The Catholic Church recognises two kinds of marriage bond – natural and sacramental. Under certain circumstances, a natural bond can be dissolved. A sacramental bond, however, lasts until the death of one of the partners.
The Church has to acknowledge an indissoluble kind of marriage, because of the words of Our Lord which forbid divorce. (Mt 5:31-32 & 19:7-9, Mk 10:2-12 & Lk 16:18)
The Church also has to acknowledge circumstances where a valid marriage can be set aside, if that marriage is an obstacle to one partner becoming a Christian. (I Cor 7:15)
Over the centuries, the language of “sacramental bond” and “natural bond” developed to express the Catholic Church’s understanding of these two situations. When two baptised Christians pledge themselves as lifelong partners to one another, a sacramental bond is ratified. This bond becomes indissoluble as soon as the relationship is then consummated.
If one of the partners is not baptised, the bond is only a natural bond. But if there is a subsequent conversion, as soon as both partners are baptised their bond becomes sacramental, and the next time it is consummated, it becomes indissoluble.
If at least one of the partners is a Catholic, but they exchange wedding vows without the official involvement of the Catholic Church, no bond is created. However, if the Catholic partner later wishes to reconcile with the Church and the other partner is unwilling to re-make the vows in church, there is a procedure called radical sanation whereby the Church can retrospectively recognise the original vows, thereby bringing a bond into existence; if the other partner is also baptised, this is a sacramental bond, which becomes indissoluble the next time it is consummated.
You will see in the summary above that a great deal depends on the question of whether both partners are baptised. However, in nations such as the UK where a large proportion of the population were raised in a church culture which baptised infants (Church of England/Church in Wales, as well as Catholics and several Protestant traditions), there are many adults who have never willingly made a commitment to Christ, yet whose marriages are sacramental by virtue of their infant baptism.
As a pastor, most of the couples who approach me for a church wedding consist of a non-Catholic engaged to a non-practising Catholic. Since the Church position is that Catholics have a (qualified) right to the sacraments (Canons 213 and 843), while I do use the marriage preparation as an opportunity to point the couple towards an active faith in Christ, in most cases I conduct a wedding sensing that the couple are not about to become regular churchgoers. In short, most of the spouses at whose weddings I have officiated are not disciples of Christ – though most would sympathise with his humanitarian teachings.
When Our Lord gave his challenging teaching against divorce, he explained that Moses had allowed divorce because the people were “hard-hearted” (Mt 19:8) – a Biblical expression which indicates being unteachable rather than uncompassionate. The implication – reinforced by the closing words at Mt 19:12 ‘let anyone accept this who can’ – is that Jesus is giving an instruction that those who are serious about following his teaching (intentional disciples!) must not divorce.
The Church’s current teaching on when a marriage is a sacramental bond, is clear. Yet there is an apparent unfairness in the reality that a person can be caught in a sacramental bond because they were baptised in infancy into a faith which they never made a personal commitment to. So perhaps there is room for the Vatican’s theologians to look again at what makes a bond a sacramental bond rather than a natural bond? Allow me to speculate…
Given the importance of ‘teachability’ (the defining quality of a disciple) in Mt 19:8, might we not argue that a sacramental bond requires the one making the vows to be personally committed to following the commands of Jesus? This might be difficult to define, but perhaps no more so than the other qualities which make the marriage vows valid – that a person intended to seal a lifelong and exclusive covenant not deliberately closed to the procreation of new life. Might the Church be able to recognise that the absence of a personal commitment to follow Jesus would result in marriage vows forming only a natural bond?
Alternatively, our sacramental theology already tells us that we do not receive the grace of a sacrament unless we are in a ‘state of grace’. If a young person receives the sacrament of confirmation, although their status in God’s eyes becomes ‘confirmed’ they do not receive the grace promised by the sacrament unless they are living in accord with God’s commandments and have confessed any serious sin. The grace of the sacrament of marriage is similarly suspended if the Catholic partner is, say, non-Massgoing.
Might we not take one further step and ask whether the sacramental bond itself is not established until the couple are in a state of grace? Might we suggest that the bond is only rendered indissoluble when consummated by a couple who have not only consented to marriage, but who are currently in a state of grace? Since a ‘state of grace’ requires a Catholic to be attending Sunday Mass (unless physically or morally impossible) and to have made confession from time to time this reflects a level of religious practice – which hopefully implies at least a rudimentary sense of discipleship.
Let the record show that I do not intend to question the indissolubility of a truly sacramental marriage.
Further, if the Magisterium has already expressed the opinion that neither lack of personal conversion, nor absence of a state of grace, can affect the nature of the bond, then I state my willingness to submit to this position.
But if there is room for a development of doctrine which requires more than merely “baptised status” in order to render a marriage bond sacramental rather than natural, let us begin the conversation!