Fr. Thomas Crean

The below talk was presented by Fr. Thomas Crean at the 2019 Roundtower Association Conference on the Catholic Family.

What is Marriage and how is it ordered to the Holy Eucharist according to St Thomas Aquinas?

St Thomas Aquinas was a thirteenth-century Dominican friar and priest who has in a unique way been held up by the Church as a guide for understanding and explaining the revealed truths that come to us from Christ and the apostles. Not the least important among these truths are those pertaining to matrimony and to the Holy Eucharist. In summarising St Thomas’s teaching about marriage and its relation to the Holy Eucharist I shall not say anything especially new, and indeed much of my talk may appear to some of you to be somewhat obvious. I make no apology for this, however, since especially in the time in which we live there is often great value in stating obvious truths. To quote some words often attributed to the novelist George Orwell, though probably never used by him, “in a time of universal deceit, to tell the truth is a revolutionary act” – or, as I should prefer to say, a counter-revolutionary act.

In a long book called the Summa contra Gentiles, a defence of Catholic truth against Muslims, Jews, heretics, and pagan philosophers of every kind, St Thomas Aquinas tells us that marriage may be considered in three ways, namely as what he calls an office or duty of nature, as a civil or political reality, and as a sacrament of the Church. I want to follow his example by considering marriage on these three levels, that is, as a natural reality, as a political reality, and, at least between the baptised, as a holy sacrament.

In calling marriage an office of nature, St Thomas means first of all there is imprinted within the mind of man a conviction that it is good that the human race should continue, rather than becoming extinct. Secondly, he means that human beings are such that this perpetuation of the human species requires the existence of marriage. Why is this? For the human race to continue, it is not sufficient that new human beings should be born, but necessary also that they be raised to maturity of body and mind, that is to say, nourished and educated. Since the raising of human beings to maturity is a long and difficult process which therefore cannot be left to chance, nature herself demands that it be accepted as a duty by some definite persons, and it is plain that this duty devolves in the first place to those people who have procreated a new life, which is nature implants within their hearts a love of their offspring. Since the work of raising offspring to maturity is also very burdensome, it is also necessary, to ensure that this work will not be shirked, that each of those two people who procreates a new life first manifest to the other person the firm intention of co-operating with that other person to raise their joint offspring. This mutual promise of fidelity in the work of procreation and education of offspring is the contract which in English we call marriage.

As being thus an office of nature, that is, something which nature herself requires, marriage is older than and superior to all merely human law. By divine revelation we know that marriage is in fact as old as the human race. Hence St Thomas writes: “Matrimony as directed to the begetting of children, which was necessary even when there was no sin, was instituted before sin” (Supplement 42, 2), that is to say, in paradise. The Church also in the blessing given to a bride in the nuptial Mass refers to marriage as the one blessing of God that was neither lost by the Fall nor washed away by the Flood. Yet even without the help of divine revelation we could know that marriage is necessary to human society, and hence that human law-givers, whose authority exists, like all authority, only for the good of the society which they govern, have no power to determine what marriage is or whether it should or should not exist. Hence the great pagan philosopher Aristotle noted that human being form couples more naturally than they form cities, the household, he says, being prior to the city (Nicomachean Ethics, VIII.12). The essence of marriage being fixed by nature herself, human law-givers who claim power to change that essence, for example legislating that men may henceforth marry men, or other animals, or trees, or themselves, cut as ridiculous a figure as people would who claimed to alter the laws of geometry or to abolish the past. Nothing which is impossible can be the object of a rational promise, and since it is impossible that any should procreate but a man and a woman, only a man and a woman can rationally promise fidelity in the mutual work of procreation, that is, only a man and woman can marry.

