Sexing up Canon Law

By February 12, 2010Maryvictrix

In response to my last post, “Christopher West: Sexualizing Christianity,” one of his supporters posted a lengthy comment, defending the sexy assertion that the sacramental grace proper to marriage is not confered through the wedding vows but through the act of the consummation of the marriage, so that no sacramental marriage really exists until the spouses engage for the first time in the marital embrace.  He (or she) also claims that sacramental grace is also conferred every and each time the spouses engage conjugal act “in a human fashion.”

Since this is so interesting and crucial to the argument, I have chosen to reproduce the comment here and answer it below.

Proper Sacralization of Sex Says:
February 11, 2010 at 3:35 pm edit

TOB elevates our understanding of our mateial bodies to their proper dignity – their sacramental dignity.

From this we can understand that all we do with our bodies ought to likewise be elevated to that same dignity.

We can say that TOB is a foundation for the theology on labor and charity.

So, yes, TOB is pervasive – and in our hypersexualized culture wherein our bodies (and the labor and charity which are bodies make manifest in this world) are treated as objects, it makes perfect practical sense to speak in terms that the audience undertands so that they can see how the pervasive hypersxualized (aka objectified) culture needs to be replaced with the culture of TOB.

Clergy (or even a layperson, as canon law anticipates) assist and witness the sacrament, but do not confer it. The sacrament of matrimony is conferred by the spouses unto one another (CCC 1623). That conferral seems to have full effect only after it has been consummated by the marital embrace itself (sexual union). The conjugal marital act brings a “ratum tantum” (ratum = ratified; tantum = only, just) marriage (Canon 1061), which can be annulled even if it is otherwise completely proper (Canon 1697, et seq), into a state where even the pope cannot annull it.

In fact, “after a marriage has been celebrated, if the spouses have lived together consummation is presumed until the contrary is proven,” clearly indicating that there is no real marriage until “spouses have performed between themselves in a human fashion a conjugal act which is suitable in itself for the procreation of offspring”.(Canon 1061).

So it would seem that the inurement of grace does not occur until that time – in other words, sacramental grace inures during the marital union.

Sacraments are “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.” (CCC 1131)

As your quotation demonstrates, John Paul explained that Christ deliberately elevated the corporal and spiritual union within a marriage by explaning that union as a sign of the “sacrament of creation” and the “sacrament of redemption”.

Given Jesus’ linkage of marriage to the beginning (to the Creation of bodily man and woman), it certainly seems that God continues to communicate grace to us in marriage, and in a particularly important way during each truly marital embrace (sexual union).

In light of the Church’s canonical and theological understanding of marital union, it seems that West is very correct to say:

John Paul stresses that in creation grace was communicated “through the union of the first man and woman in … marriage.” In redemption this same grace is communicated through “the indissoluble union of Christ with the Church, which … Ephesians presents as the nuptial union of spouses”

My Response:

If a valid ratum tantum, but non-consummated marriage were not a sacramental  marriage then a dissolution of the marriage would not be necessary but simply a declaration of nullity.  But this is not the case.

According to canon 1697, the pope alone is authorized to grant a “dispensation from a marriage ratum et non consummatum” “for a just cause.”  According to this commentary on canon law the word “dispensation” in canon 1697 indicates the presupposition of  “a vinculum or an obligatory bond, which competent authority relaxes for a just cause.”

The Code of Canon Law Annotated (ed. By E. Caparros, M. Theriault, J. Thorn) refers to the exercise of the end of a marriage ratum et non consummatum as an “administrative process for granting the favour of dissolution [my emphasis] of a bond that always existed in a ratified marriage,” as opposed to a declaration of nullity [annulment] which is an “judicial” process that “declares that the marriage celebrated was never valid or gave rise to any bond.”

Furthermore, according to the same commentary:

The reason for the dispensation must be just, which is to say that it must be proportionately grave, not in the abstract or in theory, but concretely, that is, in the particular and specific circumstances the fact and persons.

Before the dispensation can be granted the bishop must “prepare a votum on the veracity of the fact of the non-consummation, the just cause for the dispensation, and the suitability of the favor.”  In the process of preparing the “instruction” on the basis of which the bishop is to prepare his votum, the “defender of the bond” must intervene (Cans. 1704 §1, 1701 §1).  It is abundantly clear that that the dissolution of a marriage ratum et non consummatum is not a simple declaration of nullity.

In fact, I have had a professional canonist confirm this to me:

Marriage becomes a sacrament with the exchange of vows (presuming of course baptism by both parties [otherwise it would be a valid but non-sacramental/natural marriage], proper form and intention, etc.).

