By Valentine Umoh


“So that the “I do” of the spouses may be a free and responsible act, and so that the marriage covenant may have solid and lasting human and Christian foundations, preparation for marriage is of prime importance.”[2] “It is imperative to give suitable and timely instruction to young people, above all in the heart of their own families, about the dignity of married love, its role and its exercise, so that, having learned the value of chastity, they will be able at a suitable age to engage in honourable courtship and enter upon a marriage of their own.”[3] With these two references from the magisterial authority of the Church, I wish to begin this lecture titled: The Unity of Marriage & Moral Responsibility in Marriage (Church’s teachings and challenges).

There is no gain saying the fact that Marriage and Family life has come under varied forms of siege, persecutions, torments, abuses, misunderstanding and misconceptions in especially the last two decades. Today, in many cases, we are witnessing an accentuated deterioration of the family and a certain corrosion of the values of marriage. In many nations, especially economically developed ones, the number of marriages has decreased. Marriage is usually contracted at a later age and the number of divorces and separations is increasing, even during the first years of married life. All this inevitably leads to a pastoral concern that comes up repeatedly: Are the persons contracting marriage really prepared for it? The problem of preparation for the sacrament of Matrimony and the life that follows emerges as a great pastoral need, first for the sake of the spouses, for the whole Christian community and for society. Therefore, interest in, and initiatives for providing adequate and timely answers to preparation for the sacrament of Marriage are growing everywhere. This is what led to the just concluded XIV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family (2015). At the Diocesan level, the publication of the handbook: “Fullness of Love: Preparatory Courses for the reception of the Sacrament of Matrimony” (2016) by the Ikot Ekpene Catholic Secretariat and the choice of this year’s lecture topic for the Maria Goretti Week celebrations across the diocese is a concerted effort in this direction.

Preparation for marriage, for married and family life, is of great importance for the good of the Church. In fact, the sacrament of Matrimony has great value for the whole Christian community and, in the first place, for the spouses whose decision is such that it cannot be improvised or made hastily. Against the foregoing backdrop, this lecture aims at presenting in a very simple form what Moral Responsibility in marriage entails as well as the meaning of Unity of Marriage. While not boasting of being exhaustive in its approach, the paper hopes to stir up more questions and further reflections that will facilitate an adequate preparation for marriage even at a very tender.

What then is Marriage?

Marriage comes from the Latin word “matrimonium.” Matrimonium means “munus matris,” that is, “the office of the mother.” Indeed, in marriage the burden of procreation weighs heavily on the mother rather than on the father. Besides the mother is always certain. Matrimonium may also mean “muniens matrem” that is, protection of the mother. Marriage may also be called “consortium” (the same lot) or “coniugium” (the same yoke) or “nuptiae” (coming from “nubere” which means to cover, the word being used from the custom of the bride using the veil.[4] Marriage is concretely defined as “an enduring and exclusive covenant of love between a man and a woman.”[5] Canon Law in its 1983 code defines Marriage as “a covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of their whole life, and which of its own very nature is ordered to the well-being of the spouses and to the procreation and upbringing of children, has, between the baptized, been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament.”[6]

The above definition leaves us with some very important points to note:

  1. Marriage is between a man and a woman
  2. Marriage is ordered to the good of the spouses
  3. Marriage is ordained to the generation (procreation) and education of children
  4. The sacramental bond of marriage is indissoluble.

It is also pertinent to note that unlike canon 1012 of the 1917 Code which described marriage as a ‘contract,’ the 1983 Code following the spirit of the Second Vatican Council tries to avoid the word “contract” when speaking about marriage. Contract from the Latin word “contrahere” may mean to draw together, to restrict, to diminish, to limit. Contract deals with things: they engage the services of people and are usually made for a stipulated period of time. On the other hand, “covenant” comes from the Latin word, “convenire” which means to come together into a whole, to unite, to join, to meet together. Covenant signifies bond, mutual commitment, partnership, communion, love. Covenant deals with people.[7] Thus, marriage is a covenant of mutual love, trust and fidelity between the spouses.

The Essential Properties of Marriage

Canon 1056 categorically states that “the essential properties of marriage are unity and indissolubility, which in Christian marriage acquire a distinctive firmness by reason of the sacrament.