From its primary purpose, the suitable begetting and raising of children for the continuance of the human race, St Thomas deduces the properties of marriage, still considered as an office of nature. The first property is unity, that is, its existing between one man and one woman, not between one man and several women or one woman and several men. As regards the latter possibility, of one woman having several husbands, Aquinas affirms that no law has ever permitted this, even among the pagans. The reason, he says, is that such an arrangement would make the paternity of the offspring uncertain, which is contrary to a man’s natural desire to know who his children are. Polygyny, on the other hand, that is, one man’s having several wives, does not make the parentage of the children doubtful, and hence has been sanctioned by various human laws: nevertheless, Aquinas considers it to be irrational, for several reasons. First, it tends to make it too difficult for the father to show the proper concern for his offspring, as he would be liable to have too many of them, if he had several wives; secondly, it takes away from the woman the freedom of associating with her husband which a spouse naturally desires to have; thirdly, and as a consequence, it introduces an unjust inequality into the marriage. For since, as we have just seen, it is unlawful for a woman to have many husbands, if it were permitted a man to have many wives, the proper equality between them would be removed. This in turn would harm the friendship that should be between a husband and wife, since friendship, says Aquinas, “consists in a certain equality”. This argument, he says, is borne out by experience, since, he writes, “among husbands having several wives, the wives have a status like that of servants” (SCG III, 124). Here he is presumably thinking of Muslims.

We should nevertheless note in passing that for Aquinas the proper equality of husband and wife doesn’t exclude the husband’s having a certain authority over his wife. This is the doctrine of the husband as the head of the family, a doctrine often taught in the New Testament. Even in paradise, St Thomas holds, this relationship of headship existed in Adam with respect to Eve, although as he also explains, it was not and is not the authority of a master over a servant but rather of one free person in regard to another (1a 92, 2).

The other property belonging to marriage even considered as an office of nature, not yet as a sacrament, is its indissolubility. Here again Aquinas puts forward several arguments from reason to explain what we have also been told by divine revelation, namely that human beings do not have the power to break a marital bond which they have freely contracted. The first is that a man has a natural desire that his son should inherit from him, the father thus as it were continuing to live on in his descendants. The resulting solicitude, he says, which the father has until the end of his life for his children requires that he continue to dwell with their mother until the end, presumably because otherwise he would be liable to contract new interests which would interfere with the proper exercise of his paternal instinct.

The second reason why divorce is contrary to natural law is that it would cause injustice to women. In an unsentimental but not unrealistic description of the motives of matrimony, he writes that a woman seeks a husband to have the protection of his greater strength, while the man takes a wife to raise up offspring, attracted by her fecundity and beauty. If then, he says, “someone took a wife in the time of her youth, when she had her fecundity and her beauty, and could send her away when she was advanced in age, he would do harm to his wife, contrary to natural justice” (SCG III, 123). His argument is once again based on the idea of marriage as a friendship: it would be unfitting, he thinks, for the wife to send away her husband, as she has put herself under his protection; but if the husband could send away his wife if she ceased to please him, theirs would no longer be a society of equals, that is, of friends, but would rather involve slavery on the part of the wife. This too would be irrational. As he puts it:

The greater a friendship is, the more solid and long-lasting will it be. Now, there seems to be a very great friendship between husband and wife, for they are united not only in the act of carnal union, something which leads to a kind of pleasant association even among the beasts, but also in the whole partnership of their home life; and as a sign of this, a man leaves even his father and mother for the sake of his wife, as is said in Genesis 2. Therefore, it is fitting for matrimony to be completely indissoluble.

Elsewhere he remarks that the words in Genesis 2, A man shall leave father and mother and shall cleave to his wife were uttered by the first man prophetically: “As to Adam's words”, he say, “he uttered them inspired by God to understand that the institution of marriage was from God” (Supplement, 42, 2 ad 4).

St Thomas also gives other reasons why divorce tends to harm the relations between the sexes and between families.  He points out that “when they know that they are indivisibly united, the love of one spouse for the other will be more faithful” (SCG III, 123). Again, he says, both spouses “will take greater care of their domestic possessions when they keep in mind that they will remain continually in possession of these same things” (ibid.). Likewise, marriage’s indissolubility helps to preserve harmony in the wider society. “The sources of disagreements which would inevitably arise between a man and his wife’s relatives, if he could put away his wife, are removed, and a more solid affection is established among the relatives” (ibid.). Finally, he observes the temptations to adultery which the possibility of divorce would offer,  are removed, when no man can send away his wife and no woman her husband (ibid.). For all these reasons, there is a natural instinct that marriage is something permanent (ibid.).

