Cathblog - The sacramental essential of matrimony


Recently one of the key architects of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Cardinal Schonborn, stated: ‘There can be same-sex partnerships and they need respect, and even civil law protection. Yes, but please keep it away from the notion of marriage.’

The problem for the Church – at least for the Catholic Church – is the use of the word marriage to denote same-sex partnerships.

But if we look at the very Catechism Cardinal Schonborn was so instrumental in putting together, the word mariatus (marriage) does not occur once in the Latin original.

The word that is used by the CCC to speak of the sacrament is always matrimonium (matrimony). Unfortunately, in the English translation of the CCC ‘marriage’ is used interchangeably with ‘matrimony’.

Now before anyone tells me that I’m playing semantics let me ask you: what else do we have with which to think except words and their meanings (semantics)?

This whole issue for the Catholic Church is about semantics because semantic precision, finding and using the right words correctly, is important. ‘Marriage’, we have been insisting, is the wrong word to use to describe same-sex partnerships.

But is it?

Or perhaps more to the point: Is marriage really the right word to use to describe that ecclesial sacrament at the service of communion which ‘signifies the union of Christ and the Church’ (CCC n. 1661)?

The people who took great pains to redact the CCC didn’t seem to think so. They studiously avoided the word mariatus and only ever used the word matrimonium when speaking of the ecclesial sacrament.

Marriage as a secular institution has taken many different forms throughout history and across cultures. Even the biblical concept of what constitutes marriage has shifted: The early patriarchs had multiple wives and concubines, as did the Israelite kings (Solomon being especially prodigious and infamous for it!).

And yet polygamy is no longer practiced by Jews and expressly forbidden by the Church.

Clearly the secular institution of marriage is not identical with the ecclesial sacrament of ‘holy matrimony’.

The secular understanding of the institution of marriage (as we now have it in countries like Australia and New Zealand) took an irreversibly non-Christian turn when it began to accept divorce.

Secular marriage has for decades been seen as a contract between a man and woman which they are free to dissolve at any time they choose.

That is hardly the ecclesial sacrament of holy matrimony signifying Christ’s indissoluble union with the Church – a union that cannot be dissolved, rather than may not or should not.

It simply cannot, since Christ and the Church are ‘one body’, one living organism; and any union that signifies that is therefore indissoluble.

Furthermore, matrimony is literally about mother-making – it’s about the nurturing of families, with the maternal, feminine archetype as its positive structuring principle, its meaning-generating symbol.

Marriage, on the other hand, probably has a more ancient etymology, and means something like ‘the acquiring of a woman (mari)’.

Here the feminine symbol is objectified and commoditised: woman as purchased and owned. In the word matrimony, woman is present as the fruitful source of life; in the word marriage, she is property.

Frankly, given this probable etymology, and its deeper implications (all of which have been realized at some point in history), I’m glad the (Latin original) of the CCC never once uses the word mariatus.

The sacrament of holy matrimony (the sign that is itself an instance of Christ’s union with the Church in godly mother-making) is not to be confused with a conditional and dissolvable secular partnership contracted by individuals for as long as it works for them (and that, it seems to me, is all that the secular world wants same-sex partnerships to be recognised as in law).

A marriage between a man and a woman can certainly become a sacrament of holy matrimony, just as bread and wine can become the real presence of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist.

But not every piece of bread and glass of wine is the body and blood of the Risen Lord – at least not yet. Perhaps, in the fullness of time, and by the grace of God, they might.


Dr Drasko Dizdar is a member of the Emmaus monastic community, and a theologian with the Tasmanian Catholic Education Office.

Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.

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