The Sacrament of Marriage

Hi there,

I have recently been trying to study the history of the sacrament of marriage in the Catholic Church.

Wikipedia says this:
"For much of the history of the Catholic Church, no specific ritual was therefore prescribed for celebrating a marriage - at least not until the late medieval period: “Marriage vows did not have to be exchanged in a church, nor was a priest’s presence required. A couple could exchange consent anywhere, anytime.”

I have also read elsewhere that the sacrament of marriage was only truly expressed during the Council of Trent. Does this mean that the sacrament of marriage did not always exist? Since today a priest’s presence is required for marriage. But then surely sacraments can not just be ‘invented’ since they are of divine institution?

The Sacrament of Marriage requires: one man and one woman, both baptized, who consent to their marriage before God for life, and who consummate their marriage. (Consent without consummation is a ratified but not consummated marriage.)

The Council of Trent taught that all seven sacraments were instituted by Christ. So even though the current form for the celebration of marriage does not go back to the time of Christ, the Sacrament itself does.

I’m not sure when marriage was determined to be a Sacrament, but it must have been well before Trent, as our Orthodox brethren consider it to be a Sacrament.

I’ll have to look more into the history of how marriage was celebrated, but I’ll comment on Trent.

The Council of Trent came about in response to the Protestant Reformation. And what was one of the things the Protestants denied? The sacraments. So the reason that Trent said a lot about the sacraments wasn’t because they were just being “invented” at that time, but rather because they were being seriously questioned for the first time in Church history. In the past, the Church would generally only formally define things once they were called into question. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t taught from the beginning. The sacraments were all instituted by Christ.

And a *ratified but not consummated marriage *is a marriage. (Contrary to the above, or at least being worded more clearly: The Sacrament of Marriage requires: one man and one woman, both baptized, who consent to their marriage before God for life.

Consummation is not a requirement for marriage)


Is a priests presence necessary for the sacrament of marriage to be valid?

If so, does that mean that a lot of early Christian marriages were not sacramental? Considering that some would just ask for the priests approval and then by mere formal consent get married physically outside of the church without the presence of the priest.

The presence of a deacon or priest is so codified today for Catholics (with very few exceptions), but validly baptized non-Catholics who are not otherwise impeded validly and sacramentally marry before other ministers, or even by the witness of civil authorities.

The institution of marriage lo-ong pre-dates the Church. I honestly do not know when the Church began to require a clerical witness.


Current canon law requires Christian marriage to include the consent of the couple, a lack of impediments that would make it impossible to marry (e.g., one of the spouses is already married), and the proper form of marriage.

This last one – “proper form” – is something that is defined by a Church or a denomination. Since it has to do with the liturgy in which the wedding takes place, it’s something that a Church is able to define on its own (or modify as it sees fit). Protestant denominations tend not to have requirements of form, so the Catholic Church sees a wedding between two Protestants as valid regardless where it takes place (church, beach, Elvis chapel) or who performs the ceremony (minister, JP, guy dressed like Elvis).

The Catholic Church does have rules for form – weddings take place in a church, and are celebrated by a priest or deacon – so, for a wedding to be valid, these are necessary. Remember, though, that a Church gets to make these definitions as it sees fit: so, before the Church defined what proper ‘form’ was, weddings between Catholics were already valid and sacramental, even if the Church wasn’t there to witness them. Once the Church did define ‘proper form’, then it became necessary to follow that form in order to have a valid marriage.

When I learned to drive, I was taught that, on country roads without speed limit signs, I should go 35 mph. If a country road later got a sign that said ‘25 mph’, that doesn’t mean I was driving illegally all those times I was on that road earlier. From that point on, though, I had to drive 25 if I wanted to drive legally. It’s kinda the same thing with the ‘form of marriage’…

Middle Ages. It was instituted in order to protect spouses. (Some were being abandoned by their spouse, in favor of someone who had better prospects. They would claim that the earlier marriage never took place, and then go off and marry another person, leaving the aggrieved spouse without recourse.) The Church instituted formal requirements for ‘form’ (including the witness of a cleric) and official registration in the parish records in order to curb that nonsense.

Under the current code, a Catholic must marry in Catholic form or be dispensed from it. Catholic form requires an official witness of the Church-- which can be a priest, deacon, or a designated lay person. Canon law also allows for marriage before witnesses only in some circumstances. A Catholic dispensed from form marries validly when they marry civilly.


The law did not require then what the law requires today. This is a matter of law, not of sacramental theology. All valid marriages between the baptized are sacraments. The law regulates what constitutes a valid marriage. Also, the law applies to Catholics only. So non Catholics who are baptized marry validly and have sacramental marriages when they marry civilly.

The Church found it necessary to regulate the exchange of consent, primarily due to husband setting aside and repudiating their wives and claiming they had never married. Exchanging consent without witnesses led to women being taken advantage of in earlier days. Requiring an official witness of the Church solved that problem.

The Church of the East also has all seven sacraments too and they broke away first around the 400s.

