Marriage: Contract vs. Sacrament

The Norwegian novelist, Sigrid Undset (1882-1949), baptized a Lutheran but raised by agnostic parents, and who emerged from a difficult seven-year marriage at age thirty-seven, converted to Catholicism in 1924. In 1928, she received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Shortly after, a priest in Oslo asked her why, even before her conversion, she had referred to marriage as a “sacrament” in her novels of medieval Norway, although for a Protestant marriage is only a contract.

She replied that this would require a rather lengthy explanation, and she offered the explanation in an essay published in an Oslo Catholic magazine, Credo, which was later included as a chapter in her Stages on the Road (1934), and in 2006 reprinted in Through Moral Crises to Catholicism (Reply to a Parish Priest). with an Introduction by the late Fr. Stanley Jaki.

She writes that she had tended to regard all Christian marriage as having a sacramental character, but gradually came to realize this was not the case: 

It seemed to me and to many who shared my views that logically it must be a dogma common to all evangelical Christianity, that for Christians there could be no question of anything but lifelong, indissoluble monogamy as the only permissible form of marriage. But we were faced with the historical fact that all the founders of Protestant sects had agreed in throwing this dogma overboard. They had all accepted the view that in certain circumstances marriage may be dissolved and that divorced persons may marry again, even during the lifetime of their former partner. Luther had flirted freely with the idea of polygamy and permitted persons of rank at any rate to take a secondary wife.

As I have mentioned in a previous article, one of the “unnecessary” sacraments that Luther and other reformers abrogated in the name of Christian freedom was the sacrament of matrimony, which was relegated largely to civil law rather than Church law. In Catholic doctrine, this sacrament is conferred not by a priest, but by a man and woman in the presence of a priest; and, if and when they are in the state of grace, offers special graces to the couple for a lifelong relationship that mirrors the mystical wedding of Christ and the Church. (Eph. 5:32) Undset found it hard to believe that Protestants would give short shrift to this sacramental aspect and treat marriage just as one other contract subject to civil laws:

As a sacrament – a means of grace – marriage must have been instituted primarily to help people on the road to eternal salvation. On no other assumption is it at all likely that men could ever have claimed that it is, and must be, an indissoluble union, in which both parties in the first place undertake duties towards God, and towards each other in God. Even while the Church’s doctrine of marriage was held to be objectively true and right practically all over Europe, adultery was quite an everyday occurrence; but the Church could say with full justification – marriage is a means of grace, but if men refuse to co-operate with grace, it is no use; men have none the less their free will to sin.
            The Protestant reinterpretation of marriage, of course, was interconnected with the Protestant view downplaying mediation of God-given graces through the priesthood, as well as differing theological conceptions of grace and faith. Some of these differences have been resolved in ecumenical theological discussions during the last few decades; but the interpretation of Christian marriage still remains as a sharp difference. 

Sigrid Undset in 1928
            According to Catholic theology, Catholic married partners are not just two Christians joined in the pursuit of salvation for themselves and their offspring, but just like ordained priests, partake of special actual graces bestowing a supernatural character on the duties of their state of life.

Fr. Henry Sattler has explained that sacramental grace in marriage “is the special mode of Sanctifying Grace which makes the receiver a habitual connatural principle of supernatural action in Marriage which means that the love, and love-making, and housekeeping and work and worry of marriage are all deified.”

In other words, sacramental married life is not just a fulfillment of contractual arrangements, but a special vocation with supernatural assistance and supernatural significance provided continually to partners in the state of grace.

Theologians are divided as to just how the sacrament of marriage contains grace (ex opere operato). The sacrament of baptism frees the soul from original sin; the sacrament of Holy Orders bestows a special character on the recipient. If a partner with serious unconfessed sin enters into the sacrament of marriage, the act is sacrilegious; but confession and forgiveness of sin makes him or her eligible for all the graces connected with the marriage.

Sigrid Undset ends her essay with an appeal to fellow Catholics to be aware that European traditions, including traditions of marriage, have been derived from Catholic sources, but have in several respects evolved into pale imitations: 

My intention in writing this article is in the first place this – to beg Catholics, here in Scandinavia and elsewhere, to understand that it cannot be otherwise. We must try to make this clear to ourselves – we have no right to assume that any part of European tradition, cultural values, moral ideas, emotional wealth, which has its origin in the dogmatically defined Christianity of the Catholic Church, will continue to live a “natural” life, if the people of Europe reject Christianity and refuse to accept God’s supernatural grace. One might just as well believe that a tree whose roots were severed should continue to bear leaves and blossoms and fruit.

Sigrid Undset presumably was not yet caught up in the social currents advocating gay “marriage” and polygamy, but if marriage is just a contract, such developments are quite conceivable. If, however, marriage is a sacrament mirroring and perpetuating the eternal espousal of Christ and the Church, such “extensions” are clearly sacrilegious.


Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.

  • TJ Burdick

    After reading your post, I’m reminded of Pope Pius XI’s encyclical on Christian Marriage (CASTI CONNUBII). Great and very thorough defense of the sanctity of marriage on this post.

