There are few canons in the law of the Church which affect the faithful more than those on marriage. For the laity in particular, the norms relating to the sacrament of matrimony are of particular importance, not only when contemplating marriage, but also on those sad occasions when the wedding plans have not worked out as foreseen, the partners are no longer together, and an application has been presented for a declaration of nullity.

            Likewise, there are probably few canons which are so immersed in culture as those on marriage, with the possible exception of the ones relating to funerals and prayers for the dead. Because of the strong cultural content we find in marriages, it should not be surprising that Catholics in various parts of the world — while reading the same text — might understand it somewhat differently. In certain parts of the world, for instance, a person will marry the partner he thinks he loves. While in others, particularly where marriages are arranged and the spouses do not know each other beforehand, they learn to love the person they married. Which approach is preferable? No answer can be given to this question; either one could be correct within a given context.

            The law of the Church considers matrimonial consent to be a punctual moment, while in some parts of the world, in the minds of the people, it is something that grows and acquires its permanence only once a child — or even once a male child — has been born.

            I will never forget a moment, a number of years ago, when I was asked to celebrate Sunday Mass in a cathedral in a diocese in West Africa. There were some 2,000 persons at the Mass, many of whom had walked for more than an hour to attend the celebration. Yet, when it came time for Communion, only a handful of persons approached the altar. I was stunned, and asked the bishop after the Mass why the people did not go to Communion. He told me that it was because they were not married "according to the white man's customs." In many other parts of the world, people would simply not go to Church if they could not go to Communion. There, it was just the opposite. It was at that moment that I realized personally the importance of a cultural interpretation and application of the law.

            The canons of marriage have an added factor. Not only do they express the Church's legislation, but they also bring with them a centuries-old doctrine and theology. While it might be possible for canonists to agree generally on what the law itself says, it is not always an easy matter to have them agree on what the underlying doctrinal base implies. We must keep in mind, though, that there are very few dogmatic definitions relating to marriage. It follows that, with some notable exceptions, there are also very few matters found in Church teaching which have but one possible interpretation, leaving aside the very few passages of Sacred Scripture whose meaning has been authentically defined. We should not be surprised, then, that there are different ways of looking at the same reality; it is something like a glass of water which is either half full or half empty.

            Because we are dealing with a still relatively renewed theology of marriage arising from the teachings of the second Vatican Council, it is not surprising to find that the Council's passages are still interpreted in various ways. It is very difficult, indeed, to say that one and only one interpretation of a text is the true meaning of what was said. Rather, we are still deriving the "nova et vetera" from the various pronouncements. This is particularly true when we consider that the Council presented marriage, no longer in terms of the union of two bodies (i.e., the ius in corpus), but rather as the union of two persons. Of course, the person includes the body, but it also includes much more. Those who, in ages past, might have been able to provide for the physical union of the spouses, and thus were considered to be in a valid marriage, today might not be able to have the union of heart, mind, and affections that is to accompany marriage. It is not surprising, then, that a number of marriages are declared null today when, in former times, they would have been considered to be valid because the couple had lived together and had children,

            Not all the doctrinal expressions used by the Council have found their way into the 1983 Code. For instance, the current law makes no direct and explicit reference to "conjugal love". It does, however, use other terms taken from the Council, which many canonists would consider to integrate this notion. Words such as "bonum coniugum", "consortium', etc., are — to use Father Ladislas Orsy's term — seminal expressions which are like a seed sown, but which has not yet fully blossomed [1].

            When the Council texts are interpreted, there are two principal schools of thought. One would look at the documents cum Petro, the other would look at them sub Petro [2]. Since both tendencies are often found in same conciliar passages, no one can say that one school is totally correct, and the other totally wrong. Nor can anyone say that his or her interpretation of a given passage is the only legitimate one.

            The present work flows from this fascinating canonical situation. Two well-known canonists — both exceptional in their fields — have decided to enter into a debate on the meaning and pastoral consequences of the conciliar teachings and their integration into Church law. While the starting points are similar, the developments and the conclusions are, at times, rather different.