So much for marriage as an office of nature. Aquinas’s second way of considering it, as I mentioned at the start, is as a political good. What has marriage to do with politics? He points out that human procreation exists not only to continue the human race as one species among others, but also “for the perpetuity of some political good, such as the perpetuity of a people in some state” (SCG IV, 78). It is good not only that the human race continue to exist, but also that Ireland or England or France continue to exist. Since marriage is the only institution by which this goal can be suitably achieved, it is necessary that the laws of each land concern themselves with it. It is all the more necessary, since the natural instinct implanted in the heart of man which tells him about the properties of marriage is like other good instincts something which can fail in practice to guide human behaviour, especially under the press of strong emotions. This instinct therefore needs to be seconded by laws (SCG III, 123).

Hence the fact that civil rulers are rightly interested in marriage does not mean, as I have already said, that they may take it upon themselves to seek to change the essence or properties of marriage, an undertaking in any case as pointless as trying to change the essence or properties of fire or water. It means on the contrary that they should articulate this essence and these properties in written laws. It also means that civil rulers should foster marriage, for example by offering economic incentives to marry. Again, provided that this does not interfere with the rights of the Church, the law can require certain conditions to be fulfilled for a marriage to take place, such as the couple’s exchanging their consent not in secret but before a publicly appointed officer.

St Thomas also remarks that the law of the land is rightly concerned with what he calls the friendship and mutual services which the spouses render to each other (Supplement, 42, 2), since these, as have seen, are of importance to society. One might conclude that he would have approved for example of laws against one spouse deserting another, or of laws that exist or have existed in certain countries saying that spouses cannot be obliged to testify against each other in court, or cannot be obliged to disclose confidential communications made between them.

St Thomas does not say much more about this idea of marriage as a political good, but in light of recent events in this country and in others, it is worth recalling his general teaching that measures which are enacted contrary to natural law do not themselves have the force of law. So in his greatest work, the Summa Theologiae, he writes as follows:

Laws may be unjust through being opposed to the divine good. Such are the laws of tyrants inducing to idolatry, or to anything else contrary to the divine law; and laws of this kind must in no way be observed, because, as stated in Acts 5:29, “we ought to obey God rather than man” (1a 2ae 96 4).

Such would be the case of a so-called law obliging registrars to witness so-called marriages between two people of the same sex, or again, a so-called law requiring a chemist to sell the morning-after pill. People in such situations are called on to imitate the example of the apostles, obeying God rather than men, and God will reward them for their fidelity.

This brings us to the third way in which Aquinas regards marriage, namely as a religious office. This is in fact its greatest excellence. Marriage is not only a natural good, instituted as it were by nature herself as the only reliable means to perpetuate the human race; it is not only a political good, legislated for by temporal rulers in order to preserve the stability of their realms; it is a religious good by which the full number of the saints is made up from one generation to the next until the ending of the world. Even before the incarnation, marriage had as its highest goal to multiply worshippers of the true God, which is why the Jews were forbidden from marrying pagans, lest their children should fall into false religions. Now that our Lord has come and brought the Kingdom of God to earth, marriage must build up this Kingdom by multiplying children of men who can become children of God by holy baptism. Since it has now been given so worthy a goal, Jesus Christ has given a greater dignity to marriage, making it, when contracted between two of His people, into a sacrament, or more precisely into one of the seven sacraments of the New Law.

What is meant by this phrase, “the sacraments of the New Law”? We use this phrase to distinguish the sacraments of Christ, which we are available to us, from the sacraments contained in the Old Law, that is, the Law of Moses. The sacraments of the Law of Moses were certain ceremonies given to the Jews by God, by which the Jews professed their faith in the Messiah who was to come, thus keeping that faith alive. For example, by eating the passover Lamb each year, the Jews were professing, whether they knew it or not, their faith in the Lamb of God who would one day come and suffer for the sins of the people. However, the rituals within the Law of Moses, though given to the people by God, did not have any power to sanctify the souls of those who performed them. They were sacraments of a kind, since they were signs of sacred things, but they were empty sacraments, since they contained no grace. Hence St Paul writing to the Galatians goes so far as to speak of those Jewish rituals, which he himself had once practised fervently but which had now passed away, as ‘weak and beggarly’ things (Gal. 4:9).