Indissolubility means that whenever a marriage has been ratified and consummated[8], no human authority, and not even the spouses have the power to end the union. It is based on the teachings of Christ as contained in the synoptics.[9] At the same time, marriage must necessarily be between a man and a woman. Indissolubility is a property of all marriage, sacramental or natural. Richard McBrien puts it point blank thus: “Following Mark 10:2-9 and parallels and because of its understanding of marriage as a covenant, the Catholic Church teaches that a marriage that is both sacramental and consummated is indissoluble (canons 1056 and 1141).”[10] Canon 1056 situates unity as an essential property of marriage.

Unity of Marriage, what does this mean?

Unity of marriage simply means that marriage can only be contracted between one man and one woman. This implies that marital rights enjoyed by the spouses should never be exchanged or shared with any other person(s) during the lifetime of the other party. This is because marriage is an intimate union and an unreserved mutual self-giving involving two persons namely, the husband and the wife. The married love is an affection that is exclusively between these two persons, because one cannot give oneself fully and without reservation to several partners at the same time. Thus, this demands total fidelity and unbreakable unity between them.

The Canon Law Letter and Spirit explains this points further thus: “Unity involves the marriage of one man and one woman, and accordingly excludes all forms of polygamy, whether it be polygyny, where one man has several wives, polyandry where one woman has several husbands, or so-called ‘group marriages’ where several men ‘marry’ several women. It does not, of course, exclude successive marriages, where the former bond has been dissolved by death or other legitimate means. Without unity the total self-giving essential to marriage is impossible: a person with several spouses cannot give totally to any of them.”[11]

Let’s look at the theological background to this Church’s teaching.

The Church’s teaching on the unity of marriage is basically founded in the scriptures. As soon as the Lord God had finished the work of creating this world and had fitted it out with most beautiful and useful creatures. He called mankind into existence to give over to them this earth like a well-furnished house which a kind father has prepared for his beloved child. God Who created the first man and woman and endowed them with a soul made after the likeness of His own Divine Spirit loved these human beings with the affection of a most tender father. He Himself introduced Eve to Adam and joined them in that inseparable union of the marriage bond which fuses two lives into one inseparable and intimate companionship for the purpose of raising children who are destined to become children of God.

 Parenthood, so sublime and so divine in its purpose, proves the great sanctity of the marriage tie. For this reason, God Himself established the first two safeguards of marriage, its unity and its indissolubility: Unity in contradistinction to polygamy, and indissolubility in opposition to divorce. Though in the course of ages these principles had come to be almost forgotten in the world, Christ the Saviour came and restored marriage to its primitive sanctity and raised the marriage contract of Christians to the dignity of a Sacrament.[12]

Marriage was instituted from the beginning to be between a man and a woman. Adam was created by God alone; he had no mate with him. Afterwards, God became concerned with the loneliness of Adam and made him a woman (Eve) from his own ribs. Adam on seeing Eve exclaimed: “This, at last is the bone of my bones and the flesh of my flesh, she shall be called woman because she was taken out of man” (Gen 2:18-25). This proves the fact that when God created the one man and the one woman and brought them into union, He was setting an example and a pattern for future marriages since they were our first parents. Since Adam and Eve did not transgress this divine mandate, married couples therefore have no excuse or justification to do the contrary. The marriage of Adam and Eve has remained a perfect example of unity and was later referred to and confirmed by Christ when he was teaching the Jews who opted for polygamy and divorce (Matt 19:3-9; 5:27-28; 1Cor 7:2; 1Tim3:2).

It is the manifest will of God that this principle of matrimonial unity be respected and preserved and that married couples should keep their union throughout their lives…till death do us part as is always repeated in the exchange of marital consent.

What then are the implications of the Unity of Marriage?

 The Bond of Marriage

The first implication is the bond of marriage. Canon 1056 lends greater support to canon 1134 which states that “from a valid marriage arises a bond between the spouses which by the very nature is perpetual and exclusive…” The bond of marriage is the moral obligation that comes into existence when the couple exchange consent.[13]This bond obliges couples to complete fidelity to one another. Marital bond goes beyond the living relationship of the spouses, such that even if they separate, the bond remains. The Church teaches that no valid bond, either between the baptized and the unbaptized, is intrinsically dissoluble. The bond of marriage comes into existence as soon as a man and a woman give themselves to each other in a true and binding consent. As such, polygamy and all forms of remarriage while the former bond remains are forbidden by divine law.

Sins against the Unity of Marriage

The second implication of the unity of marriage is the prohibitions and sins against the unity of marriage. As already stated, the unity of marriage prohibits all forms of polygamy, whether it is polygyny, where one man has several wives, polyandry where one woman has several husbands, or so-called ‘group marriages’ where several men ‘marry’ several women. The Church believes in monogamy and sees it as a way forward to every Christian marriage. Though there are cultural diversities militating against this teaching in various African communities. The church does not allow polygamy because the consent given to contract marriage is between only one man and one woman, and not between man and women or woman and men. The reason for this is obvious. Marriage involves a total self-giving; but a person with several spouses cannot give totally to any of them.

