages between a baptized and non-baptized person may be common, especially where Christians are not the majority.

NATURAL AND SACRAMENTAL MARRIAGE

Marriages may be either natural or sacramental. Natural marriage is a vowed covenant, a partnership of the whole of life ordered to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of children. The Church recognizes natural marriage as valid, presuming the spouses marry freely, intend marriage as an exclusive and permanent bond, and do not exclude the possibility of children.

A sacramental marriage, however, is more than a natural bond. When marriage occurs between two baptized persons, it is sacramental. As a sacrament, marriage is “intended to perfect the couple’s love and to strengthen their indissoluble unity” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1641). Christ dwells with the couple and assists them in living out their vocations. When Christians marry, they receive the grace to help one another attain holiness and are strengthened to love one another with a supernatural love.

A sacramental marriage can only be between two baptized Christians (though neither need be Catholic). Since baptism is the gateway to the other sacraments, it is impossible to enter into a sacramental union without baptism. If one spouse has received baptism but not the other, it is not a sacramental marriage.

EXCEPTIONS TO SACRAMENTAL MARRIAGE

Recognizing the union between a baptized person and a non- baptized person as natural and not sacramental respects the non-baptized person’s freedom and convictions. At the same time, the Church recognizes that non-sacramental marriage should be an exception for Catholics. For this reason, a dispensation (a relaxation from Church law) is necessary for a Catholic to marry a non-baptized person. This dispensation is requested by the priest or deacon preparing the couple for marriage. Though usually granted, the permission is an exception to the law of the Church.

THE VALUE OF MARRIAGE

The Church recognizes natural marriages as being both valid and good. They can be fruitful, bringing forth children and assisting the spouses in growth in virtue. Also, within natural marriages, it is common for spouses to examine their religious beliefs. Seeking a common faith, a non-baptized spouse may desire to learn about the faith or even enter the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), the process by which someone becomes baptized and fully initiated into the Catholic Church. When a non-baptized spouse is baptized, the marriage becomes a sacrament.

Both natural and sacramental marriages are true marriages recognized by the Church. When children are born of these unions, they provide a further witness to the good of marriage and family life. At the same time, sacramental marriages alone unite the spouses to Christ and through Christ to one another. A sacramental marriage shows that marriage is not purely a human institution, but a participation in the covenant of Christ and His Church, an image of the union that is possible between God and humanity.

Father David Endres is associate professor of Church history and historical theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary & School of Theology.

This article appeared in the August 2021 edition of The Catholic Telegraph Magazine. For your complimentary subscription, click here.

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