The valid union of a man and a woman, by which they give themselves each to the other for mutual helpfulness and society, and for the begetting of children. The name of this union is derived from the Latin matris munus, the office of mother, signifying that the man and woman are united principally that the woman, if possible, may have the privilege of lawful motherhood. It is a true contract; the parties bind themselves to each other for certain definite objects, which are that the woman may become a mother if possible, that each may be a helpmate to the other, and that carnal temptations and sins may be more easily avoided. The obligation or bond imposed by the contract is called the ligamen, or tie. Matrimony is the oldest contract in the world, having been instituted by God when He created man. “Male and female he created them; and God blessed them, and said: Increase and multiply, and fill the earth” (Genesis 1) ; and later, “It is not good for man to be alone; let us make a help like unto himself. … Wherefore a man shall leave father and mother and shall cleave to his wife, and they shall be two in one flesh” (Genesis 2).
Christian matrimony, the union of baptized Christians, is a sacrament which unites a Christian man and woman in lawful marriage. Any marriage is a contract, but the marriage of baptized persons is more: it is a true sacrament, giving great and special graces to those who receive it worthily. Long before the great Councils had clearly defined this doctrine it was embodied in the tradition of the Church. Saint Paul tells us: “So also ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. This is a great sacrament, but I speak in Christ and in the Church” (Ephesians 5). Like all the sacraments, Christian matrimony was instituted by Our Lord, but there is no mention of this in the Scriptures. The oft-quoted words, “What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder,” merely emphasize the indissoluble quality of the contract and not its sacramental character. Each sacrament of the Church requires a minister, but the officiating clergyman is not the minister of matrimony; in nearly every case, indeed, his presence is necessary, but he is merely the official who receives the mutual consent of the parties and gives the Church’s blessing to their union. The contracting parties are the real ministers of this sacrament; its “matter” is the mutual giving of each to the other, and its “form” consists in the words or outward signs by which the man and the woman express their agreement and intention to be husband and wife. This sacrament may be received by any baptized person, provided that there is no natural impediment and none that arises from the law of God or of the Church. From some impediments the Church can dispense; from others she cannot. God’s law prohibits marriage between persons who are within very close degrees of blood-relationship, and other impediments have been established by the law of the Church. Unbaptized persons, though they may enter into the lifelong contract of matrimony, are incapable of receiving the sacrament.
The ceremonies of a Catholic marriage are simple. They consist essentially in the expression of mutual consent, the blessing of the union by the priest, and the giving of the wedding-ring, a symbol of faithfulness. The words expressing consent, and those used at the giving of the ring, vary in different languages and in different countries. The Church urges strongly that marriages of Catholics should take place in church and with a Nuptial Mass, but will dispense with these conditions for sufficient reasons.