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Why is Marriage Indissoluble? Part I

Updated on August 8, 2013

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[1] By primal we mean the first Sacrament—that which existed from the beginning of creation. It is not meant to say that marriage is the most important Sacrament.

[2] Lumen Gentium, 11: “Finally, Christian spouses, in virtue of the sacrament of Matrimony, whereby they signify and partake of the mystery of that unity and fruitful love which exists between Christ and His Church, help each other to attain to holiness in their married life and in the rearing and education of their children.” Cf. Gaudium et Spes, 48-52.

The Indissolubility of Marriage in an Anthropology of Love: Introduction

The question of the indissolubility of marriage, especially concerning when and why, is still a pertinent question despite being centuries old. Marriage is the primal sacrament[1], the basis of family life (the domestic Church), and thus must be safeguarded for the future of vocations. Furthermore, with the continually encroaching worldviews of relativism and proportionalism gaining influence among modern theologians and laity, as well as the high divorce rate and gay marriage, the question about the permanence of the marriage sacrament still needs to be explored and taught.

Since the Second Vatican Council renewed the Church’s teaching on marriage,[2] there has been no single greater champion of the sacrament than Pope John Paul II, who’s Theology of the Body, as well as his love-focused anthropology has furthered the cause of the sacrament. Therefore, using his anthropology, this paper will first give a brief summary of the history of marriage as a sacrament, then proceed to outline the basic arguments concerning why marriage is indissoluble, and finally seek to distinguish and synthesize these arguments into a coherent answer to the question about how marriage is indissoluble. This paper will establish that marriage is essentially indissoluble through consent, ratified through consummation, and fruitful through the mutual lived faith of the partners.

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1134

[2] Lawler, Michael G. “The mutual love and personal faith of the spouses as the matrix of the sacrament of marriage.” Worship 65, no. 4 (July 1, 1991), 9.

[3] Kilmartin, Edward J. “When is marriage a sacrament.” Theological studies 34, no. 2 (June1, 1973), 275.

[4] De Reeper, J. “Indissolubility of marriage, and divorce”. Afer11, no. 4 (October 1, 1969), 346-347.

[5] See Matthew 19, Ephesians 5.

[6] De Reeper, 346. It seems that, because of the Church’s practice of inculteration, efforts were made to harmonize the theology and practice of the recently converted Germanic tribes with the revealed understanding of marriage at the time. The fact that there was no formal or universal teaching on marriage made the situation more complicated.

[7] Ibid., 348.

History of the Sacramentality of Marriage

A sacrament, as defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church is an “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us”.[1] They contain and require both the matter (the material thing used for the sacrament) and the form (what is said) to be valid. Because it is a Sacrament, marriage imparts the grace needed for sanctification. This is affirmed by Can. 1055 §1: “The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring, has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament between the baptized.”

Sacraments impart grace regardless of the disposition of the priest (ex opere operato), however, since God’s grace must always be actively accepted, the one receiving a Sacrament must always have proper disposition towards God.[2] In other words, they must at least implicitly acknowledge that, by receiving the sacrament, they wish to receive grace and draw closer to God. This is why all Sacraments should have a dimension of worship to them, they are essentially cultic.[3] Thus, both members must be baptized, and at least one Catholic.

For much of the early Church, marriage was not formally taught to be a Sacrament and thus was considered more as a social institution.[4] This is despite the fact that teachings on marriage are found by both in the Gospel and Pauline letters of the New Testament.[5] While there was some talk of the holiness and sacredness of marriage by the fathers, perhaps due to the influence of the Germanic tribes, marriage was thought to be primarily a social contract by most of the Church.[6] It wasn’t until 1184 that Pope Lucius III defined marriage as a Sacrament.[7] This teaching was reaffirmed at Trent, and clarified through the centuries in Canon law, Ecumenical Councils, and writings of theologians all the way through Vatican II.

The history of marriage as a Sacrament is important because, as we shall see, the line between consent and consummation as the defining moment of the Sacrament has always been blurred, and various church fathers, popes, and theologians have explained it differently. What is most important to note is that, because it is a Sacrament, marriage imparts grace through its proper reception, and a failure to properly receive, enter into, or perform the Sacrament, causes an invalid marriage in which indissolubility is not even an issue.

[1] Ibid., 346.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 347.

[4] Ibid.

Arguments Concerning the Indissolubility of Marriage


The argument that marriage is indissoluble from consent by virtue of its sacramentality has been the predominant position of most of the Church fathers and Canon Law. Can.1056 states, “The essential properties of marriage are unity and indissolubility, which in Christian marriage obtain a special firmness by reason of the sacrament.” Immediately following that Can. 1057 §1. States, “The consent of the parties, legitimately manifested between persons qualified by law, makes marriage; no human power is able to supply this consent,” and §2, “Matrimonial consent is an act of the will by which a man and a woman mutually give and accept each other through an irrevocable covenant in order to establish marriage.”

Here it is seen that 1) marriage is essentially indissoluble by reason of the Sacrament, 2) the consent is manifest between the two people being married by an act of the will (and not by law), and 3) it is this very consent that binds the two in an “irrevocable covenant”. Because marriage is a Sacrament, and the consent of partners is its essential matter, marriage is indissoluble.