  • Br. David Minot OSB, STL

    Dear Dr. Kainz,
    Thank you very much for this article, especially the stress on marriage not being a mere contract. FANTASTIC! Quite true, that if marriage were really just a contract and nothing more, there shouldn’t be a big fuss over the extensions which you mention. As we know, or at least should, marriage is certainly much more than a contract.

    There is one element in your article which I regret to point out is not completely accurate. Unfortunately in the space of this comment, it’s not possible to provide a detailed reasoning. The Magisterium has not made a pronouncement on who the minister of the Sacrament of Marriage is. Is the minister the priest or the couple themselves? There is NO doctrinal answer, rather there are ONLY theological opinions. In regards to the actual practice of the Sacrament of Matrimony coupled with all the possibilities for a valid marriage, there are problems with BOTH opinions.

    The main issue with the couple “dispensing” the Sacrament to themselves, is that it is a general logical principle that one cannot give himself a Sacrament. The priest cannot absolve himself, cannot anoint himself. Why then is it possible for a married couple to give themselves a Sacrament? It doesn’t make sense. Also, while true that the Sacramental Grace given in the Sacrament of Matrimony is conferred and received on each person, it is there because of the bond that they have; the bond is sanctified and from this sanctification grace pours out to the couple.

    It is clear that there is a strong tendency in the Latin Church to proclaim and assume that the couple dispenses the Sacrament to themselves. However this is NOT doctrine, but only an opinion. True, Canon Law leans in this direction. But with all due respect to Canon Law, it does not define doctrine. Itself has been written based upon doctrine.

    I wish it were possible to provide more information. But the comment section is certainly not the place for a doctrinal debate.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    The English judge, Lord Stowell, put it rather well, when he said that marriage is “a religious, as well a natural and civil, contract; for it is a great mistake to suppose that because it is the one, therefore it may not likewise be the other. Heaven itself is made a party to the contract and the consent of the individuals pledged to each other is ratified and consecrated by a vow to God.”

  • Manfred

    An excellent article, Howard! Many salient points comparing Protestantism v. Catholicism were made here. I read a survey recently that the younger the American, whatever the religious background, the more likely he/she was to accept same-sex “marriage”. I am inclined to think that after forty years of ecumenism, more Catholics, and others, are now comfortable with the more flaccid Protestant view of marriage rather than the rigorous Catholic understanding of marriage as a Sacrament. Perhaps part of the problem was that American Catholics were granted more annulments than the rest of the world combined! If it were not for the Grace of God being given to a few over the last fifty years, the Church would have disappeared years ago. Every day we hear/see that It largely has.

  • Grump

    If you want to know about love and marriage you would have to buy two different books.

    As Rodney Dangerfield put it:

    It’s tough to stay married. My wife kisses the dog on the lips, yet she won’t drink from my glass.

  • Howard Kainz

    @Brother David Minot, OSB: The Catholic Encyclopedia has a long article on the nature of the sacrament, but considers the following as rather indisputable: “From the earliest times this fundamental proposition has been upheld: Matrimonium facit consensus, i.e. Marriage is contracted through the mutual, expressed consent. Therein is contained implicitly the doctrine that the persons contracting marriage are themselves the agents or ministers of the sacrament. However, it has been likewise emphasized that marriage must be contracted with the blessing of the priest and the approbation of the Church, for otherwise it would be a source not of Divine grace, but of malediction. Hence it might easily be inferred that the sacerdotal blessing is the grace-giving element, or form of the sacrament, and that the priest is the minister. But this is a false conclusion.” The theological differences seem to hinge on the scholastic rubric of “matter and form” of the sacraments.

  • Br. David Minot OSB

    Thank you for your reply, Dr. Kainz! Quite true that the Catholic Encyclopedia states this and much more. No argument, and it all seems quite good, convincing, and end of the story. But, it’s still not a magisterial document. The question is quite complex and unpopular. Very unpopular at that. No one wants to even entertain the thought that perhaps the couple themselves are not the ministers of the Sacrament. Perhaps they are. But it doesn’t coincide with the rest of Sacramental Theology. A husband cannot give his wife something (or the contrary of course) when she isn’t yet his wife. As we say in French, un marriage ne peut pas boiter (a marriage cannot limp).

    I’m well aware that there many statements and documents pointing to the fact that the couple is the minister. Because of this, it has become to be believed and assumed to be the standard teaching of the Church. All I’m saying is that the Magisterium has not made a definitive pronouncement. The Orthodox on the contrary have done so. According to them, it’s 100% clear that the priest is the minister. For us aligned with Rome… We’re still waiting.

  • jason taylor

    A person’s word is always sacred.

  • Jon S.

    Re: the minister of Matrimony, see #1623 of The Catechism: the spouses are the ministers. Is not The Catechism a pronouncement of the Magisterium?

  • Randall

    Perhaps nobody will read this comment 3 days after the article was posted. But, I would like to strongly recommend reading Sigrid Undset – particularly her “Kristin Lavransdater” trilogy. I can’t imagine somebody like Undset winning the Nobel Prize for Literature nowadays.