The Church also teaches that the sacrament should express a communion that is inextinguishable between the husband and the wife. Their relationship should be like that of Christ and the Church. Thus, all forms of concubinage, acts of infidelity like adultery, homosexuality, lesbianism, masturbation etc are highly prohibited. These constitute grave sins against the unity of marriage. This calls for chastity and condemn any acts against the sixth and ninth commandments of the law (cf. Exod 20:14, 17).

Generally, every baptized Christian is called to chastity. The married are however called to lead chaste life in keeping with their state of life. They are called to live conjugal chastity.[14]

The Unity of Marriage as canonically underlined in canon 1056 does not forbid successive marriages: I) where the former bond has been dissolved by death of one spouse, without prejudice to Canon 1090 which states thus: “§I One who, with a view to entering marriage with a particular person, has killed that person’s spouse or his or her own spouse, invalidly attempts this marriage. $2 They also invalidly attempt marriage with each other who, by mutual physical or moral action, have brought about the death of either’s spouse. II) Where the former bond has been declared null by a competent ecclesiastical court (cf. c.1059). III) Where the former bond has been dissolved by invoking the Pauline and Petrine Privileges or due to nonconsummation.

What is Pauline and Petrine Privileges?

The Pauline Privilege based on 1Cor 7:12-15, holds that if two unbaptized persons marry, and one of them is later validly baptized, and the other will not live peacefully with the baptized, then the baptized partner may marry again. In this case, the second marriage dissolves the first one (cf. c.1143).[15]

The Petrine Privilege or Privilege of Faith involves the dissolution of a marriage between a baptized Catholic and a non-baptized person by the Pope in favour of the faith of the Catholic.

Summarily, the unity of marriage demands an unconditional and authentic married love. Marriage love is affection between two persons (the husband and the wife) rooted in the will and embraces the good of the whole person; it can enrich the sentiment of the spirit and their physical expression with a unique dignity and enables them as the special elements and signs of the friendship proper to marriage. Married love is uniquely expressed and perfected by the exercise of the acts proper to marriage.

What is Moral Responsibility in Marriage?


Before we delve into moral responsibility in marriage, let us look at the various processes that could lead to marriage. Because Marriage is the product of a friendship that began from Dating, Courtship and Engagement let us therefore examine these.

Dating, Courtship and Engagement

Dating does not necessarily mean the persons are interested in marriage at all. Courtship absolutely has marriage in view. To say that you are courting someone or are in courtship is basically to say: “I am moving toward potential marriage with this person, and we shall see how it goes.” It implies exclusivity with the person. To enter courtship means to put a hold to considering any other person for marriage in order to focus on determining if this person you are courting is the one to become engaged to marry. Courtship is not engagement. To become engaged to a person is to make a decision to marry. Courtship wants to focus only on the person you “think” might be the one you want to spend the rest of your life with.

Those who enter into courtship are pretty sure they have found the one. They are not going into courtship with any thought that it is not the one. Otherwise, they would not be exclusive. It is quite a big step to become formally exclusive with someone. It is a practice run of making the formal decision to forsake all others on the day you exchange vows. In courtship, you do forsake all others, but not as a vow, but rather as a trial run.

Because it means exclusivity, courtship needs to be a short period of time, and have a definitive end. It cannot be open-ended. Otherwise, you risk hurting each other in a way you do not wish to but can simply because you are not yet married. It risks looking like and acting like you are married, when you have not formally made the commitment. It risks giving in to the temptation to do that one thing reserved ONLY to married couples because you become so used to each other and what the heck, you love each other and are practically married anyway, so why not?

At the practical level, you want to be in courtship for a short time, with the agreement to get engaged or end the relationship at the end of that time period. This ensures that hearts are not too invested beyond repair, and that both persons are able to become available to new persons. Another reason courtship is usually entered into when both are pretty certain they have found the one is because the reality of starting over from scratch with a new person and going through the process again is draining and defaulting. It is very similar to building a house. When you have done it once, you are not inclined to do it again. It is much too involved and comes at a high price.