No, a priest is not necessary. For example, the Catholic Church recognizing two sacraments of Protestant converts. Baptism and Marriage. Furthermore, when two Catholics marry in the Church, a Deacon can marry them, it doesn’t have a to be a priest. However, it’s typically a priest when two Catholics marry because most Catholic weddings are part of a Wedding Mass (though they don’t have to be).

The Catholic Church believes that the Bride and Groom administer the Sacrament to each other, the priest or deacon simply witnesses the Marriage.

If so, does that mean that a lot of early Christian marriages were not sacramental? Considering that some would just ask for the priests approval and then by mere formal consent get married physically outside of the church without the presence of the priest.

Christians marriages are automatically sacramental if both the bride and groom are baptized. If one spouse isn’t baptized when they get married, it is a natural marriage not a sacramental one. However, if the other spouse gets baptized, the marriage automatically becomes sacramental.

The main reason why priests or deacons must witness the marriage is to insure there isn’t an impediment to marriage, to make sure they are properly formed (though we all could be doing a better job here), and because the Church must be able to vouch for the validity of the Marriage if there is ever a need for annulment.

Finally, there are also many added theological reasons for the liturgical changes and canons regarding today’s marriage rite. But the Sacrament itself as always existed.

You might be surprised to learn what the Church really calls for, then (as opposed to what actually happens in some parishes). The Church expects a Nuptial Mass for two Catholics, and a ceremony outside of Mass (and therefore, one which can be celebrated by a deacon) is only appropriate when a Catholic marries a non-Catholic Christian or an unbaptized person. (Of course, there is the opportunity for pastoral flexibility – for example, if one of the Catholic spouses is a convert to Catholicism, and his family is somewhat hostile to Catholic liturgy, then the Rite outside of Mass may be used.)

From the Rite itself:

In the Rite of Marriage (which normally should be within the Mass), certain elements should be stressed [including] … the reception of holy communion by the groom and bride, and by all present, by which their love is nourished and all are lifted up into communion with our Lord and with one another.

… In a marriage between a Catholic and a baptized person who is not Catholic, … the rite of marriage outside Mass shall be observed. If suitable, and if the Ordinary of the place gives permission, the rite for celebrating marriage within Mass may be used.

… In a marriage between a Catholic and one who is not baptized, [a separate] rite is to be followed.

So, a Nuptial Mass is the norm, although in special circumstances (usually when one of the spouses isn’t Catholic), another rite that does not include Mass may be utilized.

Yes, this is 100% true. I just didn’t want to go into that level of detail:D

Very helpful, thank you.

However, a non-consummated marriage can be dissolved whereas a consummated one cannot.

Correct. That fact just did not seem to me to be germane to the question, in the same way that clearing up what are the requirements for Sacramental Marriage is germane.

Whose Canon Law Credentials are worth every penny :twocents: that he paid for them


I think it is worth pointing out that even though no particular, religious ritual was “prescribed” until the middle ages, that doesn’t mean there was no religious ritual for marriage until that time. There were rituals for marriage in the early centuries, too. Likewise, just because people “could” marry in different ways, that doesn’t mean that the Church wanted people to marry “anywhere, anytime.”

The Fourth Lateran Council (1215), among others, forbade “clandestine” marriages and said priests should publicize upcoming weddings (i.e., publish the “banns”). The Council of Trent (mid 1500’s) required a “form” for marriage so that it’s absence led to an invalid marriage–Catholics had to express consent before a parish priest and witnesses. This requirement, however, was not in force everywhere because it was not possible/prudent to require it everywhere. It wasn’t until 1907 that this requirement of “form” was made binding always and everywhere (with exceptions for danger of death and no available priest, exceptions which still exist).

The Sacrament of Marriage was indeed instituted by Christ. It exists whenever two Christians marry each other. How this Sacrament is celebrated/administered is partially subject to revision by the Church. You can look at the old Catholic Encyclopedia (at for a lot more information.


I believe the sacrament of matrimony was instituted by the Creator in Genesis 2:24 and ratified by Christ in Matthew 19:4-6 …

The below passage from Ephesians 5 clears it up, I believe. It links marriage to the Church and to the sacraments.

That said, while inspired scripture is the Word of God, everything is not in the bible - such as the procedures for baptism and marriage, the age of reason, altar calls, wedding rings, or for that matter, sola scriptura and sola fide.

Some matters of faith are from oral tradition passed down from the apostles onward (2 Thess).

Ephesians 5:
1 Being subject one to another, in the fear of Christ.
22 Let women be subject to their husbands, as to the Lord:
23 Because the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the church. He is the saviour of his body.
24 Therefore as the church is subject to Christ, so also let the wives be to their husbands in all things.
25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ also loved the church, and delivered himself up for it:
26 That he might sanctify it, cleansing it by the laver of water in the word of life:
27 That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy, and without blemish.
28 So also ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife, loveth himself.
29 For no man ever hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, as also Christ doth the church:
30 Because we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones.
31 For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they shall be two in one flesh.
32 This is a great sacrament; but I speak in Christ and in the church.

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