Minister, Matter, and Form of Marriage

Although the Church realized from the first the complete sacramentality of Christian marriage, yet for a time there was some uncertainty as to what in the marriage contract is the real essence of the sacrament; as to its matter and form, and its minister. From the earliest times this fundamental proposition has been upheld: Matrimonium facit consensus, i.e. Marriage is contracted through the mutual, expressed consent. Therein is contained implicitly the doctrine that the persons contracting marriage are themselves the agents or ministers of the sacrament. However, it has been likewise emphasized that marriage must be contracted with the blessing of the priest and the approbation of the Church, for otherwise it would be a source not of Divine grace, but of malediction. Hence it might easily be inferred that the sacerdotal blessing is the grace-giving element, or form of the sacrament, and that the priest is the minister. But this is a false conclusion. The first theologian to designate clearly and distinctly the priest as the minister of the Sacrament and his blessing as the sacramental form was apparently Melchior Canus (d. 1560). In his well-known work, “De locis theologicis," he sets forth the following propositions:

  • It is, indeed, a common opinion of the schools, but not their certain and settled doctrine, that a marriage contracted without a priest is a true and real sacrament;
  • the controversies on this point do not affect matters of faith and religion;
  • it would be erroneous to state that all theologians of the Catholic school defended that opinion.

In the course of the same chapter Canus defends, as a vital matter, the opinion that without the priest and his blessing a valid marriage may take place, but a sacramental form and valid sacrament are lacking. For this opinion he appeals to Petrus de Palude and also to St. Thomas, as well as to a number of Fathers and popes of the earliest centuries, who compared a marriage contracted without sacerdotal blessing to an adulterous marriage, and therefore could not have recognized a sacrament therein.

The appeal, however, to the above authorities is unfortunate. St. Thomas Aquinas, in the first article cited by Canus, entitled “Utrum consistant sacramenta in verbis et rebus”, raises the following difficulty: “Penance andmarriage belong to the sacraments: but for their validity, words are unnecessary; therefore it is not true that words belong to all the sacraments.” This difficulty he answers at the end of the article: “Marriage taken as a natural function and penance as an act of virtue have no form of words: but in so far as both belong to the sacraments, which are to be conferred by the ministers of the Church, words are employed in both; in marriage the words which express mutual consent, and also the blessings which were instituted by the Church, and in penance the words of absolution spoken by the priest.” Although St. Thomas mentions the words of blessing along with the words of mutual consent, he expressly calls them an institution of the Church, and hence they do not constitute the essence of the sacrament instituted by Christ. Again, though he seems to understand that marriage, also, must be administered by the ministers of the Church, it cannot be denied that the contracting parties in Christian marriage must be guided by ecclesiastical regulations, and cannot act otherwise than as ministers subject to the Church or dispensers of the sacrament. If, however, St. Thomas in this passage attributes to the sacerdotal blessing too great an influence on the essence of the sacrament of marriage, he manifestly corrects himself in his later work, “Summa contra gentiles”, in which he undoubtedly places the whole essence of the sacrament in the mutual consent of the contracting parties: “Marriage, therefore, inasmuch as it consists in the union of man and woman, who propose to beget and rear children for the glory of God, is a sacrament of the Church; therefore the contracting parties are blessed by the ministers of the Church. And as in the other sacraments something spiritual is signified by an external ceremony, so here in this sacrament the union of Christ, and the Church is typified by the union of man and woman according to the Apostle: ‘This is a great sacrament, but I speak in Christ and in the Church.’ And as the sacraments effect what they signify, it is clear that the persons contracting marriage receive through this sacrament the grace by which they participate in the union of Christ and the Church.” Hence the whole essence and grace-producing power of marriage consists, according to St. Thomas, in the union of man and woman (in presence of the priest), not in the additional blessing of the priest prescribed by the Church.

The same seems to be true of the passage from Petrus de Palude cited by Canus. As his work, “Commentarium in IV Librum Sententiarum” is not so readily accessible, we may state precisely the edition used here: “It seems that one who contractsmarriage in the state of sin does not sin although the essence of marriage consists in the mutual consent, which the parties mutually express; this consent confers the sacrament and not the priest by his blessing; he only confers a sacramental.” Further on, he says: “Marriage is such that its efficacy is not based on the minister of the Church (the priest). Its essence, therefore, can exist without the priest, not because it is a necessary sacrament—though it is indeed necessary for human society, just as baptism is necessary for the individual—but because its efficacy does not come from the minister of the Church. Perhaps, however, it is not lawful to contract marriage except in the presence of the Church and before the priest, if this is possible.” These passages are clear. It is hard to see why Melchior Canus tried to support his opinion by the opening words of the first quotation. He supposes that from the words “it seems that one who contractsmarriage in the state of sin does not sin” the conclusion is to be drawn that de Palude means in this case a marriage which is not a sacrament; for to administer or receive a sacrament in a state of sin is a grave sin, a sacrilege. But on the other hand, it is to be noted that de Palude in unmistakable terms declares the mutual consent to be the conferring of the sacrament. The words, “it seems”, merely introduce a difficulty: whether this expresses his own view, he does not make clear, in so far as the contracting ofmarriage means the reception of a sacrament; in so far as it is the administration of a sacrament he regards it as probable that the administering of a sacrament in sin is an additional sin only in the case of ministers ordained for the administration of the sacraments, but the contracting parties in marriage are not such ministers.