Courtship should not be used interchangeably with dating and should not be entered into lightly. However, even if the courtship does not work out, you must avoid rushing into a marriage that you may likely regret later. Courtship, as a process ensures that all the right things have been talked about in order to come to the closest conclusion possible that you are in love and want to spend the rest of your life with this person. I usually advise intending couples in courtship to make sure they have taken a good, long road trip together so they can experience all the sides of each other, which a long trip seems to bring out. If you can endure each other’s faults, quirks, and negative sides, and still say “I love you,” then you have what you have been looking for.

At this point it must be clear that dating is NOT courtship. The best way to describe dating is that it is a ‘sampling process.’ You date in order to sample the person. You spend non-commitment time with the person in order to see if there is an all-round attraction to that person enough to move on to “serious dating.” Serious dating is no longer a sampling process. You have realized you want to be married and have learned more about yourself and the kind of person you are attracted to from your dating experience. Dating today has sadly become a free-for-all of perpetual samplers, with no intention to buy (make a permanent commitment). Dating is a great thing, as long as people are willing to make commitment moves. Move on to serious dating, and then to being willing to be exclusive, and then to courtship, and then engagement, and the marriage. Otherwise, it is just socializing with friends. True, serious dating seeks to find your best friend. Courtship confirms that you have found that best friend.

It must be noted clearly that in all the above friendship processes sexual intercourse (mutual self-giving) is exclusively reserved only to the married state. Otherwise, it constitutes a grave sin against the sixth commandment. All forms of concubinage within these levels of friendship are prohibited by the Church.

Rights and Obligations of spouses (moral responsibility in marriage)

Canons 1134 – 1136 clearly states the moral obligations in marriage thus:

Can. 1134 From a valid marriage there arises between the spouses a bond which of its own nature is permanent and exclusive. Moreover, in Christian marriage the spouses are by a special sacrament strengthened and, as it were, consecrated for the duties and the dignity of their state.

Can. 1135 Each spouse has an equal obligation and right to whatever pertains to the partnership of conjugal life.

Can. 1136 Parents have the most serious obligation and the primary right to do all in their power to ensure their children’s physical, social, cultural, moral and religious upbringing.

St. Paul writes thus: “The husband must give to his wife what she has a right to expect, and so too the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her body, but the husband does; and in this same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. You must not deprive each other, except by mutual consent for a limited time, to leave yourself free for prayer, and to come together again afterwards; otherwise Satan may take advantage of any lack of self-control to put you to the test.” (1Cor 7:3-5). The first moral responsibility in marriage is mutual self-giving. This should be built around mutual self-respect, love, integrity, trust and fidelity.

The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes says that “by its very nature the institution of marriage and married love is ordered to the procreation and education of the offspring and it is in them that it finds its crowning glory.”[16]

This brings us to the second major moral responsibility in marriage namely: openness to fertility (procreation) as well as the education of the children. Because of the weight of this moral responsibility the Church in its teaching reject all forms of birth control. Birth control according to the New Catholic Encyclopaedia (1967) essentially denotes the voluntary control (restriction) of the reproductive effect of sexual intercourse. It refers not only to the intentional limitation of the family size or the spacing of births through any of the several possible means including periodic continence but also to the practice of contraception to achieve desired results. Thomas Pazhayampallil in Pastoral Guide (2004) defines it as the obstruction of either the conjugal act or the biological factors of fertility in the couple in order to ensure that unprogrammed birth will not take place. In concrete terms, the artificial means of birth control are generally referred to as “contraception.”[17] Quid multa, CCC 2368 acknowledges that for just reasons couples may wish to space births of their children as a demand of responsible parenthood. However, in doing this they should conform to objective criteria of morality. CCC 2399 states clearly that legitimate intentions on the part of the spouses do not justify recourse to morally unacceptable means. Furthermore CCC 2370 reiterates that every action that intentionally renders procreation impossible is intrinsically evil. It rather recommends the natural family planning method as a moral alternative for artificial birth control.

Children have both by nature, condition and circumstances of their birth, the right to be well brought up, protected, provided for, and equipped with all they need to survive and thrive as self-realized persons.[18] In his Casti Conubii of 1930, Pope Pius XI wrote that “the blessing of offspring imply more that the begetting of it; its proper education is also required.” According to the Holy Father, procreation and education are two inseparable correlatives. Thus, the power/faculty to procreate goes with a corresponding duty and obligation to educate. Thus, children have the inherent and fundamental right to be educated. The first and primary duty to educate them falls on their parents (the husband and the wife).