Further support that consent is the fundamental criteria for indissolubility is that the marriage of Mary and Joseph was based solely on consent (for they never consummated the marriage) and appears as the “essential constitutive element” of marriage in Roman Law.[1] Augustine believed so forcefully in the essentialness of consent, that he was the only Church Father to teach that marriage could be at its fullness without the couple engaging in consummation.[2] This argument is also strongly supported by the view that marriage is a contract. While this is was the predominant view, there was still some debate that marriage was indissoluble.[3]

Lawler argues against marriage as being merely reduced to consent by saying that consent can be given without a true belief in, knowledge of, or desire for the grace that the sacrament endows. Furthermore, Lawler argues against the ability of marriage to be ex opere operato, because it is ministered by the couple themselves and because the reception of the Sacrament depends so heavily upon the disposition of the recipient. Thus the minister and receiver become the same, and the disposition of the minister becomes inconsequential. Finally, Lawler argues that if consent were the only criteria for a valid marriage, then two people who decided to marry for reasons other than love would technically have a valid marriage.[4] Bekker argues against the first point by pointing out that if there is any vincible ignorance or fault of disposition before the marriage vows, it is not a valid marriage in the first place, and thus is not subject to indissolubility.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Kuntz, J M. “Is marriage indissoluble.” Journal of Ecumencial Studies 7, no. 2 (March 1, 1970), 335.

[9] De Reeper, 348.

[10] Lawler, 339.

[11] Ibid., 342.

[12] Ibid., 361.


As De Reeper states, the focus on consummation derives from the Jewish perspective that marriage is made for procreation.[5] Thus, as he says, “the result was that sexual intercourse gradually became part of the constitution of marriage while consent always remained central”. Even the emperor Gratian in the late 4th century recognized that consummation on “adds” to consent.[6] The confusion, I believe, about consummation solidifying indissolubility is the long standing tradition, starting with Alexander III, of non-consummated marriages able to be dissolved.[7] In fact, there are cases where the Church has dissolved a valid but un-consummated marriage.[8] Perhaps the best distinction, which will be elaborated on later, is that a consensual marriage is “indissoluble in principle”, a “ratified”, consummated marriage is “indissoluble in fact.”[9]

Lived Faith

Michael Lawler is the predominant advocate for the “lived faith” argument of marriage permanence. He discusses the sacramental “marriage matrix” (the two dimensions of giving and receiving that make up every “saving event”)[10] by emphasizing the fact that marriage as a sacrament is both the giving of grace through the sacrament as well as the reception of said grace by the proper disposition of the couple. Lawler calls this disposition “mutual marital love” (this “proper disposition” which is a lived marriage faith and a desire to be sanctified through the Sacrament). Lawler uses a statement from the Roman Rota to show his point:

Where marital love was lacking, either the consent is not free, or it is not internal, or it excludes or limits the object which must be integral to have a valid marriage… lack of marital love is the same as lack of consent. Marital love has juridical force here, because the defendant despised the total communion of life which primarily and of itself constitutes the object of the marriage contract.[11]

Therefore, Lawler’s argument is that 1) marital love is the essence of indissolubility in marriage, 2) if marital love is lacking the marriage is not valid, 3) marital love develops over the course of marriage, 4) no marriage is indissoluble at the moment of consent, but rather at the eventual point in which the couples come to the highest form of marital love (which to Lawler is not the first act of consummation).[12]

Lawler seems to make a very convincing argument here, since the validity of a sacrament does essentially require a proper disposition to the sacrament, and a marriage that is not fruitful (both spiritually and physically) could be a definite sign that the marriage is invalid. However, the implications of his argument are clear: marriage is not indissoluble by virtue of the Sacrament, nor even by the total self-gift of consummation, but rather only at an undetermined future date in which the couple is said to have achieved the “fullness” of marital love—an act that is doubtful to be achieved without the grace of the sacrament in the first place. Still, despite this huge flaw in Lawler’s argument, I believe there is some truth to the “lived faith theory”.

© 2012 rdlang05


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    • rdlang05 profile image

      rdlang05 5 years ago from Minnesota


      :D I love applying theological principles to psychology (and vice versa), perhaps I'll contemplate a bit what your saying and see what comes to me. Thank you for your wonderful comments.

    • cynthtggt profile image

      Cynthia Taggart 5 years ago from New York, NY

      Years ago I read this book called "Intimate Partners" written by a Maggie Sharf that deals with the sometimes deep emotional issues in marriage. She is a sociologist whose own marriage was threatened with divorce and she wanted to save it. Her insights were amazing about the psychology of intimate partners on a very deep level. And she showed also how both partners contribute to infidelities. Another thing she showed was how people who divorce often seek the same psychological aspects of what they lacked in the first marriage into the second marriage or relationship, essentially because they fail to see the deficits in themselves. She wrote that couples in strong marital relationships are people who are not co-dependent but stand as separate pillars of strength that when united are partners in life both intimately and in struggles as well as spiritually. Although the book is not religious in any sense, belief in God, I feel, is a strength in a relationship because His presence is one's life causes the individual to place burdens on Him rather than project all failings on the spouse. I truly believe the Church can integrate its sacramental theology "inwardly" in people by showing how Christ's teaching work psychologically and are active and real. But I just wanted to share that too, and thank you for writing this wonderful hub.

    • rdlang05 profile image

      rdlang05 5 years ago from Minnesota

      Excellent comment! I would in fact agree with you... I wrote another paper this semester about salvation outside the Church, and one of the arguments I made was that the "sacramental effect" can be given outside the sacrament itself through Christ as the ultimate mediator. I think the language of the Sacrament "ratifying" that grace is perfect in this context. Thanks for adding that dynamic!

    • cynthtggt profile image

      Cynthia Taggart 5 years ago from New York, NY

      Very interesting and informative hub, although I question the "dispensation of grace" as available only through the sacrament as bestowed by the church, as opposed to the dispensation of grace from God which the sacrament ratifies. It is not to say that I disagree with what the church believes, or that I think they are wrong (because I do not), but do you think the dissolution of marriage is on the rise due to a more church-centered, rather than Christ-centered ("grace") meaning of the sacrament?