The opinion of Canus finds but little support in the expressions of the Fathers or in papal letters, which state that marriage without the priest is declared unholy, wicked, or sacrilegious, that it does not bring the grace of God but provokes His wrath. This is nothing more than what the Council of Trent says in the chapter “Tametsi,” namely, that “the Holy Church of God has always detested and forbidden clandestine marriages”. Such statements do not deny the sacramental character of marriage so contracted; but they do condemn as sacrilegious that reception of the sacrament which indeed lays open the source of grace, yet places an obstacle in the way of the sacrament’s efficacy.

For a long time, nevertheless, the opinion of Canus had its defenders among the post-Tridentine theologians. Even Prosper Lambertini, as Benedict XIV, did not set aside his pronouncement, given in his work “De synodo dioecesana," that Canus’s view was “valde probabilis”, although in his capacity as pope he taught the opposite clearly and distinctly in his letter to the Archbishop of Goa. To-day it must be rejected by all Catholic theologians and branded at least as false. The inferences not contemplated by the originators of this opinion, but deduced later and used in practice against the rights of the Church, constrained succeeding popes repeatedly to condemn it formally. Subservient Catholics and court theologians especially found it useful as warranting the secular power in making laws concerning validity and invalidity, diriment impediments, and the like. For, if the sacrament consisted in the priestly blessing and the contract, as was never doubted, in the mutual consent of the parties, evidently then contract and sacrament must be separated; the former had to precede as a foundation; upon it, as matter, was founded the sacrament, which took place through the blessing of the priest. But contracts, which affect social and civil life, are subject to state authority, so that this can make such regulations and restrictions even as to their validity, as it deems necessary for the public weal. This practical conclusion was drawn especially by Marcus Antonius de Dominis, Bishop of Spoleto, afterwards an apostate, in his work “De republica ecclesiastica," and by Launoy in his work “Regia in matrimonio potestas." In the middle of the last century Nepomuk Nuytz, professor at the University of Turin, defended this opinion with renewed vigour in order to supply a juridicial basis for civil legislation regarding marriage. Nuytz’s work was thereupon expressly condemned by Pius IX in the Apostolical Letter of 22 Aug., 1851, in which the pope declared as false especially the following propositions: The sacraments of marriage is only something which is added to the contract of marriage and which can be separated from it; the sacrament consists only in the blessing of the marriage. These propositions are included in the “Syllabus” of 8 December 1864, and must be rejected by all Catholics. In like manner Leo XIII expresses himself in the Encyclical “Arcanum” quoted above. He says: “It is certain that in Christian marriage the contract is inseparable from the sacrament; and that, for this reason, the contract cannot be true and legitimate without being a sacrament as well. For Christ our Lord added to marriage the dignity of a sacrament; but marriage is the contract itself, whenever that contract is lawfully made. . . . Hence it is clear that among Christians every true marriage is, in itself and by itself, a sacrament; and that nothing can be farther from the truth than to say that the sacrament is a certain added ornament, or external adjunct, which can be separated and torn away from the contract at the caprice of man.”

As it is certain, therefore, from the point of view of the Church that marriage as a sacrament is fulfilled only through the mutual consent of the contracting parties, it is a matter of secondary consideration, how and in what sense the matter and form of this sacrament are to be taken. The view that most correctly explains this is perhaps the one that is generally prevalent today; in every contract two elements are to be distinguished, the offering of a right and the acceptance of it; the former is the foundation, the latter is the juridicial completion. The same holds true of the sacramental contract of marriage; in so far, therefore as an offering of the marriage right is contained in the mutual declaration of consent, we have the matter of the sacraments, and, in so far as a mutual acceptance is contained therein, we have the form.

To complete our inquiry concerning the essence of the Sacrament of Marriage, its matter and form, and its minister, we have still to mention a theory that was defended by a few jurists of the Middle Ages and has been revived by Dr. Jos. Freisen. According to this marriage in the strict sense, and therefore marriage as a sacrament, is not accomplished until consummation of the marriage is added to the consent. It is the consummation, therefore, that constitutes the matter or the form. But as Freisen retracted this opinion which could not be harmonized with the Church’s definitions, it is no longer of actual interest. This view was derived from the fact that marriage, according to Christ’s command, is absolutely indissoluble. On the other hand, it is undeniably the teaching and practice of the Church that, in spite of mutual consent, marriage can be dissolved by religious profession or by the declaration of the pope; hence the conclusion seemed to be that there was no real marriage previous to the consummation, since admittedly neither religious profession nor papal declaration can afterwards effect a dissolution. The error lies in taking indissolubility in a sense that the Church has never held. In one case, it is true, according to earlier ecclesiastical law, the previous relation of mere espousal between man and woman became a lawful marriage (and therefore the Sacrament of Marriage), namely when a valid betrothal was followed by consummation. It was a legal presumption that in this case the betrothed parties wished to lessen the sinfulness of their action as much as possible, and therefore performed it with the intention of marriage and not of fornication. The efficient cause of the marriage contract, as well as of the sacrament, was even in this case the mutual intention of marriage, although expression was not given to it in the regular way. This legal presumption ceased on 5 Feb., 1892, by Decree of Leo XIII, as it had grown obsolete among the faithful and was no longer adapted to actual conditions.