Concluding Remarks

In the foregoing, the paper tried to prepare your minds to the married state by highlighting the implications of marriage, canonically, morally, pastorally and otherwise. So that as you grow up or as you gradually make up your mind to what state of life you will eventually choose you will not be locked up in the “had I known” expression of eternal regret and dissatisfaction. This paper is only an aspect of what is called a remote preparation for marriage. It would have achieved its aims if it concretely serves this purpose for all of you listening to me now. It must be categorically re-iterated that marriage is a covenant prescribed by law, by which a man and a woman capable of entering into it, freely respond to a divine mandate through the manifestation of consent. Through this, they mutually engage with each other to live their whole lives together in a state of union which ought to exist between them. The Church insists in her teachings that marriage should be exclusively between the husband and the wife. Hence, there should be no interference of a third party. The unity of marriage excludes all forms of multiple partnerships. In such a serious commitment as with all other commitments there are moral obligations namely, mutual self-giving, openness to fertility (procreation) and the education of children.

The Church reminds all her children that marriage is a vocation, and as such all who enter into or intend to enter into it must take it seriously. Marriage is a vocation to chastity in the married life. Thus, all forms of lustful sexual acts and infidelity are prohibited and considered as grave sins against divine ordinance.

It is my prayer that as you journey towards making this commitment later on in life, God, the source of all wisdom, should illumine your hearts and minds so that you may truly see, experience and appreciate genuine and true love in the one your heart yearns. Amen.

Purity…Service to God and Humanity!

[1] Originally a lecture presented to the General Assembly of St. Maria-Goretti Society, Inen Deanery on their 2016 Annual Week at St. Michael the Archangel Church, Ikot Etim, Ukanafun – Nigeria.


[3] SECOND VATICAN ECUMENICAL COUNCIL, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes (GS), 49.3.

[4] Thomas PAZHAYAMPALLIL, Pastoral Guide, vol. II (Sacraments and Bioethics), IV Revised Edition, Bangalore: Kristu Jyoti Pub., 2004, p. 772.

[5]Ibid., p. 773

[6]THE CODE OF CANON LAW (CIC), Can. 1055.

[7] Thomas PAZHAYAMPALLIL, Pastoral Guide II, p. 773, See also Paul F. Palmer, art. “Christian Marriage: Contract or covenant”, in Theological Studies, (December 1972), p. 617-619.

[8] Can. 1061 $1 A valid marriage between baptised persons is said to be merely ratified, if it is not consummated; ratified and consummated, if the spouses have in a human manner engaged together in a conjugal act in itself apt for the generation of offspring: to this act marriage is by its nature ordered and by it the spouses become one flesh. $2 If the spouses have lived together after the celebration of their marriage, consummation is presumed until the contrary is proven. $3 An invalid marriage is said to be putative if it has been celebrated in good faith by at least one party. It ceases to be such when both parties become certain of its nullity.

[9] See Matt 19:4-10, Mark 10:7 and Luke 16:18

[10] Richard MCBRIEN, Catholicism, New York: Geoffrey Chapman, 1994, p. 859.

[11] The Canon Law Society of Great Britain and Ireland, The Canon Law Letter & Spirit: A Practical Guide to the Code of Canon Law, London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1999, p. 574.

[12] Stanislaus WOYWOD, The Marriage Laws of the Church, 1921.

[13] Can. 1057 $1 A marriage is brought into being by the lawfully manifested consent of persons who are legally capable. This consent cannot be supplied by any human power. $2 Matrimonial consent is an act of will by which a man and a woman by an irrevocable covenant mutually give and accept one another for the purpose of establishing a marriage.

[14] CCC 2348 & 2349.

[15] Can. 1143 $1 In virtue of the Pauline privilege, a marriage entered into by two unbaptised persons is dissolved in favour of the faith of the party who received baptism, by the very fact that a new marriage is contracted by that same party, provided the unbaptised party departs. $2 The unbaptised party is considered to depart if he or she is unwilling to live with the baptised party, or to live peacefully without offence to the Creator, unless the baptised party has, after the reception of baptism, given the other just cause to depart.

[16] GS 48.1, 50, cf. CCC 1652

[17] Birth Control is a very wide moral issue that cannot be captured in this paper. It is a tract for another separate discussion. But suffice it to point out clearly that when the Church makes a room for birth control issues it is when she has differentiated between Artificial Birth control (contraception) and Natural Family Planning, and thus will make the latter morally permissible while the other is a grave sin.

[18] Cf. Gregory NJOKU, The Rights of Children and the Duties of Parents and Society in Today’s Parenting Program, Enugu: Snaap Press, 2013.