The sacraments of the New Law, by contrast, are sacraments full of grace. They were instituted by Christ Himself, in whom dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, as channels by which grace would flow from His sacred Heart into all who believe in Him. The seven sacraments of the New Covenant make those who receive them worthily into members of Christ’s mystical body and thus co-heirs with Him of eternal life.

Christian Marriage is one of these seven sacraments. This means first, as I have already said, that it promotes in some way the worship of the true God. Hence St Thomas writes:

Matrimony, insofar as it consists in the union of a man and woman who have the purpose of procreating and educating offspring for the worship of God, is a sacrament of the Church; hence, also, a certain blessing on those marrying is given by the ministers of the Church (SCG IV, 78).

Notice, however, that the priest who confers this blessing is not himself administering the sacrament. The bridegroom and the bride are themselves the ministers which God uses to bring about this sacrament. Just as in baptism, the pouring of the water is an instrument which God uses to infuses grace into the soul of the one baptised, so in marriage, the union which the man and woman effect by their consent to each other is the instrument which God uses to unite them to each other as Christian spouses within the body of Christ. And just as the priest is able at baptism by himself to pour the water and to speak the necessary words, so at marriage the bride and groom are sufficient by themselves to bring into existence the marriage bond which God will use to give to them His grace. As St Thomas puts it: “In matrimony our acts [that is, the acts of bride and groom] are sufficient to produce the immediate effect, which is the marriage bond; for whoever has the right to dispose of himself can bind himself to another person” (Supplement, 45, 5). This explains how the bride and groom themselves are the ministers of the sacrament, while the blessing of the priest is something added to it.

All of this of course presupposes that the marriage is between two people who are baptised, and that it is a lawful one. A marriage between two unbaptised people, or even between one baptised and one unbaptised person, can be a marriage in the eyes of God, but it is not one of the sacraments of Christ. Again, a Catholic who tries to marry without the blessing of the Church, for example in a registry office or without permission in some non-Catholic service, does not succeed in contracting any kind of marriage in the eyes of God, neither a sacramental one nor even a merely natural one. As the French proverb says, Noblesse oblige. Those who have the honour to belong to the true Church of Jesus Christ thereby incur certain obligations which others do not have. One of these is the obligation, if they marry at all, to marry with the blessing of the Church.

Like all the sacraments of the New Law, St Thomas tells us, Christian marriage is at once a remedy and a sign. I want to consider both of these things in turn, marriage as remedy and marriage as sign.

Why does the angelic doctor say that the sacraments have been given to us as remedies? Just as our bodies may grow sick and need a variety of interventions and medications, so it is with our souls. The sicknesses of the soul come from sin, both original and actual. Only God who created our soul from nothing when we were in our mother’s womb is able to devise remedies which can heal it of its varied ills. One of the wounds which human nature bears as a result of Adam’s sin is what is called concupiscence. Concupiscence means some kind of disordered desire for sensual pleasure, disordered either because it aims at things which should not be sought at all, or because it seeks lawful things in the wrong way or to the wrong degree. Concupiscence manifests itself not exclusively but nevertheless especially in the realm of sexual desire. One of the reasons, then, why God has raised marriage among Christians to the dignity of a sacrament is to provide the faithful with a remedy against concupiscence. St Thomas does not consider marriage to be the only such remedy, or even in itself to be the most powerful one: he holds that a more powerful weapon against concupiscence is furnished by prayer and penitential works, as practised for example in the religious life (Supplement, 42, 3 ad 3). However, he recognises that not everyone is suited to the religious life, or more generally to celibacy (SCG III 136), and for such people, he says, marriage is a divinely granted remedy against the concupiscence which otherwise could easily lead people into grave sin, and thus jeopardise their salvation.

