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Recent headlines declared that Pope Francis was considering modifying Catholic teaching on marriage to sanction same-sex unions. But of course that is impossible, and the headlines were clickbait—and perhaps the expression of the wish of some that the Church would simply surrender to the sexual revolution. To see what the Church understands marriage to be, we must look not to headlines, but to divine revelation in Holy Scripture and the Apostolic Tradition.

Often when we speak of “marriage” today, we are using one word to speak confusedly of three different realities: the natural bond of marriage, the sacramental covenant of marriage, and the civil contract of legal marriage. Let us first examine what our tradition calls the natural bond. At weddings, the nuptial blessing describes marriage as “the one blessing not forfeited by original sin nor washed away in the flood.” This is a reference to the union of Adam and Eve, which survived man’s fall from grace. Although marriage, like all else in human life, was gravely disfigured by sin, it remained a permanent gift to the human race.

The natural bond of marriage is formed only between one man and one woman, and it exists for two purposes: the survival of the human race through the gift of children and the union of the two spouses as a form of friendship in which each supplies what the other lacks. This natural bond of marriage exists for people of every religion and no religion, and it is a universal human reality that precedes all civil government and is not created by any human law.

Of course, the natural bond is tainted by original sin. And if husbands and wives in the natural bond of marriage are unfaithful to their spouses, then they destroy mutual trust by the injustice of giving to someone else what they promised to give only to their spouse. In the Gospels, Jesus acknowledged this tendency to break the bond of marriage, noting that Moses allowed the children of Israel to divorce because of the hardness of their hearts. But then Jesus corrected Moses, using the Book of Genesis to explain to the Pharisees that this was not part of God’s plan from the beginning. 

In this teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, Christ was preparing the Church to understand that he had raised the natural bond of marriage to the dignity of a sacrament, one of the seven sacred mysteries of the new covenant by which his disciples live the life of the new creation. This is the second of the three meanings of marriage: the sacramental covenant.

Christ worked the first of his miracles at the wedding feast of Cana. In lifting the water of natural human love into the wine of supernatural grace, Christ restored the original dignity of the natural bond of marriage and pointed ahead to the consummation of God’s kingdom, which is described by Holy Scripture as the eternal wedding feast of the Lamb.

When the Catholic Church speaks of marriage to Christ’s disciples, it is of this second meaning of marriage that she teaches: the sacramental covenant of Holy Matrimony that once truly begun cannot be broken by anyone or anything except death. The Church teaches that when a baptized man and a baptized woman who are both free to marry give themselves to each other in the solemn covenant of Holy Matrimony, they bring into being by their free consent and the consummation of their love the lifelong bond that God intends marriage to be, both before and after the fall, and which in Christ is a sacrament of the new covenant.

Sadly, as we know all too well, many marriages even between Christians end in civil divorce, after which one or both spouses may ask the Church to examine their marriage and determine whether or not it was a true sacrament of Christ. It is possible for several reasons that the sacramental covenant did not begin with the exchange of consent as was thought, but this cannot be known with clarity until a thorough review by the Church. When the Church grants an annulment, she is not declaring that the marriage bond has been broken; rather, she is declaring that the sacramental bond never began. Accordingly, only the civil contract of marriage existed, and that was ended by a civil court’s decree of divorce. But even if a civil divorce has been granted, the lifelong bond of the sacrament is presumed to remain until and unless it can be demonstrated to the Church that it never existed.

This brings us to the third meaning of marriage. Nearly every society recognizes marriage as a legal reality in civil law, and that recognition confers legal rights and duties on the spouses. For much of history in the West, the legal reality of marriage conformed to the religious meaning of marriage, which for Catholics meant the sacramental covenant of matrimony. But during the Reformation, nearly all Protestants taught that marriage was not a sacrament, and the concept of the natural bond of marriage returned to center stage. Moreover, marriage came to be understood as something regulated by the state rather than celebrated by the Church; in John Calvin’s Geneva, no marriage performed in a church was acknowledged as legal until witnessed by a magistrate. Ever since, the third meaning of marriage—the civil contract—has increasingly become the chief way we think of marriage, even among some Catholics.

It is this civil contract of marriage that has been redefined in recent years, first by no-fault divorce laws and then by legal recognition of same-sex relationships. Now the civil contract of marriage is widely understood as the government’s public recognition of a private sexual friendship entered into by any consenting adults for their own reasons, irrespective of gender and past relationships. Civil marriage now signifies something different from both the natural bond of marriage and the sacramental covenant of marriage, and this means that we now use one word to speak confusingly and confusedly of three different realities: natural marriage, sacramental marriage, and legal marriage.

Of the three, Catholic Christians are bound by their baptism to celebrate only the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. If they marry outside the Church, then they place themselves in a condition of impeded communion with the Church and cannot ordinarily receive any other sacraments except in danger of death. Because of the unity and integrity of the sacramental economy, each of the seven sacred mysteries must exist in harmony with all the others and be celebrated only according to the truth of the gospel.

Questions are raised from time to time—as happened recently with Pope Francis—about how, if at all, the Catholic Church can make peace with new legal understandings of marriage. And the answer is always the same: The Church is the steward, not the master, of the gospel and of the sacraments, and so it is beyond the Church’s power and authority to change, delete, or add to anything revealed by God.

For more than a decade, I have suggested that the Church should not attempt to compel those who do not share our faith to live according to our understanding of marriage, and that ministers of the Catholic Church should not function as magistrates of the state or witnesses for the civil legal effects of marriage. If Catholics want to celebrate the sacrament of Holy Matrimony and live as husband and wife in God’s covenant, they should come to the Church; if they want the state to acknowledge them as legal life partners, they should see a judge. Perhaps if the Church stepped back from all involvement in the civil legal standing of marriage, this would clarify the differences among the natural bond, the sacramental covenant, and the civil contract. 

In some countries, local governments have already made a distinction between sacred ministers witnessing a wedding in a church and a magistrate witnessing a marriage in civil law; in those cases, the Church has no choice but to permit this separation. This is not yet the case in the United States.

Our Savior is the pursuing bridegroom, and he seeks only one bride. This is why only one baptized man and one baptized woman are capable of creating the sacred covenant of sacramental marriage. As Saint Paul writes, “For this reason a man shall leave father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the Church.” Today, other construals of marriage are recognized by civil law. But those other understandings of marriage do not change the nature of the sacrament of Holy Matrimony revealed by the one who is the same yesterday, today, and forever: the Lord Jesus Christ.

Jay Scott Newman is a priest of the Diocese of Charleston and the pastor of Saint Mary’s Church in Greenville, South Carolina.

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