Marriage an Integral Part of New Sacramental Economy

Author: Pope John Paul II

Marriage an Integral Part of New Sacramental Economy

Pope John Paul II


On Wednesday morning, 20 October, the Holy Father, in the customary general audience in St Peter's Square, continued his commentary on a passage from the Letter to the Ephesians.

1. Last Wednesday we spoke of the integral heritage of the covenant with God, and of the grace originally united to the divine work of creation. Marriage was also a part of this integral heritage—as can be deduced from the Letter to the Ephesians 5:21-33—marriage, that is, as a primordial sacrament instituted from the beginning and linked with the sacrament of creation in its globality. The sacramentality of marriage is not merely a model and figure of the sacrament of the Church (of Christ and of the Church). It also constitutes an essential part of the new heritage, that of the sacrament of redemption, with which the Church is endowed in Christ.

Here it is necessary yet again to refer to Christ's words in Matthew 19:3-9 (cf. also Mk 10:5-9). In replying to the question of the Pharisees concerning marriage, Christ refers only and exclusively to its original institution on the part of the Creator at the beginning. Reflecting on the significance of this reply in the light of the Letter to the Ephesians, and in particular of Ephesians 5:21-33, we end up with a relationship—in a certain sense twofold—of marriage with the whole sacramental order which, in the new covenant, emerges from the same sacrament of redemption.

2. Marriage as a primordial sacrament constitutes, on the one hand, the figure (the likeness, the analogy), according to which there is constructed the basic main structure of the new economy of salvation and of the sacramental order. This order draws its origin from the spousal gracing which the Church received from Christ, together with all the benefits of redemption (one could say, using the opening words of the Letter to the Ephesians, "with every spiritual blessing"—1:3). In this way marriage, as a primordial sacrament, is assumed and inserted into the integral structure of the new sacramental economy, arising from redemption in the form, I would say, of a "prototype." It is assumed and inserted as it were from its very bases. In conversation with the Pharisees, Christ himself first of all reconfirmed its existence (Mt 19:3-9). Reflecting deeply on this dimension, one would have to conclude that in a certain sense all the sacraments of the new covenant find their prototype in marriage as the primordial sacrament. This seems to be indicated in the classic passage quoted from the Letter to the Ephesians, as we shall say again soon.

3. However, the relationship of marriage with the whole sacramental order, deriving from the endowment of the Church with the benefits of the redemption, is not limited merely to the dimension of model. In his conversation with the Pharisees (cf. Mt 19), Christ confirms the existence of marriage instituted from the beginning by the Creator. Not only that, he declares it also an integral part of the new sacramental economy, of the new order of salvific signs which derives its origin from the sacrament of redemption, just as the original economy emerged from the sacrament of creation. In fact, Christ limited himself to the unique sacrament which was marriage instituted in the state of innocence and of original justice of man, created male and female "in the image and likeness of God."

4. The new sacramental economy which is constituted on the basis of the sacrament of redemption, deriving from the spousal gracing of the Church on the part of Christ, differs from the original economy. Indeed, it is directed not to the man of justice and original innocence, but to the man burdened with the heritage of original sin and with the state of sinfulness (status naturae lapsae). It is directed to the man of the threefold concupiscence, according to the classic words of 1 John 2:16, to the man in whom "the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh" (Gal 5:17), according to the Pauline theology (and anthropology), to which we have devoted much space in our previous reflections.

5. These considerations, following upon a deeper analysis of the significance of Christ's statement in the Sermon on the Mount concerning the lustful look as adultery of the heart,  prepare for an understanding of marriage as an integral part of the new sacramental order. This order has its origin in the sacrament of redemption, that is to say, in that great mystery which, as the mystery of Christ and of the Church, determines the sacramentality of the Church itself. These considerations also prepare for an understanding of marriage as a sacrament of the new covenant, whose salvific work is organically linked with the ensemble of that ethos which was defined in the previous analyses as the ethos of redemption. The Letter to the Ephesians expresses the same truth in its own way. It speaks of marriage as a great sacrament in a wide parenetic context, that is, in the context of exhortations of a moral nature. It concerns precisely the ethos which should characterize the life of Christians, that is, of people aware of the election which is realized in Christ and in the Church.

6. Against this vast background of reflections which emerge from reading the Letter to the Ephesians (especially 5:21-33), one can and should eventually touch again the problem of the sacraments of the Church. The text cited from the Letter to the Ephesians speaks of it in an indirect and, I would say, secondary way, though sufficient to bring this problem within the scope of our considerations. However, it is fitting to clarify here, at least briefly, the sense in which we use the term "sacrament," which is significant for our considerations.

7. Until now we have used the term "sacrament" (in conformity with the whole of biblical-patristic tradition)(1) in a sense wider than that proper to traditional and contemporary theological terminology. By the word "sacrament" this terminology means the signs instituted by Christ and administered by the Church, which signify and confer divine grace on the person who receives the relative sacrament. In this sense each of the seven sacraments of the Church is characterized by a determinate liturgical action, made up of words (the form) and the specific sacramental "matter"—according to the widespread hylomorphic theory deriving from Thomas Aquinas and the whole scholastic tradition.

8. In relationship to this rather restricted meaning, we have used in our considerations a wider and perhaps also more ancient and fundamental meaning of the term "sacrament."(2) The Letter to the Ephesians, especially 5:21-33, seems in a particular way to authorize us to do so. Here sacrament signifies the very mystery of God, which is hidden from eternity; however, not in an eternal concealment, but above all, in its very revelation and actuation (furthermore, in its revelation through its actuation). In this sense we spoke also of the sacrament of creation and of the sacrament of redemption. On the basis of the sacrament of creation, one must understand the original sacramentality of marriage (the primordial sacrament). Following upon this, on the basis of the sacrament of redemption one can understand the sacramentality of the Church, or rather the sacramentality of the union of Christ with the Church. The author of the Letter to the Ephesians presents this under the simile of marriage, of the conjugal union of husband and wife. A careful analysis of the text shows that in this case, it is not merely a comparison in a metaphorical sense, but of a real renewal (or of a "re-creation," that is, of a new creation) of that which constituted the salvific content (in a certain sense, the "salvific substance") of the primordial sacrament. This observation has an essential significance both for the clarification of the sacramentality of the Church (the very significant words of the first chapter of Lumen Gentium refer to this), and also for the understanding of the sacramentality of marriage, understood precisely as one of the sacraments of the Church.


1) Cf. Leo XIII, Acta, Vol. II, 1881, p. 22.

2) In this regard, cf. discourse at the general audience of September 8, 1982, note 1 (English edition, 13 September, p.2, 1982, p. 2).

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
25 October 1982, page 3

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