According to Aquinas, marriage is such a remedy in two ways. First, the divine grace which the sacrament of marriage infuses into the soul checks concupiscence at its root, lessening its influence over the mind. So he writes: “Just as the baptismal water by virtue of its contact with Christ's body {a reference to our Lord’s baptism in the river Jordan} is able to ‘touch the body and cleanse the heart’ so is matrimony able to do this through Christ having represented it by His Passion” (Supplement, 42, 3). Secondly, by providing the only context in which sexual desire may be used in a way that accords with reason, marriage trains this desire, so to speak, turning it away from unlawful and unreasonable ends, and directing it to lawful ones (ibid. ad 4). Notice that Aquinas does not say simply that a married person has a way to get rid of concupiscence without sinning, as if marriage were like a dumping-ground where one could dispose of one’s unwanted rubbish without being prosecuted; he says that marriage offers a way of exercising desire virtuously. Thus, the married couple who enjoy normal conjugal relations while subordinating these to the intention of raising up children for the greater glory of God are practising the virtues of chastity and religion, among others.

Again, although Aquinas limits himself to speaking of concupiscence, that is, to disordered desire of the senses, his reasoning can be applied more generally to selfishness of all kinds. The tendency to refer all things to ourselves rather than ourselves and all other creatures to God is perhaps the deepest of the wounds of original sin. Marriage is one remedy against this wound, for the reasons that St Thomas mentions in connexion with the more specific case of concupiscence. First, that is, the grace of God which every sacrament bestows is already a powerful blow against excessive self-love. Secondly, the repeated daily acts of consideration for the needs and desires of another person which marriage renders necessary build up habits of selflessness, since, as our author says quoting Aristotle, “actions cause dispositions of the soul which resemble them” (Supplement 42, 3 ad 4). “Now we must help each other get to heaven”. So spoke Blessed Charles of Austria, the last Emperor, in October 1911, on the day after his marriage to the Empress Zita. Christian marriage not only creates this obligation to help one’s spouse to get to heaven, but also furnishes at least some of the means by which to fulfil it.

For in fact, the word ‘remedy’, though it is the one which St Thomas took from his predecessors, does not quite do justice to his own view of marriage as a means of grace. Some of his contemporaries, such as St Albert, had suggested that the grace given by this sacrament, though sufficient to prevent the spouses from sinning. did not enable them to perform good works. St Thomas, despite venerating Albert as his teacher, considered this view unreasonable: on the contrary, he observes, “the same grace hinders sin and inclines to good, just as the same heat drives out cold and gives warmth” (Supplement 42, 3). Aquinas states his own position in these terms:

Whenever God gives someone the power to do a thing, He gives also the helps whereby the person may make a becoming use of that power. Therefore, since in matrimony a man receives by divine institution the power to associate with his wife for raising children, he also receives the grace without which he cannot becomingly do so (ibid.).

In other words, in every Christian marriage, God offers the spouses helps so that their ordinary duties to each other and to their children may become a way for them to merit an increase of divine grace in this life, and an increase of glory in the life to come.

Having spoken of Christian marriage as a remedy for sin and a means of grace, we should now consider it as being, like all the sacraments, a sign of something beyond itself. St Thomas observes that God gives us signs of spiritual realities because we are bodily creatures not angels, and hence we are incapable of perceiving spiritual truths directly (3a 61, 1). Like a good teacher, or rather, as the best of teachers, the Lord God stoops down to our level, and teaches us about Himself and His plans for us in ways that we can understand. What then is the great truth which He wishes to teach us by means of this sign which is Christian marriage? It is that which He had already suggested through the prophets under the Old Covenant, for example in Jeremiah 31:3: “The Lord hath appeared from afar to me. Yea, I have loved thee with everlasting love, therefore have I drawn thee, taking pity on thee.” Or again, Isaiah, 62:5: “For the young man shall dwell with the virgin, and thy children shall dwell in thee. And the bridegroom shall rejoice over the bride, and thy God shall rejoice over thee.” Almighty God desires an intimate union of love with each one of us; He loves each of us already with a love that is unique and personal. This is why His Son came into the world and purchased for Himself the Church as His bride, cleansing her, St Paul says, by the laver of water in the word of life (Eph. 5:26). Of this union between God and the soul, or between Christ and the Church, the sacrament of marriage is the most expressive of signs. St Thomas writes:

As in the other sacraments by the thing done outwardly a sign is made of a spiritual thing, so too in this sacrament by the union of husband and wife a sign of the union of Christ and the Church is brought about; in the Apostle’s words: “This is a great sacrament, but I speak in Christ and in the church” (SCG IV 78).