Thus, canon law reserves the prerogative to dispensation from a marriage ratum et non consummatum to the pope alone because it is the dissolution of a real sacramental marriage in very restricted circumstances, not a judicial declaration of the fact that no marriage ever existed.

Your interpretation of the canons seems to minimize the fact that such dissolutions are exclusively a papal prerogative, an exercise of the authority given to Peter to bind and loose, even when the question of the indissolubility of marriage is involved.  At times there has been a dissent of a minority on the matter as to whether the pope could do this, and that was because the real question is whether the pope ever has the power to dissolve a sacramental but non-consummated marriage.  The fact is that such power belongs properly only to God or to someone upon whom he has conferred it.  And He has so conferred this power on the pope, but on him alone.

The position you are espousing is not new.  It has been held in the past, but then the problem in the background was not the presumption that the Manichaean demon is lurking in every bedroom, but the erroneous definition of the indissolubility of marriage.  In any case, it doesn’t appear to ever have been more than a view on the margins.  It certainly is not, contrary to your assertion, the view reflected in canon law.

Here I quote Father Peter Damien Fehlner, S.T.D. on the theological niceties of the question:

The doctrinal basis for what I have just noted is teaching of the Church concerning the essence of marriage which may be formulated thus:  “The Sacrament of marriage consists essentially in the marriage contract itself, in such wise that 1) among the baptized a valid marriage cannot be contracted which is not also a sacrament, and 2) use of marriage (consummation) does not pertain to its essence.”

Except for some theologians mainly associated with Gallicanism during the 17th and 18th centuries, this is the nearly unanimous teaching of all theologians of antiquity and of all theologians of present times.  Among these theologians are found Peter Lombard, St. Albert the Great, St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas, Bl. John Duns Scotus.  They find the Scriptural basis for their position in Eph 5: 32, which they correctly understand as referring to the contract, not use of marriage.  Hence, they maintain that the source of sacramental grace in marriage is found in the contract or covenant which is permanent, even if not in the use.

Explicit affirmations of this teaching by the Papal Magisterium are found as early as the 9th century with Nicholas I, and thereafter with Alexander III, Innocent III (two great canonists). Eugene IV, Pius VI, Pius IX (condemnation of the contrary doctrine as taught by J.N.Nuytz), Leo XIII, Pius XI, and in the former Code, canon 1012, § 1.  Theologians commonly affirm that this teaching is “Catholic doctrine”, and in 1910 the Roman Rota described it as “proxima fidei”, and on one occasion Bl. Pius IX called it a “dogma of faith”.  The Council of Trent affirms the same in its teaching on clandestine marriages.

Unless the Church declares otherwise such marriages are valid or “ratum” merely by virtue of the consent.  Nothing else, neither sacramental blessing nor use is necessary for validity.    On the basis of this teaching, as the Fathers of the Church testify, the virginal marriage of Our Lady and St. Joseph, as well as that of other Christian spouses across the centuries, is just as much a marriage and source of grace as those marriages which are consummated by use.

So your assertion that “it would seem that the inurement of grace does not occur until that time – in other words, sacramental grace inures during the marital union,” sounds a bit novel and is perhaps arrived at through that methodology by which a certain interpretation of the Theology of the Body becomes the hermeneutical key for everything else.

In fact, the general audience of October 13, 1982, about which this argument is an interpretation simply does not say what you and Christopher West contend it does.  I encourage any of the readers of this blog to read the conference, either in the translation made available by EWTN, or in the translation of Michael Waldstein.  It makes no difference.  As inscrutable as sometimes the holy fathers’ conference sometimes are for the average person, it does not take a genius to conclude that Christopher West is stretching.

On the contrary, I believe the following text is a good summary (I used the Waldstein translation so there will be no argument about accuracy):

To the marriage of the first husband and wife, as a sign of the supernatural endowment of man with grace in the sacrament of creation, corresponds the marriage, or rather the analogy of the marriage, of Christ with the Church, as the fundamental “great” sign of man’s supernatural gracing in the sacrament of redemption, of the gracing in which the covenant of the grace of election that was broken in the “beginning” by sin is renewed in a definitive way (97.2).

There is simply nothing in this general audience about the gracing of marriage taking place through intercourse, unless the plebeians consent to be told what to think because the pope writings are too hard for them to read.

