When Marriage Begins

Greetings all –

I’m in a bit of a predicament concerning when marriage properly begins. I have been engaged for about a year, and in that time, my fiancé and I have had intercourse. She says that because we consent to marriage and have “consummated,” so to speak, we are consequently married. Now, I’ve always rejected this, saying that sex does not a marriage make.

However, I’m concerned, because it seems St. Thomas Aquinas agrees with her. In Part 4, question 46, article 2, he says:

Secondly, in reference to the judgment of the Church; and since in the external tribunal judgment is given in accordance with external evidence, and since nothing is more expressly significant of consent than carnal intercourse, it follows that in the judgment of the Church carnal intercourse following on betrothal is declared to make a marriage, unless there appear clear signs of deceit or fraud [According to the pre-Tridentine legislation] (De sponsal. et matrim., cap. Is qui fidem).

I would appreciate if, before responding, you could look at this question and make sure I’m not missing anything. What is the post-Tridentine legislation which would alter this? Does sexual union after betrothal make one married?


I also found this, which seems to support my side (that we are not yet married):

From the Council of Trent:

wherefore, treading in the steps of the sacred Council of Lateran celebrated under Innocent III., it ordains that, for the future, before a marriage is contracted, the proper parish priest of the contracting parties shall three times announce publicly in the Church, during the solemnization of mass, on three continuous festival days, between whom marriage is to be celebrated; after which publication of banns, if there be no lawful impediment opposed, the marriage shall be proceeded with in the face of the church; where the parish priest, after having interrogated the man and the woman, and heard their mutual consent, shall either say, “I join you together in matrimony, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost;” or, he shall use other words, according to the received rite of each province.

Is it possible that we are married, only our marriage has not been blessed or recognized by the Church yet?

If nothing stands in the way as an impediment, the Marriage takes place at the moment the the vows are properly exchanged.

You are NOT married, either in the eyes of the law or in the eyes of the Church. Marriage does not begin with sex.

No, you are *definitely *not married on any part of the Church’s understanding.

What you’re reading about in this part of the Summa is something called clandestine marriage by which (just as Aquinas says in his answer) a man and a woman can be considered validly married on the grounds of their having given such matrimonial consent to one another by sexual intercourse–no ceremony, consent, or witnesses needed.

Because this provision in the law brought about so much abuse and because of some confusion and mishap caused by the Reformation churches around the time regarding the practice, the Council of Trent made it so that it was required that a man and woman be married under the witness of a parish priest and two additional attestants.

Marriages otherwise contracted are not recognized as valid marriages by the Church.

This is found in the documents of the Council.
Those who shall attempt to contract marriage otherwise than in the presence of the parish priest, or of some other priest by permission of the said parish priest, or of the Ordinary, and in the presence of two or three witnesses; the holy Synod renders such wholly incapable of thus contracting and declares such contracts invalid and null, as by the present decree It invalidates and annuls them (The Council of Trent: Session 24, Chapter 1).
Some modifications of the Tridentine teachings are present in a more recent document called *Ne Temere *issued under the Pontificate of Pope Pius X. The same teachings regarding clandestinity are nevertheless affirmed in that document.

The Church perseveres in her teaching against fornication which, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
…]is carnal union between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman. It is gravely contrary to the dignity of persons and of human sexuality which is naturally ordered to the good of spouses and the generation and education of children. Moreover, it is a grave scandal when there is corruption of the young (2353).
I hope that helps you out.

God bless.

For a number of centuries theologians and canonists debated whether carnal copula or consent was the efficient cause of marriage. Innocent III established that it was consent back in the 13th century. As noted, to prevent clandesine unions that could be easily renounced, the Church developed the requirement for a certain lawful form to be observed by which consent was given. Tridentine considerations have been presented, and now let’s move up to the present, shall we?

Ne Temere became effective in 1908. A code of canon law was issued in 1917, and canon 1084 expressed the necessity for marriage by a Catholic to be contracted before the pastor or ordinary of the place or someone delegated by either and two witnesses (setting aside the matter provision for the extraordinary form of marriage and another point, of which both are not germane). That was its lawful form with some modification added in the case of mixed marriage.

Perhaps canon 1055 of the 1983 code of canon law which, as restated, says that marriage is established by the consent of a man and a woman who are not impeded from marriage and who express their consent in whatever lawful form binds them.

The lawful form that binds a Catholic is presented in canon 1108: §1. Only those marriages are valid which are contracted in the presence of the local ordinary or the pastor or a priest or deacon delegated by either of them, who assist, and in the presence of two witnesses, according to the rules expressed in the following canons, with due regard for the exceptions mentioned in cann. 144, 1112, §1, 1116 and 1127, §§ 1 and 2. §2. The one assisting at a marriage is understood to be only that person who, present at the ceremony, asks for the contractants’ manifestation of consent and receives it in the name of the Church.

Fornication has already been mentioned, and needs little comment other than to recommend looking at Familiaris consortio n. 81 regarding de facto free unions. This best seems to describe the situation that has been presented in that it involves no “publicly recognized institutional bond, either civil or religious.”

It can be viewed at vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_19811122_familiaris-consortio_en.html.

May God enlighten and guide your consciences so that you can detach from the sinful elements of your relationship, and perhaps pursue a true path to true marriage as a sign of Christ’s abundant love.

So since St. Thomas Aquinas was after Pope Innocent III and the Fourth Lateran Council, why did Thomas get it wrong?

St. Thomas wasn’t wrong, but here’s why what he said no longer applies:

  1. He uses the word “betrothal” which has a significantly different meaning today than it had in the 13th century. Today, we typically use the word “engagement” and that’s a synonym for “betrothal” in a general sense, but back then, being betrothed meant that a couple was basically already considered to be married, save that they could not legitimately engage in the marital act–that came (and still does) after the marriage is ratified in the wedding rite. That’s why in the Gospel, Joseph considered divorcing Mary quietly–even though they were only betrothed, to break that was considered a form of “divorce.” That’s a much stronger concept than today’s engagements.

  2. In the quote in the first post, St Thomas says “nothing is more expressly significant of consent than carnal intercourse” Now, let’s be realistic here folks, in today’s society people hardly consider that when a couple engages in intercourse that is the most “espressly significant [form of] consent.” Sad, but true nonetheless. We have a much too casual attitude about this sort of thing today, and therefore it is not considered to be the strongest expression of consent–not by society and not by the people doing it. No doubt, it happened in St. Thomas’ day too.

  3. Even if we were to accept that intercourse is a form of consent (which of course I don’t, but just for the sake of argument), consent by its very nature cannot be something which a person gives either unknowingly or unwillingly. More to the point of the original post, the woman is telling the man that he is, or has already, given his consent to be married and therefore is in fact married. If one person must convince the other that he has consented, then naturally, the consent cannot possibly be there.

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