ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
77. The marriage rite now found in the Roman Ritual is to be revised and enriched in such a way that the grace of the sacrament is more clearly signified, and the duties of the spouses are taught.
"If any regions are wont to use other praiseworthy customs and ceremonies when celebrating the sacrament of matrimony, the sacred Synod earnestly desires that these by all means be retained".
Moreover, the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned in Art. 22, 52, of this Constitution is free to draw up its own rite suited to the usages of place and people, according to the provision of Art. 63. But the rite must always conform to the law that the priest assisting at the marriage must ask for and obtain the consent of the contracting parties.
Paragraph 77, like the preceding post on the rites of ordination, reflects a mood of reform while at the same time bearing a touch of caution about marriage rites and what the rites imply in the Church’s teachings and catechetics. A few years later the Council would produce one of its most remarkable and controversial documents, Gaudium et Spes, [Joy and Hope, December 7, 1965, esp. para 50] which defined the end or purpose of marriage as both procreative and unitive.
I am feeling my age today in reviewing Council teachings on Marriage, particularly Gaudium et Spes, for I have lived through two crises involving reconsideration of long-standing Catholic theological thought resulting from conciliar documents on the nature and purpose of marriage. The first occurred in the late 1960’s when Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which taught that any artificial interference in the sexual act which impeded conception was sinful. This teaching is presently incorporated in the Catechism, para. 2366. Pope Paul’s teaching met much resistance at the time, as “the pill” was coming into wide use among couples in the industrialized nations. Theologians argued that HV contradicted the intent of Gaudium et Spes, that the purpose of sexual intercourse was unitive as well as creative. My reaction at the time of HV [July 1968] was that the distinctions in the encyclical were too academic and metaphysical to be of much help to the Catholic public.
A generation or two later the discussion of marriage as love and procreation as framed by the Council would take on a new dimension as the practice and legislation of same-sex marriages became part of our cultural landscape. The Catechism of the Catholic Church was published in 1993; its discussion of homosexuality itself is unfortunate [paras. 2357-2359] for many reasons. It draws heavily from Old Testament Law, which decried homosexual acts as capital offenses worthy of death. The CCC does not sufficiently distance itself from this draconian language. It maintains the teaching of Paul VI that all sex acts must be open to the conception of new life, a moot point in same sex committed relationships. I do respect the Catechism’s candor when it concedes that “[homosexuality’s] psychological genesis remains largely unexplained.” [para. 2357] That said, Catholic moralists have a great deal of work ahead of them in developing a pastoral philosophy and language
In 1963 the Council Fathers were coping with the formularies of the sacrament of marriage then in use. If you have been a Café reader for a while, or are widely read in sacramental history, you are no doubt familiar with the nagging tensions that have plagued the Church regarding management of the sex drive in the context of procreating children. It is indeed true that St. Augustine regretted the need for libido in fulfilling the act of creating children, believing as he did that concupiscence or sexual longing was a permanent scarring of original sin.
The stereotype of the Church as a guilt-producing machine which judges all things sexual as intrinsically evil is not without merit. I am reminded of the pro football coach who referred to the NFL as the “No Fun League.” I noted St. Augustine’s philosophy above, his belief that instinctual sexual drive is an intrinsic and inevitable result of Adam and Eve’s original sin, passed on to all humans through biological inheritance. But this does not explain why all sexual sins are defined as “grave” in the morality books of the last millennium. This language is not employed in commentaries of other commandments or issues. In the present catechetical context, the umbrella of grave deeds [i.e., mortal sins which sever one’s relationship with God] covers sexual abuse of minors, marital infidelity, human trafficking, use of the pill, pornography, and masturbation. As all sexual transgressions are termed “grave,” there is no hierarchy to distinguish moral conversation.
My training in patristic theology [i.e., the writings of the Fathers—and now Mothers—of the Church] is not my strong suite, but I sense that the marriage-sexuality matrix of Church thinking predates Augustine and rests upon a deeper foundation. For example, the author of the three New Testament letters [c. 100 A.D.] attributed to St. John may have written in part to counter the heretical ideas of one Cerinthus and his followers, whose cosmology portrayed a dualistic world of good and evil. In this line of thinking, Jesus could not have possessed a human nature because the material world was evil. In fact, this heresy was called Docetism, from the Greek “to show” or to “appear;” Docetists would say that Jesus thus appeared as a man but was never incarnated or possessing a human being’s existence, the opposite of what Catholics believe to this day.
It is easy for us today to overlook the great challenge of the Doctrine of the Incarnation for early believers, as well as its impact upon human life and creative love. To hold to this doctrine, one must face the reality that the God-man Jesus is a product of human love. While his father is the Holy Spirit [Luke’s Gospel], his mother is of human stock, coming into the world as we all do. There was probably a consciousness among Christian believers that marriage and birthing were forever sanctified by God’s becoming one of us, in a family setting. From the moment of the Annunciation, there would be nothing mundane or routine about intense human love and the creation of life.
There are those in the Church today who use literal adherence to such marital teachings on contraception as the litmus test of orthodoxy to Catholicism. This is most unfortunate, for Church Tradition has much to explore in developing new catechetical explanations and pastoral practices that describe the marriage sacrament as a full interpersonal encounter with Christ, in the way that we speak of the other sacraments. Sexual union is an essential component of the full union of couples sacramentally joined. With apologies to Augustine, an element of joy in the sacramental rite of marriage needs no apology.
Paragraph 77 reflects the language of the time, particularly the term “duties” of the spouses. Unless my memory fails me, the term “duty” referred to “conjugal duty.” It goes without saying that marriage is filled with sacrifices, but the Council did not close without suggesting that sexual intimacies, far from being duties, might be the blessing that keeps a couple together in good times and bad.