And this brings me to what John Paul II actually does say about the relation of the marital bond and the conjugal act:

Marriage as a sacrament is contracted by means of the word which is a sacramental sign by virtue of its content: “I take you as my wife/ as my husband, and I promise to be faithful to you always, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, and to love you and honor you all the days of my life.” However, this sacramental word is, of itself, only the sign of the coming to be of marriage. The coming to be of marriage is distinct from its consummation, so much so that without this consummation the marriage is not yet constituted in its full reality. The fact that a marriage is juridically contracted but not consummated (ratum, non consummatum) corresponds to the observation that it has not been fully constituted as a marriage. In fact, the words themselves, “I take you as my wife/ as my husband” do not only refer to a determinate reality, but they can only be fulfilled by copula conjugale (conjugal intercourse). This reality (the conjugal copula conjugale), moreover, has been defined from the very beginning by institution of the Creator: ” A man will leave his father and his mother and unite with his wife, and the two will be one flesh” (cf. Gn 2:24) (Waldstein translation, 103.2).

It is interesting that Michael Waldstein modifies the older English translation from

However, this sacramental word is, per se, merely the sign of the coming into being of marriage,


However, this sacramental word is, of itself, only the sign of the coming to be of marriage (emphasis mine).

Changing the substantive “being” to the verb “be” places the emphasis on the “not yet, but in process,” rather than on what is already achieved, namely, that the sacramental sign is constituted by the vows, and therefore also the sacrament itself.

There is no question that there is a difference between a ratified but non-consummated marriage and one that is both ratified and consummated.  However, John Paul II, in this same audience, indicates that the sacramental sign is already constituted by the wedding vows:

Consequently, the sign of the sacrament of marriage is constituted by the words of the new spouses inasmuch as the “reality” that they themselves constitute corresponds to them. Both of them, as man and woman, being ministers of the sacrament at the moment of contracting marriage, at the same time constitute the full and real visible sign of the sacrament itself. The words spoken by them would not of themselves constitute the sacramental sign if the human subjectivity of the engaged man and woman and at the same time the consciousness of the body linked with the masculinity and femininity of the bride and bridegroom did not correspond to them (4).

And he continues:

The sign of the sacrament of Marriage is constituted by the fact that the words spoken by the new spouses take up again the same “language of the body” as at the “beginning” and, at any rate, give it a concrete and unrepeatable expression (5).

Granted, the assertion that the sacramental sign is already constituted by the vows themselves is qualified by John Paul II when he says that

[t]he words of new spouses are a part of the integral structure of the sacramental sign, not only by what they signify but also in some sense with what they signify and determine. The sacramental sign is constituted in the intentional order inasmuch as it is simultaneously constituted in the real order (3).

So both the words of the ratification and the act of the consummation of a marriage belong to the integral structure of the sacramental sign.  But what is signified in the intentional order through vows is already realized at the moment the words are spoken as a sign because “the human subjectivity of the man and woman” is “linked with the masculinity and femininity of the bride and bridegroom” (4).

The Holy Father simply does not say that there is no sacrament until the consummation, and he in no rational way can be construed as affirming that the grace of the sacrament is conferred through intercourse.

And really, this is the whole point of the line of reasoning that has brought me to answer the objection above.  Over and over again in the presentation of TOB by Christopher West and his followers, like “Proper Sacralization of Sex,” it is asserted that what the Holy Father states with the erudition of a philosopher can be translated into simple language to mean things that can only be asserted if one extrapolates on the basis of a priori held assumptions.  And in this case those assumptions do not correspond to the theological and canonical tradition.

Actually, this has been a revelation to me.  Appreciating where the Westian interpretation of TOB is going gives a whole new meaning to the assertion of West that God wants to “impregnate us with grace”:

The Song of Songs teaches us—as does the spousal imagery throughout all of Scripture—that God wants to “marry” us. Furthermore, through this mystical marriage, the divine Bridegroom wants to fill us, “impregnate” us with divine life.

And in reference to thoroughly debunked phallic candle myth:

The high point of the Church’s liturgical year is the Easter Vigil, and perhaps the high point of the Easter Vigil—next of course to the Eucharist itself—is the blessing of the baptismal font. And in this ritual the priest takes the Christ candle and plunges the Christ candle into the baptismal font. What is happening here? The baptismal font is the womb of the Church, from which many children will be born again. And the symbolism of that candle, that Christ candle being plunged into this baptismal font, is Christ the Bridegroom impregnating virginally, mystically of course, impregnating the Church, the Bride, from which these children will be born again.

This is not “sacralizing” sex.  The Church has always considered sex sacred. Prudery has always been a problem, but now it is being made the bogeyman in the attempt to baptize the modern obsession with sex, and one that seems to get more and more bizarre by the minute.

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Author Fr Angelo

I am Franciscan Friar of the Immaculate, and a priest for more than twenty years. I am now studying in Rome for my licentiate in Theology.

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