The Roman Catholic Church, that is, the church of the West, understands Matrimony as quite unique among the sacraments. In all other sacraments, a bishop, priest or deacon is the ordinary minister. It is an ordained cleric who ordinarily, or even necessarily, administers the sacrament.
But in marriage, it is the baptized couple themselves who administer the sacrament to each other. Each offers his or her life to the other and the other partner accepts. This is a most intimate sacrament among two members of the Body of Christ. It is not, in any way, imposed from the outside. Free consent is absolutely crucial to Matrimony. The sacrament is not valid without it.
Witnesses are present at the celebration of the sacrament to ensure the marriage has occurred, to signify that marriage has a public as well as a personal character and to be a sign of the church's support for the marriage. But it is the couple, in union with Christ, who administer the sacrament.
All the sacraments involve a relationship of offering and acceptance between the individual and Jesus Christ. Marriage is unique in that this intimate offering-relationship is between two members of Christ's body. Something new and good is begun within the body by this sacrament.
The church has traditionally used words like "institution" and "contract" to describe the marriage bond. Such language is not without its importance, but it appears cold and objective next to the loving relationship solemnized in the sacrament. So today we are beginning to speak of marriage more in terms of a covenant. This has various advantages, one of which is to emphasize that marriage is the result of a personal act.
Indeed, there may be a greater emphasis on communication and co-responsibility in marriage in recent decades. When these qualities are exercised well, they tend to deepen the bond of marriage.
In our society, marriage is no longer a necessary unit of economic production. Ours is a largely technological, non-agricultural society. It doesn't take a whole group of people to form a unit of production. A single person can function as well as a group.
However, the breakdown of community and the erosion of the extended family has made Western society far more depersonalized than in previous centuries. It is easy to feel alone.
So, while the economic necessity of the family has eroded, the need for intimate relationships has grown. This has dramatically shifted our expectations of marriage over say, the past century. We may now look to marriage as a barrier against society's psychological and emotional harshness rather than against the physical harshness of nature.
This is a two-sided phenomenon. On one hand, it is leading to increased interest on improving communication between spouses and building their common interests. On the other hand, it can lead to unrealistic expectations of what marriage can be like and to the isolation of families from the support and challenges offered by the wider society. A family may be more likely to become an intimate communion; it can also withdraw into a cocoon. Indeed, both phenomena may well be present in the same family.
A family which is privatized can be more subject to noxious social influences than is the family which builds a wide net of relationships with others and which attempts to develop its responsibilities outside the home. In previous eras, ties to the wider community came naturally; today, a family needs to work at building them.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the practice of the church strongly emphasize the importance of marriage preparation -- both the formal preparation of courses and weekend retreats immediately prior to the wedding as well as the informal preparation of having grown up in a Spirit-filled, loving family. All this preparation is challenged by the culture of divorce and the unrealistic and dehumanizing portrayals of romance and marriage in the media.
It's not easy to form a Christian marriage today. But the church's teaching gives us hope and guidance. And Christ's continuing presence in the Sacrament of Matrimony is a positive aid to living out that relationship of offering-and-acceptance established on our wedding day.
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