            Msgr. Cormac Burke, who until recently was a Prelate Auditor of the Tribunal of the Roman Rota, and now is stationed in Kenya, and Professor Rik Torfs, presently Dean of the Faculty of Canon Law at the Catholic University at Leuven, have agreed to present their somewhat divergent views so that both sides of the coin can be examined carefully.

            They graciously asked me to prepare the introduction to this work and then to add a conclusion, summing up the various perspectives. In a "moment of weakness" I said "yes", because both of them have so much to offer to the Church. But, when I read the two sets of texts, I realized that the task was not to be an easy one. There are good and solid arguments on both sides. Both writers, in one way or another, are well aware of Pope John Paul II's call to develop "solid rotal jurisprudence" in regard to canons which have been formulated in a generic way and which translate into juridical terms principles deriving from the natural law (Rotal address of 1984). Of course, it is well known that there is not one — and only one — approach adopted even within the Roman Rota. As elsewhere in the Church, there are varying tendencies found in the decisions, and, to a certain extent, the outcome of a case depends on the personality of the judges who are examining the acts.

            This work is based on the 1983 Code of Canon Law for the Latin Church. It makes no reference to the Code of Canons for the Eastern Churches. In some regards, this is disappointing since the arguments put forward are often based on the wording of the Latin canons; however, we must recognize that the Eastern wording of the same principles is sometimes different. This is particularly true when considering both the nature of Christian marriage and the object of matrimonial consent. Since both Codes were issued by the same Roman Pontiff, and are binding of the faithful to whom they are addressed, we must recognize that they express different ways of looking at the same truth. For this reason, it would be wrong to state that the "Latin" approach is the only correct or acceptable one. This takes on particular importance in a country where many Catholics belong to one or other of the Eastern Churches and where inter-ritual marriages are somewhat common occurrences [3].

            Likewise, I draw the reader's attention to the fact that no mention is made of canon 1096 on ignorance, although this canon, because of its insistence on due knowledge of the consortium, entails much for the study of personalism in a world that is becoming more and more secularized and depersonalized.

            This work can be read from either a theoretical perspective, or from a more concrete pastoral one. Obviously, one does not contradict the other. A pastoral practice which is not based on sound doctrine is doomed to fail and cause much harm. But, on the other hand, doctrine without any application in the life of the faithful remains something withdrawn and of little personal import. The teachings of marriage cannot remain aloof from the concerns of the faithful.

            I would suggest that the reader not draw any definitive conclusions before completing the reading of both texts, which offer us logical and internally coherent approaches, and are both marked by a solid respect for Church teachings and a love of the law. Only at the end will it be possible to draw some personal conclusions. Even then, these too will have to be provisional, since no one would claim at this point in time to have uttered the last word on the subject. Rather, we are probably just beginning to formulate the first words. It took centuries for St. Augustine's approach to marriage to become the backbone of much of the Church's teaching and pastoral practice on marriage. Not surprisingly, then, it might take a long period of time for us to fathom the deep intentions of the Holy Spirit when the Vatican II texts were being prepared and subsequently promulgated.

            Likewise, we must keep in mind that, in marriage, we are dealing both with a Christian mystery and a human reality. Both of these - the Divine and the human - are much richer than our words and expressions, or our approach can encompass. We can never fully attain the core, for to do so would evaporate the "mystery" from what we are considering; nor can we enter into the innermost recesses of the mind. Marriage is both a mystery and a reality. It defies being placed in neat compartments; it permeates human life and its activities; it also encompasses human dreams. With a sense of deep reverence for the Author of this sacrament and for the many realities in encompasses, let us now begin to read these pages.


[1] See, for instance, L. Örsy, Theology and Canon Law. New Horizons for Legislation and Interpretation, Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 1992, 65-68, "The Significance of 'Horizon Studies'".

[2] See L.-J. Cardinal Suenens, Memories and Hopes, Dublin, Veritas, 1992, 73.

[3] See, for instance, Codex Canonum Ecclesiarum Orientalium, 1990, c. 776, which speaks of the "[imago] indefectibilis unionis Christi cum Ecclesia a Deo [quo coniuges] uniuntur gratiaque sacramentali veluti consecrantur et roborantur."