Elsewhere, as I’ve already mentioned in passing, Aquinas specifies that marriage is a sign of the charity of our Lord toward the Church in His passion and death. Answering the objection that marriage, being something pleasurable, cannot conform a Christian to Christ’s suffering, he says: “Although matrimony is not conformed to Christ's passion as regards pain, it is as regards charity, whereby He suffered for the Church who was to be united to Him as His spouse” (Supplement, 42, 1 ad 3). Of course St Thomas is not denying that marriage, like any state in life, has pains annexed to it: he is making the point that it is not these pains but rather the charity with which they are accepted which makes matrimony worthy to be made a sacrament, just as it was not the pains of Christ simply in themselves, but above all the charity by which He embraced them which has redeemed the world.

The two aspects of the sacrament of marriage which I have mentioned, namely its being a means of grace and its being a sign of something beyond itself, are closely related. Aquinas likes to say of the sacraments that they cause grace precisely insofar as they are signs. In the case of marriage, this means that husband and wife receive not just, so to speak, ‘grace in general’, but specifically the grace that is related to the union between Christ and the Church. He writes as follows:

Because the sacraments effect that of which they are signs, we must believe that in this sacrament a grace is conferred on those marrying, such that by this grace they belong to the union of Christ and the Church [ad unionem Christi et Ecclesiae pertineant]; this is most especially necessary to them, that they may so attend to fleshly and earthly things as not to be disunited from Christ and the Church (SCG IV 78).

What exactly does this mean, ‘to belong to the union of Christ and the Church’? It means that the grace of matrimony unites the spouses more closely to the Church as the bride of Christ, and to Christ as the bridegroom of the Church. Husband and wife receive the grace, if they do not obstruct it by sin, to see the other as a person loved by Christ, and the grace to love the other somewhat as Christ does. This gives them the power to accomplish even the most humble or mundane of matrimonial tasks in a way worthy of their dignity as children of God, recognising each other as fellow members of Him who said, As you did to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me. More immersed as married people are in the things of this world, and brought into close contact with each other’s infirmities of body and soul, this grace is for them, St Thomas says, most especially necessary.

The fact that a Christian husband and wife are a living image of the union of our Lord and His holy Church sheds a new light on properties which we have seen to belong to marriage by nature: its unity and its indissolubility. If Christian marriage exists between only one man and one woman this is not only for the reasons that we saw at the start in considering marriage as something natural, but also because Christ has but one Church. If Christ could have two churches, and not just one, then a Christian man could have two wives, but not otherwise. Again, if Christian marriage is indissoluble, this is not just because indissolubility is a property of all marriage, but also because Christ has promised to be with His Church always. If our Lord could divorce His Church and found a second one, then a Christian man could divorce his wife and marry again, but not otherwise. St Thomas putting these two properties together writes as follows:

The union of Christ and the Church is a union of one to one who is to be held forever. For there is one Church, as chapter 6 of the Canticle of Canticles says: One is My dove, My perfect one. And Christ will never be separated from His Church, for He Himself says in the last chapter of St Matthew, Behold I am with you all days even to the consummation of the world; and again, We shall be always with the Lord, as is said in 1 Thessalonians 4. Necessarily, then, matrimony as a sacrament of the Church is a union of one man to one woman who is to be held inseparably (SCG, IV, 78).

It would be easy to extend the scope of this comparison. The union of Christ and the Church is fruitful of new life, and therefore marriage exists for the propagation of new life. If Christ could sterilise the sacraments so that baptism, for example, no longer engendered grace in the soul, then a husband or wife could sterilise themselves or prevent the procreation of offspring by contraception, but not otherwise. If Christ could give His Church some alternative to baptism as a means of bringing new spiritual children to birth, then a husband and wife could lawfully have recourse to some alternative to the natural means of procreation, as happens with fertilization in vitro, but not otherwise. For as Aquinas puts it, “the union of husband and wife signifies the union of Christ and the Church, [and] the figure must correspond to that which it signifies” (ibid.).

