By Bob Sullivan
Does the Church teach that a sacramental marriage is incomplete, unless the husband and wife consummate the marriage? A great way to explore this interesting question is to look at the Holy Family. If Mary remained a virgin perpetually, this would seem to suggest that consummation is not a basic requirement of an indissoluble marriage in the Catholic Church.
Paragraph 1640 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
Thus the marriage bond has been established by God himself in such a way that a marriage concluded and consummated between baptized persons can never be dissolved. This bond, which results from the free human act of the spouses and their consummation of the marriage, is a reality, henceforth irrevocable, and gives rise to a covenant guaranteed by God’s fidelity. The Church does not have the power to contravene this disposition of divine wisdom.
This even makes consummation sound more important, because it is something more powerful than the Church, which cannot dissolve or nullify a sacramental marriage which has also been consummated.
This is why most Christians and all Catholics have always believed that the formal marriage ceremony is one thing, but without consummation, it is at best, an incomplete bond.
We know that St. Joseph and the Virgin Mary never consummated their marriage. Does this mean that Christ’s earthly parents were not actually married?
No. Mary and Joseph were actually and validly married. One key difference between their marriage and marriage today is that they were not sacramentally married. Neither baptism nor sacramental marriage existed until about 30 years after Mary and Joseph were married. Until Christ instituted the sacraments of baptism (John 3:5) and marriage (Matt 19:6), marriage was, at best, a covenant. Today marriage is still a covenant, but it is also a sacrament if both parties are baptized and they have no impediment to marriage.
Christopher West, a gifted expert in St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, says that through the marriage vows, the spouses promise to share in the free, total, faithful, and fruitful love of God.
Quoting from St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, paragraph 1643 of the Catechism states:
“Conjugal love involves a totality, in which all the elements of the person enter - appeal of the body and instinct, power of feeling and affectivity, aspiration of the spirit and of will. It aims at a deeply personal unity, a unity that, beyond union in one flesh, leads to forming one heart and soul; it demands indissolubility and faithfulness in definitive mutual giving; and it is open to fertility. In a word it is a question of the normal characteristics of all natural conjugal love, but with a new significance which not only purifies and strengthens them, but raises them to the extent of making them the expression of specifically Christian values.”
The consent occurs when the man says, “I take you to be my wife,” and the woman says,”I take you to be my husband,” combined with the “I do” from each of them.
Mary and Joseph did not have to consummate their unique marriage to make it a valid marriage because they had given their free consent to marriage before the sacraments existed. It was that consent which validated their marital bond, not any need for consummation. In that consent was the free, total, faithful, and fruitful love of God and openness to life since both of them knew of her pregnancy at the time.
Of the many unique circumstances of their relationship, one of the most relevant for purposes of this issue is the fact that the father of Mary’s child was not St. Joseph. This was a very scandalous fact in human terms. Yet Mary and Joseph were both visited by angels and through those experiences, surrendered their full consent to their unique call to raise the child Jesus as husband and wife.
This is not simply an invention of the Catholic Church. Scripture also confirms that Mary and Joseph were husband and wife. (Matt 1:16, 18-20, 24; Luke 1:27; 2:5) We also hear the Church’s affirmation of this fact in the Eucharistic prayer during each Mass “and St. Joseph her spouse.”
Does this mean that every sacramental marriage must be consummated to be considered a valid marriage by the Catholic Church? In most cases, yes, but not without exceptions. There are marriages which are called Josephite marriages. In these marriages, the husband and wife enter into the marriage without planning to enter into conjugal relations. This isn’t something that should be done without extensive prayer, discussion, and consideration by both parties, but it is accepted by the Church.
However, even though the parties do not plan on conjugal relations at the time of their marriage, they still consent to conjugal relations if one or both of them change their minds at some point in the future. Therefore, their consent is still free, total, faithful, and fruitful.
When a baptized man and a baptized woman who have no impediments to marriage, validly exchange consent in the sacrament of marriage, they are validly married. Their marriage is said to be ratum, or ratified. If a couple chooses not to consummate the marriage, it is in the Latin ratum sed non consummatum, “ratified but not consummated.” The couple is validly married, but the marriage is not indissoluble.