Matrimony is usually defined as marriage or the state of being married, and sometimes as the ceremony of marriage. The word first appeared in Middle English sometime in the 14th century. It enters English through the Old French word matrimoignie, which comes from the Latin matrimonium. The root matr- is derived from the Latin word mater, for "mother"; the suffix - mony refers a state of being, a function, or a role. Therefore, matrimony is literally the state that makes a woman a mother. The term highlights the extent to which reproduction and childrearing are central to marriage itself. As the Code of Canon Law notes (Canon 1055), "The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring."
The Difference Between Matrimony and Marriage
Technically, matrimony is not simply a synonym for marriage. As Fr. John Hardon notes in his Modern Catholic Dictionary, matrimony "refers more to the relationship between husband and wife than to the ceremony or the state of marriage." That is why, strictly speaking, the Sacrament of Marriage is the Sacrament of Matrimony. Throughout the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Sacrament of Marriage is referred to as the Sacrament of Matrimony.
The term matrimonial consent is often used to describe the free willingness of a man and a woman to enter into marriage. This stresses the legal, contract or covenant aspect of marriage, which is why, besides being used to signify the Sacrament of Marriage, the term matrimony is still widely used today in legal references to marriage.
What Are the Effects of Matrimony?
Like all of the sacraments, matrimony provides a specific sacramental grace to those who take part in it. The venerable Baltimore Catechism describes the effects of matrimony, which that sacramental grace helps us to achieve, in Question 285, which is found in Lesson Twenty-second of the First Communion Edition and Lesson Twenty-sixth of the Confirmation Edition:
The effects of the Sacrament of Matrimony are: 1st, To sanctify the love of husband and wife; 2d, To give them grace to bear with each other's weaknesses; 3d, To enable them to bring up their children in the fear and love of God.
Is There a Difference Between Civil Matrimony and Holy Matrimony?
In the early 21st century, as legal efforts to redefine marriage to include unions between couples of the same sex increased throughout Europe and the United States, some have attempted to make a distinction between what they call civil matrimony and holy matrimony. In this view, the Church can determine what constitutes a sacramental marriage, but the state can define non-sacramental marriage.
This distinction rests on a misunderstanding of the Church's use of the term holy matrimony. The adjective holy simply refers to the fact that a marriage between two baptized Christians is a sacrament -- as the Code of Canon Law puts it, "a valid matrimonial contract cannot exist between the baptized without it being by that fact a sacrament." The underlying condition of marriage is no different between matrimony and holy matrimony because the fact of the matrimonial union between man and woman pre-dates legal definitions of marriage.
The state can acknowledge the reality of matrimony, and make laws that encourage couples to enter into marriage and grant them privileges for having done so, but the state cannot arbitrarily redefine marriage. As the Baltimore Catechism puts it (in Question 287 of the Confirmation Catechism), "The Church alone has the right to make laws concerning the Sacrament of marriage, though the state also has the right to make laws concerning the civil effects of the marriage contract."
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