I officiate a lot of weddings. Most of them are sacramental; others probably are not. According to the church, all of them are sacramental because I follow the form for marriage promulgated by the institution after the bride and groom complete obligatory requisites. Some couples are genuinely interested in the sacramental preparation and intently desirous of entering a sacramental union while others view the process as a perfunctory hoop jumping exercise to attain a church wedding and gain the ecclesial seal of approval. In most cases, it is immensely clear to me, and every other witness, that the union is a sacred affair.
As you and I also realize, there are many marriages equally sacred in the eyes of God, which do not follow the sacramental form of our church. Though the institutional church does not view them as sacramental, it cannot judge their sacredness. Every priest could point to numerous examples of blessed unions that have not be sanctified by the ecclesial institute; likewise, we could point to numerous examples of marriages sanctioned by the church that mock and ridicule the sacrament of holy matrimony.
A brief history of marriage in the church reveals that, for the first several hundred years, its sacramental status was a non-issue. Two thousand years ago, marriage was primarily seen as an economic contract as Jewish and early Christian cultures sought to ensure stability and prosperity via marriage and family life. Though some early Christians requested clerics to witness their nuptial exchange, it was not common to have clergy present at wedding ceremonies until the 9th Century. Though at the 5th Century Council of Florence, the phrase “Christ and His bride” was used to metaphorically signify the sacramental aspect of marriage, marriage was not officially declared to be a sacrament until the 12th Century Council of Verona. As Christianity expanded during the Middle Ages (5th-15th Centuries), there are numerous accounts of Christian leaders who practiced polygamy until it was banned in the 8th Century. Only in the 16th Century Council of Trent, did the sacrament of marriage become part of canon law with conditions of validity that included a priest and two witnesses. Prior to that, in the Roman Empire and European territories, public magistrates were chief officiants for marital unions. Because they could not get to every countryside hinterland or backwater boondocks, they requested assistance from clerics serving those areas to witness and record the unions. The church began to put its seal of approval upon the civil unions and create standards and conditions for them to be sacraments of holy matrimony as it became the seventh of our seven sacraments.
Though most, if not all, dioceses in the United States require marriage ceremonies and other sacraments to take place in a church or designated sacred place, this is a relatively new development. Jesus, of course, was baptized in a river, not a church; and the wedding feast of Cana is more likely to have occurred in a tent than a temple. The sacraments are always evolving; and though the church has regulations that determine whether they qualify as sacred, we realize that their true level of sanctity is known by the couple and by God. Through the marriage preparation process, many engaged couples come to realize that the hand of God is what brought them together and that the grace of God is what will sustain them all the days of their life.
Some church leaders wish that we had never gotten into the marriage business—primarily because it is accompanied by divorce and other murky issues that paint us into a corner where we are viewed as judgmental, arrogant, or self-righteous. The church cannot afford to possess these attitudes any more than we already do. I am sorry for those who have been hurt by the church because we impose regulations that make it difficult for them to come to us for marriage. I am sorry for those who endure bad marriages and those who have divorced and subsequently feel ostracized by the church. At the same time, I believe that the church’s desire to help bride and groom recognize God as the center of their relationship is an important pursuit. It gifts young couples with a divine grace to accompany them beyond the wedding and throughout their marriage. May God bless the sanctity of all marriages.