Marriage: More than just a piece of paper?

After yesterday’s post about single life vs. married life, a friend sent me a message with a very valid point.  I thought it was worth discussing here:

If any two people are planning on getting married eventually anyway then what will the difference really be between now and then other than a piece of paper and a party?

Well, I believe that marriage is a sacrament. A good way to think of a sacrament is to think of it as an outward sign of an inner reality. For example, baptism is a sacrament. The outward sign is the water, but the inner reality (the thing that is actually, literally happening) is the Holy Spirit coming to dwell within the person being baptized.

So what’s happening during the sacrament of marriage that makes it more than just a couple signatures on a piece of paper? The couple promises to be true to one another in sickness and health, in good times and bad, etc, until death do they part. But they could do that on a random Tuesday in October on the sidewalk if they wanted to, right? So there’s gotta be something else going on for it to be a sacrament.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says this about the sacrament of Matrimony:

“1661 The sacrament of Matrimony signifies the union of Christ and the Church. It gives spouses the grace to love each other with the love with which Christ has loved his Church; the grace of the sacrament thus perfects the human love of the spouses, strengthens their indissoluble unity, and sanctifies them on the way to eternal life”

In essence, what the sacrament gives the couple that they can’t get just by signing a piece of paper or by promising things to each other on the sidewalk is grace. Grace is one of those words that people use all the time but never really talk about. In this sense, it’s defined as the participation in the life of God. The couple’s love is now united for a higher purpose. In Matrimony, the two have become one flesh (Mat 19:6), working towards the goal of helping one another achieve eternal happiness in Heaven.

I could promise my boyfriend anything I want. We could move in together and start a family. We could write up a piece of paper and both sign it and hang it from the refrigerator without ever setting foot inside a church. We’d look and act exactly like a married couple. We could even make it work and be together forever.

But it wouldn’t be a sacramental marriage.  If we weren’t baptized, it would be what’s called a natural marriage—still good and still from God (because the union of man and woman is from God), but we wouldn’t have the graces from the sacrament. Our love wouldn’t be about God and getting the other person to Heaven—it would be about ourselves (and possibly a family we desired to have).

I do believe that you can have a loving relationship with someone and even grow to be a better person from that relationship without the sacrament. I know a good many people who have such relationships. But I believe the sacrament of marriage is the ideal to which couples should strive because in it they are united for something greater than just earthly love; they are giving themselves fully so that they can gain the eternal love of the Father in Heaven.