I come now quite briefly to the final part of my talk, marriage as ordered to the Holy Eucharist. We do well to order all our life on earth to the Holy Eucharist, since a well-ordered life is by definition one in which private goods are directed toward more common goods: for example, a married man subordinates his personal preferences to the good of his family, while a family itself has to be ready to suffer privations for the good of the whole nation. But, as Aquinas put it, “the common spiritual good of the whole Church is contained substantially in the very sacrament of the Eucharist” (3a 65, 3 ad 1). That is, Christ Himself, God and man, is substantially present in the Blessed Sacrament, and He is the common good of the whole Church. One tabernacle, or one sacred host, is of more value than the whole world. Thus the great 20th century author John Tolkien, famous for his tales of Middle Earth, could write in a moving letter to his son: “Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. .... There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth” (Letter 43, 6th-8th March, 1941).

Yet if all our life here below finds its culmination in the Holy Eucharist, this is especially clear in regard to our sacramental life. Aquinas writes: “All the other sacraments seem to be ordained to this one as to their end” (3a 65, 3). How is this? He explains it for each sacrament in turn: holy orders makes a person able to consecrate the Eucharist; baptism makes a person able to receive it, while confirmation, he says, perfects someone so that they may not abstain from receiving Holy Communion out of fear. He seems, by the way, to take for granted the traditional order, by which a boy or girl is confirmed before receiving Holy Communion. Penance and extreme unction, on the other hand, take away sins or the weaknesses left behind by sin, so that we may receive Christ in Holy Communion more worthily. What of matrimony? St Thomas speaks somewhat more hesitantly here, since he is clearly not going to say that marriage in itself is directed towards the reception or the consecration of the Holy Eucharist, or else why would celibacy be so closely linked to the priesthood? And so he says simply: “Matrimony at least by its signification, touches this sacrament insofar as it signifies the conjunction of Christ and the Church, the Church having her unity represented through the sacrament of the Eucharist.” That is to say, just as Holy Communion makes the Church one, Christian marriage represents the joining together of Christ with His one Church.

Pope John Paul II, in his letter Familiaris consortio, speaks in a somewhat similar way when explaining why Catholics who have been divorced and civilly re-married may not receive Holy Communion: apart from the general reason that any serious sin prevents a Catholic from receiving Holy Communion, there is also, the pope said, a special reason in this case, namely that “their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist” (FC 84). In other words, a divorced and re-married person who comes forward to receive Holy Communion is doing one thing by his life and another, incompatible thing by receiving the sacrament: denying the indissoluble union of Christ and the Church by his life while acting as if to build up this union by his reception. It is as if a man should come forward for baptism while still employed by a Freemasonic lodge: he would be doing one thing by his life, and another incompatible one by receiving the sacrament, and hence he would receive it to no avail, and in fact, sacrilegiously. If he changes his life, then he’ll be able to receive the sacrament for his health and not for his harm.

Finally, those who receive the sacrament of Christian marriage worthily and live out its demands faithfully, are by that very fact sanctified, as we have seen, and thereby made able to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion with ever greater benefit. While being frank about the obstacles which the married state can easily pose to the spiritual life, such as the need for a greater solicitude about the passing things of this world, St Thomas teaches that our Lord, who blessed marriage by attending with the Blessed Virgin the wedding at Cana, has provided for His sons and daughters who marry the possibility of overcoming these obstacles. With the wound of concupiscence slowly healed by sacramental grace, with domestic life available as a school of unselfishness, fed wherever possible by the Bread of Life, and entering ever more deeply by their imitation of it into the love between Christ and the Church, why should not the life of a married couple be also an intensely Eucharistic life? Pope John Paul II gave us the example of Luigi and Maria Quattrocchi, whom he declared blessed on October 21st, 2001, the first married couple to be beatified in modern times. One of their four children, who had become a Trappist monk and a priest, recalled in his old age that his parents grew to have so great a love for the Blessed Sacrament that they would, though attending an early Mass together, only greet each other once they had received Holy Communion, as if to say that only then had their day truly begun. May Blessed Luigi and Blessed Maria intercede for all married couples, that they also may give to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament the first place in their lives.



Key to citations from St Thomas

SCGSumma contra Gentiles

Supplement – Supplement to the Summa Theologiae

Other quotations are taken from the Summa Theologiae